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About Writing Right: The Blog

EXOTIC SETTINGS

Some people were talking about fiction the other day, and the topic got around to exotic settings. When asked about some of my favorited novels based upon the uniqueness of their settings, I couldn't help but respond.

 

Of course, you have to understand that "unique settings" are unique only to people who don't live in that place. Exotic Fiji isn't very exotic at all to a resident there. As for examples of my favorite settings, here's one that comes to mind. It starts out in Miami and quickly moves to exotic St. Lucia, where the son of a murdered woman marine biologist sets out to bring the killer to justice. In the process, he befriends a native chieftain, runs afoul of black voodoo, and stays two steps ahead of an overzealous suitor while falling in love with a woman who, it turns out, is his adopted step-sister! All ends well in the end, although not before putting the protagonist through some strangely harrowing and unexpected experiences.

 

The book is The Last Wild Orchid, which I not only read numerous times but also happened to write. It's one of my personal favorites. Go figure.

 

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HOW OFTEN TO EDIT

A writer-type fella posted a question online the other day on how many edits an author should give his book before considering it finished. Here's what I replied.

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Congratulations. You received not only two previous answers to your question but also two horrible previous answers. That's batting a thousand. It might be a new online record.

 

For the respondent who said, "For newer writers, it's prob beat to only do do after you've finished your piece," forget him. Anyone incapable of editing the first fifteen words of his own response about editing so that it's understandable is incapable of offering a cogent and meaningful response.

 

For the other respondent who advised you to "Try to get it right the first time around!" when you're on a tight deadline, well, really? Isn't that what writing is all about? Trying to get it right the first time around? And isn't the purpose of editing to go back and revise those things you failed to get right the first time around? Am I missing something here? Read More 

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LIVE IT TO WRITE IT?

I ran across a question the other day that went something like this: Must an author only write a novel about something he has personally experienced? Well, I like shooting ducks in a barrel, so here's how I responded.

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First, is this a serious question, or did you lose a bet? If you read the other two responses you've received as of this writing, you know what I mean.

 

Second, if you read those responses, you should also know enough to take both of them with a big grain of salt. The respondent peddling a book telling how long it takes to write a novel, what you should do "about your first draft" (whatever that means!), and how to revise is ridiculous. Making blanket statements designed to fit every personality, work ethic, and talent level is a waste of time and energy. There is no blueprint for writing a novel—only suggestions on various ways to do it.  Read More 

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BUILDING A FANTASY SETTING

A novice writer asked me the other day what makes a fantasy novel setting bad. My response? I said it's simple. The same thing that makes any setting bad: unbelievability. If the reader can't envision a setting clearly in his mind, he's not going to buy into the the overall concept—and might even be turned off the book altogether. Everything boils down to using creative imagery effectively. And, doing that can be reduced to two elements:

  1. Visualization. Can you, as the writer, see the image clearly in your mind? Can you envision the setting, hear the sounds of everyday life, smell the scent on the breeze, taste the dew in the air, feel the emotions of the people around you, sense the magic of it all?

  2. Description. Can you describe all those things in such a way that the reader can also get a clear sensory image in his mind?

If you answered "no" to either of those questions, your setting is in trouble.

 

You see, readers don't experience writing by reading words. They experience writing by reading rich, indelible, memorable imagery, words that paint a picture of what the author intends to convey. If the writer can't see that imagery in his mind, he can't possibly convey it to others. Until the writer sees a clear mental picture of a setting, it doesn't exist. And, if it doesn't exist, his readers can't see it. Read More 

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ROMAN NUMERAL CHAPTER HEADINGS

People have asked me this question a few times now in the last few months, and it deserves an answer. Namely, can you use chapters numbered with Roman numerals in your novel? My answer: Yes!

 

Next question: Should you use chapters numbered with Roman numerals in your novel? Next answer: No! For reasons that may not be obvious. So, let me add a little something more from an "insider's" point-of-view to clarify.


As a former book, magazine, and newspaper editor, I soon learned that nothing set my ears upright and the hairs on the back of my neck skyrocketing for the stars faster than some quirky, unconventionally formatted manuscript submission. It told me about the writer, "I'm a weirdo trying to stand out visually because my material isn't strong enough to stand out on its own contextually." And, do you want to know something else? That was (and is) exactly right. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred. And, for that one time that it didn't hold true, well, let me just say that, as an editor swamped with manuscripts, running the risk of wading through all the hog slop in search of the pork chop just wasn't worth it. Read More 

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PLOTTING PROBLEMS

When someone posed the question on line as to why he is able to create good characters but can't create a decent story to save his soul, the Internet lit up with do-gooders, not the least of whom was one of my favorite spreaders of online misinformation. Here's what I told him.

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First, assuming the Queen of Wrong can read (which may be a stretch), I'm not sure why she feels you are only interested in the characters "as they are, not how they got to where they are now." You stated in your question that you're good at characterization, so what's Queenie's beef?

 

And, as for her implication that you need a course on "plotting," let me say that plotting isn't the be-all and end-all she apparently thinks it is. Plotting is storytelling, plain and simple. If you can tell a good story from beginning to end without losing your listener's interest, a plotting course will only slow you down in your development. Ask Herman Melville or Uncle Remus or even Beatrix Potter if they'd taken many courses on "plotting" throughout their lives. Uh-uh? That's what I thought.

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STARTING A NEW NOVEL

A newbie author interested in knowing how to begin his new book made the mistake of asking for advice online. As usual, some of the answers were anything but inspiring. Here's how I replied.

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You should start your book with a BANG! That doesn't necessarily mean you must start with your main character at the peak of his crisis, as some genius has suggested. In fact, that may turn into one of the weakest, most predictable formulaic openings you could craft. In fact, some of the most successful novels ever written don't introduce the main character or the primary action at all until later in the book. Want a few examples? I'm happy to oblige.


In the book The Mynah's Call, author Paula Favage begins the story with someone who kills herself before the real action begins. That, in turn, acts as a catalyst for what becomes the book's devastatingly delicious plot in a story that spans the globe from the United States to Afghanistan and back.

 

It's an unusual treatment, producing an introductory chapter of a scant five pages in length. But, Favage's opening gambit pays off. The reader is hooked from page one. By the time the real story begins, he or she can't wait to find out how the author is going to top that opening. Surprise! She really does. Her opening is a genius ploy because it works. It does exactly what the author wanted it to do. Read More 

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A PAEAN TO HARD-BOILED CRIME

What, you ask, is hard-boiled crime, anyway? Well, if you've never seen the film The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart playing detective Sam Spade, you should. Once you do, you'll know the answer to that question. And, become a lifelong fan of H-B crime.

 

Wikipedia defines hard-boiled crime roughly as a literary genre that shares some of its characters and settings with crime fiction (especially detective and noir fiction). The genre's typical protagonist is a detective who battles the violence of organized crime that flourished during Prohibition (1920–1933) and its aftermath, while dealing with a legal system that has become as corrupt as crime itself.

 

Notable hard-boiled detectives include such super-sleuths as Dick Tracy, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and dozens of others.

 

The genre of hard-boiled fiction is nothing new. It made its debut into society in the form of early detective stories appearing initially in the "pulps" or populist magazines of the mid-1920s. The most successful of these publications was Black Mask, in which writers were influenced by the preexisting conventions of the western, nineteenth-century, urban drama. Adapting those conventions to the modern city, innovative novelists such as Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly used the genre to explore the angst created by Prohibition and its resultant wave of crime, particularly organized or Mob crime. Read More 

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IS WRITING A BOOK HARD?

Someone wanted to know why writing a book is so difficult, and he received an answer or two from other online respondents. One was way off the mark. Here's why.

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While I'm sure Mr. Zapata's response was well-intended, it's dead wrong. Sure, writing a book can be all those things he claims, including despair, frustration, and loneliness. But, he makes no allowance for variances between writers, a common shortcoming with newbies with little experience over short periods of time.

Let me explain where he goes wrong.

 

First, writing "a book" isn't difficult at all. You sit down, string some words together, and when you have assembled sixty thousand of them or more, you get up and announce to the world that you've written a book. If that's your goal, it's easy-peasy.

 

However, writing a good book takes considerably more effort and generally more time. That's because all the elements for writing a good novel or even a work of nonfiction work must be present to make it "soar." It has to make sense; it has to move the reader along; it has to provide value for the reader; it has to have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, and it has to provide a satisfactory conclusion. While doing all that, the author must also know the nuts and bolts of grammar, punctuation, syntax, storytelling, conflict and resolution, logic, organization, and all the other elements involved in the clarity and efficiency of writing. Read More 

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DYNAMITE FIRST CHAPTERS

I was thinking the other day about how to write a dynamite first chapter, and I realized there are more ways to accomplish that task than there are oysters in the sea. But there's one sure-fire, can't-miss, absolutely foolproof way to pull it off. Interested? Okay, here it is.

 

Write it.

 

No kidding. Write your first chapter however you want, and then go back and cut it. Cut the chapter in half. And then cut it in half again. And keep cutting until it's one or two pages long. Or less. Far less.

 

I'm serious.

 

Nothing turns off a reader at the beginning of a book (short of horrendous writing, which is rampant among self-published authors and even some conventionally published ones) faster than a long, rambling first chapter. And, the antithesis (are you ready for this revelation?) is that nothing turns a reader on more than a short, punchy chapter that lays out the plot, introduces the main character, and sets the hook so the reader will need to continue reading.

 

Did you hear that?

 

He'll need to keep reading. Read More 

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