So, I’ll start by saying that I have not read His Dark Materials, though the trilogy is now sitting on my ever-expanding reading pile. Nor have I read anything else of Philip Pullman’s. I decided to purchase Daemon Voices because, like any good writer, I am trying to get better at my craft. And I thought Mr. Pullman might be able to help. Well, he has—and brilliantly.
This collection of essays is rich with storytelling examples taken from literature, art, and science. A former teacher, the author knows how to engage the reader without talking down. My only criticism is that he tends to go off on a tangent from time to time about his lack of belief in God or Satan, as though that has anything to do with the task at hand.
That said, I consider this book a must-read for any author who wishes to better understand the difference between story and plot, fantasy and reality in fiction, and why anything beginning with “once upon a time” immediately captures our imagination. Well done, Mr. Pullman.
Book Description From the internationally best-selling author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, a spellbinding journey into the secrets of his art—the narratives that have shaped his vision, his experience of writing, and the keys to mastering the art of storytelling.
One of the most highly acclaimed and best-selling authors of our time now gives us a book that charts the history of his own enchantment with story—from his own books to those of Blake, Milton, Dickens, and the Brothers Grimm, among others—and delves into the role of story in education, religion, and science. At once personal and wide-ranging, Daemon Voices is both a revelation of the writing mind and the methods of a great contemporary master, and a fascinating exploration of storytelling itself.
This is the last in a three-part series on better writing. In Part One, I covered prologues and why I don’t like them. You can find that here. In Part Two, I delved into what I like to call “dithering,” or boring the reader to death before you can get to the frickin’ point. Click here to find out what I’m talking about. In this final installment, I want to cover something that, as least in my reading experience, is rare. Nevertheless, I think for the reader it’s a turn-off. Here we go.
Abandoning Your Protagonist This one is a doozy and something that’s still hard for me to get my head around. I started reading a thriller that has received a number of excellent reviews on Amazon. For around the first third of the book, the author had me hooked. The protagonist—a woman—narrates the story which, layer by layer, leads the reader into a world of suburban madness and revenge. At times, I found myself marveling at the phrasing and keen sense of timing. Each character was well drawn and possessed a unique voice. And the narrator’s observations—wickedly funny!
Then, for no reason whatsoever, the author decides to abandon the protagonist, rewinding everything back to the beginning and picking up the story from some new character’s POV. Of course, I guessed that the two story lines would inevitably collide. But, to be honest, I didn’t stick around to find out. If this book hadn’t been sitting on my Kindle, I would’ve flung it against the wall in disgust. Needless to say, I was disappointed. So, what exactly did the author do wrong? Simple. He took me out of the world he’d created for my pleasure and sent me to jail (do not pass Go). He ruined the ride by making me get off in the middle and board a different ride. Here’s what I mean.
You’re watching the classic movie Blade Runner. From the opening shot, you’re hooked as Deckard is unwillingly drawn into a hunt for missing replicants who have already committed murder. Then, just as things are getting good, the director brings everything to a halt, and we go back to the beginning so we can follow Rachael and learn what she’s been up to while Deckard is running around the wet streets of Los Angeles with that fancy gun of his. Now, be honest. Even if you did decide to stay and finish your popcorn, wouldn’t it be jarring to be suddenly taken out of the story like that? Sure, it would.
What should the author have done? Well, if it were me, I would swtich POVs in alternating chapters. Take a look at these excerpts from the excellent thriller Little White Lies by Elizabeth McGregor. She weaves a hypnotic tale of deceit and betrayal involving several characters. Here is Beth, the wife of a man who has apparently committed suicide:
She glanced at him. He had expected to see a difference in her face: sadness, grief, tears. But there was nothing at all. She wore the usual slightly preoccupied look that she had when weighing up a garden, calculating in her head. Beth was nothing if not capable, but he was surprised to see any strength now.
‘Alan,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry about this. I know you’re busy.’
‘Christ! That doesn’t matter.’
‘Is it archaeological, then?’
‘The body. Is it recent, or what?’
‘Beth… Look, why don’t you come in?’
She smiled a little. ‘They all want me to come inside,’ she remarked.
Now, here’s Julia, a neighbor of Beth’s whose daughter, Rosie, is chronically ill for some reason:
‘Mummy,’ Rosie called from the back seat of the car. ‘Stop.’
Julia Woods glanced in the rear-view mirror. She was driving at fifty along the back farm road to the village. She hardly heard what her daughter was saying.
‘What is it?’
‘You mustn’t do that.’
A junction was approaching; Julia changed gear, and then realised what Rosie was talking about. She was going too fast. The car slewed slightly to one side, and clipped the uncut verge.
‘All right. We’re going slow. See? Very slow.’
I realize it’s hard to talk about structure by using a couple of small excerpts. My point is, you’ve got two women in crisis, plus a few other characters who seem to be broken. And the author is able to tell each’s story beautifully in a single hypnotic work.
Recently, I read and reviewedThe Last Victim, a first-rate thriller by the immensely talented Jordan Dane. Like Elizabeth McGregor, this author does an excellent job of moving the story forward, alternating between the POV of the FBI profiler, Ryker Townsend, and the serial killer he is pursuing.
For Readers. Which do you prefer—stories told from one person’s POV or from several?
For Authors. How have you solved storytelling problems when dealing with multiple POVs?
In the first post in this series, I talked about prologues and why I feel they are no longer relevant to good storytelling. You can check that one out here. Now, except for the occasional literary fiction classic, I like to devote my reading time to indie authors. In this installment, I want to talk about a more pervasive problem—and one that is pretty easy to avoid. It happens when the author thinks they need to wait to get to the good stuff. Here’s what I’m talking about.
Dithering Recently, I started a book—a ghost story—and I have to tell you, I was bored out of my skull. I think I got less than twenty pages in and finally had to stop. I just couldn’t take any more. To make matters worse, the novel in question begins with a prologue that could have easily been replaced by good backstory! Frankly, that should have been the tipoff. If you really want to lose readers, be sure to write pages and pages of well-constructed, correctly spelled prose that features characters who all sound the same and where nothing happens. It’s what I like to call “dithering.” And in this case, it was almost as if the author was afraid to bring in the paranormal and instead decided to dissect the daily lives of the boring protagonist and his boring wife. Boring, I tell you!
So, what should the author have done instead? Well, if you’re going to write about ghosts, then begin by scaring the pee out of your audience from the get-go. Same with thrillers. You must grab the poor unsuspecting reader by the throat and refuse to let go until the book is finished. Sounds harsh, I know. But I believe in tough love when it comes to writing this kind of stuff. If you don’t know how to get started, try an exercise. Take your boring married couple and pretend they are serial killers. What would they talk about at the breakfast table? What were they doing last night? What are they keeping in the garage? You get the picture.
Here is an excerpt from Stephen King’s iconic ghost story, The Shining, where Jack Torrance is interviewing for the job of caretaker of The Overlook Hotel. Notice that King can’t wait to reveal the horrors lurking in the hotel’s murky history as Ullman explains what the previous caretaker did:
“I suspect that what happened came as a result of too much cheap whiskey, of which Grady had laid in a generous supply, unbeknownst to me, and a curious condition which the old-timers call cabin fever. Do you know the term?” Ullman offered a patronizing little smile, ready to explain as soon as Jack admitted his ignorance, and Jack was happy to respond quickly and crisply.
“It’s a slang term for the claustrophobic reaction that can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time. The feeling of claustrophobia is externalized as dislike for the people you happen to be shut in with. In extreme cases it can result in hallucinations and violence—murder has been done over such minor things as a burned meal or an argument about whose turn it is to do the dishes.”
Ullman looked rather nonplussed, which did Jack a world of good. He decided to press a little further, but silently promised Wendy he would stay cool.
“I suspect you did make a mistake at that. Did he hurt them?”
“He killed them, Mr. Torrance, and then committed suicide. He murdered the little girls with a hatchet, his wife with a shotgun, and himself the same way. His leg was broken. Undoubtedly so drunk he fell downstairs.”
And that’s from Chapter One! Talk about setting the stage for the savagery to come. The point is, don’t wait to get to the good stuff. In medias res, people! It’s why the reader bought your book in the first place. Also, think about this. Readers can preview your book by reading the first ten percent or so for free. Why in the world would you risk boring them right out of the gate? Next time, we conclude our series with something strange. See you then.
For Readers. What are some things authors do that bore you?
For Authors. Do you have a favorite technique for punching up a boring scene?
I’ve been doing lots of reading lately. Of course, you would expect that since I write books! Anyway, I’ve noticed some things other indie authors do sometimes that drive me nuts. If you’re looking for me to name names, forget it. Professional courtesy and all. What I plan to focus on over the next three posts is what I have observed and what you, being the brilliant writer you are, can do to avoid falling into these habits.
First, I want to frame things up. I’m not talking about an overreliance on adverbs. Yes, we all know Stephen King said the road to hell is paved with them. Use them. Don’t use them. Whatever. Second, regarding hiring an editor. If you’re not doing that, then I suggest you get out of the business. Amazon already offers plenty of self-edited books, and frankly, it doesn’t need any more. Same thing for covers. Hire a professional whydon’tcha. Okay, let’s begin.
Prologues The word prologue comes from the ancient Greek word prólogos. This form was very popular in Greek drama. Merriam-Webster provides two definitions as they relate to literary works. Here is the second, which I think most authors actually intend when they include one in their book: an introductory or preceding event or development.
So, here’s my take. Unless you are planning to rewrite Canterbury Tales, do not use this outdated literary form. In the 21st century, prologues are often used to address backstory. And that is a mistake, in my view. Here’s an analogy. I’ve heard a lot about this amazing new steakhouse. Spendy, but worth every penny, my friends tell me. So, I decide to see for myself and book a reservation.
After I am seated, I peruse the menu and order the best steak in the house. When it arrives, I can see it sizzling on the plate, the red juices seeping out from underneath. The server places it in front of me and, just as I am about to cut into it and enjoy that first tasty bite, he grabs my hand. Then, he begins telling me about the cow, how it was raised, and that time the tipsy cattle farmer got a little too aggressive with the branding iron, which explains why there is a noticeable dent along the edge.
Of course, there are always exceptions. I am currently reading the fortieth anniversary edition of The Exorcist. And yes, there is a prologue. But in this case, I feel it’s warranted. The author, William Peter Blatty, uses it to set the stage for all the bad things to come. He also introduces a major character, Fr. Merrin, who will eventually fight the demon that is possessing Regan. Now, the author could have chosen to include Fr. Merrin’s backstory later. But starting the book in Iraq, where the priest physically confronts a terrifying statue of that same demon, he’s letting us know that not only is evil real but it’s ancient. Check this out:
The man in khaki prowled the ruins. The Temple of Nabu. The Temple of Ishtar. He sifted vibrations. At the palace of Ashurbanipal he stopped and looked up at a limestone statue hulking in situ. Ragged wings and taloned feet. A bulbous, jutting, stubby penis and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin. The demon Pazuzu.
Abruptly the man in khaki sagged.
He bowed his head.
It was coming.
If you’re going to employ a prologue, then use it as God intended. Generally, I would stay away from them, though. Instead, weave your backstory as you go, letting the reader uncover new connections along the way. This makes for a much more satisfying read. Reading is all about discovery, and it’s okay if we don’t know a character’s history up front. We are willing to trust that the author will reveal all in good time. Next up, we look at dithering. Don’t worry, you’ll see what I mean.
For Readers. Have you come across books where you felt the prologue was actually helpful?
For Authors. Have you found yourself using a prologue because you felt there was no better way to tell your story?
I used to ride horses. I know, right? Let me just say that these creatures are beautiful. And when the horse and rider are one, the experience can be magical. But horses are also dumb—and incredibly powerful. Not a great combination, if you ask me. If a horse doesn’t want you on its back, it will throw you. And there is nothing you can do about it. Ask a rodeo cowboy. We’re talking half a ton of raw animal power, people. Oh, and they bite, too. But—and I can only vouch for English riding—show a horse a thirty-inch riding crop, and things can change for the better. You don’t even have to use it—just let them see it out of the corner of their eye.
Lately, I’ve been reading posts by other writers moaning about their inner critics. You know what I’m talking about. The inner critic is that nagging little macher who’s always in your face whenever you try putting pen to paper (not to be confused with one’s Muse). And, as far as I know, it doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are. Mine is a guy, is shorter than me, and resembles Ray Liotta, for some reason. Though he smells like hand sanitizer, I gotta give it to him—he dresses well. Now, I have never met Ray Liotta, so rather than besmirch his good name, I’ll call the bane of my existence “Stan.”
The Prick Who Came to Dinner Stan is not the kind of person who values relationships, so obviously, he’s single. He’s been known to vanish for most of the day—I have no idea where he goes. Maybe he’s torturing some other poor schmuck. Which makes me wonder. Does he talk about me? Never mind. Stan has an uncanny ear, and as soon as he hears me typing on my laptop, he’s in the room, standing directly behind me. Breathing through his nose. Watching every letter that appears on the screen. Well, that’s how things used to be, anyway. Sound familiar?
If he gets the chance, Stan will tell me what I am writing is crap and should be burned. He wonders aloud how I’ve managed to have any success at all as a writer and suggests I look into selling insurance. He enjoys laughing at my analogies, similes, and metaphors, and bawls comically whenever I attempt to craft a tender scene. In short, he’s merciless. Now at this point, I’ll bet you think I hate Stan, right? Well, I don’t. Because as annoying as he is, he’s smart—really smart. Okay, he’ll never invent time travel. But he knows a lousy sentence when he reads one.
Stan, ladies and gentlemen, is my inner critic, and I need him. There, I said it. But here’s the thing: I need him on my terms, not his. If it were up to him, I would never write another word. “The world will thank you,” he told me one time, leaving a trail of pistachio nut shells on the shag carpet. But I’m not listening. A long time ago, I decided to train him. Just like a horse. And although he doesn’t always behave, things have gotten way better.
Now, there are writers out there far more qualified than me to explain the phases of writing in a way that makes sense. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go.
Dreams and Nightmares An idea comes to me, and I jot it down in my Big Book of Ideas. This can happen when I overhear a piece of a conversation or in the middle of the night when I’m trying to fall asleep. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it. Most of the time, the idea just sits in that book, collecting dust like a lonely little toy no one wants to play with. Sometimes, I incorporate it into something else. And on rare occasions, it becomes a short story or even a novel. I do not control this process—it just happens. And as I record it, Stan is nowhere in sight.
The Dreaded First Draft This is where I sit down to the blank page. Or, in my case, the blank screen. By the way, this stage applies to short or long fiction. I’m a pantser, so I have only the vaguest notion of how to write this thing. I have a protagonist and, if I’m lucky, an antagonist. But other characters come into the picture as I go. The minute I start writing, Stan waltzes into the room, ready to tear me a new one. But before he can take his place behind my chair, I show him the riding crop. His eyes get huge, and he slinks away, muttering something like “Just for that, I’m eating all the Häagen-Dazs.” But don’t be fooled. He’ll continue trying to get back into the room, usually pretending to be the cable guy. My job is to keep him out until I finish the day’s writing. And let me tell you, it’s exhausting.
The Baby Edit This happens the next day. I read what I’ve written and invite Stan to join me. That’s right. This pomaded idiot is like a kid in a candy store as he goes to work, pointing out lame construction and tired clichés. After allowing him to eviscerate me, I kick him out and proceed with the next day’s writing.
Keep in mind these last two phases continue until I finish the book or story. Sometimes, I get stuck and work on a different project. Currently, I have at least three unfinished novels kicking around. I’m pretty sure I will finish them. But even if I don’t, others will take their place.
The Mother of All Edits This is where I edit the entire manuscript, with Stan at my side. I leave the crop on the desk so he can see it, in case he gets any ideas. Usually, he keeps his snarky comments to himself and provides useful suggestions on how to improve what I’ve written. This process takes days, and when I am finished, I set the work aside. I may go through this stage half a dozen times over the course of months. When I am absolutely sure the thing is perfect (nothing is perfect, but you know what I mean), I send the book off to my editor.
Wrapping Up So, there you have it. Every writer approaches the process differently. No matter how you write, though, there is one thing I would advise. Never mix writing and editing. That’s like inviting Stan to sit down. And you don’t want that, trust me. For one thing, he’s never had an original idea in his life. Also, writing is miserable enough without saddling yourself with a banshee screaming in your ear over every ill-chosen bon mot. Not to mention those pesky adverbs. Anyway, enough. I’d love to hear how you deal with your inner critic. Why not post a comment? In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote.
You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished. ― Will Self
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot more. Mostly, I stick to contemporary fiction—especially in the genres I write in. This helps me in two ways. First, I get a look at the competition. And second, I see what’s hot and what’s not as far as reader tastes go. But there’s another benefit and, depending on what you buy, you can take advantage of another writer’s research.
But wait, you say. I thought writers just make crap up and hope they can fool you. Well, that’s true—for bad writers. Good ones take the time to learn about the world they are constructing and endow their stories with a rich undertone that immerses the protagonist—and the reader. Here’s an example. I just finished a novel about a journalist who gets caught up in a conspiracy that involves soulless corporate giants and an assassin with a love of greasy food. To be honest, the book isn’t great. Though the story is well constructed, I felt the principal characters lacked believability. In other words, they just didn’t ring true. Nevertheless, I am so glad I read the book. Here’s why.
The Only Source of Knowledge Is Experience Einstein said that, and I happen to agree wholeheartedly. The author of the book in question is a former journalist and, when it comes to dogged reporters on a beat, he knows what he’s talking about. I really enjoyed learning about the mindset of the journalist, as well as hearing the faint praise and jeering commentary about the profession as a whole. The author has also peppered the story with discussions of the power of big media and print vs. online. I’m not saying that after reading the book I could go off and write my own novel about a journalist/detective. But I could certainly create a secondary character who’s a journalist and make them sound authentic. Experience counts.
Reading for Pleasure and Learning When I was a kid, I always compartmentalized my reading. There were books I read to learn and those I devoured for pleasure. But it was rare that a book served both ends. I say nuts to that! Providing you pick good material, every book can be a learning experience. Often when I read, I like to pore over the language. This is what helps me to write better. But I am also aware of the setting and the jargon a character uses. Recently, I reviewed a horror collection. There was one, in particular, I fell in love with—“The Corpse King” by Tim Curran. Now, I could be wrong, but I am of the opinion that the author researched the hell out of the period and in particular about how resurrectionists plied their trade. This is an excellent example of a story that is pleasurable to read and teaches you something in the bargain.
Apply Your Knowledge I’ve read a lot of nonfiction books about the demonic and possession. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I do bring that background to the stories I write. The last thing I want is for someone in the know to read my work and dismiss it as uninformed drivel. And this is apart from the writing. Readers either like my work, or they don’t. I just don’t want to be accused of ignorance when I could have just as easily researched before I wrote. And neither should you! Remember, writing isn’t just about the words—it’s about what’s behind them. Have fun.
I’ve read a lot over the years—not as much as some of those insane speed readers who seem to devour a book a day, but a lot. In fiction, my tastes vary between pulp and literary. And I have to say, a lot of literary writers write dialogue that is wooden and boring. I mean, I know this stuff is supposed to be highbrow and all, but honestly! Sometimes, I want to reach in between the pages and strangle the writer with his typewriter ribbon while screaming, “Nobody talks like that in real life!”
If you are, like me, a modern writer, and you suspect your characters’ speech is less than scintillating, then I have a tip for you: watch more movies and television—especially TV. And I’m not talking about network sitcoms. There’s nothing worse than trying to pass off bad writing by adding a laugh track. ‘Schitt’s Creek’ is a Canadian show I had the pleasure of watching on Amazon Prime recently. At least two of the stars—Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara—you will recognize from their work in many of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries like ‘Best in Show’ and ‘A Mighty Wind.’ This outing, if you check the credits, seems to have required the entire Levy clan. Nevertheless…
It’s Not What You Say Let me start by saying that the show is hilarious. Not so much the situation, though. Essentially, this production is a reimagining of the old fish-out-of-water series ‘Green Acres.’ You know, cultured, affluent people finding themselves in the middle of Armpit, USA. What’s funny is the dialogue, which is very well written and real. And it’s different from what you’d find in a David Mamet script (think ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’) where words are more weapons than communication, or in an Aaron Sorkin show (think ‘The Newsroom’) where everyone is super-smart and acts accordingly. (Both are outstanding, BTW.)
In ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ the way people speak is authentic. I mean, I’ve heard people in the street who carry on like this. I’m not going to go into the plot; you can watch the show for yourself. I want to focus on the dialogue. Now, I’ve identified four qualities I think writers will find useful:
Everyone is passive-aggressive.
People speak past each other.
Characters lie their ass off.
There’s a boatload of upspeak.
I Love You—I Hate You Practically every time someone attempts to give a compliment, what comes out is laced with venom. But in a nice way! Here’s an example. Johnny, Moira, and their son, David, arrive at the Mayor’s house for dinner—a meal none of them are not looking forward to sharing with their hosts Roland and Jocelyn.
You have a really lovely home. It’s really, um,
Thank you. I get a lot of my ideas from magazines.
Don’t be modest. This is one hundred percent you
and only you.
In lesser hands, this scene would have been written broadly, with someone making a tasteless wisecrack about an ugly table lamp. (Cue laugh track.) In this scene, however, everyone knows what’s being said, and no one is fooled. But each character still manages to maintain a razor-thin veneer of social grace. Think about adding this layer of subtlety to one or more of your characters and see what happens to your scenes.
Hello? Is Anyone Listening? There’s a wonderful exchange when the motel manager, Stevie, lets David know she’s going to a “sketchy” bar later. David immediately invites himself, but it’s clear she’s not comfortable with that.
We’re going to be each other’s wing people tonight.
Um… Now, how diverse is the clientele at this local
I would say, very diverse.
Do you remember what life was like before dating
apps? Both excited and terrified for tonight.
I don’t think I ever said you could come.
Okay, so what time, though? Um… And is there a
dress code? ’Cause I want to come prepared.
For me, this scene illustrates so well that each character is determined to further their own agenda. So, even though these two are having a conversation, they are actually talking past each other toward the outcome they desire. Stevie doesn’t want David to go, and he wants to.
I Can See Why You Would Think That Lying is a staple in television comedy, but these guys do it with elegance and grace. So much of it is used to cover something up, but sometimes, it’s to shield the other person from reality because, well, it’s just too much trouble being honest. In this exchange, David has reluctantly decided to find a job, and he’s asking for Stevie’s help:
Do you have any other skills or areas of expertise?
Uh, I’ve been told I have really good taste?
Uh, well, that’s good. Um, let’s see… Oh! Bag boy at
the grocery store.
I don’t know what that is.
You put groceries in bags so that people can carry
their groceries out of the grocery store.
Okay. And how much do you think that would pay?
Mm… I’m gonna say minimum wage.
Which is what, forty, forty-five something an hour?
This Is a Statement of Fact? I’m not really sure where upspeak (or uptalk) came from. I want to say it all started with the movie ‘Valley Girl.’ But today, everyone does it—even me, sometimes. And if you don’t have at least one or two characters speaking that way in your book, you’re probably not trying hard enough to get some variety in your dialogue.
In ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ David and his sister, Alexis, do it a lot. In fact, most of the townies don’t speak that way, so there’s a nice contrast. I won’t provide any dialogue examples here because there are too many. But here’s a clip to get you started:
Wrapping Up So, there you have it. For me, a big part of writing great dialogue is introducing variety. A good test is to switch the names of characters speaking and see if the scene still makes sense. If it does, you’ve got a problem. Getting back to literary fiction, as far as I’m concerned, many characters are interchangeable regarding speech. Some great authors have an incredible ear, though. Whether or not you like Charles Dickens, the man knew how to make each of his characters shine through dialogue. (I’m thinking in particular of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House.)
As writers, we spend so much time figuring out the plot and writing about a character’s inner life. But don’t forget, when someone reads your book, they are saying the words aloud in their head. And when they get to the dialogue, they hear your character’s voice. Make sure they can distinguish one person from another. Now, enjoy the trailer from Season 1, available for free at Amazon Prime.
I thought that title would get your attention. Look, this isn’t going to be some stupid rant about how we need to return to simpler times when people walked instead of drove cars, washed their own clothes in the river and churned their own butter. Technology can be beneficial when used wisely. But whoever the genius was who decided to cram an incredibly powerful computer that fits in your palm was clearly not thinking about the welfare of writers.
I mean, seriously. We’re talking about a demographic that will use any excuse not to write. Hypochondriacs who insist they are suffering from a painful medical condition known in most English-speaking countries as writer’s block (or bloqueo de escritor to our Spanish-speaking friends). Lollygaggers who have zero problem binge-watching every television show ever created because they are “doing research.” Yeah, let’s give those guys one more thing to distract them.
The Good Old Days Back in the day when cell phones didn’t exist, writers were more observational. How do I know this? Well, because I used to be that way. It was not uncommon for me to sit in a public place for hours, watching people. And when in conversation, I used to give the other person my undivided attention. This was normal, people! It’s how we used to conduct ourselves in a civilized society. Later when I sat down to write, I recalled character traits and dialogue I had observed. It’s what, I feel, gave my work authenticity.
Of course, this is not to say there weren’t distractions. Television, for example. But you couldn’t very well schlep around a set around with you. Sure, portable TVs did exist, but they were used mostly by smiling seniors traveling the country in high-mileage campers.
Now Things really are different today. I know everyone says that, but it’s true. It’s as if we are more distracted than ever. I blame technology. Think about it. We can spend hours consuming content on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. And, yes, we can also get lost in Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Pokémon GO. (Speaking of Netflix, check out my earlier post, “Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer.”)
Let me ask you something. When was the last time you went to a public place and watched real people interacting, rather than staring down at your phone every five seconds? I thought so. And I’m not claiming I’m any better. In fact, the main reason I decided to post this was to warn myself about the dangers of personal electronics.
So what happens when you don’t spend enough time thinking and observing? Well, you tend to rip off characters and dialogue from movies and television. Sure, you’re probably still reading but, come on. How many minutes a day do you spend looking at your phone instead of reading a book? Yeah …
Everything in Moderation Things are only going to get worse. Cats and dogs living together. I am confident there will come a day when devices that can connect to the Internet will be embedded in our brains. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this article from 2013. It’s only a matter of time. What then? Do we, as writers, just give up? Oh, and haven’t you heard? Researchers have been programming AI machines to write novels without any need for human intervention. Take a look at this. I’ve already resigned myself to the possibility that this infernal machine will land a literary agent before I do.
Okay, this is starting to go sideways. Back to my original point. The key to the whole thing, in my view, is discipline. As I stated earlier, cell phones can offer a great advantage when used properly. if I’m in a conversation with someone and one of us happens to mention a fact the other feels is inaccurate, either of us can quickly Google the topic and correct the error right there and then—though I would advise you against trying that with your spouse. Trust me.
There is a time to use your cell phone and a time to put it the hell away. I suggest you remember that during meals, at parties and when attending church. Our brains are wired to observe, and it would be a shame if we let that higher function atrophy to the point where we evolve into a bunch of dumb, drooling spectators. Kind of like those clueless characters in ‘Idiocracy.’ Consider yourself warned.
A while ago, I told you about a novel I had adapted from one of my old screenplays (see “Adapting a Screenplay—Fun Times”). As I was writing the book, I thought my biggest challenge would be making a decent novel out of what is essentially a blueprint for a movie, which is what a screenplay is. The good news? I showed a recent draft to a few trusted friends, and the consensus is that the story works. Now for the bad news.
Finding Your Genre
Typically, when writing a novel you have pretty good idea about which genre you’re in. We’ve been trained to think this way, and it’s my view that this is mostly due to the influence of movies and television. What’s the first thing an agent asks you (after “Who are you again?”)—what is it? And they’re not talking about the story, my friend. No, they are asking whether it’s rom-com, horror, thriller, period, coming-of-age, etc. In other words, they want to know how to market it.
And here’s the thing—because we as writers are already trained, we will write according to these predefined genres, or categories. Of course, Amazon makes it easy too. When you publish your book, you are asked to select up to three categories. Here’s one—Fiction->Romance->Contemporary.
But what if your story doesn’t fall neatly into a pigeon hole?
This is where I found myself after finishing my novel. And I will tell you in all honesty, this is precisely why I had struggled with the screenplay. In my mind, I had a great story, but it wasn’t targeted at a particular audience (kids, millennials, older adults, etc.). So, now what?
Well, I had a great conversation with my friend Melodie Ramone, who I interviewed recently. Melodie is not only a brilliant writer, but she knows the publishing world well—particularly when it comes to what publishers want from fiction. And what they want is apparently no different than what those pesky Hollywood agents want—they want to categorize the book so they can market it in the same tired way they do all the others that fall into your particular genre.
Sadly, my book is what Melodie calls a “genre bender.” And, bless her, she didn’t discourage me from publishing it. Sure, I’ll probably never get a literary agent to look at it, but who cares? I’m focused on indie publishing anyway. Of course, I still have to figure out how to market the damned thing, and that is still the problem.
In researching genre-bending types of fiction, I ran across a term I wasn’t familiar with—family fiction. I tried looking it up, and guess what—there is no definition. I found items as diverse as “Christian fiction,” “family saga” and “domestic fiction.” In fact, there’s a site called FamilyFiction.com that appears to try and own the brand, categorizing itself as a purveyor of Christian fiction.
When I searched Amazon’s Kindle store, I found that “family fiction” is a recognized search term. The first book that popped up on the list at the time of this writing was The Doctor’s Unexpected Family by Kristen Ethridge. You got it—Christian fiction. The second was A Legacy of Secrets by Jean Reinhardt, which is listed as a family saga. Then there’s Alone by Holly Hook, which appears to be targeted to the YA/Sci-Fi/Fantasy crowd. I saw other titles with “family” in them, which unfortunately means that Mario Puzo’s The Family is included. Now, most people are aware that Amazon is great at leveraging big data, but the fact that Christian fiction-themed books appear alongside stories about La Cosa Nostra tells me that family fiction is not a true genre, at least as far as they’re concerned.
Alternatively, if you visit Goodreads, you’ll find a list of family fiction that features books as diverse as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle (which is part of her “A Wrinkle in Time” series). Now granted, the only reason the list contains these books is because readers shelved them that way, which tells me that readers themselves don’t really understand what family fiction is. They probably figure, hey, if it’s about a family, then it must be family fiction. So wait, could it be that simple?
Bringing It Home
Back to my story. My book is told mostly in the first person by a thirteen-year-old girl. But occasionally, I use third-person omniscient because there are important scenes that don’t include her but drive the other characters—her mother and father, for example.
I still haven’t figured out how I am going to market this thing, but Melodie gave me some great suggestions. I will keep you informed as to my progress. In the meantime, I would love to see some comments about what you consider to be family fiction.
Early in my writing career I focused entirely on writing screenplays—something I would not recommend to the foolhardy. You see, unlike novels, screenplays serve absolutely no purpose if you can’t sell them. They sit in a pile in the corner of your home office collecting dust, instead of appearing with nice covers on Amazon. That said, if you are lucky enough to have a written a screenplay that sold (I did that once), you might be on your way to an actual career in the movie business.
But enough about fairy tales.
Horror Comedy, Anyone?
I want to talk about a particular screenplay I wrote a few years back that had to do with a fourteen-year-old girl, a nasty marital breakup and a behind-the-scenes look at an indie horror film. Sounds fascinating, right? At the time I really thought I could make that thing sing. Now, from a technical perspective the work was professional. But I was never really able to generate enough interest. So … I tossed it into the corner and allowed it to gather a nice patina of dust.
I’d been toying with the idea of adapting some of my screenplays into novels. I mean, why let all that good writing go to waste? And I decided that, because I had just come off a heavy horror thriller trilogy with lots of bloodshed, I would tackle a fun horror comedy … with somewhat less bloodshed.
I’m just about finished with the “novelization”—something I’d never done before. And let me tell you, it’s hair-raising. In screenplays, each page is a combination of slug lines, short descriptions and dialogue. That’s it. Try turning that into beautiful prose that descends on the reader like the first gentle snowfall in a New England winter. The process is quite instructive, though, and I am learning more about voice than I ever thought I would.
I’ll keep you posted on the progress from time to time, but it’s my goal to turn this thing into an enjoyable book that captures some of the craziness of living in LA, from the POV of a precocious teenager. Wish me luck.