make em wait (suspense rule #1)

My oldest son occasionally says: “Want to know the definition of suspense? I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

This joke captures the essence of suspense, which is to ask a question and then… make em wait!

Good stories constantly imply interesting questions. The questions and their answers are like the bread crumbs that lead you into the fairy tale woods. Reading is fun when you know you’re going into the woods AND you know that the author will guide you through its maze-like wonders and terrors skillfully, step by step, bread crumb by tasty bread crumb. You don’t have to worry about getting truly lost. You don’t have to worry about the woods holding nothing of interest. The skilful writer gains your trust with the placing of the bread crumbs. Then you’re along for the ride. And if the answers to the questions are not immediately provided, the ride will be filled with thrills and spills – suspense!

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How exactly does a writer do this – make em wait? Continue reading

be specific

When I read fiction I like to savor the author’s style (or voice, or way with words). If words are ingredients in a story soup, then specifics are some of the most flavorful spices. Great writers spice things up with bold specifics that grab readers and don’t let them go.

Here are four instructive excerpts, two from Young Adult fiction and two from literary and contemporary genre fiction. Highlighted words are those I’ve marked as notably specific:

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1. From Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:

“I slowly peel and eat a handful of nuts. My last cracker. The groosling neck. That’s good because it takes time to pick clean. Finally, a groosling wing and the bird is history. But it’s a hollow day, and even with all that I start daydreaming about food. Particularly the decadent dishes served in the Capitol. The chicken in creamy orange sauce. The cakes and pudding. Bread with butter. Noodles in green sauce. The lamb and dried plum stew. I suck on a few mint leaves and tell myself to get over it.”

handful – you can picture a handful. It is a specific amount.

A poor choice might have been: “some.” Continue reading

writing, teaching, marathoning and life

I have been writing for twenty years, teaching for four years and running for one year. Two and a half weeks ago I ran my first marathon. It’s no accident, I think, that the marathon is regarded with a special esteem in our culture. People who despise running might still be heard to say something like, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” or “I’m watching a CSI marathon” or “I feel like I just ran a marathon.”

Marathon running is a highly useful metaphor. Every able-bodied person has run long and short and fast enough to know the thrill and the pain of running. Though these days elite runners regularly race 100 miles or more, sometimes in extreme climates like Death Valley (over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade) and Antarctica (average wind chill: -20 degrees Celsius), and some crazy folk go so far as to run across the Sahara Desert or even around the world… still, the marathon is what captures the collective imagination. It is rich with history, it is certainly long enough to provide anyone with a challenge, and yet hundreds of thousands of people run marathons every year. Even Oprah, octogenarians, and Biggest Loser contestants do it.

Now that I have done it, I can say with confidence that life is like a marathon. And so is teaching. And so is writing.

1. Training

To succeed in writing requires many years of persistence. It’s an endurance sport. You must never give up. You must diligently study and refine and be willing to start over again and again. You must not lose hope. Continue reading

the art and business of the title

 

I love a good title. So much so that I often find myself saying, “That would be a good title.” It’s a nerdy hobby, but I indulge without shame. In fact I have saved in an email folder several titles for stories I might one day write. (No free peeks. I guard that folder like a rabid leprechaun!)

What makes a good title is debatable, unless by good you mean attractive to a prospective audience. In that case, sales figures talk – after the fact. And bestsellers are where the money is. Where there’s money, there are readers. Bestsellers point the way.

I think what you’ll see is that, though there are no hard and fast rules, certain factors in a title help. I base much of what I am about to say on this wordplayer.com article by legendary Hollywood screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot. These factors are:

1. Length. Shorter is better. Fewer words and fewer syllables are easier to say, easier to recommend, easier to discuss and easier to remember.

2. Use of Mental Real Estate. If a word in a title connotes a plethora of memories and associations for readers, it is a powerful word because it leverages mental real estate. For more on this concept, see either this previous post or this other article at wordplayer.com – or both!

3. Use of a Character’s Name. Names are magical. Harry Potter. Forrest Gump. Joey Pigza. Any words following a character’s name in a title essentially serve the purpose of a subtitle. So long as your character’s name is memorable and not too long, going this route is a good idea.

4. Cleverness. This could take the form of a pun, multiple meanings, an oxymoron, a pair of highly contrasting words… or another literary device. Continue reading

i meant to do that

In the summer of 1985 I was fourteen when my sister and dad and I went to see the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. There were maybe four other people in the theater. My sister and I laughed hysterically. The only other times I can remember laughing so hard are: the first time I saw This Is Spinal Tap (when the miniature Stonehenge monument descended and then was trod upon by dwarves) and the first time I saw There’s Something About Mary (at the gratuitous yet slap-in-your-face funny “we’ve got a bleeder” scene). Watching Pee Wee, my sister and I were the only guffawers. The other five moviegoers were silent. When you are fourteen, your sense of humor is not the same as it is when you are forty-one. Nonetheless, I think the original Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (only the movie; I never liked Pee Wee’s tv show), is a comic gem.

One scene in the movie, embedded above, occasionally plays in my head because of its punchline. After performing some less-than-extreme tricks on his old fashioned bike, Pee Wee accidentally bails, flies off his seat, flips and rolls, springing up in front of a gang of cynical pre-teens. Shrugging it off, he levels a hard gaze at the kids and quips: “I meant to do that.”

This is a good all-purpose quote. I like to use it when I’m writing. Today I used it when working on character development. Continue reading

structure is your friend

In college I wrote three or four articles for our school paper, The Daily Illini (University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana). For me, journalism didn’t stick. What can I say? Guess I’m not newsworthy. The article I most remember writing was my longest, a feature about The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Feeling curious, I searched for it today online. No luck. Looks like they don’t archive every article from 20 years back. Probably for the best. Anyway, the angle I took, I remember, was that there are too many rules in life (among them: you shouldn’t shout or dance or throw rice in a movie theater). The movie, especially the audience participation experience (including shouting, dancing and throwing rice) that it fueled, I went on to explain, allows us an extraordinarily high degree of freedom that we should cherish.

Everybody loves freedom (and Raymond), but perhaps parents least of all. Now that I’m a dad of four boys, when I hear people cry freedom I think not only of inalienable rights but also of the words “license” and “chaos” and “blood” and “hospital.” Now I more fully appreciate laws, rules, conventions and other limits. You’d think I might have learned as much as a child when I rebelled against my parents’ rule forbidding jumping off of our backyard playhouse, when the umbrella I employed as a parachute in a pinch failed me and I rolled my ankle upon impact. But no, I learned it only decades later through my own kids who don’t always appreciate the wisdom of rules such as: shower after running, start your homework before 10:00, do your homework, and never ride a bike barefoot.

Which brings me to the writing theory that good stories at least roughly follow a universal story structure. Continue reading

curb your perfectionism

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Alas, I do not always follow my own advice. I write blog posts as much to remind and flagellate myself as I do for any other reason.

Case in point: I’ve recently alluded to the need to avoid revising too soon or too often. So what do I do immediately before continuing to draft my story?

Revise, of course.

It is so easy to get sucked into the revision vortex. You haven’t written since yesterday (or, alack, longer!). The story is no longer fresh in your mind. You need to reread to get back up to speed. As you reread, you see possibilities. You must improve!

And the truth is, you do improve. Continue reading

don’t bother me, i’m imagining possibilities

Every Christmastime, we make sure to watch these three classics:

1. It’s a Wonderful Life
2. Elf
3. A Christmas Story

Each has a special place in my heart. Each is necessary for any life to be complete. The most writerly of the three is A Christmas Story, which makes sense, since the script is based on the writings of renowned comic author Jean Shepard (who also narrates). Any lover of words ought to be thrilled by dialogue such as…

“I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed.”

and

“We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.”

and

“Let’s face it, most of us are scoffers. But moments before zero hour, it did not pay to take chances. ”

If you have seen the movie, you are no doubt miffed at me right now for flagrantly failing to cite your favorite immortal lines. If you have not seen the movie, get thee to a nunnery! And by nunnery I mean Netflix portal or something.

Any good writing is bound to include a heaping helping of truisms. Continue reading

begin the begin

I have never literally painted myself into a corner, although last summer I nearly stained myself into one while refinishing our deck. Figuratively, on the other hand, I have painted myself into a corner more than once. When my wife Julie and I bought our first home in 1996, when I was 25, the very adult burden of mortgage payments soon made me feel painted into a financial corner in that I sensed a near future of towering stacks of bills along with cribs full of babies (which we wanted) plus their costs (which we could do without).

The upshot of this pressure cooker situation is that I wanted to keep my home and family but shrug off my job in sales that was making me feel more trapped than the mortgage, the bills and the babies in the offing. Fifteen years later, after following a circuitous route through retail sales, copywriting, screenwriting, a home-based business, at-home fathering and now teaching, I’d say I made the right career decision. Yet the fact remains that painting one’s self into a corner means creating sticky situations that must somehow be gotten out of – often by paying a steep price.

In writing, sticky situations are inevitable. Writing a novel, a process requiring thousands, maybe millions of decisions – regarding word choice, sentence structure, plot, theme, character development and so on – is too complicated to allow for anything approximating perfection. If you whittle away at a story for more than a chapter or two, you will increasingly find yourself going the wrong way down one way streets, screaming toward dead ends and paddling your canoe into throttling, swampy byways – to mix a handful of metaphors for your supercilious reading pleasure.

Most writers with any experience maintain an uneasy intimacy with these dangers. It makes us skittish, gun shy. Every time we start a story or come to a crossroads in plotting, we second guess where a story or character choice might eventually lead us.

Please, ye gods of story, have mercy on me! Save me from painting myself into a story corner! Continue reading

imitation is underrated

Have you ever spent time with art-minded intellectuals who wax snobbish about the primacy of originality? For some people, anything that is not pushing the boundaries is pathetic because it is “derivative,” “vanilla,” and “insipid.”

I get where these people are coming from, I think. Our human nature is to seek the next new thing, to the point of distractibility – “squirrel!” And presumably we gain perspective by looking at ourselves and the world from unique perspectives. Finding new angles means charting new territory, right?

Still, it’s annoying. Continue reading

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