Monday, June 25, 2012

Four Writing Rules I Take With A Grain of Salt

As I previously blogged about, some rules are made to be broken.  This is the Mother of Invention.  Well, and necessity.  Writing, of course, has a lot of rules that we're told we shouldn't break, because it's considered weak, lazy or amateurish writing.  And a lot of these rules are spot-on.

And of course some of them should be taken with a grain of salt.  As I've been reading about the craft and getting more familiar with the "rules," there's some that I think they should be broken.  Or bent, anyway.

Here they are:

1) Write What You Know
Well, what if you don't know anything?  Then you're shit out of luck. If writers only wrote about what they knew, there'd be a whole lot of one-dimensional novels out there.  This is why research was invented.  This is why imagination exists. This is why travel in the name of research was invented.  I think we can start with what we know then find out what we don't.  And make up the rest (but only if you're a fiction writer.).

2) Don't Start Your Story With a Prologue
I never realized how controversial this particular story device was until I started reading different articles and blog topics.  This apparently is considered a cardinal sin in some circles and to be avoided at all costs.  I say, if it serves the story, I mean REALLY serves the story, why wouldn't you?  Maybe because I read a lot of suspense novels and this is somewhat standard in the genre, I don't think of this as a hard-and-fast one. Prologues give you an intriguing set-up for the action to follow, so I don't mind them. I say if it makes sense, go for it.

3) Develop an Outline
Some writers say you have to live and die by the outline, they they consider them an absolute, no-way-around-it must-do for success in writing, that you without-a-doubt, 100% must know where you're going and how you're going to get there.  I've heard of writers who churn out detailed, ninety page outlines before they even write "Chapter 1."


I recently had the opportunity to hear Gillian Flynn (that's a hard "G"), author of "Gone Girl," "Sharp Objects" and "Dark Places" talk about her writing process.  She termed herself a "highly inefficient writer," who often doesn't know whodunit even when she's thirty pages out from the end (she's winning all sorts of raves for her storytelling ability).  In "On Writing," Stephen King dubbed himself a "situational" writer, eschewing heavy plotting in favor of intuition - "our lives are largely plotless," so says the Master of Horror.  Why shouldn't books be?  King claims with one or two exceptions, the books he did plot felt like "stiff, trying-too-hard novels" and that "a strong situation renders the whole question of plot moot."

I hate outlines - always have.  I'll do plot points so that I have a general idea of where I'm going, but I'm not a stickler about it.  For me, half the fun of writing fiction is being surprised by the twists the story takes, the characters you meet and the way it all ends.  Kind of like reading fiction.

4) Don't Start with Weather
Obviously, not starting with "it was a dark and stormy night" or "it was a sunny day" is a given.  But  done right, weather can set the mood. 

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — 1984, George Orwell. 

Sounds like weather. 


Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Five Writing Rules I Take As The Gospel

Any industry you get into, there are rules. Sometimes, you have to break the rules and blaze your own path; that's where innovation comes in. Other times, there's a reason why certain rules are in place - because they work.

As I've been working on my manuscripts, I've also been researching the craft of writing and studying the business of publishing. And of course...I've come across rules. Lots and lots of rules. The trick has been to weed out the ones I think are the exception and the ones I can (and should) bend (hell, even break, but that's another blog.)

So, here are the five writing rules that I will not break. Most of the time anyway:

1) Write
Seems like a no-brainer, right? If you want to be a writer, you must write.  To not do so falls under the "professional student" category for me - spending untold years and dollars collecting every professional degree known to man, yet never get an actual job.

It's no different with the writing profession - taking every writing class the local Learning Annex has on its schedule, reading every book on the craft you can find on Barnes and Noble's dusty shelves and talking about writing to anyone who'll listen.

In short, doing everything but actually writing.

Full disclosure, I've taken one writing course, will take another this summer, have read one book on the craft, one on the business and find lots of helpful information in the pages of "Writer's Digest."  But I also write - every single day.

2) Read
Stephen King (among others) says new writers will likely write what they enjoy reading.  I love suspense stories in the vein of Mary Higgins Clark, so that's the bent my stories take.  Coincidentally, I've only read two Stephen King books, but I digress. 

Reading as much as you can get your hands on will only improve your writing. For one, it can help you separate good writing from bad writing. Two, it gives you something to shoot for in your own writing (while cultivating your own voice, of course), three, it inspires you to write, four, it serves as a roadmap of sorts for where you might be trying go. Seeing how the writer set up themes, plots, characters, description, etc. can point you in the right direction. Mary Higgins Clark learned how to write mysteries by studying Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca." If that isn't a reason to pick up the reading habit, I don't know what is

3) If You're Bored, So's the Reader
As writers, we believe every word we've written is perfection and we'll stab anyone in the eye who tells us to cut even a comma from our prose.
Hard as it is, we have to get over that possessiveness.
It can be tough to hit that delete key and wipe away hours of blood, sweat and tears. However, the whole point of a good story is to keep the action moving and soliloquies, monologues and waxing poetic about the back story or details of a room can bring everything to a grinding halt.
I went through this myself with my current manuscript. I couldn't figure out why this particular scene wasn't working until I realized it went on about two pages longer than it should have. The scene is much more crisp and I can't even remember what that those long-forgotten words are.
If your own writing bores you, three guesses as to how the reader feels.

4) Kill the Adverbs
I came to this one late in life. It seems so descriptive to tack on adverbs (i.e. the words ending in "ly.") We want our characters to "agree reluctantly," "jump quickly," and "hastily add." When they're speaking, we want them to "sneer," "spit," and "pant." It feels boring to only use "said" as attribution, right?

In his brilliant classic, "On Writing," Stephen King says the reason writers (himself included) use adverbs, is because "I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t. I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing...Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation."

This is one of those bendy rules; sometimes there's no way around using an adverb. Just don't use them as a crutch.

5) Don't Use The Same Word in the Same Sentence/Paragraph
Here's my extreme analogy:

"Dr. John Smith, M.D."

Duh. M.D. means, "medical doctor," so why restate it? Unless of course people don't know what M.D. stands for, which is another problem entirely.

Another example:

"This is a great opportunity to learn more about all of the opportunities available to us.

Of course words like "the" and "a" are exempt from this one, but for the most part, using the same word over and over is a disservice to your thesaurus (which all writers should be living and dying by).

And if you see I've broken this rule, feel free to shame me.


Abolish "that" and "very"
Go through and eliminate every unnecessary "that."

Now do the same with every "very."

Amazing how much sharper the writing sounds.

Of course, kind of like the adverb thing, sometimes, you can't get around this one. Well, you can get around "very" without too much trouble, but "that" has its use on occasion. But for the most part, it can be banished and no one will know any different.

Alright, back to writing.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Woman of Substance Eats a Croque-Monsieur While Sleeping Around

Unbelievably, in the 20-some odd, off and on years I’ve lived in Chicago, I’d never been to the Printer’s Row Book Fair, now known as Printer’s Row Lit Fest. 

This year, I decided to change that.

A few weeks back, I perused the scheduled events with no particular agenda, but waited to see what would catch my eye.  And what did follows:

Barbara Taylor Bradford
I’m not sure why, but I decided to register for a ticket to hear a talk from Barbara Taylor Bradford, the New York Times Bestselling author of 27 novels.  Now, I’ve never read a Barbara Taylor Bradford book or seen one of the numerous movie/TV adaptations of her books.  Yet, I thought, what the hell, she’s British, so she’ll likely be funny and/or charming and I’ll probably glean an insight or two into the craft.

The event was held in the cavernous Pritzker Auditorium at the Chicago Public Library and surprisingly, it wasn’t packed to the rafters.  All told, there were maybe about 100 people, give or take, who attended the event.  As I expected, BTB was lovely and entertaining.  She shared her writing schedule (up every day at 4:30 a.m. to edit the previous day’s work, with a stop at 7:00 to make two hardboiled eggs for her husband, then back to the typewriter until 4:00 p.m.) reveals she hoards her particular brand of typewriter, just in case they stop being made (typing on a computer give her writer’s block) and what she believes is the heart of fiction writing (CHARACTER DRIVES PLOT, not the other way around).

“A Woman of Substance” was BTB’s first novel and from what I could gather, the one she’s most well-known for.  A journalist by trade who always wanted to write fiction, BTB revealed that when she was trying to figure out what to write, she sat down with a yellow legal pad and asked herself a series of questions, the first of which was what kind of book she wanted to write.  She came up with a “traditional old-fashioned saga,” and after answering the litany of questions she’d peppered herself with, at the bottom of that page she wrote, “A Woman of Substance.” 

And thus, a second career was born.

BTB’s advice to aspiring writers is “Don’t try and write a bestseller,” because inevitably you’ll fail.  She dismisses critics who say her books rely too much on coincidences “because life is full of them.”  True.  True.

I didn’t buy any of her books today, but I do plan to check out “A Woman of Substance.”  As soon as I read the 37 books stacked next to my bed waiting like impatient children to be read.

Gillian Flynn
A happy accident was getting to attend the presentation by Gillian Flynn (that’s a hard “G” like “guilt” not “gem”).  I wanted to attend her talk, but it was sold out, though I was informed I could stand in something called a “rush line” (kind of like flying standby) and space permitting, I’d be allowed in.

I was allowed in.

Gillian Flynn’s third novel, “Gone Girl” has been getting crazy good buzz, including glowing reviews on Amazon (no sarcasm here, but it’s usually a pretty good barometer for weeding out the crap from the roses) and a love letter from the New York Times." There was a butt in every seat (about 75) and we were all rapt. Held at Grace Place, an Episcopal Church,, Gillian read a few paragraphs from “Gone Girl,” and as is usually the case with those of us attracted to the dark and ugly side of life, she was a funny, sunny, intelligent young woman. 

She classifies herself as a “highly inefficient writer,” who goes through draft after draft after draft and can be thirty pages out from the end and still have no idea “whodunit.”  What a relief from all the strict writing advice that mandates a ninety page outline before drafting a novel.  Gillian with a hard “G” had won my heart.

I was bold enough to venture a question about what authors or books inspired her in her own writing and she came back with Stephen King, Tana French, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates (note to self, load up my Kindle with the aforementioned).  Someone else asked if she bristled at being pegged as a “mystery writer,” and she said while her books are light on procedure, unlike a lot of popular mysteries, she doesn’t mind at all being classified as such.  She was quick to point out that anyone who snubs their noses at “genre” books are really missing out on some terrific books, pointing to Laura Lippman and Kate Atkinson as two authors shaking up the genre (Atkinson’s Case Histories just knocked me out.  Fantastic book.)

When an author garners the kind of kudos Gillian Flynn with a hard “G” is getting, you know Hollywood will come calling.  It looks as though the movie rights for “Gone Girl” are an inevitable conclusion and Amy Adams is attached to an adaptation of “Dark Places,” which will be helmed by French director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner.  Gillian relayed a story about how she took the director on a tour of the Kansas heartland where “Dark Places” is set.  They finished the day at a local restaurant and ordered grilled cheese, something he’d never heard of (“It’s like a Croque-Monsieur,” Gillian told him as he sniffed around the suspicious slab of Velveeta smashed between two buttery, golden brown wedges of Wonder Bread.  As she devoured her sandwich, he leaned over to inform her “You know this isn’t real food, right?”)  To which I say, “Yes…yes it is.”

I almost never buy hardcover books, but I plunked down $27 and some change for a chance to have Gillian sign “Gone Girl” for me.  I have decided to move it to the position of “favorite child” and read it sooner rather than later.  And then wait for the movie.

Raymond Benson and Friends
I made a last minute decision to attend a panel of thriller writers moderated by Raymond Benson (he wrote the James Bond Novels from 1996-2002) about female protagonists in thrillers. The stars of the panel were Julie Kramer, Jaime Freveletti, Libby Hellmann and David Ellis I’ve never read any of these authors, but have heard of a few of them, and I was interested to learn their take on female protagonists in the modern American thriller.

The small room was packed and the audience was quite engaged with the panel and the panel was quite engaged with each other.  I’d heard of Raymond Benson and Jaime Freveletti, but was unfamiliar with the others.  In addition to his standalone and series legal thrillers, David Ellis co-wrote a book you’ve probably heard of by an author you’ve probably heard of, Libby Hellmann writes thrillers that jump around in time and are both series and standalone, Julie Kramer as a former news producer, sets all her books in the frenzied world of media (apparently, they’re termed as “media thrillers,” a new term for me) and Jaime Freveletti writes high-concept thrillers about biological warfare and has been commissioned by Robert Ludlum’s estate to ghostwrite under his name.

The topics varied from whether or not it’s okay for a female protagonist to cuss (by and large, no was the consensus, which I found strange) to whether or not they could have sex (yes, but not as much as James Bond did, lest they be sluts who swear like sailors.  I dunno.  I’d probably buy that book.) Who to kill (never children) being a woman writing believable male characters (note: male cops will not take note of the curtains in a room) and being a man writing believable female characters (is it a shirt or a blouse?) were all of great interest to both the readers and the panelists.

I didn’t buy any of their books, having spent my book budget for the day on the hardcover of “Gone Girl,” but I was entertained and intrigued enough to explore these authors further in the future.

I did a courtesy lap around the main area of the actual Lit Fest, but truth be told, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to paw through the wares of the dedicated booksellers lining Dearborn Street.   Overall though, I would give my first Printer’s Row Lit Fest a resounding A +.   I got a little of what I came for and then some. I will be back in 2013.

Now, please excuse me while I go read some books.



Friday, June 1, 2012

The Dark Side of Love

Admittedly, I’m a bit of an anomaly. Of course, we all are, so I guess there’s nothing too earth-shattering about that confession.

But back to the anomaly thing. For example, I like onion rings, but I don’t like onions. I would never eat them in soup, for example. Definitely not raw. I like my eggs scrambled, poached, fried, sunny side up or even baked, but if you put a hard-boiled one in front of me, I would vomit.

I’ve noticed my TV/book reading habits follow these same wacky patterns. I grew up watching soap operas, but I don’t like reading romance novels. I love me some “Law and Order,” all entries in the franchise, but especially “Criminal Intent.” “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case” are also good. Yet, I don’t read police procedurals or detective novels.

Weird, huh?

The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is to write what you like to read. I like to read a lot of different things, mostly fiction, and most of it pretty eclectic. One week I might be re-reading “Catcher in the Rye,” or “Madame Bovary,”and the next “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb, “Strange Fits of Passion,” by Anita Shreve or “High Fidelity,” by Nick Hornby.

Like I said, eclectic.

I also really like suspense. Two authors whose books I really enjoy are Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding. I read Clark’s “The Cradle Will Fall” when I was 14 and got hooked, running to the library every few days to check out her entire backlist. The way Clark turns the ordinary into the horrifying and draws out tension to its tautest breaking point means you can’t turn the pages fast enough. “See Jane Run,” by Joy Fielding was outstanding. How terrific is this opening line? (“One afternoon in late Spring, Jane Whittaker went to the store for some milk and eggs and forgot who she was.”). She’s begging you to read more. “Whispers and Lies” and “Grand Avenue” were also books that kept me up and night and stayed with me long after I turned the last page.

When I thought about it, the themes and ideas that intrigue me the most and are the ones I want to explore in my writing, is the dark side of love. In other words, how this complex emotion drives us to commit heinous acts (think “Snapped” and “Scorned: Love Kills.”)

The first manuscript I wrote details a woman being stalked by her ex-boyfriend. The second one involves a woman who kills her husband after discovering he’s having an affair. The one I’m working on now and hope to release to Kindle later this year, is about a woman searching for clues in her sister’s mysterious death. The next one I plan to start writing is about a group of four friends where one of the women is killed and one of the other three women did it. I have a whole list of ideas for future novels that don’t have anything to do with hard-assed cops, jaded PI’s or tales of romantic suspense.

Not writing something in the “popular” or “bestselling” genres of romantic suspense, procedurals and the like, could either bite me in the ass or work in my favor. On the one hand, there’s a reason these types of books sell so well – because readers like reading them. On the other hand, writing about something completely different could make me stand out in an incredibly crowded and competitive industry.

I guess time will tell which way the pendulum swings.