Thursday, February 28, 2013

Writing And The Monomyth

Writing And The Monomyth

Let's get back to talking about writing, the butt-in-chair stuff.


The Monomyth


Just as all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, all plots are variations of the monomyth. Perhaps, in writing circles, the best known version of the myth is the one popularized by Christopher Vogler in his wonderful book, The Writer's Journey.

I believe that every writer has internalized his or her own particular version of the monomyth. This is the structure that organizes our stories.

Each of our individual monoymths is going to be different because each writer is unique. We each have a different perspective on life and the world and this is going to show itself in our work.

What follows is my version of the monomyth. This version is no better than anyone else's (and hopefully no worse!) and I present it here more as an exercise for myself to make my implicit understanding of story structure explicit. If something I write resonates with you then I invite you to use it and if something doesn't then ignore it, it's not for you.


The Stages of the Monomyth


1. The ordinary world


Here we see the hero (the hero can be a male or female) in the ordinary world. This is the life he is used to. For instance, at the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope we see Luke working on his Uncle's farm.

SHOW the hero in the ordinary world. Take this as an opportunity to show what the hero is good at. What is he comfortable with? What is he terrible at? What are his hopes and dreams?

2. Call to adventure


A force crashes into the heroes ordinary world. Something happens, something changes. Perhaps a herald/messenger comes with news that the hero's great uncle has passed away and left him a mansion. Perhaps a malfunctioning droid shows him pictures of a pretty girl pleading for help.

3. Refusal of the call


The hero doesn't always refuse the call to adventure, but at the very least he has to consider what answering the call would mean. What would he have to give up? What might he gain?

4. Meeting the mentor


If the hero refuses the call to adventure the mentor can help spell out the stakes for him and motivate him to explore the strange new world that awaaits those few brave enough to attempt the journey. Even if the hero is eager to be off, the mentor can provide him with advice, or perhaps equipment, or--if it's a fantasy--a magical charm or three.

Often the mentor travels with the hero as a helper. Nearly always the mentor dies or leaves the party before the climax of the story, leaving the hero on his own to meet the final test alone.

Think of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid or Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope. The mentor knows more about the special world where the adventure will take place (e.g., the world beyond Luke's home planet of Tatooine; knowledge of The Force).

5. Entering the special world 


Before the hero leaves the ordinary world he often has to pass a test given by a threshold guardian. He doesn't quite pass the test, or he does but he makes the guardian angry, and is tossed into the belly of a whale, or trash compactor, or otherwise left for dead.

In any case, something happens to the hero such that he is swallowed into the unknown and begins--perhaps grudgingly--to adapt to the ways of the special world.

The special world is the land of adventure. There are different rules here, different social norms, different dangers. What the hero was good at he is no longer and what the hero couldn't do before now becomes possible.

After entering the special world the hero goes through a period of adjustment. Think about Luke when he goes into the Mos Eisley Cantina with Obi Wan Kenobi and the wonderful strangeness of the customers, the setting.

Have you ever used the monomyth to help structure your stories? Is there another structure you use? If so, please share!
Update: The discussion of the monomyth is continued here: Writing And The Monomyth, Part 2.

Other articles you might like:

- Steven Pressfield Gives Writers A Pep Talk In A "Get Off Your Duff And Start Writing!" Kind Of Way
- Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story
- Podcasting on the iPad

Photo credit: "let's type" by |vvaldzen| under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Steven Pressfield Gives Writers A Pep Talk In A "Get Off Your Duff And Start Writing!" Kind Of Way

Steven Pressfield Gives A Pep Talk In A "Get Off Your Duff And Start Writing!" Kind Of Way

It seems this is the time for pep talks. I shared Kid President's yesterday, so I wasn't sure if I should share another right after it, but the truth is I have to, it's just too good.

Besides, it's not like we can have too many pep talks, right?


How The Eagles Learnt To Write A Song


With seven number-one singles, six Grammys five American Music Awards and six number one albums to their name, it's safe to say the Eagles knew how to write a song, but this wasn't always the case. (Eagles (band), Wikipedia)

Steven Pressfield writes:
Glenn Frey was telling the story. He was talking about the early 70s in L.A., before the Eagles were even a band, or maybe just after they had gotten started. He and Don Henley were playing gigs (they had backed up Linda Ronstadt for a while) but they were not writing their own material. They were covering other musicians’ songs. They knew they had to start writing their own—and they wanted to desperately—but they couldn’t figure out how.
.  .  .  .
It turned out that they were living in a little cheap apartment in Echo Park directly above an even littler, cheaper apartment that was being rented by Jackson Browne. Jackson Browne was at the very start of his career too. He was starving just like Glenn and Don.

Glenn Frey, telling the story, says something like this:
“Every morning we’d wake up and we’d hear Jackson’s piano coming through the floor from the apartment below. He would play one verse, then play it again, and again and again. Twenty times in a row, till he had it exactly the way he wanted.

“Then he’d move to the next verse. Again, twenty times. It went on for hours. I don’t know how many days we listened to this same process before it suddenly hit us: This is how you write a song. This is how it’s done.

“That changed everything for us.”
Steven Pressfield writes:
I love that story. I love the demystification of the process. Yeah, the Muse is present. Yes, inspiration is key. But the ethic is workaday. It’s sit down, shut up, do what you have to.
.  .  .  .
I can relate completely to what Glenn Frey said ... I can hear the notes from that piano coming up through the floorboards. “Jeez Louise, what is that guy doing down there? Stop, man! Take a break!”

Then, slowly maybe, or maybe in a flash, the light dawns. “This is how you do it. This is how you write a song.”
All quotations are from Steven Pressfield's article: Jackson Browne’s Piano coming through the Floor.

Here's the link to Steven Pressfield's blog, it's one of my favorites because I love reading an industry professional write about his experiences.
What do you do to get yourself to sit down, unplug from your social networks, hide the TV remote, and write?

Other articles you might like:

- A Pep Talk
- How To Edit: Kill Your Darlings
- Chuck Wendig Says That Editing Is Writing

Photo credit: "The Entrance" by nattu under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Pep Talk


Everyone needs a pep talk, even writers.

Whether it's writing a book or sending off a short story for a contest, or writing for a genre you love but have never written for. Don't just think about it, do it! Stretch yourself.

Find a dream worth pursuing and then never, ever, give up.

Here's a pep talk that's gone viral on YouTube. Enjoy!




Thanks to Larry Brooks at StoryFix.com for posting this link.

Other articles you might like:

- How To Edit: Kill Your Darlings
- 6 Ways To Get Rid Of Infodumps At The Beginning Of A Story
- Write A Novel In A Year, Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350

Photo credit: "little dog in tuscany 2" by francesco sgroi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

How To Edit: Kill Your Darlings


When I started writing this post I fully intended to discuss Chuck Wendig's distinction between writing and storytelling and how to use this distinction to help diagnose problems in your manuscript. But then I fell down the rabbit hole of layer cakes and editordomes.

That's right. Editordomes.

In a soon-to-be-written post I do fully intend to talk about writing versus storytelling--a distinction I've wanted to talk about for some time--but for now I'm going to talk (or, rather, write) about how to identify darlings and then massacre them.


Kill Your Darlings


What is a darling? It's something that exists in your manuscript only because you love it. Or, to put it another way, if something is in your manuscript, your story, only because you love it then it's a darling and needs to go. (1)

Simply put, a darling "doesn't connect. It doesn't bond with the rest of the manuscript." (1)
A true “darling” is a lone wolf, a ronin ninja, a pretty little unibomber, a delicate snowflake. It does nothing for your work. It dances alone with itself in the corner, and you don’t have the heart to tell it that it needs to join the rest of the crowd or drink a capful of drain cleaner. (1)
Okay, that's how a darling functions, or fails to function, in your manuscript, but what is it? Chuck writes: "Darlings can be anything: a turn-of-phrase, a character, a word, a grammatical crutch (1)".

The test: how to determine if something is a darling


Here's the question you should ask yourself: If you cut out this bit of text does the story loose anything? Chuck writes:
Theatrically kill it. ... You’re just… taking it out of the draft for a little while to see how it reads, how it feels, how it lays. Copy the offending section. Paste it into a blank document. Let it sit there on its own ... Come back after fifteen minutes (or, up to a whole day if you’re able). Now, check out the draft once more. Re-read it. Read it aloud. (Always read aloud. I will jackhammer that into your brain as often as I can.) Do you feel that it lays fine the way it is? Or do you say, “Y’know what? This is missing a little something-something. Needs more salt and pepper.”

If it’s okay without it — and I’ll bet 7 times out of 10 it will be — then the darling you’ve sequestered on its own is no longer on vacation, but now trapped in a Murder Room. Close that open window and let it die a swift death.

If you think it needs more spice, more flavor, put it back in. “Kill your darlings” is not meant to be a surly screed against flavor. Flavor is good, as long as flavor accompanies nutritional value. Again, to go back to the empty calories metaphor: darlings are garnish for the sake of garnish, or sweets just because you want sweets. (1)

Weak Words: An Example Of A Darling That Has To Go


In Strangling My Darlings In A Clawfoot Bathtub (Part Two Of Two) Chuck gives examples of darlings. It's well worth the read, but I want to talk about one of his examples here because this is something I still battle with: the use of weak words or as Chuck writes: "mushy, weak, wobbly words".
Maybe, actually, really, almost, sort of, kind of, very, theoretically, mehh, meeeehhhhhh.

You want your writing to sound conversational.

But you don’t want it to sound like uncertain conversation. You don’t want it weak-in-the-knees. (2)
That doesn't mean weak words always make your prose boring, in fact you might think they lend it flair. Chuck concedes this, to a point.
They’re not terrible in total, and some can lend to a stylistic flair, but it’s often too easy to default to that as your excuse. “My writing doesn’t suck. It’s just my style.”

Well, fine. Then your style involves copious amounts of sucking. (2)

How We Can Drown Darlings Without Drama


Be in the right state of mind


You need to let your manuscript go. Yes, you have invested a lot of yourself in its pages, into the story, but now it's time to let it go, to disassociate yourself from it. It is not you. Keep saying that until you believe it.

I love the way Chuck puts this: "You are not the sum of those pages." (1)

How does one distance oneself from ones litterary offspring? Put your manuscript in a drawer, close the drawer and walk away. Chuck advises taking at least a month off, Stephen King recommends six weeks. Don't even open the drawer. Forget about the manuscript. Wipe it from your mind as much as possible. You want to come back to it with new eyes and edit it as though it were someone else's work. That's the kind of objectivity you'll need.


Read Everything Aloud


I don't do this but I know I should ... and now that I've read Chuck's posts I think I will. He writes:
You do that [read aloud], you will hear all the fits and starts, all the awkward language, all the broken pauses, all the disturbed rhythms. Typing is not like speaking — we have the extra step of having our fingers do their little fingery dance. As such, you need to bridge that gap. (3)
Have you ever read your manuscript aloud? Have you ever had your manuscript read to you?

References:

1. Strangling My Darlings In A Clawfoot Bathtub (Part One Of Two)
2. Strangling My Darlings In A Clawfoot Bathtub (Part Two Of Two)
3. Welcome To Editordome

Other articles you might like:

- Chuck Wendig Says That Editing Is Writing
- Looking At Plot: Urban Myths And What They Teach Us
- Monsignor Ronald Knox's 10 Rules Of Detective Fiction

Photo credit: "A peticiĆ³n de Fran." by www dot jordiarmengol dot net (Xip) under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chuck Wendig Says That Editing Is Writing


My title comes from Chuck Wendig's latest post. He writes:
Let’s get something out of the way:

Editing is writing.
This--his way of drilling down to the core of relevant writing issues--is one reason I've been increasingly eager to read Chuck Wendig's posts.

Believe it or not, there is some disagreement about the point. Some reasonable, smart, experienced, articulate writers would insist that, to the contrary, editing is most emphatically NOT writing.


The Problem With Saying Editing Is Not Writing


For me, here's the problem with denying that editing is writing: I'm a writer, but I spend most of my time editing because I write fast drafts.

Here's how I write a first draft: for two or three (glorious!) weeks I'll say goodbye to the collective illusion we call the real world and climb through a rabbit hole--or slink into a closet, or creep inside (what looks like) a phone booth, or ...--into a world it's up to me to create.

This is the part of writing I can't wait to get to. Writing a fast draft helps me stretch my creative muscles in a way I rarely get to otherwise. Of course, by the end, I can't wait to get to the editing!

The upshot is that I spend the overwhelming majority of my time editing that first draft (and editing, and editing, and ...).

Yes, I insert new scenes here and there, and I cut others, but I think of that as editing not writing. I can't say, "I'll write at least 1,000 words today" because I write as much as I need to and it varies day to day.

But perhaps that's wrong. Perhaps editing is writing and writing is editing.

Chuck Wending writes:
At the end of the day, the actual execution of your editing process is writing. It’s you doing surgery and excising all the unsightly tumors from your work and filling in the gurgling wounds with better material: healthy flesh, new organs ... Sometimes it’s as simple as killing commas and adding periods. Other times it’s as complicated as dynamiting the blubbery beached whale that is your entire third act, picking up all the viscera, and filling in the hole with clean, pristine sand. Sometimes it’s a leeeetle-teeny-toonsy bit of writing. Sometimes it’s a thousand rust-pitted cauldrons of writing.

Writing is editing. Editing is writing.

Writing is rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.
I would encourage you to read the rest of Chuck Wendig's article, though I should note it contains mature language.

By the way, all quotations are from Chuck Wendig's post February 26, 2013 post unless otherwise noted.

What do you think? Is editing writing?

Other articles you might like:

- Looking At Plot: Urban Myths And What They Teach Us
- Write A Novel In A Year, Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350
- The Importance Of Finding Your Own Voice

Photo credit: "la nebbia di settembre" by francesco sgroi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Looking At Plot: Urban Myths And What They Teach Us

Looking At Plot: Urban Myths And What They Teach Us

A few days ago I wrote about Ronald B Tobias' book 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. The book is terrific. Tobias writes about something I've been interested in for years: Urban myths.


Urban Mythology


How do urban myths form? They have no author. Or they do, but not just one. They have many authors, many different people who--unconsciously, unintentionally--weave a story which is so catchy, so interesting, it spreads through the population lasting generation after generation. No publicist is needed, no marketing, no sales on Amazon.

How is this done? What makes these stories so interesting, so catchy, that they are told and retold for generations?

That's what I'd like to talk about today.


The Choking Doberman


First, let's look at an example of an urban myth:
A woman returned to her house after a morning of shopping and found her pet Doberman pinscher choking and unable to breathe. She rushed her dog to the vet, where she left it for emergency treatment.

When the woman got home, her phone was ringing. It was the vet. "Get out of your house now!" he shouted.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"Just do it! Go to a neighbor's. I'll be right there."

Frightened by the tone of his voice, the woman did as she was told and went to her neighbor's.

A few minutes later, four police cars screeched to a halt in front of her house. The police ran inside her house with their guns drawn. Horrified, the woman went outside to see what was happening.

The vet arrived and explained. When he looked inside her dog's throat, he found two human fingers!

He figured the dog had surprised a burglar.

Sure enough, the police found a man in a deep state of shock hiding in the closet and clutching a bloody hand. (20 Master Plots and How to Build Them)
What's interesting to me about this story is that it has no author. At least, not as I usually think of it. This story is an urban legend, it's a piece of fiction created by several authors who unintentionally added to it over time.

Why did this story spread? What characteristics does it have that make it engaging? Ronald B. Tobias writes:
The real value of this legend is that it evolved with constant retelling until it became plot perfect, the same process that perfected the fable, the fairy tale, the riddle, the rhyme and the proverb. The story went through thousands of oral rewrites until it could evolve no further.
What characteristics does this story--and, in fact, any urban legend--have that make people want to tell, and retell, it?

On one level the answer is easy: it's entertaining. But what qualities make it entertaining? When we find out we can use those answers to help structure our own fiction.


The Structure Of The Choking Doberman


There are three parts to The Choking Doberman. Above, I've changed the font in the first part to green, the second to red and the third is in black.

First part:
- Hook: the woman's doberman is choking. It raises the question: What is the dog choking on?

Second part:
- Startling complication: the vet calls and tells the woman to get out of her house immediately, but doesn't explain why.

Third part:
- Scary climax: A bleeding intruder is found in the dog-owner's home.

Protagonist: A woman
Antagonist: A burglar

As Tobias writes: "What happens in "The Choking Doberman" is not that different from what happens in the novels of Agatha Christie or P.D. James. It's only a matter of degree."


The Plot Of The Story: Riddle Me This


What is the plot of The Choking Doberman? What is it about?

Yes, it's about a dog, and it's about terror, but those aren't the plot. The plot of the story, it's essential underlying structure, is that of a riddle.

Tobias writes:
The point of a riddle is to solve a puzzle. It comes from the same tradition as Oedipus, who must solve the riddle presented to him by the Sphinx, and the same tradition of Hercules, who had the unenviable task of having to solve twelve tasks, the famous labors, each of which was a riddle to be solved. Fairy tales are chock full of riddles to be solved—children delight in them. So do adults. The riddle is the basis of the mystery, which to this day is arguably the most popular form of literature in the world. Today we think of a riddle as a simple question that has a trick 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them) answer. "What has . . . and... ?" But a riddle really is any mystifying, misleading or puzzling question that is posed as a problem to be solved or guessed. And that fits "The Choking Doberman."
The story gives the reader two clues, one in the first part, one in the second, and the solution in the third. These clues can be phrased as three questions:

1) The dog is choking on something. WHAT is he choking on?
2) The vet tells the woman to flee her home. WHY did he tell her this?
3) WHO is to blame?

In this case, the WHO (in the third part or 'act') is the answer to both the 'what' and the 'why' questions, and that's just how a riddle works.


Story Without Plot: The King And The Queen


I know I used this example in an earlier article about plot, but I'm using it again because it's just so good! Tobias writes:
Novelist E.M. Forster spent a lot of time thinking about writing. He tried to explain the difference between story and plot in his book Aspects of the Novel. "The king died and the queen died." Two events. A simple narration. This is story.

But if you connect the first movement (the death of the king) with the second movement (the death of the queen) and make one action the result of the other, we would have a plot. "The king died and then the queen died of grief"
Here's the main difference between The Choking Doberman and The King And Queen: The story about the Doberman "arouses and directs our expectations," but "the king died and the queen died" does not.

Why is this?


The Essence Of Plot


"The king died and then the queen died" does not direct our expectations because the events of the story don't have the right kind of causal connection to each other. The death of the king and the death of the queen are disconnected. The problem is that "there are no clues, no connections, no apparent causal relationships" between the two events.

Tobias writes:
Story requires only curiosity to know what will happen next. Plot requires the ability to remember what has already happened, to figure out the relationships between events and people, and to try to project the outcome.

One More Thing: Chekhov's Gun


Just like with Lieutenant Columbo there is always one more thing. Ronald B Tobias goes on to talk about how, in addition to the events of the story being related to each other causally such that one explains or builds on the other, the ending of the story must leave no legitimate room for questioning. He writes:
We prefer order to disorder in fiction. We prefer logic to chaos. Most of all, we prefer unity of purpose, which creates a whole. Wouldn't life be great if it contained nothing extraneous or coincidental, if everything that happened to us related to a main purpose?
This is related to Chekhov's famous gun example:
Chekhov's gun is a metaphor for a dramatic principle concerning simplicity and foreshadowing. It suggests that if one shows a loaded gun on stage in the first act of a play, it should be fired in a later act; otherwise, the gun should not be shown in the first place. The principle was articulated by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and reported in various forms. (Chekhov's Gun, Wikipedia)

To Sum Up


Here are our three principles of plot:

1. Why, What --> Who


Mystery stories are like riddles, but one thing all stories have in common is that we must attempt to establish cause and effect links between the events of the story, and the ending--while it might contain something surprising--must flow from these naturally. (No one said writing was easy!)

2. The end of the story must leave no legitimate room for questioning.


If we take the principle behind Chekhov's Gun to heart, this will be the case.

3. Unity


You're right, there were only two points, but just as in the story of The Choking Doberman, the who emerged from the why and the what so the third point--that one's story must form a unity--emerges from the first two.

Life often doesn't make sense, life is chaotic, but our stories must present an ordered universe where one thing happens because of another and the end of the story concludes the events in a satisfying (though perhaps tragic) way.

(A caveat: I should note that, here, I'm concerned with genre fiction, sometimes called category fiction. For instance, if--at the end of a romance story--the lovers never make any sort of connection, if their fates are completely disconnected to any of the preceding events, I guarantee you the author is going to have more than a few disgruntled readers. Readers of mainstream fiction may have other expectations.)

I mentioned this, above, but this material has been drawn from Ronald B Tobias' excellent book, 20 Master Plots And How To Build Them.

Do you have a favorite urban myth? If so, please share!

Other articles you might like:

- Monsignor Ronald Knox's 10 Rules Of Detective Fiction
- Joe Konrath Talks About How To Sell Books On Amazon
- Exposing The Bestseller: Money Can Buy Fame

Photo credit: "katie melua:if the lights go out" by visualpanic under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Monsignor Ronald Knox's 10 Rules Of Detective Fiction


I love murder mysteries.

You'd think I'd have written a murder mystery by now given they are half of what I read, but I haven't. I've tried, but my stories are stubborn and insist on being urban fantasy.

Often, perhaps to convince my muse to let me write a mystery story, I've analyzed one of Agatha Christie's who-done-it's in an attempt to expose her magic, her formula, her secret.

So far, bupkis.


Monsignor Ronald Knox's 10 Rules Of Detective Fiction


Perhaps I should try again, but, in lieu of that, here is a list of Monsignor Ronald Knox's (1888 -- 1957) 10 rules of detective fiction:
1) The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow;

2) All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course;

3) Not more than one secret room or passage is allowed;

4) No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end;

5) No [stereotype] ... must figure in the story;

6) No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right;

7) The detective must not himself commit the crime;

8) The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader;

9) The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader;

10) Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. (How crime fiction has moved on, Rebecca Armstrong, The Independent)
Ronald Knox's list is currently displayed at "the entrance to the Murder in the Library, a compact new exhibition that charts the A-Z of crime fiction at the British Library" (How crime fiction has moved on).

Crime stories have changed over the years. These days, while it's still important the reader be able to solve the underlying puzzle of "who did the crime" we also expect authors to employ psychology in unmasking the culprit. Rebecca Armstrong writes:
The final word goes to Baroness James of Holland Park herself. In her elegant 2009 work Talking about Detective Fiction, she writes that "the solving of the mystery is still at the heart of a detective story," but that, like all forms of entertainment, it has, as it must, evolved. "I see the detective story becoming more firmly rooted in the realities and the uncertainties of the 21st century, while still providing that central certainty that even the most intractable problems will in the end be subject to reason." Fewer secret rooms, then, and a lot more psychology are the hallmarks of the modern whodunit. (How crime fiction has moved on)
Rebecca Armstrong has written an entertaining and instructive article, it's well with a look.

Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for the link.

Other articles you might like:

- How to record an audiobook at home
- The Importance Of Finding Your Own Voice
- Write A Novel In A Year, Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350

Photo credit: "Touch to believe" by Jsome1 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Joe Konrath Talks About How To Sell Books On Amazon


Joe Konrath has been trying numerous strategies to increase his sales--including reducing the price for Whiskey Sour, the first book in his Jack Daniel's series, to 99 cents. He also made Shot of Tequila free until the 25th.

Here are his results, so far:


Free Books Sell Books


Joe has found that free books sell books. He writes:

A few days ago, when I had three freebies, I was selling 1000 ebooks a day. Since coming off the freebie period, sales have slowed to 600 a day. I find that interesting, considering I'm now selling three more titles. (Ann Voss Peterson's Big Regret)
So making three of his books free increased his other book sales during the sale period. That's interesting. Several other authors have said the same thing.


An Update From Melinda DuChamp


Late last year I blogged about Melinda's foray into erotic writing and her initial success (she made $15,000 in 20 days). Since then I've often wondered how well her books have been doing. Joe Konrath asked her for an update and Melinda was happy to oblige. Joe writes:
Melinda: ". . . The two ebooks have made me over $65k in seven months. I'm working on a third, then I'm going to follow your lead and make a trilogy boxed set and a paper version via Createspace. Considering how quickly I wrote these books, this is the highest paid I've ever been as a writer per hour, even with traditional paper sales in the millions under my other names."
Wow.


Is Self-Publishing More Lucrative Than Writing For Harlequin? Anne Voss Says: Heck Ya!


Readers of Joe's Konrath's blog will remember Ann Voss Peterson's post, Harlequin Fail, where she talked about her decision to stop writing for Harlequin and start writing and publishing for herself. Here's what she has to say about her decision:
[A]fter nine months, do I regret my decision?

Let me share some numbers:

Last May 8 through 12 using KDP Select, I gave away 75,420 copies of Pushed Too Far.

In May and June, I sold 11,564 copies, netting me $22,316.30.

I also had 874 borrows during this time for another $1902.30.

So in a bit over six weeks, Pushed Too Far earned $24,218.60 and was downloaded onto 87,858 e-readers. My highest earning Harlequin Intrigue earned me $21,942.16 in the last twelve years.

Verdict: In less than two months, Pushed Too Far became my highest earning book. EVER.

As Joe has said many times, sales ebb and flow, and PTF has been no different. But for May through December of 2012, this one book (Pushed Too Far) has had a grand total of 15,257 (paid) sales and borrows, netting me around $31,179.03.

Of course there's no guarantee. I've known authors who have done better. I've known authors who've done worse. But the question is, do I regret my decision to self-publish?

Are you kidding?

I regret I didn't do it sooner.
Well, there you have it! If you're writing for Harlequin, think about writing and publishing a book yourself and see how it goes. You might do better on your own.

What is the best way you've found to market your books?

Other articles you might like:

- Exposing The Bestseller: Money Can Buy Fame
- The Importance Of Finding Your Own Voice
- Write A Novel In A Year, Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350

Photo credit: "182/365 Sparkle (+2)" by martinak15 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Exposing The Bestseller: Money Can Buy Fame

Exposing The Bestseller: Money Can Buy Fame

Yes, money can buy fame. In this case, a lot of money.


The Price Of Fame


ResultSource is a company that, for about $50,000 will guarantee your book, however briefly, will make it onto the bestseller lists.

For instance, take the enterprising Soren Kaplan.
Mr. Kaplan purchased about 2,500 books through ResultSource, paying about $22 a book, including shipping, for a total of about $55,000. (The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, The Wall Street Journal)
In return, ResultSource made sure Mr. Kaplan's book, Leapfrogging, sold 3,000 copies in its first week pushing it into the number three position on "the Journal's hardcover business best-seller list". In addition, "it hit No. 1 on BarnesandNoble.com on Aug. 7".

It's amazing what money can buy.

There is a trick, though.  Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg writes:
To make a business-book best-seller list, a title doesn't need to sell as many copies as in other, bigger categories, like general fiction and nonfiction.

A title that sells 3,000 copies in a week, for example, might hit the Journal's business list, confirmed Nielsen BookScan. (The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike)

But Mom! Everyone's Doing it!


Here's what Soren Kaplan has to say about his decision to game the system:
I ... was introduced to someone who had just left her role as an executive at Harvard Business School Publishing. She was the first to mention “bestseller campaigns” to me. According to her, “everyone” was doing it, especially for non-fiction business books like mine.

I also spoke to two of my professional heroes, gurus in the field of management and both regular staples on the Thinkers 50 – the who’s who list of the world’s leading business thought leaders. Both of them told me that if they hadn’t used bestseller campaigns for their own books, they wouldn’t have hit the bestseller lists. “Guruship,” they told me, came from playing the game in a way that reinforced their personal brands as thought leaders. Ponying up the dough for the bestseller campaign was a small investment that would pay off later in speaking fees and consulting contracts. (Debunking the Bestseller)
Soren Kaplan was told that "Three thousand books sold would get me on The Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Eleven thousand would secure a spot on the biggest prize of them all, The New York Times list."

11,000 books at $22 a pop is a far cry from 30 pieces of silver, but it feels the same.

Do you think buying ones way onto the bestseller lists is a common practice?

Other articles you might like:

- The Importance Of Finding Your Own Voice
- Write A Novel In A Year, Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350
- Plot, Story and Tension

Photo credit: "Viv does XPRO Fujichrome (tungsten) T64" by kevin dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Importance Of Finding Your Own Voice

The Importance Of Finding Your Own Voice
Kris Rusch has written another awesome, inspirational, post: Out! All of You!

It was just what I needed. Over the past few days I've been getting back into the habit of writing after taking a break for my shoulder to heal and it's been tough.


Ignoring Your Inner Critic


Whenever I sat down to write all sorts of jabbering voices rose up like mushrooms after a rain, each telling me I was writing crap, that I would always write crap, that my crap was so crappy no one would read it.

Of course we have to care what other folks think about our work. After all, we need to pay the rent and eat occasionally. But it's easy to forget that the person we are writing for, first and foremost, is ourselves.

This isn't self-indulgence, it isn't ego. As writers, as creative beings, we need to stretch our creative muscles, we need to grow and continually develop our unique voice.

How do we do this? We write what our souls call us to write, regardless of what anyone else will think about it, regardless of whether anyone else believes what we're doing is valuable, or good, or even remotely sane!


Finding Your Own Creative Voice


In Out! All of you! Kris Rusch writes about finding your creative voice. She says that to have a long-term career, you need to learn to roll with the punches AND "you need to believe in yourself with a fierce passion. You need to know that your vision is the correct vision for you, and then you need to defend it."


Sally Field Fought For Her Creative Voice


Kris Rusch took the title of her piece--Out! All of you!--from a story Sally Field told in this short (4 min) video clip (starts around 2:45) during her interview on Nightline. It's an excellent video and Sally Field is wonderfully charismatic, it's well worth watching.

The point is that Sally Field believed enough in herself, in her artistic voice, to ignore the advice of her agents, her business manager and her husband and go her own way. And it paid off. She was right about herself. She succeeded.

Kris writes:
What disturbs me every teaching season is the way that writers wait for someone to tell them what box they fit in or what box they should go to. Every year, writers tell at least one of us that we need to give them better instructions. If we give better instructions, the writers insist, then they can write what we want them to write, so that we’ll be happy with them.

These writers entirely miss the point. The point isn’t for us to be happy, but for those writers to find their own voice. Sometimes they’ll fail an assignment and have to do it all over again from scratch. Oh, well. All that means is that they have to invest more time into their craft.

But for a certain type of writer, it means that they have screwed up completely, that they’ll never succeed, that they didn’t receive the help they needed to mold themselves into something someone else wanted.

We can’t help those writers. We try not to teach them, because we teach writers to stand on their own, defend their own vision, and become who they want to be, not who they’re told to be. It’s a tougher road to walk, because it means that there’s no one to blame when things go wrong.

Write For Yourself As Well As Others


Yesterday I wrote a 1,600 word short story in about 4 hours. For me that's good. I'll have to do another pass or two but I'm proud of it.

But I'll never, ever, publish it.

Why? Because it has to do with my father's death. It provided we with a way to say goodbye to him and to explore various issues that lingered, like ghosts, after his passing. (I did this as an unofficial response to Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenge: Write What You Know.)

I wrote for myself, and I learnt something about myself and my writing. It gave me new energy, it invigorated me.

Rather than ask a question today I want to issue my own challenge:


Writing Challenge: Find Your Own Voice


1. Write something for yourself. 


Perhaps, down the road, you'll publish what you've written, but don't write with that in mind. Write something for you. If it will help, here is something Chuck Wendig wrote for his Write What You Know flash fiction challenge:
I want you to grab an event from your life. Then I want you to write about it through a fictional, genre interpretation — changing the event from your life to suit the story you’re telling. So, maybe you write about your first hunting trip between father-and-son, but you reinterpret that as a king taking his youngest out to hunt dragons. Or, you take events from your Prom (“I caught my boyfriend cheating on me in the science lab”) and spin it so that the event happens at the same time a slasher killer is making literal mincemeat of the Prom King and Queen. (Write What You Know)

2. Keep it short, 1,000 words or less


The second part of this challenge is to make it a short piece of 1,000 words or less. (Don't worry if you can't keep it to 1,000 words. I shot for 1,000 words and ended up with 1,600, but that was the shortest story I've written for years and was thrilled.)

Try to finish your piece on or before March 2. If you want to share it, post it on your website or blog and leave the link in a comment, below. If it's too personal to share, I'd still love to hear about your writing experience. :-)

Other articles you might like:

- Write A Novel In A Year, Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350
- Plot, Story and Tension
- Patricia Cornwell Vindicated In Court, Wins 50.9 Million Dollars

Photo credit: "To Beseech Thee" by The Wandering Angel under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Write A Novel In A Year, Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350


Yesterday’s gone the way of the dodo. You have one day, and it is today.
- Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig has written another terrific article, this time about how to write a novel in a year.


Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350


This is a simple plan. There are only two rules:

1. Write 5 days out of the week.

2. On each day you write, complete 350 words.

That's it. If you do this you'll have 91,000 words by the end of the year. Chuck writes:
The goal is not to write a masterpiece. ... The goal is to finish a novel despite a life that seems hell-bent to let you do no such thing. It is you snatching snippets of word count from the air and smooshing them together until they form a cohesive (if not coherent) whole. It assumes a “slow and steady wins the race” approach to this book.
Chuck Wendig suggests using a spreadsheet to keep track of your progress:
Make a spreadsheet if you have to. Track your 350 words per day (you’ll probably end up writing more than that consistently and hitting your tally quicker, particularly with a spreadsheet to remind you — you will discover it’s actually hard to stop at 350 words).
I'll leave you with these words of inspiration from Chuck:
You can sneeze 350 words. It’s like a word appetizer every day. Some days it’ll take you 15 minutes, other days two hours — but you’re going to commit to those 350 words every day, whether you type them out, or scrawl them in a notebook, or chisel them into the wall of your prison cell. You will carve these words out of the time you are given.

You get 24 hours a day. As do I. As do we all.

Grab a little time to write a little bit every day.
Here is a graphic Chuck Wendig created and that he invited his readers to share:

The Big 350 by Chuck Wendig,
used with permission.

Do you write every day? Every week? If so, do you have any tricks or tips to share?

Other articles you might like:

- How to record an audiobook at home
- 6 Ways To Get Rid Of Infodumps At The Beginning Of A Story
- How To Write Short Stories

Photo credit: "Happy Girl Hopscotch in Strawberry Free Creative Commons" by Pink Sherbet Photography under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Plot, Story and Tension


Plot and character are the two forces at the heart of every story.

I'm reading 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B Tobias. It is brilliant!

In the first third or so of the book Ronald B Tobias asks the questions: What is plot? What is character? What patterns make up plot?

What follows are some of my notes.


Plot Is A Force, A Process, Not An Object


Plot is about creating expectations in the reader.

We often hear the metaphor that plot is a skeleton that holds your story together, and this metaphor makes sense, but there's a problem:
Plot isn't a wire hanger you hang the clothes of a story on. Plot is diffusive, it permeates all the atoms of fiction. It can't be deboned.
Tobias writes that plot is like electromagnetism, it's "the force that draws the atoms of the story together. It correlates images, events and people."
[Plot] is a force that attracts all the atoms of language (words, sentences, paragraphs) and organizes them according to a certain sense (character, action, location). It is the cumulative effect of plot and character that creates the whole.
Plot isn't dead, it isn't static. "Plot isn't an accessory that conveniently organizes your material according to some ritualistic magic. You don't just plug in a plot like a household appliance and expect it to do its job. Plot is organic. It takes hold of the writer and the work from the beginning."


Story: A Chronicle Of Events


Here's the distinction Tobias draws between story and plot: story is composed of a series of events but plot has to do with the causal interactions between the events.

In Why Detection? P.D. James writes:
E. M. Forster has written: 'The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot.'
Ronald B Tobias writes:
Story ... is a chronicle of events. The listener wants to know what comes next.

Plot is more than just a chronicle of events. The listener asks a different question: "Why does this happen?"

Story is a series of events strung like beads on a string. (This happened and then this happened and then …)

Plot is a chain of cause-and-effect relationships that constantly create a pattern of unified action and behavior. Plot involves the reader in the game of "Why?"

Story requires only curiosity to know what will happen next.

Plot requires the ability to remember what has already happened, to figure out the relationships between events and people, and to try to project the outcome.
Where story is "a narration of events in the sequence that they happened" plot "is a story that has a pattern of action and reaction".

Aristotle's concept of unified action lies at the heart of the plot. Cause and effect. This happens because that happened, and so on.


The Three Parts Of A Story

A unified action creates a whole made up of a beginning, middle and an end.

Part 1: Setup


In the first part of the story you present the problem that must be solved. This is the initial action.

Here you define your characters and what they want, what they need. This is their intent.

What your characters want is their motivation, it is WHY they do what they do.

Part 2: Rising Action


"Whenever intention is denied, the effect is tension."

Tension is created through opposition.

Characters DO things, they act on the want/need set up in Part 1. That was the cause, now in the middle of the story we see the effect.

Problems/Reversals


In the second part of your story characters run into problems that keep them from successfully completing their intentions.

Your protagonist is motivated by her wants, her desires, and she acts to fulfill them, but something prevents her from doing this, from attaining her goal.

Aristotle called this something a reversal. Tobias writes, "Reversals cause tension and conflict because they alter the path the protagonist must take to get to her intended goal."

Recognition


Recognition is "the point in the story where the relationships between major characters change as the result of the reversal."

A reversal is an event but recognition is "the irreversible emotional change within the characters brought about by that event".

Part 3: The End


The ending is the logical outcome of all the events in the last two parts.

Three things happen at the end: the climax, falling action and the denouement.

Tension


We've already seen that tension = conflict but there are different kinds of tension.

Local tension 


Local tension is the result of a conflict of the moment. Local tension doesn't have much of an effect outside the immediate circumstances that created the tension. For instance, consider the following story:

Boy meets girl.
Boy asks girl to marry him.
Girl says no.
Boy asks girl why.
Girl says, "Because you smoke."

The girl's refusal to marry the boy because he smokes creates a local tension. It is the result of a conflict of the moment. As the name suggests it doesn't have much of an effect outside the immediate circumstances that created the tension.

Because of its localized effect you can't write a novel based on local tensions. It wouldn't work. We need something bigger. Even stringing together local tensions wouldn't work. We need to dig deeper into the character and find out what makes him or her tick.

For instance, we could write a novel about the boy's internal struggle whether to quit smoking for the girl. It could be that her father died because he smoked and she doesn't want to risk losing her husband the same way. This would pit the boy's desire to smoke in direct conflict with  his wish/desire to marry the girl. Why is smoking important to him? Yes, it's an addiction, but perhaps there is a deeper reason.

Ultimately the boy will have to choose between smoking and the girl. Those are strong, or relatively strong, opposing forces that are grounded in character.

Make tension grow as opposition increases


A story requires constant tension and this tension needs to build as the climax approaches. This is another reason we need strong tension, something that can exist in the background.

Also, though, the protagonist needs to encounter a series of obstacles/conflicts, each of which deepens the opposition and builds intensity.

As we saw in the previous section, local conflict/tension can't do this on its own. If you throw a series of local conflicts at your character your readers will just be bored. Tobias writes:
The serious conflicts, the ones that are the foundation of plot, are the ones that deal with the character in fundamental ways.
At the end of the story, in the third act, the tension, the crisis, needs to deepen.

"You must continually test the character through each phrase of dramatic action."

Every time something happens the stakes grow. For instance in Fatal Attraction, "The effect of action is to snowball, increasing tension and conflict from the mundane story of a man who has cheated on his wife to one who is battling a psychotic woman who is willing to kill to get her man".

#  #  #

Well, that's it! Those are my notes so far. 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B Tobias is a terrific book, I recommend it if you want to read something about plotting and the craft of fiction.

What do you think of Tobias' view of plot as inseparable from story?

Other articles you might like:

- Patricia Cornwell Vindicated In Court, Wins 50.9 Million Dollars
- Story Structure Provides A Framework For Meaning
- 6 Ways To Get Rid Of Infodumps At The Beginning Of A Story

Photo credit: "Against the wind | Chennai Marina Beach" by VinothChandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Patricia Cornwell Vindicated In Court, Wins 50.9 Million Dollars

Partricia Cornwell Vindicated In Court, Wins 50.9 Million Dollars

The best-selling crime novelist brought the case against Anchin, Block & Anchin LLP and its former principal, Evan H Snapper. She had paid the company about $40,000 per month for four years to handle her finances.

But the author claimed the company had mismanaged about $89 million of her money, improperly investing it and allegedly misappropriating her funds.

She alleged that, on one occasion, Mr Snapper used her money to write a $5,000 cheque for his daughter as a Bat Mitzvah gift, purportedly a gift from Cornwell.

She also alleged the company had made unauthorized, illegal donations to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign on her behalf.

Mr Snapper has admitted doing this, but told jurors it was on behalf of Cornwell and her friends. He is currently on probation for this offense. (Crime writer Patricia Cornwell wins $51m lawsuit against accountants)
A federal court jury has awarded Patricia Cornwell $50.9 million in damages, finding her former financial company cheated her, her wife, and her company out of tens of millions of dollars. A federal judge could increase the award.
For the last seven weeks, Boston has had an uncensored view of Cornwell’s life as it has played out at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, after she sued Snapper and his company for negligence in the handling of her finances.

She has been forced to lay out her lavish lifestyle and her struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. With the words of a writer, she speaks of how she “has been eating ­arsenic for weeks,” and how “a whole mountain of rocks has been lifted off me.”

But by Tuesday afternoon the fight — an “autopsy” of her life, as she put it — had been worth it, she said. She had felt it was her responsibility to bring legal action, knowing there are people who would not have the resources to do it if they were in such a position, playing a leadership role as her heroine, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, would have.

“I tend to be outraged by ­injustices,” said Cornwell, 56. “It’s about as complicated as one of my novels; that’s for sure.” (Author Patricia Cornwell awarded $50.9m in suit)
"Outraged" is exactly the word for it. Although Patricia Cornwell and Staci Ann Gruber never discovered exactly how much money Ms. Cornwell had lost, they knew she had made "more than $89 million in her four years with Anchin, only to find she was worth little more than what she had when the relationship began".

If you would like to read more about the verdict, here are a few articles:

Link to the written verdict
Author Patricia Cornwell awarded $50.9m in suit, Boston Globe
Crime writer Patricia Cornwell wins $51m lawsuit against accountants, The Telegraph
Author Patricia Cornwell wins $51M in suit against management firm, National Post
Patricia Cornwell wins $50m in damages, The Guardian

Other articles you might like:

- Joe Konrath Made $15,000 dollars over 7 days using Amazon Select
- How To Write Short Stories
- 7 Tips On How To Get Your Guest Post Accepted

Photo credit: "::Books have knowledge, knowledge is power, power corrupts, corruption is a crime,,,::" by » Zitona « under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Story Structure Provides A Framework For Meaning


PJ Reece in How to Create a Story Structure to Die For writes that a story is really made up of two stories and a middle. What happens at the middle of the story? In a word: death.


Death


In the middle of your story the hero dies, though not literally.

Figure 1: 10 of Swords
Like the tarot card of the same name, his death isn't literal. If there is a death card in the tarot I think it's the 10 of swords (see Figure 1). The death card (see picture at top)--the 13th card of the major arcana--is more about change. It signifies the end of one story, or way of life, and the beginning of the next. More than anything, it's about rebirth.


Heroes Have To Fail Before They Succeed 


In genre fiction, heroes usually succeed in their quest. We want to see the good-guy (or gal) win and triumph over their obstacles.

But in order for the protagonist's victory to mean something there has to be an ever present sense of the possibility of loss.

The way we give the reader this sense is by making it clear that the hero can fail. In fact, failure should be much more likely than victory.

How do we do this? How do we convince our readers that the protagonist can fail? By showing him fail, repeatedly, earlier in the story. As PJ Reece writes:
[In the Oscar winning movie, The Artist, a] silent movie star watches in dismay as talking pictures become all the rage.  George Valentin finds himself with no job, no girl, no more adoring fans.  He takes up the bottle and slips into oblivion.  Most protagonists would straightaway fall into the dark heart of the story and wake-up to the facts of life.

But not George.

Our hero continues to believe in yesteryear, which lays himself open to more punishment.  The screenwriter pushes George to rage and all the way to self-loathing.  His beliefs are literally killing him.  It looks like George might actually commit suicide.

That’s a story!
That brings us to the midpoint, the "dark heart of the story". This is where the hero relinquishes his old belief system--the symbolic death--and embraces a new way of viewing the world, and his problems.


Why The Hero Needs To Suffer


In each story there is a truth. Perhaps this truth is covered by the theme (for instance, 'liars never win') or perhaps it's something the hero needs to find out before he can accomplish his goal (this is his external goal, the story goal).

For instance, in The Firm Mitch McDeere had to re-discover the truth that he loved the law, and not just the money he could make from practicing it. It was that truth that let him to steer his way through the Scylla and Charybdis of the FBI and the mob.

The point is that the hero's suffering has to be connected to this truth, the truth that they need to uncover to overcome the obstacles before them and achieve their goal.

For instance, in Shrek the truth was that he had built up layers of protection around him to keep the world at bay because he didn't think anyone could love him. He was scared of getting hurt. Shrek had to confront this fear and overcome it in order to win the hand of the lady he loved. He had to come to a point where he realized the truth--that he wanted a companion, that he wanted Fiona. Shrek's failures helped him realize this.

Or so I would argue.

Other articles you might like:

- 6 Ways To Get Rid Of Infodumps At The Beginning Of A Story
- 8 Tips From Chuck Wendig On How To Read Like A Writer
- Author Solutions: The New Carnys?

Photo credits:
- Top photo (13th card of the major arcana in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck): "RWS Tarot 13 Death.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith. File is no longer under copyright in US.
- Figure 1: 10 of Swords in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, "Swords10.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith. File is no longer under copyright in US.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

6 Ways To Get Rid Of Infodumps At The Beginning Of A Story

6 Ways To Get Rid Of Info Dumps At The Beginning Of A Story

There are two entrenched ways of thinking about story openings.

Folks either think a story needs to open with setting and a detailed introduction to the characters or they think that any description in the first, say, quarter of the story should be bare-bones and that backstory (/infodumps) should be kept, by and large, for the last half of the story.

I tend to agree that infodumps should be avoided at the beginning of a story but that often leaves the writer with a problem. How do we work in backstory when it's needed at the beginning to set the stage?

John Yeoman (@yeomanis) has written what has to be hands-down the most useful article on how to work backstory in at the beginning I've ever read. Which comes as no surprise since he was guest posting on one of my favorite blogs--Elizabeth S. Craig's blog, Mystery Writing Is Murder.

6 Ways To Work Backstory In At The Beginning

1. The naive stranger


A favourite device is to have a stranger ask a naive question. “‘Sir, why is the village school built next to a jail?’ Old Tom smiled. ‘It’s a long story,’ he began...”

Only, don’t make the story too long!

2. The helpful gossip


Whenever that great rival to Sherlock Holmes, Dr Thorndyke, was presented with a village mystery he - and his foil, Jervis - would dine in the local pub. Inevitably, a garrulous maid or landlord would volunteer a vital clue.

Postal workers, shopkeepers, doctors, priests and other community insiders are great volunteers of background ‘stuff’. (But avoid prurient old ladies who lurk behind curtains. The world has room for only one Miss Marple.)

3. The ‘official’ tour guide


If somebody is playing host, they can plausibly entertain their guests with anecdotal histories. A tree on a hill, a book upon a shelf, any object that draws attention to itself can provoke a story.

‘My grandfather carried this with him at the Somme...’

A tourist brochure, newspaper clipping or public poster can also disclose 'stuff' in a casual way, without disrupting the narrative. ‘Official’ information appears to come to the reader unmediated by interpretation, so it has a high truth value.

This can usefully mislead the reader - say, in a mystery story - where the official information, accepted by everyone, turns out to be wrong.

I have just had great fun writing an historical mystery tale (soon to be on Kindle, Amazon permitting). It proves, indisputably, that Queen Elizabeth I of England was not a red head. The records are wrong.

4. The chance remark

.  .  .  .
[L]et the background details unfold in dialogue, by way of chance remarks.

“‘You don’t want to go there,’ the garage attendant said as he checked my oil. ‘They never did find her body.’”

Further remarks can develop that back story - and any small event whatever can cue a chance remark.

.  .  .  .

5. Break it up with action


If granny really must dump the whole history of the family on the reader, break it up. Add conflict or action. Perhaps an exasperating child keeps changing the subject. Or a pet cat gets tangled in her knitting.

While granny copes with the distractions, the reader will stay with the story - if only to see the wretched child or cat get their comeuppance. (Five Ways to Handle Stuff and Other Nonsense)
John Yeoman closes by writing:
‘Stuff’ doesn’t have to be nonsense. We need ‘stuff’ to create a context. What the reader doesn’t need is a lot of digressive details that are unrelated to the plot and that they’ll never remember anyway.
I hope John Yeoman won't mind if I add a sixth way:

6.  Honored, yet grumpy, guest/Talk to a reporter


This is similar to John Yeoman's #3, the official tour guide, but I thought I'd include it anyway.

In one of my works-in-progress, I needed to insert an information dump at the beginning. It didn't work--I knew it didn't--and if there had been any doubt my beta readers firmly, but kindly, removed it. (Love them!)

Then I read a novel in which the protagonist talked to a reporter and necessary information was introduced. I thought the devise worked. (This demonstrates the importance of reading like a writer.)

In my WIP my protagonist, a zoo director, gives the Mayor a tour around the zoo and has to explain no end of things. I also use this tour to set up the Mayor as an antagonistic force which allows me to introduce one of the core problems facing the protagonist.

There are many different ways to sneak information in at the beginning of a book. Which ones are your favorites? 

Other articles you might like:

- 8 Tips From Chuck Wendig On How To Read Like A Writer
- Author Solutions: The New Carnys?
- Structured Procrastination: Procrastinate And Get Things Done

Photo credit: "read on the wall" by MarioMancuso under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

8 Tips From Chuck Wendig On How To Read Like A Writer


Posts like this--How To Read Like A Writer--are why I love Chuck Wendig's blog.

Chuck Wendig has identified something I've felt in a hazy kind of way and shined a spotlight on it. (After reading his post I'm tempted to write 'shined a #@*#! spotlight on it'. Color me impressionable.) He writes:
You can’t just pick up a book, read it, and have its wisdom absorbed into you. Eating a microwave burrito doesn’t make you a chef. Sitting on a chair doesn’t make you a ... carpenter. And reading doesn’t make you a writer. (How To Read Like A Writer)
Makes sense! Of course the saying--A writer must read and write--is true as far as it goes, it's just not terribly helpful due to its generality.

Chuck Wendig gets beautifully specific.


Chuck Wendig's Tips On How To Read Like A Writer


1. Be present in the text


I have trouble with this. For instance, I'm currently reading Kim Harrison's latest book in her Hollows series--Ever After--and whenever I start reading it I'm sucked in.

Every time I try to snap out of the story and examine the words she's using--examine how she's able to submerge me in her world--I get sucked in again!

But, yes, being present in the text is something I strive for. Though, tragically, it is easiest to achieve when I'm reading a book I'm lukewarm about.

2. Read to understand; dissect the page


Chuck Wendig writes:
[A] chef doesn't just eat to enjoy. A chef watches how another chef operates. A chef wants to look at technique and then wants to see how that technique translates to the food on the plate: what ingredients are present? What textures and spices? What ancient shellfish from beyond space and time?
A Chef wants to understand how the other chef creates his culinary magic.

Chuck Wendig doesn't specify, in this section, what precisely he has in mind by 'dissect the page', but in his article 25 Things I Want To Say To So-Called “Aspiring” Writers, he writes:
And, when you do read something, you learn from it by dissecting it--what is the author doing? How are the characters and plot drawn together?
That reminds me of something I wrote down in my writing journal earlier today: Create a goal for your character that will eventually force them to deal with their unique weakness.

I think that's a paraphrase, not a direct quotation. It's from a three minute YouTube video about characterization: How To Make An Audience Care About Your Characters by John Truby. (The 3 minute video is excellent.)

So, for starters, I need to ask myself things like:

- What is the protagonist's weakness?
- What is her external goal?
- How will the protagonist achieving their goal resolve the character's weakness? (Sometimes the weakness is called the characters 'wound', or their 'internal goal'.)

I think that the stories I would rate as mediocre probably don't do the above well.

3. Read with questions in mind


Here are Chuck Wendig's suggestions:

- How did the author write this?
- Why did the author write it this way? Why did she choose the words she did?
- What is the ratio of dialogue to description?
- How does the author handle character? Setting? Action?
- How would you do it differently?

4. Read to critique


As Chuck Wending notes, a critique is an analysis. I came across an excellent article the other day about how to structure a story. One idea I had for a blog post was to take a classic short story--a very VERY short story--and analyse it in terms of character development, pacing and story structure.

I think doing that sort of analysis would benefit me more than reading any number of books solely for pleasure.

5. Read deeply


Chuck Wendig advises us to "look beyond the words".

- What themes are at work?
- What ideas are expressed?
- What were the author's childhood traumas? Look for the author's personal contribution to the unfolding story.
- What is the subtext?

6. Understand the interplay between writing and storytelling


This is another reason why I love Chuck Wendig's blog posts. This is SO true! But I can't recall anyone else ever saying it, at least not this clearly. CW writes:
Those are two separate skills (or crafts, or arts, or magical leprechaun incantations or whatever you want to call them) — the story comprises all those narrative components and the writing comprises the language that communicates those narrative components. Both have structure. Both utilize the other. Separate but then ask: how and how well do they work together?

7. Read from the screen


Be eclectic in your research, don't just read novels. CW writes:
Watch television. Films. Games. Get scripts. Read those. You’ll learn a lot about dialogue and description. You’ll learn the architecture of story.


8. Read beyond the walls of your pleasure dome


I'm bad at this. Atrocious. I read what I like, I should get recommendations from my writer friends and read those books even if they don't, initially, seem like my cup of tea. Chuck Wendig writes:
If all you do is read in the genre in which you write and/or enjoy, you’ve created for yourself a narrative echo chamber — your own authorial intentions are boomeranged back to you. You gain nothing.
Chuck Wendig ends his article by writing:
[I]f this writing thing is what you want to do with some or all of your life, then accept that reading is part of the job. And this job demands that all the lights in your brain are turned on, not dulled to a dim room in order to passively absorb the haw-haws and ooh-aahs of entertainment. Read like a writer, goddamnit.
Amen!

Do you read like a writer? What questions do you ask when you read?

Other articles you might like:

- Author Solutions: The New Carnys?
- Structured Procrastination: Procrastinate And Get Things Done
- Joanna Penn's Tips For Writing Realisitic Fight Scenes

Photo credit: "Week #1 "New" [1of52]" by Camera Eye Photography under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.