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Where to Start a Novel

In classic literature, authors would take paragraphs, even chapters to introduce you to the main character and often give a complete family background and history. They’d tell you everything they could. And, readers would dutifully hang in there and read it all. Why? Because there weren’t a million other things vying for their attention. In the 19th Century, there weren’t TVs, Smartphones, Computers, or Social Media. No, folks who could read sat and read by candlelight through the long dark winters. They memorized passages. They talked with others about the books they’d read. And, because most had few books, they re-read everything many times.

Things are different today. Readers (and everyone else) has been influenced by TV, Movies, and Media in all forms. We have shorter attention spans. We want to be caught up and immersed before we have time to think about anything else. 

Writers need to be aware of this, conscious of the desires and needs of readers. There’s plenty of time in a novel-length work to share the issues that got the main character into the chase scene or the murder or the moment of change that is setting off the story into motion. Readers expect to be immersed into the story from the very first paragraph.
In writer terms, this is called: in medias res … narrative that beings in the middle of the plot, in the middle of the action. 

By all means, write out the family history and the background of your main character and all the other characters, too. But, in the second or third draft, find a spot where your story kicks into high gear, the moment that changes the protagonists direction in life, the moment just before or as they leap off a cliff. That’s the place to begin and capture your reader. Once captured, feel free to tell the reader all about your main character and their parental relationships…say in chapter six.

January Book of the Month: On Writing by Stephen King

The January Book of the Month is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft

Immensely helpful and illuminating to any aspiring writer, this special edition of Stephen King’s critically lauded, million-copy bestseller shares the experiences, habits, and convictions that have shaped him and his work.

“Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon publication of Stephen King’s On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

Get your copy at The Writer Workshop Bookstore or on Amazon

We’ll be talking about the book over coffee and wine on Thursday, January 30th at 7pm at The Writer Workshop. (1190 King George Blvd #A7, Savannah, GA 31419)

New Year Resolutions

I’ve stopped creating New Year’s Resolutions many years ago. After all, my resolution is always the same: Write Every Day! Simple. Not always easy to keep that resolution, but I strive for it and come pretty close.

So, instead of setting goals or creating rules that, generally, are out the window before February blows in, I spend an hour or two on or around the first of January reading, once more, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. While not all of it applies, and rules–especially grammar rules–are meant to be broken, I find that having a strong grammar foundation and basic rules of style reinforced at least once a year gives me a foundation from which to break the rules with thoughtful intention. Plus, I like White’s wittiness.
The Little Book remains a quick-reference go-to book. It’s where I start my English Composition Students. And, it’s my recommendation for writers who don’t yet have a strong grammar foundation. Why? Because it’s short (only 88 pages in most editions) and it generally gives the necessary rules of grammar and style that the English speaking and writing world have collectively agreed upon. And, did I mention that White’s pretty funny.
So, instead of making resolutions you already know you’re going to break, just as you do every year? Why not spend a bit of time reading a time-honored classic and improving your writing for the rest of the new year…

Available in The Writer Workshop Bookstore and on Amazon.

The Process

The question of process has been coming up a lot lately, so I’ve been thinking about it.

  • What’s your process?
  • What’s your writing process?
  • What’s the workshop process?
  • What’s the meaning of life?

Well, I think they’re all pretty much the same. Most of us writers have to write. We do it because we love it. We do it because it’s like breathing. We do it because it gives meaning to our lives. I’m sure there are as many other answers as there are people answering the questions.

My writing process? Generally? I write everyday. I’m what some call a “pantser.” That means I often don’t work with an outline. Instead, I take a journey through the first draft of a work without knowing where I’m going. So far, it’s worked out fairly well. This is one of the reasons I love NaNoWriMo so much each November. The true practice of starting on November 1st with a blank page and writing everyday until you reach 50,000 words. Hopefully, before November 30th. I accomplished that goal again this year. Bully for me!

Then, I read what I’ve written and create an outline. That’s when I see if what I’ve done is working or not. If I’ve wandered too hopelessly down a dark alley. And, based on that review, I revise and revise and revise. Finally…

I workshop. I love the workshop. I follow the MFA version, more or less. A group of people come together on a regular basis, every Wednesday, for instance. The attendees read a few pages of their work aloud and the others in the room offer their feedback and critique–some of it written on the page, some of it verbal. So much is learned throughout the workshop process.

  • We learn about our own work by reading it aloud;
  • We learn more by hearing the thoughts and reactions of others to our work;
  • We learn so much by choosing the feedback that we want to incorporate into the revisions;
  • We also learn by hearing the work of others;
  • We learn by offering feedback, both written and verbal;
  • And, we also learn how to show up.

And, that’s what it’s really all about. That is the foundation, the meaning of life…we have to show up. We have to do the work. We have to participate.

So, whether there are others in the room or I’m alone for a few hours at the workshop space, I show up. I write every day. I read my work. I revise. I offer feedback. I support the work others are doing as I support and nurture my own work as a writer, as an artist.

I show up.

What is NaNoWriMo?

Twenty Years of NaNoWriMo!

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Now in it’s 20th year, NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge. The goal? Write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That works out to 1,667 words each day during the month of November. This amazing challenge not only helps you get a lot of words down and work out a story line, it also helps establish the daily writing habit. While it’s a huge challenge to complete, it’s also an amazing accomplishment. 

So, if you do it what do you win? Well, a certificate of achievement, bragging rights, and, most importantly, the foundation of a new novel. True NaNo die hards show up at a blank page on November 1st and they see what happens (no plotting or planning). This is my preferred method. But, You can certainly plot in advance if you so choose. You can come to the page with an idea or a character or a bit of story in your head. And, while the goal is to write a novel, a work of fiction, there’s always a strong contingent of those who “go rogue” and write nonfiction or continue work on a book in progress or, well, fill in the blank. 

If you decide to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge, be sure to add me as your “Buddy.” My NaNo handle is Gak13.

The Writer Workshop will offer 6 NaNoWriMo Write-ins during the month of November. Come, spend some time writing with friends, and receive a free gift. Download the Calendar for all the November events.

Daily Practice

I spend time each day writing. It’s really the only way, the only option. If you want to be a writer you have to write. And, you have to write a lot. And, I believe, you have to write every day.

Okay, so I’m not perfect. There are days I skip showing up at the keyboard. I create excuses on some of those days. On others, I give myself a hard time and then move on to other things.

Still, the goal is to show up daily. The goal is to make writing a priority in our lives. And, the goal is to write a lot so we have material to edit and revise. That’s where the “real” writing happens. In the revision. In the selecting of the perfect word, the best verb. It’s where the layers get added and often the senses and emotional stakes.

The truth for me is that I also feel better after I’ve written for the day. When I hit my word counts or time goals (or best of all, both!) a weight is lifted from me. I feel like I can head into the remains of the day with a clear conscious. I’ve done it, put words on the screen. Added to the story. Created something new and fresh and original. Sure, it might all be edited away tomorrow, but today, the words are on the page.

This is why I write early in the day. Before email and social media, before phone calls or chores. I show up, write my words, and then move into the rest of the day (ah, a repetition that will either be deleted in the future or enhanced somehow to add depth of meaning…)

What’s your daily practice? Your writing ritual?

10 Tips for Writing Tight

Over the years, like you and every other writer, I’ve read the lists and recommendations for writing tight. Among the most famous is Elmer Leonard’s list and you can read it here. We all have our favorites that we quell into our own, so here’s my list.

  1. Write Specific
  2. Develop Ideas
  3. Utilize Active Voice
  4. Format Clean
  5. Delete Qualifiers
  6. Limit Reiteration
  7. Destroy Adverbs
  8. Eradicate Expletives
  9. Beware of Prepositions
  10. Challenge Every Word

What’s your list? Comment below.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing Tight

[Editor’s Note: This is where we begin.]

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …

…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.