A summer’s worth of photos

Plus a volcano.

If you want to know where I get my ideas, here’s a sampling. These photos have been taken over the past few months. Some are of found items or street scenes I’ve come across. They provide a snapshot into my life — especially what I find glorious and goofy.

And no: no more context for you. You’ll have to figure out what’s going on in all the photos. Though I will tell you the volcano is Mt. Hood.

Exposition in dialogue: Don’t let it go wrong

Earlier this week I posted some writing “don’ts.” These included exposition in dialogue. In the comments, pujagokarn161289 asked:

Could you explain the ‘exposition in dialogue’ point a bit more elaborately?

Happy to.

I’ll start you off with a definition of exposition, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Narrative exposition, or simply exposition, is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc.”

Exposition is writing or speech whose purpose is to explain something or convey information. It’s necessary in narrative fiction — at some point in a story, the characters’ relationships, their histories, their world, and what’s at stake will need to be revealed. And sometimes straight exposition is the simplest and most efficient way for the author to explain what’s going on. But it’s almost always more dramatic, and elegant, to immerse readers in the story, to show the characters and their world, than to explain background information through a long expository summary or a speech.

Exposition can come off as clunky, boring, and stupid when characters reveal information in dialogue — especially when one character explains something to another that they both know. The dialogue will convey information to the reader, but it will be unnatural and stilted.

“Well, if it isn’t my oldest brother, Joe. Did your wife, Gina, and your twin sons, Simon and Garfunkel, come with you on this surprise visit?”

“No, Wilfred. As I’m sure you remember, the last time my family came to this secret cabin on the shore of Loch Ness, we had that tragic fishing incident, and Gina swore never to return unless Nessie regurgitated the twins.”

Nobody talks like this. The characters are force-feeding information to the audience.

Instead of simply dumping information into dialogue, reveal it through conflict, humor, or moments of surprise.

“Joe. How the hell did you know I was here? Dammit, did Mom–”

“Yeah, she told me. I’m her favorite. You gonna invite me in, or just let me freeze in the wind coming off that loch? And stop looking over my shoulder. I’m alone. Gina wouldn’t come back here even if I speared Nessie and barbecued her with a flamethrower.”

Hope that helps.

Blast from the past — Writing: don’t, don’t, don’t

smew

Because I’m deeply involved in an intellectual exercise — playing The Dictionary Game with my extended family — I’m going to re-run a post about writing from several years ago.

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Writing: don’t, don’t, don’t

Susan Hill puts her finger on what makes bad writing bad.

Robert Harris, in his terrific thriller, GHOST WRITER, has something spot on to say about bad novels, through the mouth of his narrator. It explains in a modest number of words almost everything that is wrong with 99% of the manuscripts I read by aspiring writers.

‘All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same….they don’t ring true. I don’t say that a good book is true, necessarily, just that it feels true for the time you’re reading it.’

Let me add my two bits. Here are a few things that make writing ring false — techniques guaranteed to leave readers cringing.

Exclamation points. They do not make dull work exciting, any more than banging cymbals together every four seconds makes Muzak exciting. No. They make you sound like you’ve overdosed on screaming pills. “Coffee, please!” “My God, you’re evil!” (Often accompanied by “she gasped.”) Listen to Elmore Leonard: restrict yourself to two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words.

Exposition in dialogue. “Finster! What are you doing at midnight on the banks of the Yangtze river, here in China? I haven’t seen you since we hijacked the space shuttle and buzzed NASA Mission Control in Houston!” “Wilhelm! Your wife, Sabine, told me you would be here. She says your son, Rannulf, who’s been fighting with the Foreign Legion, and your six-year-old triplets, who star in a reality television show, are planning a coup d’etat!”

Throat clearing. Also called announcing the cast. This means introducing the characters one at a time, in a static way, usually by having an omniscient narrator describe each person’s looks, habits, strengths, and failings. Sometimes accomplished by having a character recite his biography in a two-page block of dialogue. Frequently accompanied by lengthy flashbacks to a tragic event in the character’s past. Or a trivial yet formative event. I know, I know — you must introduce the characters. And you think that this is the only possible way to do it. You think that unless the author holds up the characters one at a time and tells readers who they are, nobody will understand the next 500 pages of the novel. You think that once readers memorize the characters’ CVs, then the story can begin. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Too late.

Fake mystery. Withholding information from the reader can create suspense. But withholding the identities of the people in a scene just creates frustration — if you do it in half your scenes. “Two men huddled at a corner table, speaking in low tones. ‘It’s time,’ one said.” By the thirty-fourth time you’ve used this technique, and it turns out yet again that the two men are the protagonist and his brother, the reader is ready to tear the story to shreds.

I could go on. But I need to return to my own rough draft to make sure I haven’t commmitted any of these sins.

Questions from writers: What’s genre? Can you embellish an autobiography?

Over the past few months I’ve received questions from new writers. Here they are, with my answers.

1. What’s genre?

According to Merriam-Webster:
genre
noun \ˈzhän-rə, ˈzhäⁿ-; ˈzhäⁿr; ˈjän-rə\
: a particular type or category of literature or art

When talking about books, genre refers to the subject and style: mystery, science fiction, fantasy, humor, romance, “literary fiction,” historical, and so on.

In the world of modern publishing, think of genre as describing where a book will be shelved in a bookstore or library (thanks to Suzy Spencer of Texas Writes for that one).

When talking to authors, try not to ask them whether their books “transcend the genre” or when they’re going “to stop churning out that genre trash and write a real book.” Because authors look undignified rolling around on the ground wrestling with people who ask these things.

2. If I’ve written a series of novels about a character, will it be more difficult to find a traditional publisher if each novel is in a different genre?

Yes. Frankly, publishers will hesitate to publish a series where Book 1 is a mystery, Book 2 an epic romance, and Book 3 a time travel military thriller.

3. If I’m not a writer but have an amazing life story, can I get a professional to write my autobiography?

Yes. But be prepared to pay the professional writer a fee up front, or when the finished manuscript is delivered. Do not say to a ghostwriter/co-author, “I’ll tell you the story, you write it up, and when it sells, we split the profits.”

4. If my life story would sound more exciting with fictional adventures thrown in, should I embellish it?

No.

No, no, no.

5. Will you read my manuscript?

No. On the advice of legal counsel, I do not read unsolicited, unpublished manuscripts. Doing so only leads to grief.

6. How about reading just the first chapter?

No. See above.

7. Not even to tell me how to fix the book?

Sorry, no.

8. Then how will I find ways to improve the manuscript?

Take a writing class or workshop. Attend a writers’ conference. Join a critique group, in person or online. Find a knowledgeable and competent reader to vet the manuscript and give you their opinion. Hire a freelance editor (such as Ann Aubrey Hanson or The Edit Ninja). Read books on the craft of writing (here’s a list of what’s on my bookshelf).

Then throw yourself on that manuscript and rassle it like a crazed mofo until it shines. Good luck!

Blast from the past: Thriller writing tips

I’m about to drive from Austin to Chico, Texas to teach at this weekend’s Texas Writes event. The trip takes me up I-35 through the heart of Texas, along the plains past Fort Worth. And because it’s about 179 degrees Fahrenheit out there, the trip will look something like this:

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-cars-700

So, while I’m prepping my car, here’s a post from a few years back, about writing thrillers. Enjoy.

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I’ve recently compiled — through trial, error, failure, and revision — a few notes about writing tactics that can make thriller research and editing go more smoothly.

  1. Know which blades and gadgets are found on a Swiss Army knife. You’re writing a thriller: Your heroine may need to use one. To insure that you always have a Swiss Army knife handy, make sure your kids join cub scouts and brownies.
  2. Editing tip: pay attention when spell-checking. MS Word wants to change “Maglite” to “Magritte.” But surrealist art will not help your hero see in the dark.
  3. If your characters have time for more than two lines of witty banter, the pace is too slow. Fire a missile at them.
  4. If you put a dog in jeopardy, never ever leave its fate unresolved. Readers will hound you for it. Forever.
  5. If acting out a fight scene to check for realism, tell the kids before they walk in and find Mom kicking Dad.
  6. When checking that a drugged victim can escape from a vehicle, look for your neighbors before falling from the car to the driveway.

It’s also important know when to reject suggestions from helpful family members. For example:

Me: I need to edit two scenes with Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney in to one, and decide whose point of view wins out.

The Husband: Sounds like a problem they can solve with hot oil and some wrestling.

Good luck.

Pop culture references: How many do you know?

My novels contain occasional pop culture references. Such as:

“Guess I picked the wrong day to stop sniffing glue.” (Tommy Chang in Crosscut)

“For a second he looked like Niedermeyer in Animal House, waiting for her to assume the position and to beg, ‘Thank you sir—may I have another?'” (Sarah Keller in The Shadow Tracer, who then notes: “She felt a violent urge to head butt him through the wall.”)

Here’s a pop quiz  — or market research, depending on your point of view. Can you identify these TV and movie references?

  • A woodchipper
  • A clown peering from a storm drain
  • “These go to eleven.”
  • “Clever girl.”
  • Skynet has become self aware.
  • “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
  • “Tastes like… burning.”

Answer in the comments!

UPDATE: Add your own pop culture references in the comments.

This Saturday: Chico, Texas Writes

Writers' League of Texas

Saturday afternoon, August 8, I’m speaking at the Chico, Texas library as part of the fantastic Texas Writes — “a statewide program that brings accomplished authors to rural libraries for a half day of presentations and panel discussions.” It’s run by the Writers’ League of Texas. And each event is free and open to the public.

I’ll be speaking about “Writing a Killer Story” and children’s author Jeramey Kraatz will talk about “Conflict.”

More details:

The TEXAS WRITES Program at the Chico Public Library
An afternoon of writing instruction and discussion
1PM SATURDAY, AUGUST 8, 2015
106 WEST JACKSON STREET | CHICO | TEXAS 76431
FREE & OPEN TO THE PUBLIC | Pre-registration Suggested (940) 644-2330 | Refreshments Provided

Did you catch that last part? Refreshments provided.

Hope to see some of you there.