Category Archives: Writing Tips

When Writers Fail to Keep Up With the Times

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So I’m reading this Lee Child novel, The Hard Way, and at a certain point I just can’t take the story seriously anymore. Now, I know. Hold up. Wait a second. Who am I, right? I’m a nobody with the faintest outlines of a fledgling “career” (generous term). I’ve published a whopping one novel through a small press and I’ve landed a handful of short stories in mostly obscure literary journals. So who am I to criticize a best-selling author? Well, I’m an English professor with a degree in literature, but I don’t pretend that makes me an expert (I’m always shocked at never-published bloggers without degrees who feel qualified to blog about the “rules” they’ve learned without citing sources). Anyways, hear me out. We all know that book writing is not a meritocracy. Many popular books are awful, and some of the greatest works of literature of our generation go criminally underappreciated (Exhibit A). People on bestseller lists should not be immune from criticism, even from nobodies like me.

I’ve decided to write a murder mystery as my sophomore novel, and I’ve been diligently reading and studying all the big names in the genre. And I have to admit that as a snobbish literary type, I’ve been quite impressed by the skill of many commercial crime writers. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent was particularly excellent, especially in his deft handling of the characters’ emotions. Now, the novel has outdated references to VHS recorders and mainframe computers, but hey, it’s set in the 1980s. The Hard Way is not. It was published in 2006 and the story is firmly planted in the 21st Century (with numerous references to “the years after” 9/11). And yet, the characters seem stuck in a bygone era.

Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher comes off as a bit of a luddite, but given his drifter persona that’s okay. It’s the private investigator I have problems with. Lauren Pauling, we’re told, is a former FBI Special Agent and a successful detective operating out of New York City in the 21st Century. And what’s her number one strategy for investigating people? Looking them up in the phone book. Really. No mention of the internet. And it works every time she tries it. Later, they travel overseas and link up with a second private eye. What’s his go-to strategy? Looking people up in the phone book, of course!

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We’re asked to believe that a former member of the British Special Forces lying low in the English countryside (who only recently moved onto a farm) has listed himself in the local phone book. When Reacher suggests they continue to lie low and the bad guy, Edward Lane, won’t find them, the ex-soldier says it’s not possible. “Eventually he’d look us up in the phone book,” he says.

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I am a 30 year old man and I have never in my life been listed in any phone book, nor have I ever owned a phone book or even used one. This is because I live in the 21st Century. Nor have I ever purchased an atlas. This is because I have the internet. While in England, Reacher finds that his target has hidden himself away in a hamlet called Bishops Pargeter. First priority: finding the place. So what does he do? He walks into a map shop and checks the atlas. Finding the town too small to be listed in a typical atlas, he’s forced to seek out a specialized map. Again, no mention of the internet. Here I am reading this book like:

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Then they hit the road, Reacher driving, Pauling navigating from the atlas, because of course they don’t have a GPS. But the breaking point for me came later, as they rush off to this farm to try and warn the family living there that the bad guy’s coming for them. Reacher suggests calling the farm to warn the occupants, but Pauling points out a difficulty: they’d have to pull over and look for a phone booth, and in doing so they’d lose precious time. That seemed off to me. Then I realized that this private detective from Manhattan who once was a Special Agent in the FBI does not own a cell phone. Really.

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So, phone books, atlases and a pay phone booth. I’d recently read a book by Raymond Chandler that took place in the 1940s, and these are the things his characters used, in the 1940s.

Michael Connelley’s character Harry Bosch is likewise clueless when it comes to tech, and I am likewise incredulous. A homicide detective who can’t work a suspect’s smartphone is not going to be employed much longer if he lives in the 21st Century. It’s not realistic. I can’t help feeling that Child and Connelley – both men in their 60s – are covering for their own technological ignorance by writing it into their characters. Don’t get me wrong, I do that too. I’m sure every author does. You can’t be an expert on every topic. For example, I don’t pretend to know the first thing about medical forensics. And yet, I’m writing a murder mystery. So what do I do? I place my story in a setting where nobody can do a proper autopsy of the victim. The mystery takes place at an isolated research station in Antarctica. Boom, problem solved. Now I completely understand that if I intend on making a career out of writing crime fiction that I’ll need to learn the ropes inside and out eventually, but that works for now. The idea of a detective in modern times who can’t work a wristwatch is asking the reader to suspend too much disbelief. All novels are historical novels, and books set in the present day should be as realistic and as well-researched as novels set in the distant past. Then again, The Hard Way has a near-perfect Amazon score with almost 2,000 ratings, whereas Presumed Innocent has about 300, with one reviewer giving it a single star because “To much words” [sp]. So what the hell do I know?

When Readers See Behind the Curtain

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“Show, don’t tell” is such ubiquitous advice, repeated so often so often in conference halls, writing guidebooks and classrooms, that I’d imagine most creative writing teachers would save themselves a lot of time by owning the phrase emblazoned on a stamp (don’t bother Googling; I’ve already checked and no such object exists). There’s even a short story published in the New Yorker titled “Show Don’t Tell.” But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to tell. In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell cautions not to take the advice too literally, writing that “Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” I’d imagine the idea’s been around as long as we’ve been on Earth telling stories, though the phrasing is often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass

The idea is that one allows the reader to see, hear, taste, smell, feel and experience a scene in a more immersive way than getting hit with an info dump. That draws attention away from the fact that it’s a work of fiction and makes the story come to life, and there’s the key: telling is okay only insofar as it doesn’t break the illusion. I want to examine two authors telling and not showing in interesting ways. One writer pulls it off. For the other, I believe, the tactic backfires.

Telling as a Plot Device

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica may just be the best-researched novel ever written. Every page drips with details large and small, insider lingo and scientific accuracy (too much for some reviewers). Clearly he knows his subject matter. In fact, Robinson traveled to Antarctica as part of the NSF’s Artists and Writers Program, which, yes, is a real thing. In his story, shortly after landing at McMurdo research station in Antarcitca, one of his characters gets a call from his boss, who wants to know what it’s like down there. “Just tell me what you see, Wade,” he says. “You’re my eyes.” Wade responds:

Well, I’m walking by the Crary Lab now. It’s quite small, composed of three small buildings on a slope, with a passageway connecting them. There’s a street sign saying I’m on Beeker Street, but it’s not much of a street. There are a lot of pipelines right on the ground… Now I’m passing a building like a giant yellow cube, with a bunch of antennas on the roof. Must be the radio building. Now I’m passing a little chapel… Now I’m on a road going out to the docks. Right now the docks are empty, because the bay is iced over.

Oh, you clever writer person you! I bet there’s a little sticky note saying “show, don’t tell” on the corner of his laptop screen. He found a way to sneak an infodump into his story… but, come on. It’s still an infodump. For me, this passage exposed the wiring and gears behind the metaphorical curtain. The phone call is such an obviously convenient literary device that it draws attention to the fact that we’re reading a work of fiction and in doing so breaks the immersion, like seeing a cameraman’s reflection in a movie.

Telling to Advance the Plot

Raymond Chandler had a similar dilemma in his gritty noir novel Farewell, My Lovely, but he tackles it much more skillfully. His detective, Philip Marlowe, has just been jumped by assailants. He doesn’t see them coming. They smack him on the back of the head and he’s out. A little later, he regains consciousness. Here’s how chapter ten opens (edited lightly for space):

“Four minutes,” the voice said. “Five, possibly six. They must have moved quick and quiet. He didn’t even let out a yell.”

I opened my eyes and looked fuzzily at a cold star. I was lying on my back. I felt sick.

“Then one of them got into the car,” the voice said, “and waited for you to come back. The others hid again. They must have figured he would be afraid to come alone. Or something in his voice made them suspicious when they talked on the phone.”

I balanced myself woozily on the flat of my hands, listening.

“Yeah, that was about how it was,” the voice said.

It was my voice. I was talking to myself, coming out of it. I was trying to figure the thing out subconsciously.

“Shut up, you dimwit,” I said, and stopped talking to myself.

Now that is an inventive literary device. Both writers break the same rule for the same purpose, but Chandler finds a way to keep the immersion intact. He remains faithful to the spirit of “show, don’t tell.” Robinson’s clunky approach strikes me as nothing more than a plot device, whereas Chandler’s deft handling works to advance the story even during a lull in the action.

How Important Are Writing Guidebooks?

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Short answer: very important, but a danger comes with reading too many. Guidebooks are crucial if you have little in the way of formal training. They always help and never hurt. Case in point: a student in my business writing class sought me out after class one day. He wanted to be a fantasy writer. He wanted advice. I asked him if he’d taken any of our college’s creative writing classes. “Nope,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’m 100% self-taught.” Oh? I asked him what how-to books he’d read in the course of educating himself. He made a face. “Books?” he asked. “None. Should I?”

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But I Learn From Experience!

As a professional writer, the perception that writing is something easy irks me to no end. I’m reminded of the sage wisdom of Harry Crews:

“Your chances of being a renowned brain surgeon are better than being a renowned novelist,” he says. His sip of water at the end if particularly savage. I admire Harry Crews (A Feast of Snakes goes down as one of the darkest and most downright bizarre novels I’ve read), but I disagree with him on one point. I do believe that anyone can be a writer. But it takes time and practice and you have to learn from qualified experts. Fortunately for would-be novelists, there are no shortage of guidebooks to help us along. Too many, perhaps. In his criminally under-appreciated The Craft of Writing, editor and author William Sloane makes the following observation:

Lord knows this is not the first book on writing and the writer. There appear to be thousands of them, even if you leave out the accounts by writers themselves of how they wrote and what they wrote… All told, the combined instruction and encouragement thus afforded the part-time or beginning writer is more than sufficient to subtract seriously from the time he ought to be devoting to more important reading.

And there’s the rub. Time spent reading volumes of how-to guides is time taken away from reading novels in the genre you wish to write. In any genre, really. You shouldn’t read your genre exclusively (at least according to Faulkner). That’s why I was thrilled to discover that Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel opens with a list of “Novels That Set the Standard.” She splits her list of novels into categories based on their strength: plot, dialogue, characters, setting, action, suspense and classics that define the genre. I found that list the most valuable part of her guidebook, by a mile (and the advice itself was really good!). So read guidebooks, but understand that studying novels is equally important in the short term and more important in the long term.

But Aren’t Rules Meant to be Broken?

Do you feel that way? Here’s an antidote: become a teacher. Teach a couple semesters of creative writing. Let me know how that goes. Do you still feel that aspiring writers should be free to break rules? Look, obviously there are no hard and fast rules in writing. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner phrases the dilemma more eloquently than I can: “What the beginning writer ordinarily wants,” he writes, “is a set of rules on what to do and what not to do in writing fiction.” He concedes that there are some good general guidelines and warnings, but he warns against a search for anything absolute:

When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition… Trustworthy aesthetic universals do exist, but they exist at such a high level of abstraction so as to offer almost no guidance to the writer.

Sol Stein, in On Writing and How to Grow a Novel – both of which are excellent – is more pedantic than most. Stein recounts a conference he attended during which an aspiring writer put a question to a panel of experts regarding pace. Most of the panelists wiggled around the question with vague responses like “go by feel.” When they got to Stein, the first words out of his mouth were “Here’s how it’s done.” His advice is frank and specific. In some places I find it extremely helpful (such as his “Actors Studio” technique). In other places I find it frustrating. Which leads to my third point…

When Experts Disagree

Towards the end of How to Grow a Novel, Stein comments on the much-debated issue of manuscript length, and gives the reader an exact figure to shoot for: 75,000 words. “Longer than that is a hazard except for bestselling authors,” he writes. My debut novel was 93k in a first draft, then edited down to 87k when I began submitting. The version that got published was eventually cut to a final length of 84,000 words. I’ve learned firsthand how painful that process can be. So when I saw Stein suggest that even my hard-edited manuscript would be, in his eyes, nearly 10,000 words too long, my heart pulled one of these:

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Then a couple weeks ago, I got my hands on one of the best how-to guides I’ve had the pleasure of reading: Writing the Breakout Novel by literary agent Donald Maass. He talks a lot about the importance of adding depth to characters and places in order to create fiction that feels more fleshed-out and alive. “In enhancing your work,” Maass writes, “you may notice it growing lengthier.” He continues:

Breakout novels are highly detailed and generally complex. Their authors do not stint if adding material will deepen the impact of their stories. Many breakout novels are long. Do not be afraid of that.

He throws in a few asterisks, warning that “length is not a virtue all by itself.” No doubt that’s true. I remember talking to a conference-goer at last summer’s Writers Digest Conference who proudly announced that he planned to pitch a 300,000 debut novel to agents the next day. I suggested he cut the book in thirds and pitch it as a trilogy and he lost it. Some of the most famous books of all time are long, he protested (quite angrily). Later, on Facebook, I saw him complain that none of the agents ever got back to him. Sol Stein sounds like he’s heard that line before: “I know, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full is very long,” Stein writes. “So is his reputation.” Do you have a Nobel Prize? No? Then don’t pitch a 300,000 word book.

The Bottom Line

Experts will disagree, so listen, learn and take from them what you need. Writing a resume provides a good analogy. No hiring manager can tell you the right formula. My business writing students routinely expect me, as the professor, to have the correct answer, and their faces noticeably whiten when I tell them, at the outset, that I can’t deliver. That doesn’t mean (I hope) that they shouldn’t listen to me. I tell them to hear me out, then go to the career guidance office, then read the textbook, then poke around online. I warn that they will find conflicting information. That doesn’t mean that anything goes. Identify your strengths and take what you need from each source. Be as informed as possible. All that goes for writing a novel just as well.

How to be Taken Seriously as a Writer

I’ve been reading a ton of author blogs these past couple weeks, both established and emerging literary voices, the self-published and the unpublished, memoirists, poets and playwrights, short story authors with 25 years’ experience and creative writing students still in high school. Some of these bloggers offer advice to the aspiring masses; others reflect on the ever-evolving journey or a writerly life. A bit of this sort of thing too:

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That’s okay! That’s me, most of the time. My goal with this research is too learn new things and to network, but mainly to try and get a sense of what kind of brand identity I’d like to bring to my own blog. A common theme I see repeated on many writers’ blogs is a desire to be taken seriously. We all want to be respected. And it’s easy, with all those rejection letters piling up against the backdrop of a crowded internet’s mad scramble for attention, to feel discredited in advance, like a dish returned to the kitchen before the diner so much as takes a bite.

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The underlying question here regards the nature of expertise. When do I get to call myself an expert? If I’m Stephen King, I can dole out advice off the top of my head and be taken seriously. I am not Stephen King. Writers are treated notoriously poorly, well, just about everywhere. So what can you do about it, at least until you are Stephen King? I’d argue two things can help tremendously:

  1. Back up what you’re saying by citing sources
  2. Provide examples from the work of successful authors

I’m currently reading through the wonderful guide Writing the Breakout Novel by longtime literary agent Donald Maass. Its first chapter, in which Maass debunks common myths about succeeding as a novelist, was particularly revelatory (spoiler alert: a promotion campaign is not what will make your book a success). Early on, Maass establishes his credibility:

The principles and techniques I describe I have learned from years of analyzing breakout fiction. My teachers have been our era’s greatest authors. Applying these techniques has yielded dynamic and profitable results for me and for my clients.

Okay, Mr. Maass, you have my undivided attention. He could ramble stray thoughts off the top of his head and I would accept his lessons as gospel. But he doesn’t. On almost every page, he cites examples and quotes established authors who have used these techniques. Flipping through the chapters you get the sense that, contrary to the book’s premise, it is NOT his business to dispense original advice. Rather, Maass carefully studies successful books and attempts to work backwards, drilling down what formula made the story work and then seeing how its component parts can be rearranged to suit a writer’s needs. Too often I see bloggers work in the opposite direction. “I’m not successful yet, but here’s what I do, and if you do it too, you’ll be successful.” Well, when you say it like that…

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In a previous post, I wrote about Sol Stein’s “actor’s studio” method discussed in his great writing guide Stein on Writing. It’s a great technique to add instant drama to a scene. I linked to the (credible) source where I learned about it, then found an example of the technique used in the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Don DeLillo, then wrapped by showing how I attempted to integrate it into my own writing. Not to sound like the grumpy English teacher that I am, but I think that if we all cited sources a little more often, it might make headway towards establishing credibility. At least, of course, until we’re Stephen King.

What Can Writers Learn From The Movies?

 

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I got quite the death stare from my old creative writing prof, a man equal parts coffee stains and Phil Spector hair, when I reported to him in a moment of undergrad indiscretion that the inspiration for my short stories came “from the movies.” Ten years later, the roles reversed. Imagine my fatherly pride when one of my freshman comp students told me he dreamed of being a writer! I asked about his favorite authors. “What, you mean, like, books?” he asked, visibly confused. “I don’t read books. I’m more a movies and Nintendo kind of guy.”

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Looking from far and above, to echo Malinowski, from our high places of snobbery in erudite writerdom, it’s easy to dismiss such talk as an echo of the death rattle of literature (much exaggerated!). And, to be sure, if you want to be a writer you have to read. Yes, books. But cinema is an art form, after all, and just as anthropologist Ernest Becker argues in his 1962 book The Birth and Death of Meaning that no single academic discipline has a lock on the truth, so too is truth not the sole property of a single form of art. Becker describes a key assumption behind his project:

And if we want to understand very general attributes of what it means to be a human being, including the nature of soul, that we can’t do that from any one disciplinary perspective.

When approached as an intellectual exercise, I believe writers of fiction can study three aspects of film to improve their craft: (1) dialogue, (2) cinematography, and (3) emotional resonance (what I’ll call “general effect”).

The Advent of the Talkies

Let’s begin with the most obvious: dialogue. And I’ll start by trashing one of my favorite authors. I love Don DeLillo. He is one of the great living American novelists. But the dialogue in his stories is not always realistic. This is intentional. (“There are fifty-two ways to write dialogue that’s faithful to the way people speak,” he tells the Paris Review. “And then there are times when you’re not trying to be faithful.”) Here’s a taste, from his 2007 novel Falling Man:

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That dialogue reminds me of an Elmore Leonard technique of omitting words (see tip #7 here). From later in the same scene:

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You read enough of that and it starts to come out in your own writing. Two of my characters in Infinity Point have the following chapter-opening exchange:

“We’re close.”
“To what?”
“What do you mean to what? To it. The truth.”
“What, it’s a place? It’s something you can look at? The truth?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not really. What is your truth?”
“I couldn’t tell you. I can’t really say.”
“But the truth.”
“It’s an idea that can be distorted but not destroyed.”
“You’re sure of this.”
“It’s an idea bigger than us.”

(I couldn’t resist some slight editing.) That piqued the curiosity of my book club. “Huh,” one of the members said. “That doesn’t sound like how normal people talk.” Sorry, that’s just the Don DeLillo in me talking! But do we really want hyper-realism, all of the time? Better question: do we want it any of the time? Let’s see if we can better answer that question with the help of film. Exhibit A: an exchange from early in the noir film Double Indemnity (1944), in which femme fatale Phyllis, played by Barbara Stanwyck, first meets the co-conspirator with whom she will conspire to murder he husband. A romantic energy flourishes at first sight:

Is that how “normal people talk?” Not a chance! It’s pure style. The dialogue in that film (screenplay by Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler) is rapid-fire wit and moody noir by turns, helping maintain a spark between characters while developing a bleak undercurrent of doom. It is like a love affair at the end of the world. Contrast the stylistic approach with the following exchange from 12 Angry Men. Pay attention not only to what is being said but how each person is saying it:

So, what can we take away from that? It depends on what you’re going for. Studying screenplays is a better option for learning dialogue than eavesdropping at a coffee shop. “Life has no plots,” as Harmony Korine once put it. But ultimately you want to present the reader something with which they can relate. To that end, listen not only to what the characters say, but how they say it. Where are the pauses? What are they doing with their hands? All of this can be valuable to the writer.

The Canvas of the Imagination

In How to Grow a Novel, master editor Sol Stein speaks to the importance of visual details. He cites as an example the following snippet of Russel Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter, in which a bus driver makes her first stop of the morning at the top of a hill:

Down in the valley, you could see the house lights of Sam Dent coming on one by one, and along Routes 9 and 73 the headlights of a few cars flashed like fireflies as people headed to work.

I picture the image vividly. “An inexperienced writer,” Stein notes, “might say that down in the valley you could see the house lights of Sam Dent and the headlights of a few cars… But that wouldn’t be writerly.” Russian director Alexander Sokurov sees a deep affinity between the canvas of cinema and the more traditional canvas of a painting (sometimes to exhausting effect). Less obvious, I think, is the relation between that sort of visual canvas and prose writing. How does one learn to see those “writerly details” Stein describes? From studying the visual arts, of course! Take for example the following scene from Andrei Tarkovksy’s masterful Andrei Rublev (1966). I’d fast-forward to the 6:30 mark, unless you are in the mood for long-winded theological debate.

Every frame is packed with details. How might you describe in prose the children at 7:00 rolling down the hill? What do the dark splotches at 7:09 resemble? The films of Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos are far and away the best for this exercise. Here’s a supercut of striking visuals from The Weeping Meadow (2004):

Back during my first (ill-fated) foray into novel writing, I wanted a thrilling car chase sequence. Very difficult to write! I poked around Google in search of answers and chanced upon a friendly message-boarder who suggested queuing up a movie car chase, examining the cinematography, pausing every so often and trying to put into words what you just watched. The product of such efforts was admittedly terrible, but the idea stuck. Instead of trying to translate BADASS ACTION sequences from screen to page, I now seek out striking visual details that might help paint a more vivid image in a reader’s mind.

The Big Bang Symphony

Did I mention I once impulse-bought a novel based on nothing more than its fantastic title, The Big Bang Symphony? Well, I did, and it rewarded me with the core idea of my next novel. But that is what readers want – a big bang. Earlier in How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein writes that a reader of fiction is looking for “an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experiences in life.” He argues that the writer owes this to the reader out of simple courtesy. Think of a film that gave you that type of experience. For me, the first flick that comes to mind is Warwick Thornton’s criminally under-appreciated Samson and Delilah (2009), described as a “survival love story” set in an Australian Aboriginal community whose inhabitants lead, well, somewhat difficult lives.

Samson and Delilah is a brutally depressing film, unapologetic in its bleakness. It left me rattled for days. Most sad sappy melodramas are romanticized in a predictable “good cry” kind of way. Not so here. A crushing tale of despair, the film loses any hope of a happy ending from the opening frame. In What is Art, Leo Tolstoy famously opined that

Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications

Warwick Thornton took a feeling and transmitted it to me through the medium of film. The obvious question is, how does one do that? I don’t think there’s any practical advice anyone can give on this point other than “try.” Once, in a teenage moment of youthful indiscretion, I attempted to convey the feeling of a Bruce Springsteen song into a short story. You’ll laugh, but it helped me become a better writer. It was hard! I had to put a ton of thought into the translation of an emotion into worlds, doing so (hopefully) in a way that will communicate this emotion via ESP into the mind of a reader.

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Administrivia

I’m hoping this becomes a regular series: “What Can Writers Learn From _______?” I will do diligent, cross-disciplinary research and plumb the depths of various arts and sciences for ideas writers can shoplift. These posts are long (I mean, I guess) and well-researched, and they take time to write. I’m trying to get into a regularly-scheduled habit of blogging this summer. Meanwhile I am also working on my next novel, which I’m hoping to get into presentable shape before the Writers Digest Conference in August. Those factors considered, expect regular updates.

One thing I’m really bad at is ending blog posts.

 

Learn to add drama to a story with Sol Stein’s Actors Studio method

There are no good Inside the Actor’s Stuido memes. However, whilst prowling the interwebs this morning, I came upon a curious discovery. Turns out that Actor’s Studio host and mild-mannered curmudgeon James Lipton spent his younger days working as a pimp in the Red Light District of Paris (well, “a procurer… an agent, so to speak”).

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Hmm, probably shouldn’t lead a blog post with “James Lipton was a pimp.” Because what can I really say to top that. Well, I’ve come too far now.

I’ve long had an obsession with Lipton’s glacially paced interviews, so imagine my joy at spotting a chapter titled “The Actors Studio Method for Developing Drama in Plots” in venerated master of the craft Sol Stein’s book On Writing.

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Approximation

So here’s the deal. Back in the ‘50s, Stein – at the time a playwright-in-residence at the Actors Studio – attended a workshop led by Elia Kazan. He was partnered with screenwriter Rona Jaffe, with whom he was instructed to improvise a scene. Stein received whispered instructions. His character, Kazan said, was a school headmaster intent on expelling a troublemaker. Jaffe’s character was the child’s mother, intent on defending her son. Tempers flared in a dramatic improvised scene. Only afterwards did Stein discover what Kazan had whispered in Jaffe’s ear – that her son was well-behaved and had been falsely accused. The two characters had different scripts. As a result, understanding became impossible and conflict inevitable.

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Approximation

Side note: I tried this in a classroom once during a lesson on rhetoric. I paired up two students, each with secret note cards. One played a high school principle, the other a student who had been falsely accused of cheating. Same deal – different scripts. It failed miserably. My students did everything they possibly could to avoid conflict and negotiated peace within half a minute. Methinks they just wanted the part where they participated to end. Anyways…

We don’t want negotiated stalemates in stories. We want conflict. We want ALL CAPS YELLING (metaphor all caps, of course). How to ensure the sparks fly? Give your characters different scripts. Take a look at the following exchange from Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld (lol at masterpieces of literature having 3 stars on Amazon…). Two events had just transpired in the story: the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb and Bobby Thompson hit his famous game-winning home run to clinch the pennant.

“Did you see the paper, Father?”

“Please, we know each other too well. You’re required to call me Andy now. Yes, I stole a long look at someone’s Daily News. They’re calling it the Shot Heart Round the World.”

“How did we detect evidence of the blast, I wonder. We must have aircraft flying near their borders with instruments that measure radiation. Or well-placed agents perhaps.”

DeLillo’s characters are discussing the news with different scripts. One is referring to Thompson’s home run, the other to the nuclear test.

I employed a similar technique in my novel Infinity Point. In the following scene, actress Nikole Fink has been taken hostage at gunpoint. She steals away to a public restroom where she knocks a passerby unconscious, steals the woman’s cell phone and – panicked and confused as to how to contact the police in a foreign country – places a frantic call to her agent in New York. Meanwhile, Nikole’s agent has become fixated on clearing up Nikole’s recent scandal in the tabloids in which she had been photographed by paparazzi stealing evidence from a crime scene. Wally assumes this is what the call is about. They are operating with different scripts:

“You have to help me, Wally,” the voice spoke. Yes, it was her. “I… I didn’t mean to… Look, I did something bad and I need your help.”

You know, Wally thought, perhaps I am simply not cut out for this industry. I am a delicate man, a sophisticated man. I enjoy tea from Thailand. I own a respectable collection of vinyl records. James Bond I am not.

“Yes,” Wally said. “I know, Nikole. Do not worry. I am working on it.”

“You…? Wait. What?”

“I have hired a detective. He and I are negotiating as we speak. This man is the best in the business. Surely he will help.”

Nikole was quiet a moment.

“What are you talking about?”

“I know everything – the cave, the bodies, the hourglass, the Black Lotus, the body bag, the blogger’s photographs. At first I was concerned, but now with the detective’s help, we will settle matters. You needn’t worry.”

Wally tried to imagine the scene on the call’s opposite end. He pictured Nikole drowning in pills and wine, her apartment a war zone of filth.

“Everything is under control,” Wally insisted.

This builds tension because the reader wants Nikole rescued; however, the misunderstanding prevents progress on the front and only buries Nikole deeper in her situation.

Coming Up With a Title: Description of a Struggle

First, the good news. After half a decade spent holed up in my starving artist refuge, subsisting on ramen noodles and heat generated from a burning pyre of rejection letters and manuscript-length failures, I finally nixed that most elusive bucket list bullet point – I got a book deal.

 

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I settled into manuscript revisions, signed contract in hand (well, scanned on a computer screen, but still). Problem: the title I’d selected for the book, THE BLACK LOTUS, had already been claimed by half a dozen novels, including one fair-seller in the genre. And, besides, I just didn’t like the title. I felt awkward saying it to my boss. (“Hey Adam, what’s the name of your book?” “Uh… undecided.”) So I had to come up with something new. Huh. Hmm. Uh… Oh.

 

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The internet is littered with advise on titles, from data-driven Google Adwords campaigns to the advice of self-proclaimed experts offering the same stale advice (Make a list! Google it! Use a number!) to algorithms testing the best-sellerability of a particular string of words.

Scott Berkun offers sage advice at his blog:

We all suffer tremendous taste bias on titles. We assume our instincts and likes are matched by everyone. There are many kinds of taste, good and bad, which means there is an unbelievable amount of contradictory advice about titles, almost as much as there is about writing books themselves.

He continues doling out the depressing truth: “Many popular books suck, and many awesome books are unpopular. Book publishing is not a meritocracy.”

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But one thing all the experts agree on is this: the title matters. Data shows that would-be book buyers make snap judgement about the title first. I can vouch for it. I’m currently reading a novel in a genre I’d otherwise never pluck from the shelf – three women on a quasi-spiritual journey in search of love – simply because I couldn’t resist the title. The Big Bang Symphony. I had to have it. (And it’s good!)

Googling the phrase “coming up with a book title” offers a window into the anxiety of a writer’s soul. Nobody has all the answers. I am no great sage of the written word. I’m just a random guy on the internet. I’ll tell you what I tell my students – feel free to ignore everything I say. Anyone who claims to have “the answers” on writing should draw immediate suspicion. (Unless it is Sol Stein. You should listen to Sol Stein.) But, all that being said, here’s a few things I did that aren’t routinely given in the standard internet advice:

1. Read poetry. What words stand out? Write them down. Poetry is full of pretty words. Much like our 45th president, poets have the best words. Lots of books, TV shows and movies have titles taken straight from lines of poetry. Just check out this stanza from the poem “Of Nicolette” by ee cummings:

dreaming in marble all the castle lay
like some gigantic ghost-flower born of night
blossoming in white towers to the moon,
soft sighed the passionate darkness to the tune
of tiny troubadours,and(phantom-white)
dumb-blooming boughs let fall their glorious snows,
and the unearthly sweetness of a rose
swam upward from the troubled heart of May

Note to self: come up with idea for future novel titled Tiny Troubadours. Anyways. Point is, lots of great word combinations can be found in poems.

2. Look at photographs, drawings and other artworks. I do this a lot when writing, actually. When I have writer’s block, I turn to forms of art other than writing. One of the scenes in my upcoming book takes its inspiration from the fantastic photography of the Chinese duo Birdhead. Art is designed to give you the feels. I try to translate those feels into words.

 

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This strategy actually sealed the deal for me. I spent weeks agonizing over possible titles, then I saw a beautiful nature photograph of the night sky with an infinity symbol and thought, that’s it: Infinity Point.

3. Don’t be afraid to modify the book to accommodate a title. Which brings me to my next point. The title Infinity Point didn’t really match the story. Everyone tells you “sum up the book in a pithy phrase!” or “make sure it matches the story.” Sure. Yeah. But can a good title actually improve your story? I came up with the title Infinity Point, then worked it into the manuscript as a place. And, you know what? It made the story better. Instead of the climactic scene playing out in yet another blah “street” somewhere, now it got a whole lot more interesting. A ruined lighthouse on a forgotten pier at a place called Infinity Point? More intrigue. More yay.

4. Don’t be afraid to go down a weird internet rabbit hole. My search for title inspiration took me to some odd internet places. Here, for example:

 

 

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Found in related items: Goblinproofing One’s Chicken CoopThe Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America and People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It. I don’t really have a point to make here, but aren’t you happy that I shared that with you?

5. Give it the awkward test. Walk into a room and see if it feels weird to say your title to strangers. I once seriously considered titling my book “In The Event of Spontaneous Combustion.” Yeah. Awkward.

 

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6. Just pick something and be done with it, goddamn it. At a certain point you have to. Oh, just do it. Come on. There are so many more productive things you could be doing. Starting work on your next book, for example. Watching videos of goats yelling like humans. Eating a sandwich. Just open a dictionary or something and pick some random words.

 

Connect scenes with “but” and “therefore,” not “and then”

One of the pros of being an unashamed film buff is getting to appreciate Tony Zhou’s YouTube series Every Frame a Painting (cons = forever alone, no friends, etc.). The other day, whilst sipping high-altitude pressed coffee and having pretentious thoughts about modern sculpture, I came across a brilliant how-to on structuring a video essay based on the 1973 film F for Fake by Orson Welles. Many of the lessons, I believe, can be applied to writing fiction.

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Zhou references an older video he made in which he presented viewers with a list that could come in any order. This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. “That’s what makes it boring,” he says. I’m reminded of Dave Barry’s blunt advice for writers: “Don’t be boring.” You know something? This blog post is boring. Here’s a picture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night recreated using nothing but bacon to make things better:

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As a side note, I once gave a student extra credit on a final exam because he managed – against all odds – to make every essay question about bacon. Anyways, the first thought I had after watching Zhou’s video was “Crap, there’s another thing about writing I never learned. Curse you Mr. Lyons!” (ah, blaming failure on others, one of my favorite pastimes). The second thought I had was about a novel manuscript I wrote a number of years ago that never got published. I looked back on it and, sure enough, large sections of the text present a laundry list of scenes that could be freely rearranged. There was no cause and effect. The part of Zhou’s video I find most relevant comes from a workshop led by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

We found out this really simple rule that maybe you guys have heard before. But it took us a long time to learn it… What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is the word “therefore” or “but.” So what I’m saying is you come up with and idea and it’s like “this happens, and therefore this happens, but this happens, therefore this happens.”

I recently discovered a wonderful literary hidden gem called Time Commences in Xibalbá by the Guatemalan writer Luis de Lión. It’s a challenging read, with a translator’s preface and afterword that, in combination, are almost longer than the novel itself. A troubled man returns to his childhood village in remote Guatemala. He steals a life-sized wooden figurine of the Virgin Mary from the church and… proceeds to make love to it. Really. In the close-knit, conservative village, all hell breaks loose (a phrase you should NEVER use in your stories). The series of events that follows could not happen in any order. The statue is missing from the church. Therefore, panic erupts. Therefore, a search committee is formed, pitchforks and all, to comb the village. But, they don’t find it at first. Therefore, fingers are pointed. Therefore, the community begins to fall apart. But, they find it eventually. You get the idea.

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Looking back at some of my work that has gotten published, I notice that I’d unwittingly followed the cause/effect order of scenes. My story in Worker’s Write! tells of three contractors who show up to work only to learn that one will be fired at the end of the day. Therefore, two contractors decide to work together to hurt the third. But the main character starts having second thoughts. But his accomplice carries through with the plan anyways. Therefore… etc. etc. Okay, that uses up my “shameless self promotion” quota of the day.

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[I was going to post a still from Anchorman here with a quote about self-promotion, but – true story – I once ran a beer-related blog with over a thousand readers each week and had the whole thing shut down over copyright because I posted a Steve Carell meme. *shakes fist at sky*]

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I’ll be pitching a manuscript to agents at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City later this week. During the revision process (TEN drafts!!), I hunted down scene sequences that followed the dreaded “and then” list format – that is, they could come in any order – and I reworked them to have a clear cause and effect pattern. (Hi future agent! See, I know fancy literary stuff. Also, I will give you bacon).

 

Learn How to Keep Characters in Motion With Robert Downey Sr.

In the following video clip from the Criterion Collection, film director and screenwriter Robert Downey Sr. – better known to you as “wait, there’s a Robert Downey Sr.?” – claims to “only know one thing about screenwriting.”

Keep your characters in a hurry. That’s a lesson by no means restricted to the art of the script writing. It’s solid advice for plotting regardless the medium. Note how Downey specifies that it could be “psychological.” Not all plots star Dwayne Johnson. It doesn’t need Space Hitler or sharknados. But there should be a sense of urgency at some level. I’m reminded of James Scott Bell’s fantastic book Plot & Structure, in which he describes various types of death a character can face: physical, psychological, professional. This is your character’s last chance to have a career, to save her marriage, to sober up, etc. If it’s just another day in the life, who cares?

In Vladislav Todorov’s wonderful thriller Zift, we meet our protagonist as he’s being released from jail. We soon learn his objective: to reclaim the hidden treasure he’d been jailed for stealing. Todorov ups the stakes considerably when his lead character is captured by Communist authorities and injected with a lethal poison. Soon he will be dead. Poof. Urgency. Now he has only one night to complete his objective, and the result is a page-turner that’s hard to put down. Why? Because the character is in a hurry.

But urgency doesn’t just apply to genre fiction full of secret agents and hidden gold. Atticus Lish, in his much-lauded literary debut Preparation For The Next Life, creates urgency within the scope of a love story between a troubled Iraq veteran and an illegal immigrant from China. We can’t help feeling that this is Brad Skinner’s last shot at returning to a normal life after his harrowing experience overseas. Likewise, Zou Lei feels the constant presence of immigration authorities bearing down on her. They have to figure out something, soon, in order to save themselves and each other.

You can have lulls in action, sure. Your characters can huff Carménère corks and endure heroic feats of artistic suffering and crowd surf to avant-garde Beatles cover bands in Tbilisi. But the best fiction keeps a specter lurking in the shadows between paragraphs. What are your characters in a hurry to do? Looking back at my earlier fiction, before I started getting published, I see that oftentimes my stories didn’t have an answer to that important question. Now, as I try to continue my success, I strive to keep my characters in motion, even when they’re standing still.