Monday, August 30, 2010

On writing... collecting ideas

HALLIE: "The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing" (2nd Edition) comes out this month from Writers Digest Books, and I'd consider it a good addition to my library even if my piece on "Clues, Red Herrings, & Misdirection" were not in it. I can't believe the company I'm in. Here are just a few of the nuggets I found trawling through the essays.

On plot: "All good plots come from well-orchestrated characters pitted against one another in a conflict of wills." -- James N. Frey

On the three-act structure: "The three-act form is there because it works." -- Ridley Pearson

On setting: "In the end, the only compelling reason to pay more attention to place, to exterior setting, is the belief, the faith that place and its people are intertwined, that place is character, and that to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of the place is to know more deeply and truly its people." -- Richard Russo

On character: "My method of character building is from the inside out--not necessarily the color of eyes and hair, the height and weight but rather how does a person sleep at night? What does he fear? Does he run from lightning of rush toward it?" -- Alice Hoffman

On writing commercial fiction: "Frankly, I don't care what genre a reader thinks my book is, as long as it gets him to pick it up." -- Jodi Picoult

This week we'll hear from some of the contributors to the anthology, including Elizabeth Sims (Tuesday on writing suspense), James Scott Bell (Wednesday on dialogue), Jane Friedman (Thursday on the changing role of literary agents), and me (Friday on clues and red herrings). Bob Daniher, who is celebrating having his very first short story published in the October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, will be our Saturday guest!

Today we'll tell you what we think. What writing advice do you have for aspiring novelists?

ROBERTA: Boy, those are terrific quotes Hallie--you are right, great company! To go along with what Alice Hoffman and James Frey said, spend time understanding your character's stake in the story (the mystery, in my case.) And how does your protagonist change over the course of the book?

More practically, treat your writing time with discipline--believe me, the book won't write itself. And get tons of help--if you didn't study writing, why expect you could just pick it up on your own?

HANK: Ask yourself: In this situation, what would *really* happen? What would people *really* do, or say or think? Why? And what would happen as a result of that? "It's all about 'because,'" Sue Grafton says.

RHYS: My primary piece of advice to aspiring novelists is WRITE. Don't say "I plan to write a novel some day." Writing is a craft. You only get better at it by putting words on paper, just as a potter improves by throwing pots. My second piece of advice is READ. We learn so much by observing the craft of the masters.

And on a more practical scale--draw a character arc for your protagonist and one for your villain. Where they intersect is your story.

JAN: If you want to find out who your characters really are, don't waste time with the pre-novel bio. Instead put them in really tough situations and see what they do. Then you'll get at deep character instead of hair color and college degree.

And I'll echo Roberta. If writing is important to you, do it before any other obligations can get in the way.

ROSEMARY: As the newest kid on this particular block I'm tempted to just say "What they said." If I have anything to add it would be this - you weren't great the first time you picked up a tennis racket or paint brush, don't expect your early efforts at writing to be fabulous. If you're paying attention and you really want to get better, you will. Even Federer practices his serve. (And takes advice.)

HALLIE: So Jungle Red readers and writers... what's the best (or worst!) advice you've ever given or gotten?


  1. Trust yourself. And shoot that internal editor who keeps telling you to fix that first page until it's perfect before you can move on.

  2. Wow, I'm loving those quotes from the contributors! Thank you. And I'm definitely getting that book to add to my first hundred writing books.
    Best writing advice? Julia Cameron: At minimum, write three pages every day, longhand, in your writer's notebook. It exercises the ol' creative muscles.

  3. What a great post! The best writing advice I ever got came from Douglas Preston (and is quoted in my article in the Handbook on incorporating your research smoothly into your novel): "In a novel, something doesn't have to be true; it only has to be believable. The word 'fiction' is a marvelous cover for all kinds of shenanigans, distortions, manipulations, and outright fabrications."

    Story comes first. If anything you're tempted to include in your novel doesn't serve the needs of the story, leave it out. A novelist's job is not to teach, but to entertain.

  4. Sheila - AMEN to that! Because I think you may not even know what the opening scene should be until you've find the ending.

    Thanks, Rebbie - that's great advice from Julia Cameron - wish I'd been following it for the last 2 months.

    Too true, Karen - my version of that is " 'It happened' is no excuse."

  5. Great post. I think the one thing I would add is to let the ever-present editor find the door. I spend too much time worrying about how to fix something when it's more important to just move on. There is plenty of time to adjust, change, modify and correct.

  6. I stalled out for about 3 months on a manuscript, failing to follow that advice, Cassy. It goes back to Sheila's comment.

    But I confess, I'm of two minds about it... I think YES steam ahead regardless of niggling doubts BUT when the doubts gather a certain momentum I have to stop, listen, and take stock. Especially at those 50-page, 100-page, etc. milestones

  7. What a great lineup and advice. I can't wait to read the book.

  8. At the risk of being heretical in face of the on-going challenge and wonderful advice about needing to write to get better, I'd add that occasionally you need to get away from your WIP, take a hike, meet friends for a day of shopping, go to the zoo, and absorb new images, ideas and settings. Re-charge your imagination and writing batteries. (I'm doing that tomorrow, having completed the first draft of a book on Fri.)

  9. Hi, Jean! (On this topic, if folks haven't seen Jean's "Advice for fledgling writers" which includes advice from greats like Elmore Leonard, check out

    Had to laugh, Laura, when I saw your not-so-heretical comment. I've often wondered why my BEST ideas strike me when I'm frying chicken, or taking a shower, or driving -- or doing anything that makes it temporarily impossible to write or type anything.

  10. "If you write, you are a writer."

    Many people (non-writers) believe that if you are not published, you are not a "writer". :0p

  11. Karen, that was a hard thing for me to learn. If I'm especially enamored of something I've written but it doesn't help the story, it might take outside eyes to point out that I'm hanging onto something too long!

    Laura and Hallie, yes of course, you have to take breaks and give yourself time to think! Laura, big congrats on finishing a book. Is that about four out of twelve this year????

    I need another book on writing like a hole in the head, but this one sounds like a must-have...

  12. YEha if you thnk that someohtgn is wrong more than a vcouple of tiems,. it's probalby worong,

    I go through thee stages of writer-grief for it: denial, argument, bartering, procrastinating...then, finally, experimenting, deleting, and moving on.

    Hmm. This is m next blog.

    And I must say, I do love the idea of all of us out there, thinking about this. xoxo

  13. The worst advice? From an on-line crit group leader (I'm not in THAT group any longer, but was green enough to think she was an expert), who said, "Oh, don't let anything else bad happen to Sarah!"

    Love that you've said "don't bother with pre-novel character sheets." If I did that, I'd be too bored to write the book.

    Best advice - I'll echo what's been said: Read. Write. Write. Read. Write. And patience, plus a thick skin help too.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  14. On the writing side: echoing the earlier comment re "" To which I would add: And learn from both, don't just think doing them will get you there. Writing is not a volume business only; quality must derive from quantity.
    On the career side: For traditional publishing, get an agent. But remember other options are open to you now for getting your work in front of people, if you so choose, so if publishers' doors don't open, either study and provide what they're looking for this includes developing the oft-cited "platform"), or take your work public in some other form. Keep your day job (survival needs trump all; creative work stops when the limbic system is on survival alert). Remember that "someday" is the enemy of action. Nothing happens until you begin. And then keep on beginning, each day. You will always feel better for having begun, wherever the path ultimately leads.

  15. Laura,
    I don't think that advice is heretical at all. I think its great advice. As Hallie pointed out, plot solutions often come to me when I'm away from the computer.

    I wish I coudl try Juia Cameron's advice, but frankly, I can barely write anything longhand anymore - even check writing seems arduous. I could never write three pages.

    But I do sketch out of settings and jot down a few ideas long hand in a Notebook I keep for each book.

  16. Wow, Toni - more than a few quotables in your comment that bear repeating!
    **Writing is not a volume business only; quality must derive from quantity.
    **For traditional publishing, get an agent. But remember other options are open to you now
    **Keep your day job (survival needs trump all)
    **"Someday" is the enemy of action. ** Keep on beginning, each day.

    Any of these are worthy of a post-it on my wall!

    Melissa, people used to ask me why I wasn't a writer when everyone else in my family was, and the answer is simple and to your point -- I didn't write.

  17. Hallie, I am so glad liked my comment. Thank you. I was an editor at large publishing houses for 25 years and now edit and write full-time on my own, so I have lived on both sides of the publishing equation--being the editor who says yes or no, and being the writer who waits for the call. Quite a business, either way, in every sense of the phrase. Ergh.

  18. One thing I would add from my own experience:
    I've met people who have struggled to get the body into the first 50 pages because else it won't be a mystery. Baloney. My bodies usually show up halfway through the book.
    There have been wonderfully successful books which switch point of view, books written from the viewpoint of the killer--anything is possible if you do it well.

  19. Good point, Rhys! The point is to do nothing (whether breaking or adhering to conventions) without a reason. And then (here's the practice part) do it well.

  20. “I go through thee stages of writer-grief for it: denial, argument, bartering, procrastinating...then, finally, experimenting, deleting, and moving on.”

    Hank, I LOVE this! Just went through it last night, editing a story from 3500 words to 2500. “But I NEED that sentence! The story won’t come alive if I don’t say what kind of trees they walked by!” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Consider the possibility that the story will be better without it. Delete and move on.

    Leslie Budewitz

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