Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Tome, Extensive Research and a Good Story

By Alex Raley

Big books were the norm in college and graduate school.  I also read such books for pleasure, but as I moved forward in time I found tomes rarely held my attention.

Recently a friend passed on to me a novel of 847 single-spaced pages. How could I tell him that I don’t read tomes? I kept it for six months without opening the cover. Then in January, 2012, I realized that I was 80 years old. To read the book might take the rest of my life. I knew I’d better get on with it.

I found myself buried in a page-turner: Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Why was this book gripping my mind? On the surface, the novel did not appear to be worth 847 pages, but an analysis of how King kept my attention began to turn up some answers:
·        The novel has a theme that is always present, though, its pinnacle is close to the end of the novel.
·        There are several subplots that are interesting in their own way. King weaves them into the overall story and theme.
·        The characters in all the plots are skillfully drawn.
·        Details flow as easily as the dialogue. In fact, most of the story and details are moved forward by dialogue.
·        The novel takes an almost overworked time-space-travel idea and makes it a great tool to address King’s philosophical stance.
·        Yes, King is philosophical here. He poses the question of whether we should tamper with destiny, even if this were possible. He takes his main character back in time-travel several times before he takes a firm philosophical position, which piles on more intrigue for the reader.
·        The work is based on an amazing amount of research. So much research that one has to forgive an occasional mishap. King can afford a research assistant, but he also visited many of the sites himself.
·        11/22/63 has plenty of gory actions to please all King lovers. For those who don’t like gore, the final trip back in time erases most of the blood and guts. You are left with only a memory of the gore.

We have all been surfeited with how-to workshops, but I found that a reading and analysis of King’s novel gave me examples to hang my hat on. This was not someone telling me what to do but my own examination of a successful author’s work. I tried the same examination on the work of a little known author. I easily could see why he is little known.

The next time you are tempted to pay for a how-to seminar, try reading and analyzing the work of a good author. It’s cheaper, and you might even be entertained while you are being informed. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

I've No Idea if There Are Devils in Your Details, But Dollars to Donuts, There Be Money in Your Minutiae!

By Shaun McCoy

If there's one thing I'm not, it's detail oriented. When dealing with my car keys and anniversaries I'm as clueless as a cage fighter in Bed Bath and Beyond. You could even say I hate the small stuff. As a writer, however, I love them details. A good detail makes a scene or character as real as New Jersey. A bad one slows down the story, confuses the reader, and degrades your work. But how can we tell the difference between the good minutiae and the bad?

A Mundane Detail is a Good Detail

I never would have guessed this one on my own. I had to be shown this by superior writers. I once read a scene where a character tossed her car keys onto the counter. The reality of that moment frightened me.  Why did none of my scenes pop into life like that? I told myself that it was because I wrote Science Fiction and Fantasy. Those kind of details just aren't found in my genre, I thought.

I can be dense at times.

The things people do and see every day are the best details. You only really need one, maybe two, to make a scene count. You want me to know something about a surfer? You could tell me about his blond hair, bronzed skin, and glistening muscular torso all day, and it wouldn't mean diddly. But if you tell me what kind of wax he uses on his board, all of a sudden I know the guy. 

This is true no matter what the genre. In fact, the more outlandish the thing you are describing, the more amazingly powerful the minutiae become.

What is a description of the magnificent wings of the dragon when compared with the vibrations of its heartbeats that you can feel through the cave floor? How real is the piercing gaze of the Medusa? Not very. But if you tell me about her mood when her hair molts you'll find you've got my attention. You want a swordsman to come to life? Tell me about what kind of leather grip he puts on his sword. 

How could I best know a golfer? What brand of clubs does he use? Does he have an idiosyncratic preference for a 9 iron in an odd situation? By all means, tell me about the long hair on the guitarist. You almost have to. But tell me also about the color of his favorite pick, or the callous on his thumb as you shake his hand. 

One or two of these mundane hits should be all you need. Our imagination will do the rest.

A Sensory Detail is a Good Detail

Human beings have five senses, don't forget 'em. Very few things come to life like the description of getting smacked across the side of the face with a freshly baked blueberry muffin. If you're reading a scene, and you find that it's too abstract, pick a sense that you missed and throw it in there. You may be amazed by what comes out.

A Detail that Meets Expectations is a Good Detail

When wandering about the universe in which we inhabit, we have become accustomed to being able to gather certain information. If this information is lacking, the realism of the scene suffers. I for one, couldn't give two durns about whether the main character's dog is a Border Collie or a Pit Bull, Labrador mix. I'm not a dog person. But a ton of people are, so you bet your buttons that if I have to mention a dog in a story I call up a friend of mine to ask what breed of dog they own.

I've run into this problem in my current project with guns. In addition to guns, cars, bicycles and musical instruments also need extra exposition. If the thing has a cult following, you better make sure you give it its due.


Minutiae are wonderful for your story, but they can also weigh your narrative down into the dark bog of the non-published. They're kind of like salt. A little makes a bland meal lovely. A lot gives you high blood pressure. Flavor as appropriate!

Now where did I leave my car keys…???

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Quotations on Writing

By Bonnie Stanard
I was skimming though Kim Byer’s website ( and read about her fascination with quotes. I love quotes too. Two often quoted writers I admire are Winston Churchill and Will Rogers. Who do you think is the most quoted writer of English? (Hint, Ralph Fiennes just made a movie based on one of his plays.) What is the most quoted book? (Hint, it was originally written in Hebrew and Greek.)

My favorite quote about writing is “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne) It has taken a while, but I now understand what professional writers have been telling me for years. Getting a story written is the first step, a beginning. And if you’re like me, the first draft is less than a fourth of the effort you’ll make to get to what you think is a finished product.

I love this quote from Mark Twain, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” In other words, as a first step, get to know your story’s background backward and forward. This goes to authenticity, or securing the reader’s trust. If we get the foundation right, we can convince the reader to believe in us as tellers of the truth. Then we can lie and they will suspend disbelief.

“In this art form, in any art form, generalities are useless.” (Zubin Mehta). This brings to mind a comment you’ve probably heard, and maybe it’s in some book of quotes: a million deaths is a statistic but the death of one person is a tragedy. This may be one reason it’s often said that historians don’t make good writers of historical fiction. Most of them know and are interested in the big picture, the grand designs of history that impact the past and the present. But the heart responds to the individual, regardless of the movements sweeping them along in history.

I get a kick out of this quote by W Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Agents, editors, and publishers enhance their livelihoods telling writers and prospective writers the rules of the business. In the end, books are published every day that defy all the rules. I’m reading Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, and I can report that it conforms to almost none of the rules of writing…weak character development, scattershot plot, unconventional punctuation.

This often quoted advice by E.L. Doctorow to writers is worth repeating: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Some writers prepare an outline of the entire story before beginning, but that’s something I can’t or won’t do. There’s another quote that says that we write to find out what we think. In fiction, I write to find out what my characters think. I write to find out what they will do next.

Finally, from an anonymous writer—“If you wait for inspiration, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” This may be true, but some of us have periods when we’re “waiters.” I like to think I’m gathering energy for the next writing storm.