On Writing: Get Off the Bus!

In a blog post on the Second Wind Publishing blog, author Paul Mohrbacher wrote: “At a writing workshop two years ago I heard this advice: Don’t spend time driving from one place to another in your fictional story. All you can do in a moving car is talk, talk, talk, or if you’re alone, think, think, think. It slows your story down. There is no room in a transit narrative for action. Get off the bus!” (Click here to read the rest of the article.)

trainThis is actually good advice, and yet there are many novels that take place on a trip — on trains mostly, which makes sense. A train trip is leisurely, which gives plenty of scope for both character and plot development, and is much more romantic than a bus ride.

I wrote an entire suspense novel that takes place on a small bus, one that was big enough to fit eight people (because that’s how many characters I had!). In Daughter Am I, my characters are going cross country to find out who Mary’s grandparents were, why someone wanted them dead, and why her father had disowned them. Much of the story is “story time” — the characters telling about their past, and it is in these stories that Mary finds the truth. Of course, they do get off the bus occasionally, but emotion and connection are part of the “action” of a story, so as long as they are present, it’s okay for characters to stay on the bus. Also, in Daughter Am I, the drive makes it seem as if the story itself is going somewhere, not just the characters. Each leg of the trip carries with it the hope of finding the end of the quest, and instead turns them in a different direction. Literally.

Two of my other novels also involve lengthy trips. In More Deaths Than One, Bob travels halfway around the world on a quest to find out the truth about himself, and in A Spark of Heavenly Fire,, world-famous actor Jeremy King travels to the ends of Colorado in a quest to save himself from the disease that ravaged the state and the quarantine that was supposed to keep the epidemic controlled. During each of these journeys, the characters learned more about themselves or we learned more about them and their quest, so the journeys were important to the plot.

Sometimes, though, a trip was just a place to get the characters from one place to another, in which case, I skipped any narration about the trip, merely saying they are going to a specific place and picking up the story again when they arrive.

And sometimes (though never in my stories) there is a lengthy car chase. Car chases seem to fit more with the visual construct of a movie than with a written story, because viewers see the narrow escapes and so get involved, though such chases also find their way into novels. Either way, I find them boring. In fact, they put me to sleep.

So yes, get off the car, or bus, or train, or airplane . . . except when something important to the story is happening in the vehicle.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Who gave you the best writing advice you ever received and what was it?

The best writing advice I ever received I read in an old book called The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker: “Clarity is the first aim; economy the second; grace the third; dignity the fourth. Our writing should be a little strange, a little out of the ordinary, a little beautiful with words and phrases not met everyday, but seeming as right and natural as grass.”

Isn’t that beautiful? I paid particular attention to that advice when writing Light Bringer. I wanted the style itself to show that the characters were a little strange, a little out of the ordinary, a little beautiful. For example, “And then there it was, spread out before her in a shallow thirty-foot bowl. A lake of flowers — chrysanthemums and tulips, daisies and daffodils, lilies and columbines and fuchsia — all blooming brightly, all singing their song of welcome.”

Here are some responses from other authors about how the best writing advice they ever received. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Sheila Deeth, Author of “Flower Child”

I met Jane Kirkpatrick shortly after we moved to Oregon. She told me to keep writing. In fact, she’s told me several times to keep writing. It’s probably the most valuable piece of advice I’ve had.

From an interview with Eric Wasserman, Author of Celluloid Strangers

Frederick Reiken’s literature course on the short story was my very first graduate school class. The very first thing he said to all of us was, “If you’re not willing to submerge yourself in the world of reading fiction, give up now on being a serious writer of fiction.” I wrote this down the moment he said it, went back to my dingy Boston studio apartment that evening, and taped it across the screen of my TV.

From an interview with Sandra Shwayder Sanchez, Author of “The Nun”

The best advice I ever received was from J.R. Salamanca (Lilith, A Sea Change, Embarkation, Southern Light and more) who said the permanence of the written word has more influence on readers than spoken words and to take that influence seriously and try to create a good influence and that is the advice I would give aspiring writers.

What about you? Who gave you the best writing advice you ever received, and what was it?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire http://patbertram.wordpress.com/author-questionnaire/ and follow the instruction.)

Advice to Aspiring Writers

I just got an email from my high school, requesting my participation in a Q&A for a magazine that goes to parents and alumni. The question they want a response to in 60 words or less is, “What advice would you give to aspiring writers?” Of course I said I’d participate. The only hard part is distilling ten years of research and experience into so few words.

I could go with a single word: “Write!”

I could be cynical and say, “Don’t write unless you have to. It’s a heartbreaking business.”

I could be business-like and say, “Learn everything you can about good prose, story elements, query letters, promotion, and publishing because the competition is fierce — millions of people have written a book want to write a book. But no matter what happens, keep writing.”

I could be philosophical and say, “Start with a single word. That’s how every book through the ages was written — one word at a time. By stringing single words together, you get sentences, then paragraphs, pages, chapters, an entire book.”

I could be more story-oriented and say, “Ask yourself: what story do you want to write? Why? What do your characters want? Why? How are they going to get what they want? Who is going to stop them getting what they want?”

I could plunge into the action and say, “Sometimes it’s hard to find the confidence to bring complex scenes to life, to juggle the many elements that comprise a compelling scene, so plunge headfirst into action. Write fast and fearlessly; let the words fall where they may. You can always clean up the mess in rewrites.”

So, what advice would you give to aspiring writers? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? What was the most helpful advice you ever read?