Actually putting words on paper, as opposed to all the business stuff around making a living as a writer.

People read fiction for the story, and that story should be dramatic. Nobody wants to read about my morning routine, or my drive to the grocery store, and I don’t want to write that. But if I write about a broken family trying to come back together… yeah, there’s an audience for that.

No matter how good your setup, though, or how well-considered your story, if there’s no dramatic tension there’s really no reason to read it. Or to write it, for that matter. There are many ways to create dramatic tension in a novel, and I’ve outline four good ones below.

1. Get Your Reader To Ask Questions

You want people to become immediately involved in your story, and the way to do that is to get them to ask a question. Just one, at first. It could be about the plot, it could be about a character, it could be about a relationship between characters, but you should get them to ask that question.

For instance, you could start the story with a main character on the road, destination unknown (to the reader) but it’s clearly somewhere the main character would rather not go. Throw in an encounter with someone who recognizes the character (from where?) and knows where they’re going. Now the reader is hooked, they have to know where the character is compelled to go, and why, and what’s going to happen when she gets there.

2. Create Character Conflict

There’s an awful lot to this one, as it incorporates characterization, plot, and pacing. Conflict between your characters will (almost) always drive your story.

But it can’t be pointless conflict. The conflict has to serve the plot, and move things along. Does the conflict resolve? Well… usually. But not every time (see #3).

Family conflict is great, there’s always tension and conflict between people who’ve lived in the same household. But there can be workplace conflict too, or neighbor conflict, or business conflict. Any time one character wants something, but another character wants the same thing – and there’s only one of that thing – there’s conflict. Or if a character wants something, but another character wants the exact opposite, there’s conflict. Or, maybe the best, is when two characters want the same thing, but disagree on how to go about getting that thing. Both want world peace, but one sees that possible only through war while the other sees it possible only through peace.

3. Use Cliffhangers

This term was coined for the very old movie serials, where the hero would be literally hanging from a cliff at the end of one episode, with the promise that there was no way he could survive, but to come back next week to see if he would anyway.

You should use these within your story, as structural elements and chapter breaks. I would STRONGLY caution against cliffhangers at the end of novels, especially for main plot elements. Nothing will turn your reader against you quicker than your refusal to answer a central question you raise in their minds.

I favor cliffhangers at chapter breaks. Think of them as the button right before the commercial on a TV show. You want your reader to get a payoff from what you’ve set up so far, but you want to give them a reason to turn the page and find out what happens next.

4. Employ Dramatic Irony

I touched on this in a prior post, but dramatic irony is delicious, it’s the sizzle on the steak that is your story. Dramatic irony is that perfect situation where your reader is clued into a truth that the characters are not. Or, better yet, that one character knows but another does not.

Here’s a concrete example: remember that Futurama episode where Fry finds the fossilized remains of his dog from a thousand years before? He spends the episode wondering if he should have Seymour cloned so he can have his dog back, but ultimately decides not to, reasoning that he only knew his dog for a short time and Seymour lived a good long life after Fry disappeared. Except we, the viewers, know that Seymour spent his long life waiting for Fry to come back. (makes me cry every time)

The dramatic irony is that Fry does the right thing, by every measure. Except it’s the WRONG thing, and only we, the viewers know it.

I bought a new car a few months back. My other car, my daily driver, I bought new twenty years ago, so it was past time for it to go. My new car has twenty years better performance, twenty years better safety, and twenty years fewer years than my old car. A much-needed upgrade.

But it also has twenty years newer technology. Which is not necessarily good.

For instance, I discovered the other day that my new car knows where I live. I pulled into the garage, turned off the car, and looked at the little display between the speedometer and the tach. It told me that I had gone 17 miles, that the trip had taken me 24 minutes, and that I got 20.4 miles to the gallon.

Clearly, my car knew that I was home, even though I had never, ever provided it that information.

In my day job I’m a high-speed, low-drag tech guy. So I got to thinking, how would I program my car to determine if I were home? GPS coordinates, clearly, but also time spent at those coordinates. I work from home, so my car stays put in the same spot for long periods of time. Maybe it counts overnight? Which would mean it has to read the clock and time between starts… At any rate, my car’s navigation system has determined where I take trips to and from, and how long I spend there. It calls that home. And it’s right.

I don’t like this at all.

Think it through. If my car knows where I live, then so does anyone with access to those records, whether I’ve given them my home address or not. And all that data is synched to a server somewhere. They know my home, where I buy groceries, where I buy gas, how fast or slow I drive, which junk food places I frequent, where I go to the gym (or if I even go), how often I go to the doctor or dentist, where I spend my Monday afternoons, how frequently I leave my home GPS coordinates after midnight… Everything I do in my car. Which, because I’m an American living in the suburbs, is pretty much everything my life consists of.

I deal with data in my day job, so I know how simple it is to tie my driving behavior to, say, my credit card purchase records, or my arrest records – assuming I have any – or to my CVS club card activity. It’s a wealth of minutia, that can spell out any person’s life if you put it all together. And it’s so, so, so easy to put it all together.

What can I do about this? Nothing. The genie is out of the bottle and he’s not going to let us stuff him back in. The only thing to do is manage the situation. Which means I’m going to have to start driving to places I’d never otherwise go. Like a scrapbooking store. Or Forever 21. Or a tuxedo rental place. If someone’s going to track my daily movements, I might as well make it entertaining for them.

You’re a writer, and you love your characters. Right? All of them. Equally. They’re like your children. So you have to love them. Don’t you?

Of course not. They’re not your real children, they’re your mind-babies, and you’re allowed to hate them.

That may seem like blasphemy, and maybe it is a little, but you yourself don’t like everyone you meet every day. At least I don’t. I’m fairly indifferent to most people, but some people, a few of them, I actively dislike, even if I don’t know them. Maybe especially if I don’t know them.

So how do you translate that real-world distaste to your fictional characters? I’ll tell you in this internet-friendly numbered list.

1. Make the Character a Traitor

For me, disloyalty is the worst. If I can write a scene with a character who even hints around at being a traitor, I’m down on them the rest of the story. No matter what else happens. It’s an easy drive for me then, as the writer, to put that character through the wringer. They deserve it, after all.

But what if the character is a bad guy, and she’s being disloyal to other bad guys? Then that makes her very, very interesting. But it doesn’t make me like her any better.

2. Make the Character Rude to Helpless People

I particularly hate this trait in real people, in my imaginary people it drives me crazy. People who are rude to wait staff, for instance, or to service workers. Rudeness is pointless and lazy.

It’s so easy to take a moment for kindness, and when your characters just can’t be bothered, even when they’re in a position of clear superiority, that’s grounds for hating them.

3. Make the Character a Hypocrite

Ooh… this really chaps my ass in real life. Like the TV preacher who expects his congregation to tithe to him, but who doesn’t give a single dime of his own to charity. The moral-values politician who’s cheating on his wife. The cocaine-addicted prosecutor who locks minor drug offenders away for years. Those assholes.

As despicable as this trait is in your character, if it’s hidden from other characters (at least at first), it’s also dramatic irony. And readers love, love, love dramatic irony.

4. Make the Character Cruel

This is related to, but different from making a character rude. Rudeness is usually just careless, but cruelty is calculating. You have to put effort and creativity into being cruel. The guy who pretends he’s going to give a homeless guy a sandwich only to hand over an empty paper bag is one cruel bastard.

In real life, cruelty is a serious character flaw that often comes from deep-seated emotional pain. Your character should have a reason for being cruel, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to like her any better because of it.

5. Make the Character a Weasel

Everybody knows a weasel. This is the guy who doesn’t have a position of his own, he just gives a ‘yes, and’ to what someone else says. The guy who can’t stand up straight because he has no backbone. The guy who’s in it for one person alone: himself.

I have to confess, weasels are fun to write. I usually just have to think about what I would do in any particular situation, then write the opposite and amp it up times five. Doesn’t make me like the character, but it does hold my interest.

This morning I agreed to take over a podcast for my publisher.

Yeah.  I’m going to be a podcaster.  About writing.  I know, it’s weird for me, too.

Way back in January I agreed to be part of an authors’ support group my publisher was putting together.  I’m not much of a joiner, but I realized that if I were uncomfortable with being part of a group like that, I really needed to ignore my anti-social tendencies and join up.  So I did.  And it’s become an invaluable part of my week.  God help me, I understand now that our authors’ group is a great idea.

Which is why, today, when several of us asked if we could use the group time to learn more about the craft of writing fiction, our publisher mentioned that would probably be a topic better left to a podcast they had going.  He also mentioned that they hadn’t done anything with it in a while, and maybe one of us would like to take it over?

That’s when I became Arnold Horshack.*  I volunteered like someone had offered me money to eat barbeque, the good kind, the Texas kind, not your Mephis or South Carolina stuff.  At the time, it seemed like a good idea.  A great idea, in fact.

Now?  I wonder what I have gotten myself into.  Here’s the portion of the podcast I’d be responsible for, according to my publisher: Finding new podcast guests, Inviting guests to be on the show, Scheduling interviews, Hosting the show and recording interviews and keeping a minimum 4-week backlog of pre-recorded shows, Contacting guests once the show goes live, Creating a show calendar/schedule – 1 per week, or more?

Yikes!  This is the real deal, I’m responsible for stuff now.  The actual work is something I can easily do, it’s just talking on the phone and writing stuff down.  I’m good at both those things.  And yet… there are five things I’m in a bit of a sweat over.

1. I’ll have to cut back on the milk.

I love milk.  And ice cream.  And cheese.  But all those things make you phlegmy, which cuts down on the resonance of your voice, and really does affect the quality of any recording you do.  Usually you have to cut back on dairy products two or three days before any performance, so this is something I’ll have to plan for.

2.  I have to earn my acting chops all over.

I used to be an actor, back when I lived in Pasadena, CA.  I made good money at it and everything, a for-real career.  But I haven’t acted professionally in eight years.  The techniques are still inside me, but it’s going to be a bit of a process to get comfortable again.  I’m pretty sure I’m gonna choke at least once.  Which, truth be told, is probably a good reason for people to tune in.

3.  I have to convey information accurately and in an entertaining manner.

This is where having been an actor comes in, I have techniques for being heard and understood.  I also did years of comedy improv, so I know how to listen (that’s the point of comedy improv, if you didn’t know, to improve your listening skills as an actor).  But being a good interviewer/ podcaster is not necessarily the same skill as being a good improviser or actor.  A podcast has to be informative AND entertaining, which means I need to step up my game.

4.  I’ll have to plan, and stick to the plan.

Normally this is not a big deal, I plan all day every day, both in my pay-the-rent work and my writing.  But when I’m performing, sometimes – I’ve been told – I go off-script from time to time.  I hope that’ll do me good when my guests give me some sort of left-field anecdote, but it could also do me poorly if I get bored and decide to entertain myself.  Stay tuned to see how this part goes.

5.  I’ll have to trust others want to do quality work too.

I like to work alone.  It’s one of the reasons I’m a writer, I get to control everything.  But with this podcast, since it’s my publisher’s, I have to give up total control.  I mentioned above the things I’d be responsible for, here are the things they’d be responsible for: Video / audio editing, Writing show notes, Creating images for blog posts, Creating and scheduling the blog posts. That’s a large part of the work, but it’s also where the character of the podcast gets created.  Working as an actor means working as part of an ensemble, so relinquishing total control is something I’ve done before.  Just not with stuff I do in my own office, at my own desk. We’ll see how it goes.

*  a VERY old reference to a VERY old and terrible TV comedy from the 70’s.  This was back when we had three commercial channels and PBS, we had to watch whatever was on at the time.

 

 

 

I thought I’d discuss character motivation, because that’s such a frequently misunderstood concept.  Motivation is not the thing that gets your characters moving within your plot – that’s incentive – it’s the drive that gets your characters out of bed in the morning.  But it’s not usually passionate or all-consuming.  It’s boring and workaday, and your task as a writer is to instill a different motivation in your characters.

Previously, I’ve discussed Character – Position vs. Interest and Creating a Scene with the Ws.  A character’s motivation runs parallel to both these things.  You’ll see writing advice that tells you a character’s motivation is a conscious thing, like it’s something they think about every moment they’re awake.  Nobody thinks about motivation all the time, not even your noblest character.

Think about your own motivation, what makes you get up in the morning?  If you work for Corporate America, your motivation is probably very basic in Maslow’s hierarchy.  You need to make rent, buy food, and pay bills.  This isn’t a motivation you think about a lot, but it certainly comes up when the ‘downsizing’ emails start flying.  Unless you’re very lucky, in Corporate America your motivation almost never rises to self-actualization.  But what if you work for yourself?  Same thing, you’re working to pay the bills.  Maybe you’re working at something you love to do, maybe you’re just good at it, but your work probably doesn’t rise past ‘Safety’ in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The same is true of your characters.  They lead regular lives, for the most part.  Until your plot starts, when their motivation should change.  But even with a new, more urgent motivation, the old motivations are still there, and possibly even more powerful.

Let’s use Batman as an example.  He’s just a man, with a man’s courage, but he has an epic motivation: make Gotham the kind of city where no little kid ever has to see his parents gunned down.  He’s got a long row to hoe there, Gotham sucks.  But that’s why he does what he does, so no other eight-year-old has to endure what he did.

Is that his motivation all the time?  Yes.  And no.  If that were his sole motivation he’d probably end up a billionaire social worker, using his money to put orphans through college and rehabilitating crooks.  But he also has a secondary motivation, to stop crime that’s happening right now.  And revenge, there’s a strong streak of vengeance in his work.  And justice, of course, he wants justice too, after all the punching is finished.

That’s a conflicting mish-mash of motivations: societal change, crime fighting, vengeance, and justice.  And trying out cool toys, that’s a large part of what Batman does.

Do your characters have multiple, conflicting motivations?  Of course they do.  In my novel I have a character who is very motivated to fight the good fight for the little guy against the system.  It’s what drives his career, even if most of the time his work is pedestrian and low-paying.  But he’s also very strongly motivated to be right all the time, even to the point of cutting ties with his brother for ten years.  Those two motivations  wage war inside him although nothing changes until outside elements (the plot) force him to reevaluate those motivations for a third one: finding the truth, even if the truth shows him to be wrong.

Motivation is not all-or-nothing, not for real people and not for your characters.  Any all-consuming passion usually turns out to be cartoonish.  Your characters should have many things that motivate them, that also drive your plot forward.

 

 

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It’s been a week since I turned over my pass at developmental edits on my manuscript, and I’ve had some time to digest the experience. It was, in turns, both infuriating and gratifying.

Infuriating: ‘You use this word too much to describe this character.’
How dare you question my authorial voice? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: do a simple count of the offending word to find that, in fact, it’s in every description of that character.
Oh yeah, I see what you mean now. That is annoying. You’re right, I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘You state your theme very plainly several times when you don’t need to. Let the narrative state your theme for you.’
I would never state my themes outright! Do you think I’m some kind of hack? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the offending passages out loud to myself.
Holy cow, I really did exactly that, three different times. You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘This bad guy turns good guy, and it doesn’t feel authentic to the character.’
My characters are mine alone to manipulate! I am their God! I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the last scene the character is in and get the same feeling.
That character’s wrapped up in an inappropriate little bow, isn’t she? You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Overall, I’d give it 10% infuriating, 90% gratifying. When I found it infuriating I was really being defensive and blocking myself from the process. If I took a deep breath or two and listened instead of reacting, I discovered that my editor was trying to make my manuscript the best it could be. He’s got skin in this game too, you know? He’s not making edits to piss me off ( or not just to piss me off ), he’s very invested in putting out a great product.

Authors, when your time comes and you have your first work with an editor, embrace the process. Listen to what your editor’s saying; they’re not always 100% right, but they’re almost always right. They do this all day, every day. Trust them.

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My novel has a new title!

As is fairly common, my publisher retains the rights to re-name my work. This is actually a good thing for me because:

  • They have a finger on the pulse of the market and can come up with a title that will grab eyeballs and sell.
  • I suck at titles.

At first the new title didn’t send me. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. Over the past week, however, I have come to like it. It’s got a noir feel to it, and while my novel is decidedly not Chandleresque, in the plot there are a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous, so I think the title is appropriate. Maybe even a little foreshadowing.

My publisher came up with a new title, sub-title, and series title. Yes, this is a series, at least three books. I’m working on the outline for the second book right now.

Title: The Guilty Die Twice
Sub: A Legal Thriller
Series: Brothers in Law Series

Since dev edits are done, we’re closer to a publishing date. I’ll keep you posted on when that might be. A few more months at least, I think.

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I have finished my round of Developmental Edits!!

Yay me!!

This is the first round of edits, from my editor to me and back again.  I’ll have more feedback in a later blog post, but I figured I’d let everyone know that I completed this major first milestone.  Only four or five more to go.

Also: my publisher has come up with a different title.  I have some opinions on that, too.  More to come.

It’s been two weeks of work, and I’m going to go outside now, to refamiliarize myself with fresh air and the sky.  More posts this weekend.

 

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I’m about 50 pages into the developmental edits, and I have a few thoughts.

  1. I’m far less prickly about this than I thought I’d be. Not that I’m entirely cool with it, that’s a little much to ask, but I’m not as precious with my writing as once was. There have been a few points so far where I was thinking ‘come on, now… really?’ but once I got over myself those edits made the narrative stronger.
  2. I’ve encountered a few dev edit comments, and they’ve been right on. That is, they’ve made the story tighter, made the words hang together better. I haven’t yet found a comment that I disagreed with. But I’m only 50 pages in.
  3. What copy editing has happened has been strictly according to established style manuals. I have to confess, some copy edits feel like flattening out my own style – I’m not a newspaper reporter – but I’m letting them go. They stick out to me like a neon sign, but more than likely no one else is going to notice them.
  4. From time to time, I’m being ‘handled.’ That is, my editor will leave me a compliment when he wants me to change a error he feels is sloppy and unprofessional. For instance: ‘Reword: kind of a cliché. Your writing is normally so good and so original – so I’d hate to have it marred by such a common turn of phrase.’ Translated from Touchy-Authorese this means ‘Seriously? Put some effort into it, don’t be a hack.’ All right, I get it.
  5. My years as an actor gave me a pretty thick skin for notes (thanks, June!), but that doesn’t mean I’m invulnerable. I’m learning to let it go, though, and trust that the guy who pays his mortgage by editing books knows what he’s doing. Kind of like they’re trusting me to know what I’m doing.

My main takeaway so far? This really is a team effort. I do need an editor, which means I’m going to have to accept that his goal is to make my book the best it can be. Even if that means losing most of my precious, precious ellipses…


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