Category Archives: Robert Gregory Browne

Watching for Inspiration

by Rob Gregory Browne

I cheated and looked ahead and I know what Brett’s post is about tomorrow, and in a way, it’s connected to what I want to talk about today.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here (probably have), but I’ve changed publishers and am now writing a book for Dutton, the first in a series about demons and angels and the destruction of earth and a couple of characters who find themselves caught up in it all and have to fight like crazy to keep it from happening.

It’ll be a fun book — it’s been a blast to write so far — and, hopefully, a thrilling one as well, but it’s also an ambitious book for me, bigger in scope than anything I’ve attempted before, and in preparation for the book, I actually wrote a very long outline.  VERY long.  Something I don’t normally do.

Writing that outline was, quite possibly, the toughest thing I ever had to write.  Because outlines are all about plotting and figuring out story logic and character motivation and when it comes down to it, it’s real grunt work.

As I was writing the outline, I found myself hitting walls over and over, not sure where to go with the story or how to flesh out the shorter outline I was working from.

In the old days — before strict deadlines — I’d find when I hit a wall in my writing, it always helped to sit down and read a book.  Well-written books are a great inspiration for a writer.  In fact, they’re what inspired us all to write in the first place.

Unfortunately, as much as I love to read, I find it difficult to find time for it much these days, and almost impossible when I’m smack in the middle of trying to work out a story.  Reading takes a dedicated amount of time, and a lot of it.  In order to get through a book, it could literally take me a week or more of stealing moments here and there, and the experience would likely be disjointed and unfulfilling.

When I read a book, I like to be able to sit down and read it in a few hours or a couple of days.  Solid reading, until it’s finished.

But, again, I can’t do that while I’m writing.  So when I hit those walls, unless I want to take a few days off, I’m shit out of luck.

I did, however, stumble upon a solution to my problem:

TV shows.

Right now I think we are going through a period when television drama is at its very best.  There are many, many shows with solid production values, terrific acting and superb writing.

One night, when I hit a particularly solid wall, I said screw it and sat down to watch an hour of television.  Actually, I had a series on DVD that I’d always heard good things about but had never watched, so I popped the first DVD in and was suddenly swept away.  (DVDs or Netflix streaming, by the way, are the only way to go.  Commercials are so intrusive, they interrupt the flow of the narrative.)

To my surprise, as I watched the show with it’s amazing plotting and great interplay between the characters, I found myself becoming more and more inspired.  And when I finally went back to the keyboard that night, I was on fire.

It wasn’t so much the subject matter than inspired me.  But the TECHNIQUES the writers used to advance plot and character that — because a typical TV drama is only 44 minutes long — was IMMEDIATELY evident to me.  Techniques of craft that I could apply to my own writing.

These weren’t new techniques.  I knew them already.  But to see them used so brilliantly, to see how they can bring a good story to life, was as thrilling to me as reading a book by Stephen King.

Watching that TV show made me WANT to write, just as a great book will.  And whenever I got stuck again, I’d go pop in another episode, or mix it up with another well-crafted show, and find myself inspired all over again.

Some of the shows that have inspired me are:

Dexter

Alias

Jericho

Fringe

Law & Order

All beautifully crafted, beautifully written shows.  Not every episode is perfect, of course, but if I pop one of these shows in, I’m bound to find myself itching to get writing.

So am I alone in this?  Do other writers in the crowd find inspiration in their favorite TV shows — and, if so, what are those shows?

And you readers — do you ever find that watching a great show inspires you to pick up a book?

 

Extra Pulp, Please

by Rob Gregory Browne

 

I grew up reading popular fiction. One of the first books I ever bought on my own was called The Living Shadow, and was a Bantam reprint of an old pulp novel by Walter Gibson (writing as Maxwell Grant) about The Shadow, a famous character from radio, but quite different in print. The writing in these books is serviceable at best, but I found myself drawn in immediately and hungrily bought every book in the series that was released.

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Around the same time, I discovered the comedy mysteries of Donald Westlake and, later, his Richard Stark books. I was particularly in love with Stark’s Grofield character — who played second banana to Parker — and snatched up as many of the Grofield standalones as I could find.

 

I also loved reading Mickey Spillane and John MacDonald and many others of the era, most of them courtesy of a guy named Roscoe Fawcett.

 

Roscoe Fawcett was something of an innovator. Back in the fifties, he noticed how well paperback reprints of hardcover titles were selling, so he came up with an idea: what if he hired writers to create paperback originals? Shoot right past hardcover and take stories straight to the masses at a fraction of the cost, making a small fortune in the process.

 

Thus, Gold Medal Books was born.

 

This sounds like a no-brainer today, but Fawcett’s idea was unheard of back then and he pretty much revolutionized the publishing industry. And the writers he hired over the years to write for Gold Medal turned out to be some of the cream of the crop of mystery and thriller writers, including the aforementioned John MacDonald, as well as Westlake, Elmore Leonard, Donald Hamilton and Richard Prather.

 

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Gold Medal books always had slightly lurid covers. A half-dressed woman with a tough guy hovering over her was fairly standard. But inside, many of those books were short masterpieces of fiction. 

 

I sometimes think I was born in the wrong era. How wonderful to be able to write these 40 – 50,000 word stories and see the public gobble them up like candy. I doubt if the monetary rewards were great, but I have a feeling these writers made a pretty decent living, many of them writing under multiple pen names. I think the closest thing we have today are the Harlequin Intrigue romances that are also a lot of fun to read. Crime stories with a romantic slant.

 

(Edit:  Brett so kindly reminded me of Hard Case Crime, which has taken up the tradition and reprinted many of the old Gold Medal greats, as well as taking on new writers.  My apologies to my friends who write for them!)

 

Recently, I began reading a Gold Medal author that I’ve seen over the years but never got around to reading. A guy by the name of Edward S. Aarons, who wrote forty or so books about a CIA operative named Sam Durrell. Think of Durrell as a more realistic version of James Bond.

Coverbrowser.com

 

Though few people have heard of him today, Aarons was very popular in his time and I can fully understand why. His books are really well written. He was a meat and potatoes stylist, but it’s some of the best meat and potatoes you’re likely to find.

 

Because I grew up reading these kinds of books, and still enjoy reading them, I find myself wanting to write them as well. I write popular fiction and make no apologies for that — although some people undoubtedly think I should. I think I mentioned before how a friend of mine wondered when I was going to start writing “serious” books, and I had to wonder, what about my books isn’t serious?

 

The literary fiction vs. popular fiction debate is a deep, dark hole, but I’ve found a blog post by Michael Blowhard (a very long blog post) from a few years ago that I think sums up my own feelings about the debate. I urge you to take a look at it:

 

Taking Jackie Collins Seriously

 

I am amazed by people who look down on popular writing. I’m not quite sure what their reasoning is. The subject matter is too disposable for them? The work isn’t worthy because too many people like to read it? Surely whatever the masses likes has to be mediocre at best.

 

Coverbrowser.comNo matter. I know what I like to read and I know what I like to write. And those old mass-produced Gold Medal authors — and many who have followed in their footsteps  — have given me untold hours of pleasure. And if I can do the same for someone else, that’s all I ask.

 

So, again, no apologies. But please don’t ask me when I’m going to start writing serious novels. I’m very serious about what I do already.

 

Today’s question: Do you have an author you just love that your friends or family might consider a guilty pleasure? Who is he or she?

 

Take Back That Stapler

by Rob Gregory Browne

 

Everyone steals.

 

Oh, don’t try to deny it. You know you’ve done it at one time or another in your life, even if that theft was something as innocuous as the really nice stapler you took from work.

 

But there are different kinds of theft, aren’t there? Different levels.

 

Yes, you can say stealing is stealing, but I would certainly never get upset about that stapler — I mean, really, who cares other than the company bean counter or the secretary whose desk you swiped it from?

 

I mean, we’re not talking someone’s car, right?

 

But stealing is stealing and it’s quite common in our society.

 

Kids steal each other’s toys. Teenagers steal music.  Friends steal each other’s spouses. Or maybe borrow them once in awhile. Yet that’s still stealing in a way, isn’t it?

 

People who are particularly bold may walk into a bank and steal money from an unsuspecting teller. Or step into a Seven Eleven and force the counter man to empty out the cash register.

 

It happens all the time, and we crime writers make our livings because of it.

 

We can forgive the minor crimes — the stapler stealing — but the larger thefts, depending on who the victim is, tend to get us a bit riled up. Probably because they scare us. And if we’re the victim, if things are personal, we get very scared indeed.

 

We feel violated.

 

When I was in my twenties, my beautiful soon to be wife and I were living in an apartment complex in Santa Barbara, California.

 

Late one night, out of the blue, a work friend of mine showed up at the apartment, wanting to hang out and have a drink. He even brought the beer.

 

I was a little surprised to see him, but we sat down, drank the beers as we shot the bull. About twenty minutes passed and my friend abruptly stood up and said he had to go. And he never did explain why he had stopped by in the first place.

 

The next morning, I went out to my car, only to discover that it had been broken into and my tape deck and a box full of cassette tapes were gone.

 

And I had to wonder. Had my friend set me up? Could he have been distracting me while a cohort stole my car stereo?

 

These were, of course, questions that never got answered. Although I suspected him — didn’t want to, but did — I never said a word to him about the incident and we continued to be friends for a couple more years before my wife and I moved back to Honolulu.

 

But what never went away was that feeling of being violated. And I think that’s how we can measure the severity of theft. By how violated the victim feels.

 

I was recently violated in a different way.

 

The theft did not scare me. No tangible item was actually taken from me. But I felt violated nevertheless.

 

Still do.

 

Nearly a decade ago, I wrote an article that was published on my website. That article was subsequently published many different places on the web, including here on Murderati and in an international print magazine I used to write a column for.

 

A couple months ago, I got an email from a reader who thought she had spotted some possible plagiarism of that article. She had read it and had stumbled across an excerpt from a book that was posted on the web and some of the content of that excerpt looked suspiciously familiar.

 

I investigated and lo and behold, the author of the excerpt had lifted entire passages from my article. Word for word.

 

With no credit to me. No link to my original article.

 

There wasn’t a huge amount of theft involved, just a few short passages, as well as a way of describing a writing concept that I feel is original with me, but when you see your own words being credited to someone else — in a published book, no less — that tends to make you feel a bit victimized.

 

I won’t go into any details. I’ve had exchanges with the author and the publisher and came up with a solution to the problem that I think is fair, and I feel no need to go public with the details.

 

But for the life of me, I can’t understand how someone can do something like that. I can see inadvertent theft of someone’s work — a lot of ideas are similar, and sometimes we borrow without actually realizing we’re doing it.

 

But word for word? I just can’t quite get my head around the idea of copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own. What kind of person does that? It just makes no sense to me.

 

So I feel victimized. And, yes, I’ll get over it in time, but no matter how much time goes by, I’ll still be shaking my head at the audacity of it all.

 

If you’re going to take credit for something you didn’t write, for chrissakes, at least don’t be so blatant about it.

 

Have a little class.

 

Or stick to staplers.

 

—————————————

 

Today’s question: Have you ever had anything stolen from you? If so, how did you feel?

The Lazy Man’s Guide to Blogging

by Rob Gregory Browne

First, be lazy.

That’s not hard for me.  Never has been.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been allowed to be lazy lately.  In fact, I’ve been very, very, very, very busy. (And I don’t think there were enough “verys” there.)

And by busy, I mean I’ve been busy writing.  I’m working on a terrific project and am really putting the nose to the grindstone because a) my deadline is not that far off; and b) I want this to be the best thing I’ve ever written.  So far I think it is.

So you’ll have to forgive me.  I’ve kicked around the idea of quitting the blog business altogether, but since the day job will be gone soon, I’ll have more time to devote to blogging.  Not that this will necessarily make a difference in the quality of my posts — there are only a few blog ideas and it seems that every blog in the universe has recycled most of them again and again — but at least I’ll have time to actually POST.

Which, again unfortunately, I don’t have time to do today.

So what does this mean to you, the Murderati diehard reader?

How the hell would I know?  I’m not you. (Did I mention I’m tired and cranky, too?)

But instead of completely abandoning you, I thought I’d leave you with a couple of videos I did for Murderati back when I was still semi-sane.  Or, at least, pretended to be.

I’ll have a question or two after the jump.

RERUN #1

 So, question:  What song do you sing badly and where do you sing it?

RERUN #2

Old chestnut question:  What’s your favorite book opening?

Okay.  Sorry.  That’s it for me.  But the author of the answer I like best will win a book of mine of your choice:  Hardcover Kiss Her Goodbye (upcoming news on that front) or paperback Whisper in the Dark or Kill Her Again, or… a pre-publication copy of my newest thriller (coming in June), Down Among the Dead Men.

Thanks for playing.

Your Mattress is Free!!!

I like free stuff.

Who doesn’t?

As a guy who’s about to enter the life of the fulltime writer and, as a result, is abandoning a good chunk of steady income, I’m always on the look-out for things that save me money.  And free is certainly a way to do that.

When I tell some of my friends about the free stuff available to all of us, their immediate response is, yeah, well, you get what you pay for.

There seems to be this odd little bit of psychology going on out there that nothing of any quality is ever given away for free.  There’s either a catch, or the product sucks.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is not true.  I use really great free products every day in my work as a writer.

OFFICE SUITE

The standard office suite that everyone and his brother uses is Microsoft Office.  If you go to Amazon, you can pick up a brand new copy of Office for only $309.49.  And, of course, since we’re writers and all of our editors use Word, we obviously have to plunk down that three hundred bones just to do our jobs.

Or do we?

Not if we use OpenOffice.org, we don’t.  OpenOffice.org is a full office suite that is completely compatable with Microsoft Office.  I use it every day.  Because it’s open source software, it costs a big fat donut.

That’s right.  Zero.

You can find it here:  www.openoffice.org, or, what I think is a better (and prettier) version, here:  goo-oo.org.  It can be used in Windows, Mac OSX or Linux.

Yes, you can read and write Word documents and your editor will never know the difference.  But your pocketbook will…

BACKUP AND MORE

When I was working on my second book, I was a day away from deadline when my computer decided to glitch out and I lost 30 pages of work.  Doesn’t seem like much, I know, but when you’re in a crunch, it’s devastating.  Believe me.

Worse yet, I discovered that this very same glitch had also erased those thirty pages from all of my backups.  I could go into a long story about why this happened, but I won’t bore you with it.  It was a case of computer glitch and user error (yes, believe it or not, I do make mistakes) — so let’s leave it at that.

Anyway, I was screwed.  I had to completely rewrite those thirty pages and I never did feel the rewrite was as good as the original.  Oh, well.

My backup routine in those days was a combination of saving to network drives, flash drives, and emailing myself a copy with google mail, where everything remains stored forever.

The problem with this system was that it meant that every time I finished working for the day (and several times during), I’d have to stop and do all my backups.  And because I’m a lazy SOB, I found this to be a pain in the ass.

Then I discovered Microsoft Live Sync.

Live sync allows you to save and syncronize documents to a private folder on the web, and between all of your computers.  I can go from laptop to desktop to netbook, whether a Mac or PC, and I’ll always have the latest copy of my book waiting for me.  And, I’ll also have that latest copy on my hard drive.  I no longer have to carry around a data stick everywhere I go.

And guess what?  Live Sync is free.

For those of you who don’t like or trust Microsoft for whatever reason, or you want double backup, there’s a similar service called Dropbox that essentially does the same thing.  And it’s free, too, up to 2 gigs worth of files.  After that you have to get the premium service.

And with Dropbox, you can even access your shared folder with your iPhone.

I could not live without this service.  Anything that allows me not to think about backups is, to my mind, a godsend.

PHOTOSHOP CLONE

In these days of websites and writers stuck doing a lot of our own publicity, many of us just can’t afford to pay the big bucks to special web designers and photoshop experts to dress up our websites and touch up our author photos.

(Come on, now, you know we all touch up those photos…)

Unfortunately, not all of us can afford a product like Photoshop, which is quite a few hundred dollars.

Well, actually, I take that back.  We can afford a product like Photoshop, called The Gimp.  Yes, I know, unfortunate name, but The Gimp is a Photoshop clone that does just about anything you could want when it comes to graphics and photo manipulation.

And, yes, it’s free.

SCREENWRITING SOFTWARE

Want to write a screenplay but don’t want to take another large chunk from your bank account for screenwriting software?  Check out Celtx, which is soooo much more than screenwriting software.  They actually call their product Integrated Media Pre-Production software and you can use it to plan your next movie as well as write it, and can post your drafts for your crew or collaborators.

The software is free.  The posting on their web server involves a monthly charge.  My advice?  Save your Celtx file to a Windows Live Sync folder and give your collaborator a key to the folder.

Or you could pay five bucks a month and use their service.  Seems reasonable to me.

OUTLINING SOFTWARE

I can’t vouch for this one because I’ve never used it, but yWriter is novel outlining software designed to make those of you inclined to organization to have an easier time of it:

Looks good to me.  And, yes, it’s free

You’re killing me, Larry!!!

And this is only the tip of the iceberg.  There are hundreds of free software applications out there and I’m sure some of you here have your favorites.

Anyone want to share?

Actually, all I really want to know is where I can get free beer.

Full Time

I very rarely talk about my day job.  I talk so little about it that few of you even know I HAVE a day job, and that’s just fine with me.

You see, when I think of my favorite authors sitting at their desks hunched over their word processors, I see that typical romantic portrait of writers and have a hard time imagining them punching a time clock in some factory, or typing up a deposition for their boss or sliding a plate of sausage and eggs in front of a truck driver at Moe’s Highway Diner.

So I figure that when readers read a Robert Gregory Browne thriller, they don’t really want to think about him filling out a time card every month.   Knowing that he has a day job kind of kills things.  I mean, after all, how good can the guy be if he needs another job to get by?

But like most writers, I lead a dual life.  By day, I produce and edit videos for an educational institution, and by night I write thrillers with a supernatural twist.

At least some writers have cool day jobs.  Lawyers, newspaper reporters, doctors, private investigators, television producers. Editing educational videos, however, is not a cool job.  I’ve been doing double duty for almost five years now and, frankly, it is finally taking its toll.  

But I’ve been very fortunate on the writing front lately, and I’m happy to announce that, starting in December, I’m joining the ranks of my fulltime writer friends.  From then on my days will be fully dedicated to writing.

What a concept.  A writer who writes full time.

There have been times I’ve wondered if it would ever happen.  Now I realize that I wouldn’t be able to survive mentally and physically if it didn’t.

After almost five years of working two time-consuming jobs, I’ll finally get my life back.  I’ll be able to watch some movies.  Catch up on some TV shows.  Maybe even talk to my wife once in awhile.  And sleep?  Oh, Lord, I can’t wait.

When my buddy Brett went full time, he talked about it here.  I was glad to hear he was making the leap, but I was also envious as hell.  At the time I probably COULD have joined him, but I stayed prisoner to the psychological pull of that steady paycheck and that nice health insurance plan.

Going full time is still a scary proposition, but I really have no choice at this point.  I’m too goddamn busy not to.

So I hope you’ll help me celebrate this change in my life.  I’m finally at a point where I can do what I really love to do and make a comfortable living at it.

Here’s hoping it lasts.

And here’s hoping that all of you writers out there who dream of joining me will see that dream come true very soon.

You deserve it.

 

Old Dog, New Trick

As anyone who has been paying attention to my babbling over the last few years knows, I’m what’s known as a “pantser.”  We’ve talked about this method of writing before.  I’m pretty sure that Tess, who is also a pantser, has spoken about it much more eloquently than I’ve ever been able to manage.

Stephen King once said that his best books are the ones he didn’t plot out beforehand.  Since I have no idea which particular books he’s talking about, there’s no way I can judge this statement.  And while he may think he’s had a few misses, I’ve always been entertained.

But I’ve been a pantser for as long as I can remember.  In fact, the very first thing I wrote, I didn’t bother to sit down and think it out beyond the premise.  I just jumped in, guns blazing —

— and quickly discovered that writing is hard work.

But I never blamed that hard work on the fact that I didn’t prepare much before I started writing.  It seemed that this was simply the best method for me. 

I tried many times to go the so-called “safe” route.  With screenplays, I got a bunch of index cards and started plotting out the story, scene by scene, but I would only get about ten cards in before I grew bored with the whole process and just started writing.

With my first aborted attempts at novels, I tried outlining, but the process just seemed so much like homework that I could never get beyond a couple pages before I jumped into the “real” writing and started having fun.

Outlining = homework

Writing = recess

Ahhh, recess.  What a wonderful thing. 

Until you hit the wall, of course.  And every single book I’ve written, I’ve hit not one or two walls, but several of them that had me thinking the book was a failure and there was no way I’d ever finish on time.

Fortunately, I’ve been lucky so far. 

But earlier this year my writing career turned a bit of a corner and I found myself with more work than I anticipated.  Pile on top of that the online workshop I was committed to teaching, and other life commitments that felt they needed to intrude on my writing time, and I was, to put it politely, up shit creek with only half a paddle.

Or maybe not.

Because those new writing gigs required me to turn in, at the very least, a fairly detailed synopsis of the story, I was forced to get off my lazy ass and do the “homework.”

And guess what?

After writing that first story outline and working out all of its kinks, after slogging through and hitting the walls during the outlining process rather than the actual writing itself, I discovered, to my astonishment, that — get this — I was able to write the first story

…hold onto your hats…

about three times faster than normal.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen.  I wrote the thing very, very quickly.  And I can’t say that it was any worse than what I would have produced had I used my usual method.  In fact, it’s pretty freakin’ good, if I do say so myself. 

All of this thanks to that outline. 

I have always believed that outlining would kill my spontaneity, would stifle my creativity, would make me so bored with the story that I wouldn’t want to write it.  But the truth is, none of those things happened, and I sailed through the writing.

Now I’m busy outlining a new book — one that’s big and complicated and probably my most ambitious work to date — and I’m thinking, ugh, here we go again.  But once I started to outline, I suddenly found myself very excited about the stuff I was coming up with and realized, wow, I’m doing most of the work right now.  And all I have to do once it’s finished is go back in, flesh it all out, and make it pretty.

Not to say that writing of the book itself will be easy, but it’ll certainly be a lot easier.

The outlining process is forcing me to think in exactly the same way I do when going the pantser route, but allowing me to do it faster and without that panicked feeling that I have to get a scene perfect.  I’m concentrating purely on character and story without having to worry about the actual prose.  

So I guess the moral of the story is that no matter how old the dog may be, there’s always room for a new trick.  And anything that can get me to produce work faster, while still maintaining its quality, is a good thing.

How about you other pantsers out there?  Have you ever tried or even thought about trying to outline?

 

 

Leaving Out the Parts People Skip

One of our best American writers, Elmore Leonard, has famously said that he tries to “leave out the parts people skip” when he’s writing. Anyone who has read a Leonard novel knows that they are lean, move quickly, and certainly don’t require any skimming.

But what exactly does that mean?

People start skimming when they lose interest. When they want you to get on with things. When they’re not as engaged by the story as they should be.

So how do you keep them engaged? I have a few ideas:

Keep your prose style simple and economic and clear

You can certainly be clever and artistic, but never sacrifice economy and clarity for the sake of “art.” Much of that art, in fact, is writing in a way that the sentences and paragraphs and pages flow from one to the next, giving the reader no choice but to hang onto every word.

And clarity is always important. If a reader is confused about what is going on, she may well give up on you.

Don’t bog your story down with too much description

Descriptive passages can be quite beautiful, but your job is to weigh whether or not they’re necessary. Are they slowing the story down?

One of my favorite writers of all time is Raymond Chandler. But when I read his novels, I sometimes find myself skipping entire paragraphs. Chandler seemed to have this need to describe a room or character in great detail, and while that may have been part of the job is his day, I think it’s much less important now.

Gregory MacDonald, the author of the Fletch books, among others, once said that because we live in a “post-television” world, it is no longer necessary to describe everything. We all know what the Statue of Liberty looks like because we’ve seen it on TV. We’ve seen just about everything on TV, and probably even more on the Internet.

So, I think it’s best to limit your descriptions to only what is absolutely necessary to make the story work. Meaning: enough to set the scene, set up a character, or to CLARIFY an action.

Let’s face it. Saying something as simple as, The place was a dump. Several used syringes lay on the floor next to a ratty mattress with half its stuffing gone is often more than enough to get the message across.

If you can, describe a setting through the eyes of whatever character controls the scene (meaning POV). If you include the description as part of that character’s thought process, colored by his or her mood or personality, the description then becomes much more dynamic and also reveals a lot about that character.

One man’s dump, after all, may be another man’s paradise. And showing how a character reacts to a place is much more interesting than a static description.

Tease your readers

One of the biggest mistakes I see aspiring writers make is that they try to reveal too much about character motivation and story too soon. Your job – as crass as it might sound – is to manipulate your reader. Too keep her reading. Turning those pages.

Imagine meeting someone for the first time and she tells you everything there is to know about her. Where she was born, where she went to school, how many affairs she’s had, how many brothers and sisters, her favorite color, her favorite food –

– you get the point.

What makes people interesting to us is that all of these things are revealed over a long period of time. We get to know them gradually, rather than all at once. They are a mystery that we have to unravel.

The same holds true with storytelling. You manipulate your readers by constantly creating questions in their minds. Why is she doing that? Where is she going? What happened to her in the past that makes her afraid of confronting him?

If we know it all up front, we”ll lose interest fast.

Give your characters a series of goals

Most stories will involve a central character who wants something. In a thriller, for instance, that may be something very big. The hero wants to stop the bad guy from, say, blowing up the federal building.

But if that’s all the story is about, then I’m yawning already.

If you give the hero a series of goals, smaller points he or she must reach – both internally and externally – before finally reaching that ultimate goal, then your reader will never lose interest.

A great example is the third DIE HARD movie. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE.

The bad guy has something nefarious up his sleeve. But in order to distract the police from that ultimate goal, he sends them on a series of wild goose chases involving high explosives. Because our heroes are moving from one goal to the next, we’re never bored. In fact, we spend much of our time on the edge of our seats.

In the meantime, the main hero suspects that something is up, and as he tries to puzzle it out, we’re right there with him. We have only as much information as he has, so we’re not about to abandon ship until he (and we) knows the truth.

But more importantly, we also have a dynamic relationship playing out on screen between two characters played by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. These two men must work together reluctantly, and because we find them engaging, our stake in the outcome of the story is even higher.

Which brings me to my final point:

Create compelling characters

If you don’t create characters who are interesting in themselves, who have internal struggles we can relate to, who have fears we understand, who have a goal that makes sense to us on a personal level, then it doesn’t matter how cleverly you plot your novel. We won’t care.

If you need help creating compelling characters, take a look at my article on Creating Characters that Jump Off the Page.

Hopefully all of the above will help you “leave out the parts people skip.” And if you want to find out how the master himself does it, go pick up an Elmore Leonard novel today.

But be warned. He does it so well, it’s seamless. So you’ll have to pay close attention…

Up Against It

I’m up against the wall at the moment, so I’m going to take the easy, insta-post way out of my Murderati commitment today.

Okay, okay, groan all you want, but I’ve got a living to make…

First up, is John Irving (complete with really bad camera work) saying exactly how I feel about writing:

Next is Neil Gaiman saying exactly what I say to aspiring writers:

Here’s a video I wish I’d seen before I started writing my own Great American Novel:

And believe it or not, this got over 34,800 views:

Okay, I’m going back to work now.  Talk amongst yourselves…

Hanabata Days

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

~ Maya Angelou

 

“Is it time to go home yet? I keep clicking these damn shoes, but nothing happens.”

~ Robin Hecht

 

I grew up in Honolulu. Moved there with my family when I was eleven years old, spent a few years away, then lived there with my wife and kids until I was in my mid-thirties, when Hollywood started calling.

 

Moving away from Hawaii was difficult for all of us. I’m not a talented enough writer to describe the feelings we had then or the feelings my wife and I have now whenever we think of Honolulu, other than it is simply “home” to us. It is, as Maya Angelou says, a “safe place.” A source of comfort.

 

We try to visit every year and stay with family, but because of a whirlwind of conferences over the last few years, it had been a while since I’d visited. So this year I decided to forego ThrillerFest and RWA and go home with the wife and kids. I spent a lot of time doing nothing – which is just the way I like it.

 

But I also discovered, for the first time, I think, that the old adage is true: you can’t go home again.

 

There’s an expression in Hawaii, a term used to describe the good old days and the feelings of nostalgia that arise whenever we think of them. We call them hanabata days. “Hana” is Japanese for nose, and “bata” is pidgin (local slang) for butter. The days when we were little snots and all was good with the world.

 

During this last visit, as we drove around town, I was constantly reminded of those hanabata days, and how much things have changed since then. The most disconcerting thing, besides the horrendous traffic that makes a six mile drive last an eternity, was just how many of our favorite old eating establishments had disappeared. Ones we grew up with.

 

There was a time, not long ago, when we could get up early in the morning, take a short drive into Kaimuki and stop in at Kwong On, a little hole in the wall Chinese delicatessen that sold the best baked manapua and chow fun you could ever want. You’d walk in, take a number and wait quite a while to get served. That’s how popular it was.

 

But when the owner got sick – or so we’re told – his children decided not to continue with the business and closed the doors. We spent several days hunting for a replacement and soon discovered that there is none. Kwong On was one of a kind. Gone, just like that.

 

Another favorite place, Washington Saimin, disappeared a couple years ago. This was a terrific little restaurant where you could slide into a booth, order a large bowl of saimin (a local version of Japanese noodle soup) along with a couple of barbecue sticks, and soon be in nirvana.

 

But it’s also gone, without a trace.  As is Alex Drive-In, where the waitresses would take your order as you sat in your car, bringing your food on a tray that they mounted on your window.  Or many of the Chinese crack seed stores, full of industrial-sized jars containing dried mango and lee hing mui and other delicacies.

 

Like many places around the world, Honolulu is slowly losing its character – character that’s been replaced by cookie cutter strip malls and shopping centers. The same corporate megaplexes and fast-food psuedo-restaurants we see wherever we go nowadays.

 

Call me crazy, but I just don’t feel quite the same getting a bowl of saimin from McDonald’s as I did getting one from Washington Saimin or Tanoue’s, another favorite that has disappeared. These were places were you could sit down with your family and feel the spirit of old Hawaii, a spirit that is rapidly losing ground to that runaway train called progress.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I still love Hawaii and always will. But there was a time when my wife and I were certain that we would one day retire there. Go back home to grow old.

 

But this last visit had me wondering if I’d ever want to live there again. It isn’t just about missing restaurants, but that feeling that no matter how we try, we’ll never be able to recapture those hanabata days.

 

They’re gone for good.

 

And I’m sure it’s the same for many of you.  You’ve gone back home — wherever that may be — only to discover that it’s changed to the point that it’s become a place that you almost don’t recognize.

 

So tell me, on your trip back, what did you find missing? What do you long for that you’ll never be able to recapture?

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