DO NOT SKIP THESE ITEMS!
I usually start with something about me; my books, my blog, my opinions, but this time it’s different. Other bloggers post when they post, and these two profound items arrived a day apart. They are incredibly important to authors who are serious about raising their game to the next level, and if I’m going to call myself serious about helping newbies find their voice, these have to be the lead items. Listen to me carefully if you are a beginning or struggling author seeking ways to raise your game. Go first to the Writers Helping Writers website and read There Will Be Blood by Lisa Cron. I once heard a famous author (who I think was Dean Koontz) say that once you know a character’s life-or-death secret, he or she will leap off the page. I have tried to incorporate that in my own writing, and passed it along to others on many occasions, but he never really explained how to make it work in practical terms. Ms. Cron does so with depth and clarity, and your writing can only improve exponentially after reading this essay. There is also a link to her own web page, Wired for Story, which is very much worth a bookmark. I’ve a feeling you can’t go too far wrong here!
Once you’ve hoisted Ms. Cron’s wisdom aboard, pay a visit to Richie Billing, another insightful blogger of my acquaintance who expands on her concept with a look, not at characters, but at theme. His dissertation on the subject is similar in approach, and can be found in his latest blog post. I highly recommend it be read in tandem with Ms. Cron’s master work above.
It is an accepted axiom (at least among the superstitious!) that good things come in threes, and to round out this trilogy of insights, I will now refer you to my own blog post on the presentation of action, below. With these powerful tools at your disposal, you’ll be ready to make your own personal assault on the best-seller list of your choice. Read on, adventurer, then go forth and conquer!
We now return you to our regular programming . . .
Much of what I know about writing, I learned from Star Trek. Long-time friends will know that I live by the mantra that wisdom is where you find it. Once you’ve accepted that particular axiom, it pretty much forces you to keep an open mind, even about things that seem at first glance to be less than optimum. Gather ’round, kiddies, and I’ll share an illustrative tale from my youth.
It was around 1970, maybe ’71, a long time ago by any mortal standards. I had been out of the navy for a number of months, and while I had gone home to civilianize and make my start at what would eventually become my career, my great-grandmother fell and broke her hip. She had been my primary caregiver throughout my childhood, and now it was my turn to return the favor. For four years she was an invalid in a wheelchair, and my primary responsibility. I couldn’t be gone from her beck and call very often or for very long, and much of that forced idleness went into writing.
Star Trek had been first-run while I was in the navy, and I was unable to follow it on any sort of regular basis, but it went into local syndication following its cancellation, and I ate it up! I watched and rewatched the episodes, read the novelizations, built models, wrote stories of other ships with different crews, and pored over the ads for Star Trek memorabilia and props in the popular science fiction magazines of the time.
It was in the back of one of these august publications that I found The Official Star Trek Writer’s Guide. The price was a few bucks, not even pocket change by today’s standards, but back then it was a substantial outlay for someone who could only work dog-walking or doing yard work a couple of hours a day. Well, my rage could be seen from space when this reeking disappointment of a publication landed in my mailbox. Its 31 photocopied pages had been written on a typewriter that had seen better days, had faded bands on them making whole sections painfully difficult to read, and to top it all off, the “binding,” to abuse a term beyond all sufferance, consisted of two brass brads pushed through the left side. The printing was so uneven and off-center that I had to take it apart to read some of the pages. I could have bitten the head off a nail!
But I figured that, having paid good money for this thing, I might as well get whatever benefit I could from it, so I laid back on my bed and began to read. The first thing I read was that this was the “official” guide given to every writer who wrote for Star Trek, and had to be followed to the letter. I could not believe that, and became angry all over again at the audacity these people had to tell a bald-faced lie like that; surely, no production as professional as Star Trek would hand a professional writer a mimeographed pamphlet and tell him that those were the guidelines!
But then I began to read the main text, and all was forgiven. As my followers know, regardless of genre, I write pure action and adventure. As I think everyone is aware, the original Star Trek was pure action and adventure, and to the naive novice writer I was back in those days, this was gold. Like a genie granting wishes, it taught me three lessons that have stayed with me for almost half a century and been of greater value to me than what I’ve gotten out of books many times the price and size. I’m going to share them here for anyone who hasn’t had the privilege of reading this priceless little treasure. May you write well and prosper:
1. DON’T EXPLAIN STUFF. You never see writers of western stories have two cowboys engage in a lengthy discussion of the breed of horse they ride, and the relative merits of each in the herding of cattle. Sergeant Joe Friday doesn’t turn to a bystander and explain the workings of his .38 Special before he demands a suspect’s surrender. Characters in science fiction and fantasy shouldn’t either. When the Space Ranger draws his pocket frannistaner or the wizard begins to chant the gunkulation spell, don’t explain what they’re for. Trust your audience to get it; they’re smart enough to be reading your book, after all! Show them what it does, let them see the effect, and get on with the story. Next time they see the thing, it will seem as normal to them as a toaster, simply another part of your created world. Just keep it consistent; that’s all they really want.
2. KEEP IT REAL. It’s the day after tomorrow in the Persian Gulf, and USS Vincennes, an American missile cruiser, has been enjoying a morning-long game of cat and mouse with a pack of Iranian patrol boats. They seem to be headed back toward their base when two of them suddenly turn out of formation and accelerate back toward the cruiser, whereupon the captain remembers a piece of intelligence that crossed his desk warning of rumors about suicide boats carrying nuclear devices. All at once these rumors don’t seem so far-fetched any more. Does the captain then offer a philosophical dissertation on the meaning of duty and heroism? Does he try to comfort a young female sailor who happens to be on watch? Let’s hope not! We like to think he would spend what might be his last moments giving the orders he feels will best resolve the situation. Just because your story is set on the bridge of a space ship doesn’t change this principle.
3. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Readers don’t want to hear the gritty details unless they’re pertinent. I stood many a bridge watch in the navy, including my share of time at the helm. The procedure for a course change sounds something like this:
CONNING OFFICER: “Left full rudder!”
HELMSMAN: “Left full rudder, aye aye sir . . .” Spins wheel until rudder indicator shows 25° . . . “Rudder is at left full.”
CO: “Very well. Come to new course one-three-five degrees.”
H: “Coming to new course one-three-five degrees, aye aye, sir . . .” Watches compass rotate until it reads 135°, manipulates wheel to get ship stabilized and moving on a straight line along its new course . . . “Steady on new course one-three-five.”
CO: “Very well. Steady as you go.”
H: “Steady as you go, aye aye, sir.”
Fascinating, huh? Your audience doesn’t want to wade through all that unless something vital to the plot is going to occur in the middle of it; and even then, it better happen early, or the reader will have tuned out and missed the significance entirely. The proper method is to replace all that procedural chatter with the captain saying, “Come about,” or “Left thirty degrees.” Minimize the babble and stick to the story. The story is everything. Lock your focus on that, and you can’t go too far wrong.
And that’s what I learned from Star Trek’s cheap photocopied pamphlet. Wisdom is indeed where you find it, and had I tossed that little bundle of papers aside, I never would have learned those three priceless lessons that will keep your story terse, tense, and moving smartly forward. Oh, and that cheap little guide . . . turns out that really was what they gave to writers coming on board; one of many dreams about Hollywood to fall by the wayside.
Interesting Reads . . .
The Officer’s Affair by Samantha Grosser. England, 1944. On the Anzio beachhead in Italy Allied troops are fighting for their lives. Young men watch their friends die around them and grow old before their time. From some of the most brutal conditions of the Second World War, two wounded men return to England. When Danny Lock returns to his wife and children, it is not the joyful homecoming that he dreamt of all those nights in Italy. Disabled and embittered, he knows he will never resume a normal life. His young wife Rachel, determined to revive their marriage, struggles to understand the man her husband has become. But as his hostility towards her grows and the distance between them widens, all her hopes for the future begin to fade. Then Captain Andrews comes to visit. His attraction to Rachel is instant, but the tension between the two men seems to stem from an earlier time. What happened in Italy to make Danny so hostile to an officer he once trusted and admired? And why has Andrews come to visit him in the face of it? As all three strive to shake off the ghosts of the war, they must each face their own searching questions about the nature of love and loyalty in this heart-wrenching novel, which explores the lives of a small group of people caught in the devastating legacy of the Second World War. $2.99 on Kindle.
The Girl Next Door by Lisa Aurello. Am I a killer? That is the question haunting 25-year-old Jane Jensen. When she wakes up in the hospital after a devastating accident, she finds her memory since 9th grade of high school wiped clean. As she heals, she begins to recover some memories and tries to stitch them together to reclaim her identity. Regaining all the lost years is proving elusive. Jane is aware that she’s gone from bullied, overweight schoolgirl to successful corporate wonk in the last few years. But when the wife of her popular and handsome teenage obsession gets killed in a professional hit, Jane makes yet another transition—to that of murder suspect. It’s an unbearable position for anyone, but it’s so much worse for Jane—she can’t defend herself from the awful accusation for one major reason: Jane has no clue if she’s innocent or guilty. The Girl Next Door will keep readers guessing until the final page turn. $2.99 on Kindle.
More Than a Game by Andrey Vasilyev. Step into a future in which advanced technology creates a virtual world with superior capabilities that allow players to experience real-world sensations. The popularity of the RPG game Fayroll is growing by the day, attracting millions of users to this alternate reality. What is the secret of Fayroll? What makes it so different from other games? Our protagonist, Harriton Nikiforov is an everyman – a binge drinking, tabloid column reporter who has settled for the humdrum of the everyday, with a job that pays the wages, a neurotic girlfriend who gives him migraines and a boss that gives him constant grief. Tasked with a new assignment, Harriton suddenly finds himself ripped away from his normal routine of Moscow society life, to a journalistic quest of sorts that leads him deep into the realm of the Virtual Gaming World of Fayroll. Given explicit orders to write a series of fluff pieces on the game and its developers, Harriton grudgingly accepts the assignment, but soon finds himself enthralled by the virtual fantasy world and its amazing quests, unpredictable challenges, and nearly endless possibilities. Harriton is reincarnated as a warrior named Hagen and becomes a full participant in the fantasy world, plunging into the exciting world full of action, quests, humor, legendary weapons and ancient secrets. He meets faithful and courageous comrades and outwits those who are trying to hunt him. In this world, the thirst for success and vanity of high-level players in pursuit of legendary objects spills into the real world, where high-stakes bets are made on the success of the virtual characters. Harriton, as Hagen, unwittingly enters into the Fayroll world, where events and decisions that he makes in the virtual space starts to affect his own reality. His unpredictable character, perseverance, and excitement attract the attention of powerful gamers and influential Moscow elite with a vested interest in Fayroll’s outcome. It is not long before he realizes that this fantastic world, (created according to the best canons of cult games, Warcraft and Lineage), conceals many dangers. Can he pass all the tests? Currently FREE on Kindle.
Down Jersey Driveshaft by William J. Jackson. World War on the American homefront . . . but this is not the war against the Axis Powers. Something sinister and beyond imagining has penetrated the salt marshes and idyllic surroundings of Salem County, New Jersey. It will take the bravery of strangers and locals, along with some startling new technology, to beat back the tide of this unstoppable nightmare. For those who have never experienced it before, this is DIESELPUNK. A reimagining of the early 20th Century, more advanced, more deadly, more classy than what we have today. It is yesterday’s look with tomorrow’s tech; retrofuturism. This is DOWN JERSEY DRIVESHAFT. A special sale will be in progress through the weekend for the U.K. – £.99 on Kindle. For the rest of us, it’s $4.99, but it’s innovative fiction by a author of quality.
And Just for Fun . . .
Not only has the illustrious William Jackson put his dieselpunk opus on sale, but he continues to find time to produce a weekly issue of Atoms & Shadows, his double-barrel film review of an atom-powered B movie, usually from the 1950s, and a classic film noir, two of his great loves . . . Mine, too hence the constant promoting here! This week’s films are 1962s The Creation of the Humanoids, and 1949’s Too Late for Tears, which was retitled Killer Bait in 1955. As always, William not only provides his witty insights and numerical ratings of the films’ actions and themes, but includes links to the complete movies as well. So pop up some corn, grab a two-liter, and settle back for a classic double feature. Maybe I’ll see you there!
And that’s 30 for today. Don’t forget that Chameleon is building in on its tab above. I have four of the fourteen chapters completed, and eventually my entire portfolio will be available to read for free here on the webpage. I’d love to welcome you to my literary worlds, and to hear what you have to say about my humble endeavors, so don’t be a stranger. Read well, and write better!