Writers: Be Bold!

When writing, it’s important to be decisive. Passive storytelling, passive events, passive motivations, passive characters, passive verbs, all lead to a story without risk or conviction, full of missed opportunities.

Get rid of the unnecessary qualifying words (quite, a bit, a little, some, somewhat, I guess) and non-specific words (someone, everything, huge, handsome, very, really). Such words detract from the authority and decisiveness of your writing.

Too many flashbacks rob a story of drive, give it a sense of aimlessness. So does a lack of focus. Thank heaven for rewrites! The grieving woman in my NaNoWriMo story keeps reflecting on the past, which makes sense, because for her there doesn’t seem to be much of a future. Still, it does seem aimless since she’s thinking instead of doing something. When I rewrite it, I’m going to take away the aimlessness by having the story revolve around a theme to give it focus.

The worst offense for indecisive writing is backing off from a major scene, skipping it entirely, or doing it in flashback. Many new writers don’t feel they are capable of writing dynamic action scenes, so they skim past it and hope readers won’t notice. Or they have a character other than the hero commit the final act, such a man showing up at the end to rescue the heroine in women-in-peril novels. This isn’t as common as it once was, which is good. If the woman is the hero, she needs to put herself on the line during the final scene and not expect someone else to do it for her.

In More Deaths Than One, it might seem as if I passed the buck — the solution to the mystery of Bob’s identity came in a letter rather than his doing the work himself — but the point of the scene was for him to interact with the waitress, not interact with the villain. I wanted to show her emotion on his behalf, show his reaction to her as together they learn the truth. It was the immediacy of their reaction that I needed. How a character feels, reacts, or emotes, is every bit as important as what a character does.

It’s important to trust yourself as a writer. Trust that you will be able to recognize the truth of your scene and what you want to accomplish (as I did with More Deaths Than One). Trust that when it comes time to rewrite and edit, you will know what you need to do to create a dynamic story, and that you will be able to do it.

Most important of all, don’t skirt around the story. Get right to the heart of the action. Be bold.

Questions About Writing Stories

I received an email the other day from someone who wanted to interview me for a class project. I think he’s for real, but some of the requests I have been getting recently are questionable, so I thought I’d post my responses here to stake my claim. Feel free to respond to any of the questions. If the interviewer does, in fact, read my blog as he said he did, I’m sure he’ll be glad of the additional input.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

The most essential quality of a good story is the ability to take readers somewhere else and make them glad they went. It’s also important to make the writing easy to read, which means the writing must be grammatically correct. Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than having to decipher convoluted sentences with improper punctuation. Ideally, a story should leave readers a bit better off than they were before, either because of what they learned about the world and themselves, or because of the respite from their everyday lives.

Do you keep those qualities in mind while you write?

The only one of these qualities that I keep in mind while writing is to make sure what I write is readable. Other than that, I focus on the story, setting the scene then developing plot and characters into a cohesive whole.

Which of those qualities do you think is the most important, if there is a ‘most important’ one?

Some people think character is most important, others think plot is the most important, but you really can’t separate the two. Plot is what happens to a character, what a character does, or both. You cannot have a character without a plot. To show who or what a character is, you need to show the character acting, and that is plot. You also cannot have a plot without a character. If an asteroid falls to Earth, that might be newsworthy, but it’s not a story until you have characters interacting with the asteroid. Who found it? What did they do with it? What happened to them as a consequence of their actions? That’s what makes a story.

How much of a story do you have in your head before you start writing it?

I know the main characters, I know the beginning of the story, I know the end of the story, and I know how I want the characters to develop, but I don’t flesh out the individual scenes until I start writing them.

Do you do any research for your writing? If so, how do you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)

The research for Light Bringer, which will be published mid 2010, took me approximately twenty years. The research for my other novels took two to five years each. Sometimes I consulted maps or guidebooks, sometimes people told me what they knew, but mostly I read books on the various subjects.

How do you prefer to start a novel? For instance, do you try to start it out with a ‘bang’, or do you prefer to start out with a low point?

I start with a good hook, sort of a small bang, and I work up to a bigger bang.

How (or when) do you decide that you are done writing a story?

A story is done when it is published. Otherwise, it is never finished. The more one writes, the more one learns, and the more one learns, the more one sees how earlier works can be improved. The only thing that stops this cycle of learning and rewriting is getting published.

Do you have any specific pattern of writing, however subtle it may be, when you write? (Using specific plot devices consistently, for instance)

The only device I use now (though I did not do it in the beginning) is a theme. If I know the theme of a story, I can keep focused on the main concept and not go off on tangents. A story needs to be tightly constructed without extraneous scenes or exposition. If not tightly constructed, a story loses its power and impact, sort of like a comedian who tells a rambling joke without a punch line.

The term ‘well developed characters’ is extremely vague and the definition differs depending on who is asked. What, in your opinion, does it mean?

A well-developed character gives readers a sense of that character’s personality, feelings, and struggles. A well-developed character changes and matures as a result of all that the character experiences during the course of the story.

What is your goal for the story to be when you write? That is, how do you want your stories to say what they say?

My only goal is to write the stories I want to read. If my books do have a message, it’s that nothing is as it seems. We are not necessarily who we think we are, history did not necessarily happen the way we think it did, and what we see is not necessarily the truth. But all that is more of a side effect. Mostly I just want to write good stories with good characters.

Tips For Writing a Short Story

Second Wind Publishing is putting together an anthology of mystery/crime stories, and my publisher told me that my fans expect a story from me. My fans? All two of them? I doubt they’d care. Still, I considered writing a handful of 100-word stories, but to be honest, it’s hard to write a mystery in so few words. By the time I kill someone off, drop some clues, create a dectective to figure out who did the dastardly deed and why, I’ll have used up 100 words several times over.

Thinking perhaps it’s time to expand my literary horizons — all I’ve been writing lately are blogs, comments, and emails — I decided to give a short story some thought. But how does one write a short story? I went looking for tips, and found this great list at Happy Woman Magazine:

Never write about what you know, that would be boring. Instead think of an interesting skinny person that you know and try to imagine their life.

Use the word therefore a lot. It gives the impression that you have thought things through and therefore gives you an air of authority. (See what we mean?)

If you have trouble coming up with an ending or tying up loose ends pretend it was all a dream.

Your hero (or heroine) should have an interesting quirk or a dark mysterious past. They should also have blazing eyes when they are angry.

Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, that is what an editor is paid to do. You are an artist.

Though these suggestions are supposed to be funny, it did help me. I don’t want to write a mystery story, but I could write a spoof of one, or if not a spoof, something silly. Should be fun. Still, I’d have to follow the real tips for writing a short story, which are:

Have a clear theme.

Use only a few characters, and give them the characteristics they need to help develop the theme.

Make sure you have an arresting beginning, a solid middle that builds to a crisis, and a plot twist at the end.

Keep focused within a narrow time span, and make every word count.

You can find a good study on how to write short stories here: Short Stories: Ten Tips for Novice Creative Writers.

Now that you know how to write a short story, why don’t you write one and submit it to the Second Wind Publishing Mystery Contest? It could be your chance to get published!

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Wahoo! My Hero is in the Zoo.

Whew. A year and a half after beginning to write my fifth novel, I have the first of three parts finished.

The book is a whimsically humorous apocalyptic novel with a heavy theme: how much freedom we are willing to give up for safety and how much safety we are willing to give up for freedom. When the world goes through a time of re-creation, most human survivors opt to go to a place of refuge, which turns out to be a human zoo, but my hero, Chip, wants to preserve his freedom at all costs. Or almost all costs. He deals with killer toads, giant bugs, growing volcanoes, and a multitude of other traumas, but he cannot deal with the end of his stash of hard candy.

I am a slow writer, but this first part progressed slowly even by my standards. The circumstances of the book caused part of the problem — poor Chip had to traverse most of the 100 pages by himself, which is a hard task for any writer. Characters — and writers — need other characters to bounce off to bring interest, conflicts, and twists to the story. And personal circumstances caused the rest of the problem: life and death (not mine) got in the way, as did learning how to use a computer, learning the internet, editing my books for publication, proofing them, learning how to promote. (Though I wonder about the last — does anyone ever learn how to promote, or do we just paddle around until our books finally sink or swim?)

But, word by word, sentence by sentence, I got those pages written, and my hero is finally safe. Now I have to start over with a new set of problems for Chip — and me. Somehow I have to get him to the point where he wants to give up safety for freedom, but after all his trauma, I’m not sure how to goad him. I thought of making the place of refuge ultimately an unsafe place, but while it would get him out of there, it would not serve the theme.

Sorry to cut this short, but I have to go introduce Chip to some of his fellow inmates. Should be interesting. In the first part Chip had too few people to deal with, now he has too many.

I can hardly wait to see what happens.

Do You Want People Studying Your Book in School?

After watching the movie, “The Jane Austen Book Club,” which followed several couples whose stories mirrored those in Austen’s books, I decided to reread Sense and Sensibility. While plowing through the incredibly long and obtuse introduction to the book, I couldn’t help wondering what Jane would think of it. Did she really mean to say all the things the author of the introduction said she meant to say? How would she feel if she found out that kids were studying her book in school and adults were studying it in book clubs? Did she mean her books to be studied? Or did she mean for them to be read?

I can’t think of anything more terrible than having my books taught in school. Well, of course I can think of a lot of worse things. On the list of world horrors, it comes pretty far down on the list. And, on a personal level, not being read at all would be worse. But still  . . . I think it would be dreadful for kids to sit in a stuffy classroom, bored out of their skulls, trying to figure out what I meant.

On the bizarre off-chance of that every happening, I’ll tell you right now what I meant. I meant for people to enjoy the stories. I meant for people to be taken away from their mundane lives for a couple of hours. I meant for people to read themselves to sleep and to wake up thinking about my world. And after all that, if I got anyone to wonder about the truth of anything my characters say, so much the better.

Did I have a theme? Did I use words in a certain way to create moods? Did I use symbols, such as lemon drops, as shortcuts to explain emotions? Of course I did. But including those was more for me, to keep me focused on the story. Because that is what I write. Stories. Not books to be studied, but stories to be read.

On Writing: Food

Sex and violence are visceral activites, but so is eating. Food is at once primitive and sophisticated, animalistic and human. We need to eat, but to a great extent we get to choose what we eat. And we get to choose for our characters. In fact, the characters of our characters lie in that choice. Are they vegan, omnivore, or something in between? Do they binge out or are they ascetic? When alone, do they take the time to cook a meal for themselves, or do they eat it standing over the sink? For me, a big question is what characters do with leftovers. Whenever characters in books throw away perfectly good food, I lose all sympathy for them and start rooting for the villains. Even in a world of abundance, food is precious. Or should be.

Wasted food gripes the heck out of me; I despise real and fictional food fights. Shows disrespect for life, a total lack of sensitivity, and people who never knew want. Another movie/book scene I absolutely hate is when a guy proposes to a woman by putting a ring in her drink, in a desert, or any other comestible. All I can think of is broken teeth when she bites into it or a punctured gut when she swallows it. Very romantic!

Besides describing character, food can be used as a theme, a plot point, a symbol. Food can be used to define the emotion of a scene or to delay the action and add suspense. Food helps create a setting in historical novels. The way a person eats tells a lot about character. You don’t need to describe food. Everyone knows what hamburger tastes like, or ice cream or jello. The whole ambience of food is much more important. I have one character who chews each mouthful of food exactly twenty-five times. His fiance finds herself counting his jaw movements, and by that you can tell that there relationship is doomed.

Just think of all the conflict attached to a family feast, such as a Thanksgiving dinner. The drama of several women competing to make their own favorite dressing, the trauma of a burnt pumpkin pie, the complication of children running underfoot, the conflicts of . . . You know the story. You’ve been there.
Movies and television shows are filled with great food scenes. The best Golden Girls shows were the ones where they sat at the kitchen table eating everything in sight, and talking about their lives. And who can forget the breakfast scene in My Stepmother Was an Alien, where she cooked up an entire menu. Or the breakfast scene in Uncle Buck when John Candy made pancakes as big as a table and used a snow shovel as a turner. All great food visuals, but also much going on beneath the scene.  

What role does food plays in your novels, in novels you have read, or in movies you have seen?

Fun food related websites:

The Food Time Line

History and Legends of Favorite Foods

History of Food and Food Products

Food History Resources

Food and Drink in Regency England

Medieval Recipes

Coloring Your World

Color is an important part of life, and we should honor that importance in the stories we write. Although we can simply name any color for our characters’ bedrooms or the clothes they wear, by choosing a specific color, we can add layers of meaning to our stories and even to the personalities of our characters. We can add mood, symbolism, theme, even emotion. But first, we need to know what the colors mean.

What Colors Mean:

Black — Evil, falsehood, error, grief, despair, death.
Blue — Chastity, loyalty, fidelity, faith, modesty, eternity, immmortality.
Green — Love, joy, abundance, hope, youth, mirth, gladness, resurrection, spring.
Purple — Temperance, royalty
Red — Magnanimity, fortitude
White — Purity, truth, innocence, hope.
Yellow — Faith, constancy, wisdom, glory, jealousy, inconsistancy.

What Your Favorite Color Reveals About You:

Red — Ambitious, energetic, extroverted
Pink — Affectionate, compassionate, romantic
Maroon — Sensuous, friendly, emotional
Orange — Fun-loving, action-oriented, competent
Peach — Gentle, charitable, enthusiastic
Yellow — Optimistic, expressive, people-oriented
Mint green — Modest, insightful, kind-hearted
Apple green — Innovative, adventuresome, self-motivated
Green — Benevolent, service-oriented, scientific
Teal — Idealistic, faithful, sentimental
Light blue — creative, perceptive, imaginative
Dark Blue — Intelligent, responsible, self-reliant
Mauve — Delicate, reserved, sensitive
Purple — Intuitive, spiritual, insightful
Beige — Practical, well-adjusted, steadfast
Brown — Down to earth, honest, supportive
Black —  Disciplined, strong-willed, opinionated
White —   Individualistic, lonely, low self-esteem
Gray —  Passive, noncommittal, stressed
Silver —  Honorable, chivalrous, romantic
Gold —  Idealistic, noble, successful

More about color:
The Meaning of Your Car Color
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Green and More


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Creating a Character — Part VI

The second half of a book is easy for me to write — I know the characters, their backstories and motivations — but I have trouble with the front part. My poor hero, Chip, has been running from a volcano for the past month while I’ve been trying to figure out who he is, what I need him to be, and what he needs to become.

According to Robert McKee in Story, “The most fascinating characters have a conscious desire and a contradictory unconscious desire. What he believes he wants is the antithesis of what he actually but unwittingly wants. (Although the protagonist is unaware of their subconscious need, the audience senses it, perceiving in them an inner contradiction.)”

After the volcano incident, Chip is going to meet an archetypal crone who was supposed to get him to thinking that now he wants a family (this after I’ve killed off almost everyone in the world and despite his need to be free) but it’s too soon in the book for him to want that. It would change the way he interacts with his mate when he finally meets her, which means it has to be a subconscious desire the old woman invokes in him, which changes my perception of the story, which means my WIP comes to a crashing halt while I rethink Chip’s wants and needs. And there he is, running from the volcano, waiting for me to figure him out so he can move on to the next disaster.

If a character wants something he himself doesn’t know he wants, it brings out different facets of personality than if he does know what he truly wants. The secret is to give character hints for the reader to pick up on without the author (or an authoritative character) explaining it. Much of reading is subconscious. We notice things without realizing we are noticing them.

Robert McKee also wrote: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.”

If Chip doesn’t know what he truly wants until he gets it, it also will add a different dimension to the theme, which is freedom vs. safety. He first chooses freedom, next he chooses incarceration and saftey, then he chooses the excitement and danger of freedom over the boredom of safety, finally he chooses responsibility, a different facet of freedom.

By giving Chip an inner character in contradiction to his outer one, he should become a richer character which in turn will allow the story to explore all the facets of the theme rather than the rather simplistic one of freedom vs. safety.

Now all I have to do is get the poor guy away from that volcano or else there will be no story.

Creating a Character — Part I

Creating a Character — Part II

Creating a Character — Part III

Creating a Character — Part IV

Creating a Character — Part V

Why Should I Read Your Novel? Why Should You Read Mine?

Why should I read your novel? Why should anyone? Only you know the answer to that, and you tell us by the story you choose to tell, the characters you choose to create, the themes you choose to develop.

We read not so much to escape our lives but to add meaning, understanding, and depth to our days. If we find nothing but the same old stories told in the same old ways, we come away from the experience intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied. If the characters don’t change in a fundamental way, if they don’t struggle with an idea bigger than they are, we don’t change either.

Too often when I finish reading a book, I wonder why I bothered. The story is stale, the characters undeveloped, the stakes trivial, the theme banal. This is particularly true of books written by prolific authors. After three or four books, they plagiarize themselves, using the same basic characters and plots they did before. Perhaps their first book was fresh, with something new to say, but that something becomes stale with each succeeding book.

Not being a published writer myself, I don’t know how to keep that from happening, especially in today’s book market where an author is expected to churn out a clone every year. And new writers are being steered into that same pattern. We’re told to write in the genre we read because obviously we like the genre and because we are familiar with its conventions. But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps we should write in a genre we don’t read so we don’t keep perpetuating clichés. We might unwittingly rehash old stories in the unfamiliar genre, but there is greater chance of saying something new.

My current work-in-progress is developing into an allegorical apocalyptic novel, which is bizarre because I don’t read that particular type of book; I don’t even know if that is a type. What isn’t bizarre, though, is all I am learning by writing in an unfamiliar genre. I may very well be writing a clichéd story — I have no way of knowing — but at least I am coming to it from my own unique viewpoint, not the distilled vision of all the authors who have gone before. And I am learning more about writing from this novel than any of my previous ones because I have to pull what comes next out of the creative ether, not from my memory of the stories I have previously read.

Without a mystery at its core as in my previous works, I have to search for other ways of adding tension to the story such as the inner conflicts that beset my hero. How much freedom is he willing to give up for security? How much security is he willing to give up for security? How much of freedom and security are illusory? And I am becoming cognizant of theme, symbols, and other mythic elements as ways of unifying disparate parts of the story.

So why should you read my book when it’s completed? Because, if I do it right, it will be an entertaining way for you come to terms with one of the major dilemmas facing us today, and it will take you into the life of a character whose conflicts and choices will help make sense of your own life.

At least, that’s the way story is supposed to work.

Filling the Needs of the Story

Almost all novels tell the same basic story: a character wants something and someone or something prevents that character from achieving his goal. While telling the story, many authors throw in incident after incident to fill out the book. After a while, these incidents seem incidental, as if they are simply filling space and not filling the needs of the story.

Writing instructors and how-to-get-published books remind authors to hook readers with a great beginning. The hook should be captivating, but that’s not the end of it; the rest of the book needs to be rewarding, too. If the author fills the book with insignificant incidents, readers feel as if they are wasting their time.

I am concerned that my current work in progress is becoming a series of incidents that go nowhere. My hero keeps reacting to the world changing around him, but he isn’t proactive. He wants to be left alone, to be free, but that is a passive goal. I keep thinking he should be acting, planning, taking charge, but what can he do when each day, each hour the world is different?

Eventually, of course, he will take charge of his destiny when he escapes the human zoo, but first I have to get him there. His world needs to become so threatening that he will give up freedom for safety, but it hasn’t reached that point yet. And the only way I know to reach that point is for him to continue reacting to the changes around him. And to do that, I need to keep adding incidents. Round and round it goes.

These incidents serve the needs of the theme, they serve the needs of the story, and they serve my needs as a writer by allowing me to stretch my imagination, but I don’t know if they are significant enough to offset the hero’s lack of resolve to do something. I would hate to have future readers finish the book simply because they don’t want to waste the time they invested.

In the end, I suppose, I need to concentrate on the flow. If the story flows smoothly, then everything else will fall into place, seeming as right and as inexorable as the sun rising in the east. And if by chance an incident disrupts the flow, I can edit it out later. Or perhaps I can have the sun rising in the west. Hmm. Could be interesting. I wonder how my hero would react to that?