Wednesday, August 14, 2013

See You Next Year

Just a note to tell you that I need to put the Ask the Author posts on hold for a few months. It’s crunch time for my next book, Checkmate, so I’m going to concentrate on it for now and get back to blogging early next year.
To keep you enlightened until I return, here are several books on writing I recommend:
·      On Writing by Stephen King
·      Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham
·      Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
And my own writing book, Story Trumps Structure, will be released next spring.
I wish you all the best in your writing endeavors.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

To Blog or Not to Blog

A few of us were invited by The Big Thrill to comment on whether or not it's beneficial as an author to spend time blogging.

Check out what we have to say and, please, respond with your own thoughts.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Seven (Bad) Habits of Highly Effective Writers

Steven is out of town, so I (his office manager) am taking over the Ask the Author post for the day. I won't be answering any of your questions, but I do want to direct you to an article that every aspiring (and published) author should read.

One of the best ways to become an effective writer is to learn through other authors' blunders and gaffes. So here's your chance. Click on the link to the Suspense Magazine article Steven was asked to contribute to called "The Seven (Bad) Habits of Highly Effective Writers." I think you'll find it highly enlightening.

(Permission was granted to link to the article by its author, Anthony J. Franze.)

Steven will return to answer more of your questions after he's past the three book deadlines that have chomped at his heels the past two months.

Until then, Happy Writing!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Does every scene have to have conflict? Can you have a scene that simply shows more character development, or simply hints/builds towards things to come later in the story?

These two are interrelated questions and focus on an important question—what is a scene? There are a lot of different theories out there, and words of advice. Here is my take on it.

I believe that in a scene something must be altered. This can be the status of the character; the physical, emotional, or spiritual condition; or the understanding of what is happening.

Some people teach that you can use a scene simply to reveal characterization, but I think those scenes fall flat.

Think of a scene as a mini-story. And what is a story? It’s the introduction of a character who faces a conflict that escalates into a climactic conclusion that provides the audience with a satisfying resolution. All while giving the reader a powerful, emotional experience.

The building blocks of a novel are scenes, and the cement that holds them together are interludes. A scene consists of action—such as you might see on a theater stage. If you can see the actions onstage in the novel, it’s a scene. If you cannot, it’s probably an interlude.

The scenes in a novel are strung together by interludes during which the characters process what just happened and make a decision that leads to the next scene. The reader is invited to join the character as she thinks about what just happened, the emotions that it evoked, and then the new direction for the story. Just remember, in a scene, a person or a situation must be altered. If nothing is changed, it’s an unnecessary scene.

Assignment: The detective chases the villain through the streets but doesn’t catch him. Frustrated, she goes back to her hotel room and while she’s taking off her shoes, she rubs her feet and remembers the chase. While doing so, she realizes that the villain was limping as he ran. That motivates her to drive across town and accuse her friend, who recently sprained his ankle, of the crime. Her friend is angry and shows her that he’s limping on the left leg rather than the right one. He’s so offended that she would accuse him of the terrible crime that he says he never wants to see her again. He slams the door in her face and she returns home, dejected.

Identify the two scenes in the paragraph above.
Identify the interlude.

Also, notice how, in each of the two scenes, the character struggles, fails to get what she ultimately wants (to catch the bad guy), but moves closer to solving the mystery by eliminating possibilities.

So, look at your scene and ask if there is conflict, or just talking heads. Ask if there is an ending that drives the story forward, or one that just falls flat. Ask if something meaningful is altered, and if not, change the scene or delete it (because it is probably not necessary).

Monday, April 8, 2013

I am currently editing my first book...What is your editing process? What do you recommend other writers to do when editing?

Two images come to mind when I think of editing: farming and watching my daughter comb her hair.

First, farming.

When I’m working on a story I often imagine that the first time through a scene I’m breaking up the soil. Sometimes the ground is fertile and it’s easy to churn it up, but more often than not it’s unyielding and I have to really work at it to break up the ground. I’m not trying to get things right, just prepare the path for the story seeds to fall into place. So, I’m not trying to force things into place, just trying to get a sense of what the scene might be about.

Some people write descriptions first, but most of the time for me it ends up being dialogue. I hear it play out in my head; I write what I hear, and then I have to work at it later to fill in the descriptions and the narration so I can see the scene as well as hear it.

Next, hair brushing.

My oldest daughter has long hair. As she’s brushing it, the first time she won’t be able to pull the brush all the way through. Rather, she’ll brush it until she comes to a snag or tangle and then, instead of yanking hard to get it out, she’ll start over at the top, gently brushing through all of the hair until that spot to begin to work out the knots.

Whenever I’m stuck or having a hard time with a scene, I’ll go back and reread the previous part of the story, brushing through it until I come to the snag. Usually I’ll be able to untangle a little bit more of the story.

Then, I start brushing through it again.

And little by little the snags come out.

I’m not sure if it’s true, but I heard that Ernest Hemingway would reread his book through from the first word each morning before he would write another word. I can definitely see the practical wisdom in brushing through the whole story like that to get to the tangles.

Whether you’re breaking up the ground as you work on a scene early in your writing process, or you’re brushing out the tangles as you edit it, trust the process. The farmer trusts that his fields will grow when he cultivates them, my daughter trusts that she’ll be able to smooth out her hair, if she’s patient.

Break up the ground. Untangle the tale. Trust the process. And you’ll be on your way to finishing your story.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I have two stories in the same story world, 3000 years apart. One is done and needs revising (chronologically first), and one has been rewritten several times but I plan to start from scratch this time (story is much more definable and developed). Would you have any immediate suggestions on which to tackle first?

Two issues pop to mind for me: openings and context.

You mention that the two stories are in the same story world; I’m not sure if that means they appear in the same novel, or if you’re talking about two separate books.

In either case, without being familiar with the context of your stories, it’s not possible to decide which one needs your more immediate attention. Remember that stories need escalation of conflict and tension, so, if one of the stories builds up to a more intense climax, that one should come last, chronologically. You always want to save the best for last, the plot must always thicken, never thin.

I’m not sure if Tolstoy actually said this, but there’s a story in writing circles that he once said, “The first thing they read is the last thing you write.” Here’s the point: You’ll only know how a story needs to begin when you know how it ends. If it ends with a person deciding to move from Cincinnati to LA, you know that, at the beginning, this has to be their struggle. So, when you get done, you would go back and recast the beginning so that it is tied in inextricably to the end of the story.

Too many writers spend inordinate amounts of time on their openings, their hooks and so on. They go to “first page critiques” sessions with other writers and bring their work to their local writers groups and keep polishing something that they might not even use in the end. Instead, it’s vital that we work through our stories, flesh them out, see where they lead, and then, once we know where they’re going, head back to the beginning and start them off aiming in that direction.

Whichever story you decide to develop first, let it inform your work on the other story—whether that involves making promises and foreshadowing (if you write the one that comes 3000 years before the other), or if it means fulfilling your promises (if you write the later story first).

Finally, I would suggest that you follow your passion. You might be more excited about one or the other. I’d go with that one. Let that give you momentum and fuel for the long hours of writing you will undoubtedly need.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Novel Writing Intensive Retreat 2013

Many people ask me what to do after they’ve finished a manuscript and think it’s at a point where they can’t improve it any more, but know it’s not quite ready to send to an agent or acquisitions editor. If that’s you, the Novel Writing Intensive Retreat in October might be just what you need. This will be my third time leading this retreat, but this year I’ll be teaching with nationally-known writing instructor and accomplished novelist Robert Dugoni. In addition to detailed individualized manuscript critiques, during the four day intensive, you’ll receive 8 hours of classroom instruction, 10 hours of interactive small group instruction, an extensive handbook on writing, a 100-point novel writing checklist, all meals, lodging, and much more. Visit the website to find out the details and specifics. This event is first-come, first-served, and because of the individual attention, we can only accept ten attendees. I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Since you don't outline, how thoroughly do you plan out your characters and story before you begin the first draft? Do you do much more than superficially edit as you go?

I get a lot of questions about outlining and organic writing. I’m not sure why people are taught to outline as if it is the right way or the only way to write. It’s such an unnatural approach to the creative that I really don’t understand how or why people go that route.

So, to address these two specific questions, I don’t plan out my characters very thoroughly at all. Instead, I put them in interesting situations and see how they respond. Sometimes they’ll surprise me in how they act or demand a bigger part in the story, so I try to be honest and let them be.

This approach is similar to the way that JRR Tolkien wrote. As he noted one time, "A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, but there he came walking through the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir."

Tessa did this to me in The Pawn. At first she was a rather one-dimensional snide teen girl, but the more I wrote about her, the more interesting she became. By the time I started working on The Rook, she had vied for a bigger part in the story and I had to give it to her.

The key is responding to the story as it unfolds, being honest, keeping it believable, letting the characters act and develop naturally, and go where the thread of the story takes you.

As far as the second question about editing, I continually revise and edit as I go along. Typically I will print out several chapters that I’ve been working on, as well as the new ones I’m writing, and read them through to start my day. I will edit them, rewrite them and tweak them as the broader context of the story becomes clearer.

So, allow your characters the opportunity to flex and adapt and grow, adding quirks and inconsistencies, pushing them to the limit to see how they respond, and then letting the story shape them even while they shape the direction of the story.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

When you were first starting out, did you ever have any self-doubt in your writing ability? If you did, how did you deal with it?

I’m not sure if the self-doubts that have lurked around the edges of my consciousness since the very beginning of my career will ever fully disappear. Despite how many books I write, I still approach every project with a trembling hand.
Will it be any good?
Will people like it?
Will I ever actually finish it?
Will it be better than the last one?
Over the years I’ve written more than three dozen books and hundreds of articles, but still I don’t have the confidence in my ability that you’d think would come naturally at this point.
Maybe that’s encouraging to aspiring writers, and maybe it’s disheartening. Depends on how you look at it—on the one hand, the apprehension might never go away, but on the other hand, you won’t be alone in feeling that way.
However, there’s a paradox to all of this. Intermingled in with all that hesitancy there has to be a certain sense of confidence in the process, or we wouldn’t know where to begin each day. And also, there has to be a certain degree of ego.
After all, every writing project is in a certain sense an exercise in egotism. When I write a novel that will take someone ten hours to read, and I encourage that person to buy it, I’m basically telling her that there’s no better way for her to spend ten hours of her all-too-short time on this planet than reading my story. If there was something better, I wouldn’t feel right trying to get her to read my story than to do that other thing.
If that’s not egotism, I’m not sure what is.
The truth is, if you like long hours in solitude, emotional turmoil, constant self-criticism and bouts of heart-wrenching disappointment, you’ll make a good writer. And if you can actually tell an engaging story, you might just make a great one.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Can you share some insight on how best to determine when to stop doing research? How much is enough? It's so fascinating to learn more, I could keep going forever it seems!

Over-researching a novel is common, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. It happened to me when I was writing Placebo.

I was researching quantum mechanics so that I could render that part of the storyline, and finally I realized that I’d read more than enough books, watched more than enough documentaries, and visited more than enough quantum mechanics websites to last a lifetime. I remember stopping in the middle of a book, just shaking my head.

I’d gotten sucked into doing the very thing I’ve warned aspiring novelists not to do. That’s not the only time it’s happened, but it was the most recent and the most jarring.

So, how do we avoid that? When can we tell if we’ve done enough research? Here are three guidelines. Remember:

1. You’re writing a novel and not a research paper. Story matters more than anything. Readers aren’t coming to your book for information, but for entertainment. Resist the urge to show off how much you know—or how familiar you’ve become with Wikipedia. Yes, you’ll want to get the details right, but you don’t have to become an expert on every aspect of your tale—you just have to know the people who are. Brain-picking is not only essential, it’s also fun.

2. Research is an ongoing process that needs to happen while we write our novels, not beforehand. As we write, we will always come up with questions and have to go back to the Internet, the library, or the expert that we dug up somewhere to verify information. Don’t look at research as a separate part of the writing process or as something that precedes it, but rather as something that parallels it.

3. Believability trumps accuracy. In other words, as long as we can come up with a stunning believable scene that even those who are experts in the field would accept, we don’t have to make the events possible, accurate, or well-researched.

I usually visit the location that my novel is set in early in my writing process. Then, when the story has taken shape, I will usually go back to the location again to fact check what I need to in order to nail down the details, the drive times, the sunset and sunrise, and things of that nature.

If you ever start wondering if you’re researching too much, you are. Put all of that aside and get working on your story.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

How much time is the process between the first ideas for a story and writing the first word of the actual novel on paper? How much time do you spend working on the idea before you start writing the book?

For me, the first idea that I have IS the beginning of my writing. Since I’m an organic writer and don’t outline my novels, I’m not sure of any other way to look at it. I believe in pursuing rabbit trails that the ideas take me down. It’s all part of the creative process.

In his book “On Writing” (which I recommend), Stephen King compares writing a story to unearthing an archeological dig. He believes the story is intact and he’s just there to brush it off and uncover it.

This is a helpful illustration for me of the writing process. I find an idea and I brush away at it to see where it might lead, and then I think of something else that might be clearly related or that might be quite different indeed. Then I brush that off to see if they’re connected in some way that hadn’t been apparent at first, or if maybe they lead me into a different direction entirely. Every idea is a doorway to the next.

I’ve been collecting ideas for years and have them in my files on my computer. It’s really not possible to track backward to the genesis of the ideas that I use in my books, but usually writing a novel takes me six months to a year and all that time I’m continually looking back over my ideas to see which ones I can weave into the story.

I have first tier and second tier ideas, character traits and quirks, discarded ideas from previous books, scene descriptions I’ve come up with while I’m sitting in traffic, and so on. At this point in time I probably have hundreds of pages of scrap ideas.

Writing a story is not a straight, step-by-step process. It’s always an interplay of responding to the unfolding narrative, going back and forth from my idea files to the story, and watching how everything merges and reforms itself into the final product. It’s a dance, and I’m just here to help introduce the two partners, and then listen to the music and watch them take it from there.