Monday, July 28, 2008

Six Mistakes

I could start with the Brickyard race yesterday and do a Tony Stewart impression about the tire debacle, but everyone else is doing it. It's so not cool to be one of the pack, so I'll let it go. Wish A.J. Allmendinger had won - the lad raced in the top 10 all day, and at one point was second. That would have been quite a story. The best thing we can do is pretend the race never happened and look forward to Pocono. All I can say is, I'm so grateful we didn't drive to Indy for the race this year.

Actually, I'd like to review Joseph Finder's "Six Mistakes" talk at ITW. He made great points about how a book can go wrong. Mind, these notes are what I got out of what he said, so nothing is verbatim and may, in fact, be way off base. But this is what struck me as worth writing down:

First, ask yourself if you have a passive hero. A hero has to advance the story and change things. Well, Duh! But you'd be amazed at how often I see this mistake in beginners.

Second, don't write a long setup. We writers like to introduce everyone with infinite care, but Finder' s point is that we can get to know the characters through action.

Third: Don't start the story too early. (A personal note: I have to do this, because I need about forty page to feel comfortable. But I cut those forty pages in the first rewrite. I know it's a waste of time, but that's how my process works.)

Fourth: Avoid the weak second act. Things must escalate. The hero has to fail then recommit to the struggle. Introduce subplots in Act II.

Five: Predictability. Don't underestimate your readers. Don't let them figure it all out. One of my observations: a very well known suspense writer makes this mistake. I can tell you before I turn the page what the next scene will hold and what's going to happen. Can't finish any of the books because they're so predictable.

Six: Lousy endings kill a book. Make it have symmetry. Don't make it too short. Add a good twist if you can, one that arises from the seeds planted before in the story. Then don't linger too long at the party.

Seven: (a bonus) Don't show off and lay out all your research just because it's cool and you went to all that work. Use just enough to show that this is the real world.

And general observations from Mr. Finder: don't make the mistake of having all plot and no people. No one cares about abstract threats. Back story dumps are anathema - add the back story in tiny slivers, giving the reader a reason to care for the characters. Avoid boring action scene. Make them exciting or leave them out.

Very good talk. You can buy CDs of this one, as well as the others, from ITW.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Sword's Reach

James Rollins threw out a quote I've never heard before - A war is only as far as your sword can reach. What a good concept for writers. Start small and keep it intimate as you ratchet up the tension. His example was perfect. A surprise is when the characters are chatting and eating at a restaurant, then suddenly, their table explodes. Suspense happens when they're chatting, etc., and the omniscient eye shows a ticking bomb under the table. His take is that the core of action is not physical, it's emotional in its context. Is the protagonist a coward, and it's hard for him to wade into battle? Or does he have a moral objection to battle, like the Gary Cooper character in one of my favorite movies, Friendly Persuasion. Or John Wayne in The Quiet Man - a boxer who killed his opponent in the ring doesn't want to fight, not ever again, but ultimately has to. Again with Gary Cooper in High Noon - he will lose his Quaker bride if he stays to fight the bad guys, but if he doesn't, they'll come after him until he's dead.

Gonna work on this one.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Thrills and Chills

Sorry I've been MIA for a couple of weeks. Spent last week in NYC at Thriller Fest, and before that, a whole week panicking about going. Big cities always suck the energy out of me as effectively as a vampire latching on my neck (no, it hasn't happened, I'm a writer, remember?). So many people, all of them walking quickly and bumping into me as I meander and stare like the country bumpkin. So much noise. I survived, as you can see, and came home invigorated and ready to get back to work.

Thriller Fest was amazing, to put it simply. Great panels, great writers sharing craft, great people in the audience. Lots of Advanced Reader Copies. Because I was dumb enough to bring a small suitcase (didn't want to haul it all over the place), I could bring home only a few. The one I read on the 7 hour train ride back was truly a thriller. Couldn't put it down. Comes out in September and the title is The Archangel Conspiracy (I think, I'm horrible with titles) and the author is C.S. Graham, a pseudonym for a husband and wife writing team. When this mass market paperback hits the shelves in September, run, do not walk, to your local independent bookstore and snap it up. Filled with political intrigue and a gusty heroine, you'll keep turning the pages if you're anything like me.

When I'm less zapped, I'll post some of the nuggets I pulled from the TF workshops.