Friday, August 31, 2012

Help! My middle's sagging...

With every new plot idea, I struggle with 'what happens next?' In other words, how to correct the dreaded 'sagging middle.'

For help understanding this, I turned to the Master of Suspense, Dean Koontz, who has an uncanny skill for creating page-turning bestsellers.

For instance, in his book, RELENTLESS, Mr. Koontz uses several distinct tools to keep us 'hooked' throughout the story:
  • Putting loved ones in danger.
  • Shocking revelations.
  • Introducing characters or plot twists.
  • Foreshadowing.
After the initial triple-peak jolt, there are four separate 'spikes' in tension before the penultimate climax. (Geek alert: Yes, I made a chart.)

With few exceptions, each chapter begins at a marginally diminished 'thrill score' and then builds, with the baseline gradually rising throughout the book. At the end of each chapter Mr. Koontz employs one of his tools to raise tension. Chapters get short, things speed up, and we have no choice but to turn the page.

The overall story arc goes something like this:
  • Peaks 1-3: Trouble's brewing.
  • Peak 4: The devil breaks loose.
  • Peak 5: (Smaller triple spike. We can't catch our breath.) We're losing, winning, losing.
  • Peak 6: We've lost.
  • Peak 7: No! We're going to make it.
  • Peak 8: We showed them, didn't we? Yay good guys!
Again, a general trend is for early spikes to be high/shorter duration and for middle spikes to have longer duration made up of several mini-spikes. The final climax is...breathtaking.

While I dislike the idea of plot formulas, I want my stories to be a thrilling experience for the reader. In my latest project, I've already noticed how using Mr. Koontz' strategy has sharpened the tension.

Someday I'll have to thank him for helping me with my sagging middle.

Cheers...and happy writing!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Liar!" he shouted dubiously...

O dialogue, how thou dost vex me...

Most writers (and all good editors) insist that 'he said,' or 'she said,' is the only proper attribution to dialogue. My literary crush Elmore Leonard sometimes peppers his with exotic fare like: 'Then Frank says, "No,"' Or 'Frank came back with: "No."' But he NEVER adds an adjective. (In fact, it's one of his Top Ten Rules, which I'll explore in another blog post.)

The truth is this: If dialogue is powerful, the attribution doesn't need an adjective. For example, when a character says, "I disliked Kilroy," rather than add, 'He said angrily,' I can change the dialogue to: "Kilroy deserved worse. So I gave it to him."

Still not sure what he's feeling? How about: "Kilroy's with his family. In Hell."

Another of Mr. Leonard's tricks is short, snappy back-and-forth conversations that reveal clues and plot twists. Sometimes a whole page of dialogue contains only a single attribution or motion tag to keep the reader clear about who is speaking. (BE COOL, pg 7.) The effect is like punching the throttle on a Mustang GT: Pure speed.

But there a caveat: The dialogue has to be good. Really, really good. I'll confess my current manuscript still has a few adjectives that modify attributions--usually to clarify a sarcastic remark.

I'm trying to get up the courage to remove even those.

Cheers...and happy writing!


Monday, August 27, 2012

Me, Myself, and Muse

People ask: "How do you come up with ideas?"  I usually murmur something vague, hoping to sound brilliant, thoughtful, and perhaps a little mysterious.

The real answer: I have no clue.

I'd love to claim some genetic gift of imagination, but every afternoon at five o'clock I'm shocked by the arrival of dinnertime and find myself completely starved for ideas. (On any given week we have pancakes at least once. Frozen pizza is a staple.)

You'd think the brainstorming process would extend to meals: 'Let's see...Macaroni could meet Cheese in the pot. They'd mingle for a while, the heat would rise...then Bam; They're inseparable!'

Nope. If my imagination is in charge, we're having pancakes again.

But maybe, as Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) suggests,  creativity doesn't come from within. Maybe our stories select us, and our job is to sit down every day and do the hard work of writing what our Muse whispers--free of grammatical errors and jumping points of view.

This vision of creativity carries both a blessing and an obligation. The blessing is that it's no longer about my imagination, but listening with a willing heart. The obligation is that I'm duty-bound to perfect my skill. Beethoven gave us beautiful music, but the wonder is lost when it's played on a kazoo.

And I like Ms. Gilbert's vision because it helps me another way.

My muse doesn't do food.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Picking up the thread...

Elmore Leonard says he can write anytime, anywhere--a skill I much admire but haven't yet mastered. (You're going to hear a lot of 'Elmore Leonard says' on this blog. Read one of his books or watch 'Justified' on FX to see why.)

Unlike Mr. Leonard, I have to concentrate--hard--when I write. A door slams, a child's voice rises a half-decibel, one of the dogs jumps off the couch, hackles raised, to announce that my neighbor's pickup needs a new muffler--and I'm no longer inside my character's head, seeing, feeling, and hearing events that exist solely in my imagination.

My worst distractions originate within. Worry, fear, anger, and feeling like I've left things undone can make it nearly impossible to sink into the story and write what I see--a process I call 'Picking up the Thread."

I've tried different strategies to combat interruption: Get up an hour early (better for planning than writing), escape to the makeshift office in the barn (great until it gets cold), noise-canceling headphones (weird).

But the best by far: Escape.

My favorite is a State Park cabin on a lake about an hour from my house. State Park accomodations verge on Spartan--no internet, no radio, rudimentary television. There's no gym or restaurant, and little interaction between guests. (Once, in December, I was the only person staying in the park, which was a tad spooky.)

That quiet simplicity creates room in my head for characters, plots, and emotion. When I 'Pick up the Thread,' the words appear on the page as if by magic and I struggle to type fast enough to capture them.

My latest project came to me during one of these escapes. I began writing at two am, hoping to catch the plot before it vanished. When the sun rose I'd finished chapter one and the outline. I didn't want to stop.

But it was time to go home and be distracted again.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Throwing Rocks

As a writer I tend to make things too easy for my protagonist. The reason is simple: I fall in love with my characters. I want my heroes to experience happy, productive lives, work out their issues in private, and trip blissfully into a fictional Happily Ever After.

Which is about as exciting for the reader as watching cats sleep.

Face it: Human nature is to focus on the anomaly. We don't notice all the cars safely whizzing by on the freeway--we see the lone nut weaving in and out of traffic like a crazed pinball. At the mall it's the weirdly audacious or scary-seeming person who catches our eye, never the mom in a T-shirt with three kids in tow.

Writers like me need to overcome our innate desire to shield our characters from evildoers, bad decisions, and rotten luck. In fact, like cruel puppet masters, we need to pile these on our beloved heroes with increasing ferocity until readers simply cannot look away--at least until they know whether the hero triumphed.

So when my instincts say: "Rescue her, quick!" I must type, "She hung there, breathless, fingers clawing for purchase on the crumbling ledge. A fist-sized chunk broke off in her hand and suddenly she was airborne, tumbling backward over the abyss, eyes wide with terror..."

As a very helpful editor once stated: We need to chase our characters up a tree--and then throw rocks at them.

Happy writing!


Monday, August 20, 2012

Dark and gritty?

Here goes: My first post as T.D. Hart, author of gritty mysteries and dark thrillers.

What do those thing mean? Dark...gritty?

To me, it means stripping away the pretty cover to see what's beneath. Because what hides below our shiny veneers is often the truth: our deepest fears, the parts we know are broken. We frantically conceal the holes in our personalities because we're certain if anyone knew us--I mean really knew us--we'd be unlovable.

Most of my characters hide the same things as you and me: Guilt, anger, pain, greed (which is really fear dressed in an expensive suit); a desperate need to be loved.

Funny thing though. People believe what you show them. So on the surface my characters may display arrogance or pride, courage or humility--things we expect from fictional villains and heroes. My goal as a writer will be to peel back the glossy steel coating and expose the complex human underneath.

Learning how will take years of practice--and a level of honesty that scares me to death.

Let's see how it goes.