Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Interview with Cat Connor

Today I Welcome New Zealand author Cat Connor, author of thriller novels such as Killerbyte, Terrorbyte, Exacerbyte, Flashbyte and Soundbyte - her latest FBI thriller about the life of SSA Ellie Conway.


Hi Cat, come on up on the front porch and sit a spell. I guess the first question is the rocking chair or the glider, are you a rocker or a swinger?

Definitely rocker!

Well, you got a good view of Grove Avenue from up here on the porch for people watching. This is the Fan District, the bohemian section of Richmond, half the artsy folks in town walk down this street. As Dorothy Parker said, “authors and actors and artists and such; they never know nothing, and they never know much”. So Cat, let’s find out a little about you. Here in the American south we live by the rule of southern hospitality. There are certain questions you get asked right off the bat when you are invited here to visit. In Atlanta they ask you what you do for a living, in Dallas they ask you where you go to church, here in Richmond we ask “what would you like to drink? I have to warn you I can make a mean Mint Julep.

I’m a southern girl … big fan of Mint Juleps. (To be fair, big fan of bourbon like it almost as much as I like tequila.)

Cat, you write great thrillers, what draws you to that genre?

Honestly, I don’t think I was drawn so much as stumbled into it. I like the adrenaline rush, the not knowing what will happen next, really does it for me. ☺

Besides those ‘edge of your seat’ thrillers you have written, I noticed a book called Romeo and the Chicken, what is the story with that one?
Romeo and the Chicken is a children’s book about our greyhound Romeo. There are two stories in the book – the first is how Missy the fat grey cat met Romeo and the second is a story about Romeo losing his chicken frame. His girlfriend Cleo is in the story, so are my younger two children and Cleo’s family. It’s a bit of fun. Always a fun book to read to the local primary school children. (The kids all know Romeo, as he’s a regular visitor to school.)

Your thrillers have high-energy characters and lots of action. What creative techniques do you use to help get you in-tune with the energy frequency of your characters?

Music. MUSIC. And more MUSIC.
It kinda goes like this;
Ellie – Bon Jovi or Lorenza Ponce and lately a little bit of Adele.
Kurt – Kevin Costner and Modern West
Lee – Richie Sambora or Bon Jovi or sometimes Aerosmith
Sam – Garth Brooks (I dunno why, but, it works for me!)

I understand you have a new FBI thriller about the life of SSA Ellie Conway. Give us an insight into her. What does she do that is so special?

Soundbyte and Snakebyte were both released this year. Next year, we have Databyte coming out.
Ellie is extremely good at reading people. It often looks like she pulls information from the air, and maybe she does? But she is very good at deciphering what people’s bodies are saying. She doesn’t always know what she knows or how she knows it, often music provides the answers. Something in her subconscious generates a song that points her to an answer or clue. She also sees dead people and not so dead people in the form of interactive hallucinations. Lots of fun to write those!

Which actress would you like to see play Ellie Conway in the film?

Claire Danes – I think she’d be an excellent Ellie Conway.

Do you have any other are current and future projects that you can share with us?

The next release in the byte series is the 6th full-length byte novel, databyte: When information becomes misinformation the result is mayhem for Supervisory Special Agent Ellie Conway. Wanted for a murder she didn’t commit and on the run from the FBI and Metro PD Ellie has to protect an actor with close ties to Delta A from a serious threat while trying to clear her name.

I also recently finished the first draft of the 7th byte novel, Eraserbyte. It’s special byte novel in that my Admins suggested the story line (or some of it at least – they have no idea how much I warped our trip to D.C. for this.). Such fun!

I see in your bio you spent some time in the Washington D.C, and Northern Virginia area. What was your impression, and remember, we here in Richmond consider Northern Virginia a foreign country. We consider the Washington area the perfect mix of Northern charm and southern efficiency.

My impression of Northern Virginia was one of comfort and joy, such a friendly welcoming beautiful place. I was very much at home in Northern Virginia and in Washington D.C. In fact, leaving was difficult (yes, I cried on the train on the way to NYC). I absolutely love D.C.

Writing good, crisp dialogue is one of the toughest things to do. How do you give each of your characters an original voice when they speak?

It’s probably wrong to say, I don’t know, but I really don’t. They are who they are and I guess that comes through in their voices. I enjoy writing dialogue, have never found it difficult, but then, I don’t think too much about it. I just do it.
Maybe that’s the key?

Do you have any special quotes or sayings that you keep visible in your work environment to help inspire, motivate, and encourage you when you write?

I used to, because until the beginning of winter I worked downstairs in the middle of the house, and down there I have a set of mobile drawers covered in inspirational motivational sayings and quotes and some stuff that just makes me laugh.
Currently my favorite quote is, ‘Courage, it would seem, is nothing less than the power to overcome danger, misfortune, fear, injustice, while continuing to affirm inwardly that life with all its sorrows is good; that everything is meaningful even if in a sense beyond our understanding; and that there is always tomorrow. - Dorothy Thompson’
That’s the quote that appears at the end of databyte.


So, I will hit you with a question you asked me, describe your current mental status. Any quirks?
Mental status – today’s a good day, but it can get pretty dark in here at times – this year has been tough.
Quirks: Yeah nah, no quirks. Apart from writing with Bon Jovi blaring … and drinking quad espressos.

I see you’re ready for a drink refill. I’ll freshen your drink. Here we never let your drink get below the one-third mark. And letting someone actually finish a drink is against the rule of southern hospitality.
I’m a fan of that particular rule!

So, tell me, who are your favorite writers? Which writers inspire you the most?

Alexandre Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, Willard Price, Jeffrey Deaver, Lee Child, Janet Evanovich, EJ Knapp, D Krauss. Which writers inspire me the most … I’d say Willard Price has had the biggest influence on me and possibly is why I write. I just didn’t see why boys got all the cool adventures. Girls are just as capable.

Who is your favorite fictitious villain? Or are you all about the hero? Who do you love to hate?

I’m all about the hero. Always have been.
Sorry got distracted for a bit there by several big police officers wearing Glocks outside our house … men in uniform and bullet proof vests. Is it hot in here? What were we talking about?

How about giving us a taste (or based on your book titles, a byte) of New Zealand, what is it like living there? What is your average day like? If you’re not working, what are you most likely doing?

Living here is like living anywhere. Except we are sitting on some big faults and it gets a bit rocky sometimes. We’ve had a couple of big damage causing earthquakes here in the middle of the country recently, guess it was our turn? Christchurch has had quite enough!

My average day: Get up at 6. Make coffee (quad espresso), feed the cat, let the hound out, then feed him. Check email, Facebook, Twitter and so forth until 7, sometimes I start work – depending on what I’m working on. Wake the kids up. Supervise them getting ready for school, make Breezy’s lunch, get the hound ready and walk to school. Then I work until half past 2, when it’s time to get ready to pick Breezy up. Sometimes I take Romeo for a second walk then. We get home about 3:30. Squealer gets in from college about then too. I go back to work for an hour or so then get dinner ready. Action Man gets home about 5 now, which is nice so we get a bit longer than we used to with the kids before and after dinner. After dinner I pour a glass of wine (more often than not) and watch comedies on TV, then read until I fall asleep. Depending on how the day has gone I may end up working late.

If I’m not working? I’m not very good at not working. I hang out with The Admins, friends, family, or I go home to Mahau Sound and hang out with Superman.

How did you embark on this writerly life? When did you decide to become a writer?

Remember how I stumbled into writing thrillers? Yeah, same deal. I never chose to become a writer. I just am. I did, however, choose to write something I wanted to read. I don’t think writing is something any sane person consciously chooses as a career! ☺

Dorothy Parker (I seem to have her on the brain today) once said “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” What’s the best advice you can give aspiring writers?

Learn to take the knocks, understand that this is a SLOW business, and acquire a taste for wine.
I do regularly point out to the writing group I host at our city library that this is not an industry for the faint hearted or the sane (or sober).
Writing has to be equal to breathing or you may as well give up now.

What do you consider is the hardest thing about writing?

I write first-person so that can be scary, draining, emotionally exhausting, or hilarious depending on the scenes and the story. Writing has never really been hard for me. It’s what I do. It’s how I have fun. The hard part comes after the writing – the marketing stuff. I still can’t find the joy in that! I keep trying though. Hoping that one day it will at least make sense?

You are involved in number of writer’s organizations, Backspace.org., the New Zealand Society of Authors, International Thriller Writers, Kiwi Writers, and Masters of Horror. How do these organizations help you in your writing and marketing?

I belong to them all but lately haven’t been overly involved in any. Seems there are a lot of things vying for my attention and I can’t get to them all. Maybe I need my Admins to take over the social networking side so I can do the other stuff? Although, in saying that, they cause enough trouble! Bless their little cotton socks.
The organization that has helped the most is Backspace. I’ve belonged to that since it first began and it’s a fabulous place to get support, help, and to just be around other writers. People who don’t write sometimes don’t quite get what a tough/freaking insane industry this is.

I noticed that you have racked up a lot of 5 star reviews on Amazon, that pretty impressive. Do your readers or reviewers ever contact you via facebook or e-mail and comment or ask questions about your work?

I love hearing from readers. And yes they do contact me and ask questions. Often it’s not so much a question as a statement ‘I can’t believe you did that’ is a common one. If you’ve read terrorbyte or soundbyte you’ll know why. For the record, I can’t believe I did it either! Bear with … I probably won’t do it again for a few books! ☺

I know I get questions all the time from my UK and European readers about certain American southern terms I use, like “grits” or “something going all Cattywampus”. Once I used the phase, “He dropped the keys on the counter of the double-wide,” and I got the question, “double wide what?” Are there any New Zealand terms you use that readers ask you to clarify?

Nope. I write in American English and a lot of the terms I use are common to both Northern Va and New Zealand, we’re not so different. If it’s something that is very kiwi then I explain it or have the character who said it explain it.


Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
I really can’t think of anything!
I’m going to have to go … police officers, guns, dogs … more joy than I can say and all happening outside my window!

How can readers discover more about you and you work?
Please list contact info you would like to include –
Website: http://catconnor.com
Blog:
 http://catconnor.blogspot.co.nz/
Facebook:
 https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cat-Connor/76140493745
Twitter:
 https://twitter.com/catconnor
Linkedin:
 nz.linkedin.com/pub/cat-connor/20/87b/9a8/
Pinterest:
 http://www.pinterest.com/otherwisecat73/
Amazon Author Page:
 http://www.amazon.com/Cat-Connor/e/B002DP3JCQ/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Smashwords:
 https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/catconnor
Book Links: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cat-Connor/e/B002DP3JCQ
Goodreads:

Thanks Cat, for stopping by. It was wonderful having you and getting some insight into hour work and you as a person. Here, let me top that drink off for you and make you a traveller – that’s a drink to go in a plastic cup. We carry around a lot of travellers here. It’s what passes for a doggie bag, or rather doggie cup, in Richmond. Cheers!

Friday, October 4, 2013

International Skeptic's Day...Maybe

There is an old story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "May be," the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "May be," replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "May be," answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. May be," said the farmer. You get the idea. The old farmer was a classic skeptic. And since Monday, October 13 is International Skeptics day (actually, the site also lists January 13th, October 13th, and the first Friday of the year as skeptics day). I suspect that a skeptic created this day. And, he or she did so by first creating doubt about the date to celebrate this special day. Like the old farmer I am a skeptic, I believe that any belief system which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition. I count organized religion among superstitions institutions. My skepticism carries over into my novels and I tend to infuse a good dose of skepticism into my characters, especially when it comes to religion. Take John Wye, who appears in Church of the Path of Least Resistance, Bullfish and Heavenly Pleasure. In “Church” he comes to the aid of his old college chum Mike Compari, he himself a lapsed catholic, and together they travel to Yahweh, Arkansas to save a kid from a religious cult. Along the way they encounter a Christian hit man, attend a book burning and enlist the help of a group of civil war reenactors to blow up the cult compound. As the story unfolds the reader finds out that the cult was part of a federal program to franchise religion and use the income to balance the government. Ok, so I’m a skeptic about government also. John Wye returns in Bullfish where at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas he meets Eve Savage, physics doctoral student on spring break. Eve creates a wormhole and sends a proctologist from Washington D.C. back in time to swap places with Jesus Christ. Jesus attends a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar while his double is booked to speak at the ‘last supper’. In the end Atlantis is sent back in time to become the original Lost Continent and Jesus ends up as a carpenter in Tarsus, where he dresses up in a red suit every year on is birthday and delivers toys to the neighborhood children. John makes his final appearance in Heavenly Pleasure (soon to be released), where he becomes the chronicler of the final battle between good and evil. Eve also appears in this novel and this time creates a device that modifies brain waves to create orgasmic bliss. The side of evil is represented by a mega-church preacher, the devil, an attorney and a young snake handler from West Virginia. On the side of good is Bengali stripper, a fallen angel, god disguised as an ice cream truck driver and two life partners that operate a Christian porn store where their hottest selling item is the ‘Come to Jesus Vibrator’. Alright, there is a thin line between skeptic and heretic and I may have crossed it. In 2012 Montezuma’s Revenge, I show my skepticism of the end of the world as predicted by the Mayan calendar by bringing back Montezuma II who had been frozen under a lake in Utah for 500 years. Meanwhile an incompetent, and constantly stoned, U.S. president wages war against a capitalist Martian colony in a red planet-blue planet philosophical conflict. Turns out I wasn’t that far off. In my novel Homemade Sin, I show my skepticism of the healthcare industry. While Stinky a sociopathic, telepathic cat tries to raise feline zombie army for world domination, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, War, played by big insurance, Famine, played by agri-business, Pestilence, played by the pharmaceutical industry and Death, played by the medical profession plot to subvert the American healthcare system. Turns out I wasn’t far off on this one either. I even have a novel in progress that features a telepathic pickled infant in a mason jar found among the bulrushes in the James River, (sounds very old testament, doesn’t it?) who has a knock down drag out fight with a clump of kudzu contorted into the shape of a crucifixion (sounds a little new testament, right?) which culminates with the holy pickled infant bringing down the seven plagues of Egypt on a truck stop parking lot. As you can tell I do like to give organized religion a good, old fashioned wedgie. Sacred cows do make the best cheeseburgers. And I serve those burgers with large portions of humor. As Oscar Wilde, another skeptic, once said, “when you tell people the truth, make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” Do I sometimes go too far in poking fun of the doggedly certain? Maybe.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Little Summer Reading

OK, so I’m a planner. I’m one of those folks who constantly makes lists and updates my calendar. I plan my calendar out for months at a time, so my summer is pretty much mapped out- pool, polo matches and reading. There are a couple of book related things that may rear their literary heads and conscript me into massive rewrites, but so far all is quiet on the editorial front. I have one manuscript with an agent awaiting a verdict, and two with a publisher ironing contract details, but all is moving at a glacial pace. I have a couple of new projects in the works but both are in the conceptual stage and my muse is only showing them to me as ‘coming attractions’, and not the full fledged feature film that scrolls across my brain from which the real stuff of my books is made. Like most writers I have a stack of ‘to read’ books by my bed and a list of enough e-books to be downloaded into my kindle to keep my lips moving all summer. So I thought I’d share a summer reading list with you. And for those who know me, you know my literary tastes tend to be a little different than some of the stuff that passes for literature for the vox populi (I mean you Fifty Shades of Lame). Summer Reading - 1. Ray Bradbury - In memory of the greatest scifi writer ever, I’m going to dig up my old copies of Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles. Mahalo Ray. 2. Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter – New book called The Long Earth, I don’t know much about Baxter, except that he worked with Arthur C. Clarke which is good enough for me. 3. Ken Grimwood – Replay, main character dies at 50, wakes up back in college, leads a new life, dies at 50 again, wakes up in college again, amazing book. 4. Donald Ray Pollock - Knockemstiff- I loved The Devil All the Time, kind of a Ohio Gothic, complete with a prayer log, so I’m betting this one is good too. 5. Joe R. Lansdale Edge of Dark Water – Joe always spins a good Texas mystery. 6. Lawrence Shames - The Angels Share – Larry really captures Key West and he is funny as hell. 7. Chris Moore – Sacre Blu – I have read all of Chris’ books and will still give him a plug, even if he won’t reply to my publisher’s request for a book blurb. Right, mister Chris la-te da, look at me, I have 12 books and sold all my movie rights for mega bucks and have a house in Maui, Moore? 8. Charles Shields- And So It Goes – The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to make sense. That’s why and I don’t usually read non-fiction. But I liked this one. 9. Andrew J. Fox- The Good Humor Man- Loved Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of Fat White Vampier so I'm betting this one continues his absurdist humor style with his unique and hilarious style. So there you are, a summer reading list, a little dark, a little light, some funny, some grotesque, a little altered perception, a childhood summer musing on wine, some mystery a little art, and the biography man who drew pictures of assholes in his book and got paid for it. Enjoy your summer. I have the bar stocked and a cool, new zombie Snow White sticker on my Macbook that gets odd looks at the pool, so I know I will.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Novel as a Project

A novel is a project. Like developing software or building a house it is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. Of course sometimes it doesn’t seem temporary (it took Christopher Nolan ten years to write Inception and Ayn Rand 10 years to write Atlas Shrugged) but a novel has a beginning, a middle and an end- that day you kiss it goodbye and send it off into the world. Before I began writing novels I was an IT Project Manager so when I started writing novels it was only logical to apply some of the techniques I had used in project management to assure I was using my writing time most effectively. This may sound like I’m making novel writing a ‘science’ instead of an ‘art” but the novel is a mix of art and science. The creative left brain and the structured left brain working together to build the novel. There are tasks, during all three stage of the novel development process; planning, writing and promotion, that lend themselves to structured, organized processes. The following is a breakdown of some of the tools to use during the planning process.

Planning the Novel

It all starts with a plan. The more time you spend getting organized to write and planning what to do along the way, the less time you are going to waste when you are in the throws of writing and your mind is focused on your characters and your story. Characters can be greedy with you time when you are in the ‘zone” and the last thing you want to distract you is to spend time wondering, “what do I do next”.


1. Time Management Plan - I’m the kind of person that schedules everything. I make dinner menus weeks in advance and am usually packed for a trip three days before the flight takes off. Somewhere scribbled on my Day-planner is; “November 18- 4:00- 4:15- ‘be spontaneous’. But not everyone plans instinctively (or obsessively) so here some time management tricks.

• Block out a time to write - Tom Robbins says that every day at 9:00 he enters his home office and sits and waits for his muse. If she comes, great he is off and writing, if not he sits and waits, fingers hovering over the keyboard until noon. If she doesn’t show by noon he goes out to play. Sit at your computer and wait for the muse at the same time every day if you can for a set amount of time. Granted, not everybody can block out a specific time every day, but sometime every day, tune everything else out and open yourself to your muse.. If in that allotted time if she doesn’t show, take a break and try again later or another day, but be there and ready for her visit.

o During your writing time, eliminate distractions. Turn off your television and avoid checking e-mails or facebook. No excuses when waiting for your muse.

• Set goals, tasks and milestones -
o Remember the analogy of eating an elephant, how trying to conceptualize eating the whole thing is daunting, but if you break it down into bites it seems more palatable. Break your novel project down into bites.

• Start with a story concept, have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. Once you have a clear vision for your novel from beginning to end it is easier to break your vision down into plot points.

• Break your plot into scenes or chapters. I create a new page for each chapter (hard page break) then I label each chapter (such as Harry Meets Sally) and then write a one or two sentence scene description. I can come back and fill these in with actual narrative, dialogue, scene detail, etc later.

• Create a character profile for each character. Identify the character’s background, likes, dislikes, what they value most in life, what they fear, and desire. Also identify conflicts they will have with other characters.

• Create a time-line for your story. I use a flowchart to map out what happens over time. Each little box in the flowchart represents a scene and the following box the next scene, and on and on. You can also create a second flowchart for a subplot and draw lines connecting where the plot and the subplot connect. If you are like me you may need a third or forth parallel flow chart for sub-sub-sub-plots. Mines usually ends up looking like a Rube Goldberg creation.

• Now you are ready to fill in those chapters you mapped out with you character action following your plot and time-line. One bite at a time and that elephant is a lot easier to eat.

2. Resource Plan

Writing is a lonely job but you can’t do it alone. Sounds like a dichotomy right? The point is that it helps to have a network of people that you can reach out to when needed. When you are stuck on a scene, that word is on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t come up with it, or maybe you want to get some ideas for character names, it is good to have another writer to contact. Hunter Thompson is famous for calling up fellow writers in the middle of the night and asking “what’s another word for mendacity?” The key is to identify a ‘go to’ list of resources so that help is at your fingertips. Just remember, if someone is your resource you need to be there when they need help.

• Make a list of research you are going to need for your book. What books, videos, music do you need to purchase? What trips do you need to take? Who do you need to talk to? Build these into your time and financial plans.

• Reviewers – A good reviewer is worth his or her weight in gold. Identify your potential reviewers early. Joining a review group will give you some reviewer resources, but be careful try to choose a group with folks in your genre a science fiction reader may not give you effective insight into how to make your romance novel better.

• Editor/proofreader – Don’t rely on your publisher provided editor or proofreader to catch everything, the more ‘nits’ you can catch up front the more time you editor can focus on more substantive work on your novel.

3. Communication Plan

You can have the most wonderful novel ever written but if nobody knows about it they won’t be exactly jumping off the shelves of your local bookstore or clogging the internet with e-book orders. The best way to promote your book is to get people involved in your project early and often.

• Know your market whether it’s Romance, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Speculative Fiction or Steampunk, you have a certain group of potential readers. Your job is to figure out where these folks are, how to reach them and go after them.

• Know you medium check out local and national print and electronic newsletters, newspapers, local entertainment weeklys, etc.,

4. Quality Plan (Edit, Edit, Edit) - For every vision, there is an equal but opposite revision. Quality control in writing is all about editing. I generally go through about five edits.

Story Edit – Does the plot work? Is it too complex that readers get distracted? Is it so simple that readers lose interest? Does your theme convey clearly to the reader? Is the voice effective to tell the story and interesting? Is there enough conflict to keep the reader’s interest?

Time Edit – Impose a timeline on your flowchart, does the time flow day to day, week to week, are the time gaps realistic?

Character Edit – Are the characters consistent with their profiles in every situation or scene? Physical characteristics are consistent - does John have green eyes in one scene and blue later? Are emotional characteristics the same- same sense of humor, consistent fears and dreams in every scene?

Wordsmith Edit – Here is where you go word by word and ask yourself “is this the perfect word for this sentence, the perfect sentence for this paragraph and the perfect paragraph for this chapter. Like Mark Twain said, “the difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Pre-Editor’s Edit – There is passion in the world like the passion to alter someone else's work. 
This is sometimes one of the most challenging aspects of writing, trying to look at your manuscript through an editor’s eyes and anticipate changes. Ask yourself “is this clear, could anyone understand it?” I remember a writer who had written “He entered the double-wide and tossed his keys on the counter.” Her editor had scribbled “double wide what?” on the page. I am convinced that above Dickens’s draft where it said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” his editor scribbled “make up your mind!”

5. Financial Plan

First and foremost get a professional accountant, set up a LLC and begin keeping track of your expenses, all of them, purchases of everything from research books, music, printer paper and internet fees, to gas in your car to go to that writers conference to that research trip to the south of France. It’s all deductible.

Now with your plans in place, you should be able to begin eating that elephant one bite at a time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Writing the Southern Gothic Novel

From Gone with the Wind to Confederacy of Dunces to the The Sookie Stackhouse series the southern gothic style has appeared in almost every type of fiction since its inception. The first gothic novels were born on the banks of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 when Lord Byron hosted a ghost story competition between himself, Percy Shelly, Mary Shelly and John William Polidori. That contest produced both Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre. Almost 200 years later the vampire novel has evolved but is still as popular now as it was when it first sunk its teeth into the reading public. The heart of the gothic novel is extremes; greatness turned tragic, lofty affluence fallen to social squalor, heroic acts of bravery ending in madness and death. And few places can you find more examples of great ventures turned disastrous than the American south. The image of the old southern plantation fallen to ruin; aristocrat turned root-eating beggar, great beauty turned grotesque (or at least put on a few pounds and gone to seed). These themes captured the feeling at the heart of the post civil war south. But the southern gothic novel is not simply an author telling his or her story in a southern setting. No, the southern gothic novel has characters that are bigger than life, nuances of southern culture that are unique to the southern way of life, great battles between good and evil, killer Bar-B-Que and tempestuous, tube top ripping sex.

Southern Gothic Characters - Characters in southern gothic novels have to be bigger than life and, of course, a little crazy; the damaged soul, rising out of the wreckage of lost love, lost lifestyle or lost sanity. The aging debutant hanging on to Baby Jane delusions of youth; the wife-beater wearing, bad-boy who’s always a car chase away from the county jail. And southern writers write these characters so well because they have all known lots of real characters like this in their lives. Also, many southern writers tend to be a little crazy themselves. Seriously, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, John Kennedy Toole, Eudora Welty - all born and raised southern and every one as crazy as a soup sandwich. Take my own town, Richmond Virginia, home to Edgar Allen Poe, not exactly the poster boy for sanity, Tom Wolfe of the perpetual ice cream suit, Tom Robbins, proof there is a fine line between genius and insanity. And I still have the image in my head of Richmond’s own David Robbins standing on the deck of a ship in pirate waters off the coast of Somalia waving a hundred dollar bill as research for The Devil’s Waters. Somehow, I just don’t see Woody Allen or Gore Vidal doing that. So, let’s take a look at some of the things that make southern characters stand out:

Nothing says southern like excess - If your character is going to be poor, make him tobacco row, stained wife beater, dirt poor. If rich, make him ‘owning most of Atlanta rich. So rich he buys a new boat each time the old one gets wet. If male, put the testosterone into overdrive and give your readers a cross between Rhett Butler and Stanley Kowalski. Female characters in the southern gothic have evolved over time, from Scarlet O’Hara to Sookie Stackhouse but they share a common thread, they are always vulnerable and in-charge at the same time, both soft and yielding yet, able to crawl out of the dirt, root in hand and take on the Yankee army with a vengeance. Picture Jessica Rabbit totin’ an Uzi wearing a hoop skirt, flak jacket and a picture hat.

Crazy elevated to an art-form- There is always a crazy character in the southern gothic novel. Some aunt or uncle or cousin, who “just ain’t quite right.” Aunt Earline’s little eccentricities, like perpetually dressing her dog like country singers, provides your other characters with opportunities to come up with great southern expressions like “her driveway don’t go all the way to the road” or “crazy as a pack of peach orchard boars.” (more about southern euphemisms later). Embrace your characters’ eccentricities and get creative. I loved the character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil who tied live flies to his clothes and constantly carried around a bottle of poison earmarked for the city’s water system. Remember the banjo playing boy in Deliverance? Or the story of Boo Radley plunging the scissors into his parent’s leg in To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, most main characters should only flirt with insanity enough to make them quirky and interesting. It’s too hard to get your readers to like them if you make them barking mad.

Hold my beer and watch this - A recent study - I think conducted at U of Michigan - tested how quick people were to anger when provoked. They found that the northerners angered more quickly but the southerners were the first to throw a punch. Southern characters don’t tend to be introspective; they jump first then figure out how the parachute works. And when they are introspective it is in the form of brooding, seething, or contemplating some stupidly brave or despicably heinous act. Violence, or the threat of it, is usually an undercurrent in southern gothic, but it is usually expressed more in bravado than brawl. Then again, they don’t call those sleeveless white undershirts ‘wife beaters’ for nothing.

Who are your people? - Attend any southern gathering and the second thing you will be asked is ‘who are your people?” Of course, the first thing you will be asked is “what would you like to drink? Finding common ancestors is how southerners connect. They find some mutual, distant relative and spend the rest of the evening talking about the time great uncle Colonel Beaumont Carter rode his horse into the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel (of course, if every old family in Richmond that claims their ancestor rode a horse into the Jefferson actually had a ancestor that did it, the Jefferson would have been the biggest stable in the south). Family is important in the south so trot out that freak show in your southern gothic. Mummah, Big Daddy, Great Aunt Bessie who’s so fat it takes two dogs to bark at her, should be showcased or at least have walk-on parts. And not just your main characters immediate family, there needs to be at least a couple minor characters, like double cousins, that are at least a ‘half a bubble off plumb’.

Ya’ll come - Southerners love any excuse to get together for a party so any southern gothic should have a scene featuring a local Dew Drop Inn, a barn dance or a cotillion, anywhere where folks are getting drunker than Cooter Brown and dancing like Baptists with nobody watching. This is a good place for violence, drunkenness and sex. And don’t exclude funerals as a party venue. I don’t know what it is about funerals that make southerners both thirsty and horny but southerners host great post-funeral parties with lots of liquor and distant cousins, which makes for a situation where anything can happen.

Act like you got some raising - My favorite southern expression is “bless his (or her) heart” which means “you poor (ugly, ignorant, fat, stupid trashy- take-your-pick) thing.” It’s right up there with “hold your mouth right,” which is said when someone is attempting a tricky maneuver and the only way to accomplish it is to hold your mouth right…OK some of these southern expressions just have to be experienced. But suffice it to say no southern gothic novel would be complete without a few colorful euphemisms. If you can’t come up with an enigmatic, yet homespun, analogy on pretty short notice you won’t be able to write southern gothic worth a huckleberry up a bear’s ass and your novel will come across like something the dog’s been keepin’ him under the porch.

Just for grins I looked up what Wikpedia had to say about southern gothic and they used words to describe southern characters like racial bigot, egotistical, self-righteousness. Bless wiki’s little pea-pickin’ heart, he must be a Yankee and he just don’t get it.

Southern Gothic Plot - Most early southern gothic novel plots were basically a combination of romance and horror like the secret vampire lover or the seductive ghost haunting the old manse. But over time the plots of southern gothic novels have gotten more complex and urbane. While the plot of the southern gothic still contains certain commonalities such as flawed characters overcoming the forces of evil the novels now take on more sophisticated issues;

Homegrown Evil VS ‘Come-heres’ - In southern gothic novels the worst evil usually comes from out of town. Evil forces that just show up in town, usually in disguise, are called ‘come-heres’ and they are the worst kind of evil in a southern gothic. The term ‘come-heres’ can be used for anything from an invading army of vampires to just a yankee with a U-haul. In Gone with the Wind the Yankees are the ‘evil come-heres’. In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch battles homegrown racists. In A Confederacy of Dunces the whole world constantly conspires to keep Ignatius Riley down, and in the The Sookie Stackhouse Series there is an interesting twist, the home-grown vampire, Bill Compton, teams up with heroine Sookie Stackhouse to battle both “come here’ supernatural creatures and home grown, anti vampire bigots. In my book Heavenly Pleasure I mixed it up a bit. My hometown-hero characters, including Goth stripper, a fiction writer, a physicist and two life partners who run a dirty book store. These are joined by come-heres such as God, in the form of an Ice Cream man, and a fallen angel. The heroes square off against a hometown Fundamentalist preacher and Richmond city officials joined by a come-here demon (who has possessed a local vampire), and the devil himself. Sooner or later in the gothic novel the town will join forces to fight the evil led by one brave homegrown soul that ‘knew it was evil in disguise the whole time.’

Imprisonment and Freedom - This is often both literal and figurative. Many southern gothic novels open with someone getting out of either prison or a county jail. Cool Hand Luke is unique in southern gothic in that it begins with Luke being sentenced to work on a southern road gang. But this prison is only a microcosm of his greater prison, the world filled with rules, religion and mendacity that he rejects. Often, characters in southern gothic literature feel trapped in their social station, their small town, their families or even their sexuality. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick is injured and his injury has imprisoned him in Big Daddy’s house, but he is also imprisoned by his wife, Maggie the Cat’s sexuality and his own.

Grandeur fallen to Ruin - This Property is Condemned begins with a young girl walking down the railroad tracks which run by an old hotel fallen to ruin. She stops to reflect on the hotel’s previous splendor and the rest of the movie is a flashback about a “come here,” named Owen Legate, who arrives to close the local train station and doom the hotel to ruin. Grand houses fallen to ruin are typical in the southern gothic, picture Tara Plantation in Gone with the Wind before and after the Yankee invasion. Sookie Stackhouse’s grandmothers’ house is another beautiful old house that has seen better days. And this theme doesn’t stop at property. Blanche DuBois, once beautiful and affluent is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, some not so kind.

Southern Gothic Setting -It just wouldn't be southern gothic if you didn't feel like you'd been thrust into a hot, sticky southern night replete with the drone of cicadas, sweat beading up on your tall glass of something sweet and alcoholic, the scent of honeysuckle in the breeze as it wafts across your front porch rocking chair. But there is an undercurrent, a strange feeling that something about to happen. The very air is pregnant with the first tremors of trouble beginning to rise with the waves of heat rising up from the street. Does that give you the feeling of a southern night?

Smell those Magnolias - The south has flora, fauna, smells, feels and tastes all its own (there’s nothing like that first bite of North Carolina Bar-B-Que). Incorporate them into your scenes, but don’t overdo it, subtle is better than overkill. You want to capture the feel of the south but give your image a distinct look and feel that is all your own. Bon Temps in The Sookie Stackhouse Series has the feel of a small Louisiana town, but with resident vampires and werewolves. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and To Kill a Mockingbird both capture the towns of Savannah, Georgia and Maycomb, Alabama, respectively, while most of the story is set in a courtroom. In Heavenly Pleasure I have a typical Evangelical Preacher and my characters do some ‘porch sitting” but I made it unique to Richmond centering life around the James ‘Rivah’ and Richmond’s English/Southern architecture but I did something that I doubt any Southern Gothic novelist has ever done - I made it snow.

Danse Grotesque – Flannery O'Connor once remarked; "anything that comes out of the south is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” What northerners call grotesque, we southerners call normal. Fortunately, most southerners have an arsenal of grotesque personal experiences to draw from so damn the Yankees and add that touch of the grotesque to your novel. When I was a kid I was terrified of my grandmother’s house. It was a large, rambling farmhouse built in the mid-1700s. Heat came from fireplaces, my grandmother cooked on a wood stove. Oh, did I mention that upstairs there was a baby in a jar and a rocking chair that rocked by itself? Apparently the baby was left on the doctors’ doorstep and had died from the cold before the doctor found it. My grandmother was his first patient that day and the doctor asked her if she would bury it. Instead of burying it she pickled it. I don’t know why, I guess she just had a little too much character, bless her heart. The rocking chair is still a mystery. You can bet though somewhere down the line one of my books will feature that crazy old woman, the baby in the jar and the rocking chair that rocks by itself.

So good luck with the southern gothic, and remember, while you are composing the next Gone with the Wind to ‘hold your mouth right.”
http://www.aspenmountainpress.com/romance-erotica/paranormal/heavenly-pleasure/prod_273.html

Thursday, June 23, 2011

V. Mark Covington- the Stage vs the Page

Intro both plays and novels, dialogue must fit in with the story smoothly, it must suit the character's personality and it must be easily understood by the reader or the audience. All dialogue has to have a purpose. It shouldn’t be there just for the sake of having your characters talk. In plays practically the entire story is carried out on the shoulders of the dialogue and the non-verbal cues of the actors. In novels you can use narration to describe the scenery, the thoughts and feelings of the characters, but dialogue can be much more effective tool for description. The difference between narration and dialogue is the difference between a friend telling us about the movie they saw this past weekend and hearing a robot read the generic synopsis of the movie. We’re more likely to listen to our friend’s version, aren’t we?

All dialogue needs to have a reason. The words have to reveal something to the reader/audience.

Use dialogue to:

• Reveal Characters- Plays rely on dialogue to reveal characters, relationships, etc. Novels should also use dialogue as much as possible to reveal your character’s uniqueness. It’s more fun to overhear two people talking about someone’s character traits then for a narrator to tell you about them.

• Tell the Backstory - Plays use dialogue to tell the backstory, what happened before that brought the characters to this point in time. In novels it is often tempting to dump a lot of backstory on the reader all at once, especially in the first chapter. It is much more effective to thread the backstory through the plot and subplot, revealing a little at a time. Also, try to avoid giving out a lot of backstory in the first chapter. The first chapter is all about action and suspense, drawing the reader into the story so they can’t put the book down.

• Show Conflict - Plays use dialogue to establish conflict, to add intrigue, create mystery. In a play this should be done in the first 3 minutes. In novels dialogue is an effective tool to lead up to and accentuate the conflict. The sooner you relay the nature of the overriding conflict to the reader the better, usually on the first page, if not the first paragraph.

• Describe the Scene - Plays have sets, and a set can depict a very real place, a kitchen, a ship, a trailer park. The set can have details that reveal the story, an empty liquor bottle, an unmade bed, a crime scene outline of a body. Novels have to use either narration or dialogue to describe the scene, (place, time of day, weather, etc). Use dialogue rather than narration whenever possible to describe, or supplement, the description of the scene;

Example:“Go on and have a seat on that old couch, don’t mind the dog hair, and that wet spot is just from tears.

(from this we know the couch is old, and probably in rough shape which gives us a clue about the rest of the house. We also know that the character has or had a dog and somebody has been crying on the couch. You have a mental picture, but you want to know more. Who has been crying, where is the dog. Is the dog dead, is that why the person is crying?)

• Describe the Action - Show don’t tell. This is easy in plays, you have actors constantly moving about on stage, showing the audience what his happening, and good actors have a myriad of ways to showing thoughts, emotions, etc through non-verbal cues. In novels you have to use words. So try to use words that convey as much action as possible instead of tag lines. (she said, he said). While dialogue can be informational, a way to develop a character or reveal the plot, it is emphatically not conversational, any more than war or sex or prayer is conversational. Dialogue is character, and character feeds the plot. Above all, dialogue should be linked to visual action. We tend to process more visual information (55%) than vocal (38%) or written (7%). But if the written word describes visual action it increases the likelihood that the information will be processed.

Example: “I won’t be a part of that.” John took a step back, arms crossed over his chest, shaking his head emphatically.

(We don’t have to say “John said.” By following the statement with John’s action the reader knows it’s John and the words match the action).

• Establish Voice – Voice is that sense there’s a person behind the words. This is easy in plays, the lights, action and dialogue will usually focus on one person at a time. This is the person who’s eyes through which the reader/audience sees, hears, feels everything in the story. Try to make a hard demarcation when you switch voice in a novel. If you constantly jump from voice to voice (head hopping) it can confuse the reader. You can use the idiosyncrasies of your characters (language, gestures, perspective) to establish and personalize the character’s voice so the reader will recognize from who’s perspective the story is being told at a given time.

• Reinforce non-verbal cues - Actors constantly use non-verbal cues, gestures, eye movement, facial expressions. Weave these into your novel through the action that follows dialogue. Give your character a “tell” (A tell is a poker term that describes a gesture, a hand movement, facial expression, something that gives a clue to what cards they are holding, are they bluffing, etc). In 2012 Montezuma’s Revenge I had one of my characters, Agent Sanchez, suck on a bullet as a non-smoking aid. I used that bullet as a weathervane for his non-verbal thoughts. When he was nervous he popped the bullet into his mouth and sucked on it, when shocked, he dropped it out of his mouth, when he was bored or thoughtful it played across his lips, etc.

o One trick for creating non-verbal cues for your characters is to have each character deliver an opening speech to you. Visualize him or her on the stage giving a verbal autobiography, let them vent their frustration, talk about their wishes, hopes, dreams, fears, etc. Now, in your mind’s eye watch what they are doing with their hands when they are talking. Look at their facial expressions, eyebrows, posture, etc. Use these to give your characters depth throughout the novel.

• Establish Authenticity - Good written dialogue should mimic actual speech and dialect – but only use a dialect if you are well versed in the dialect and it doesn’t come across as forced. In my play Shakespeare in the Trailer Park, I used Elizabethan/Southern because I grew up in Richmond, Virginia using a southern dialect. My grandparents still used old English words so this was not that much of a stretch. (I did fail a lot of spelling tests though spelling words like colour and shoppe). Avoid using stereotypes, clich├ęs or accents too much. The dialogue should be authentic to the character, a farmer losing his farm isn’t going to go into a long speech about the importance of agriculture to the economy. He is going to talk simply. He is more likely to say:

"I tell you Myrtle, it’s all just gettin’ to be too much for me. One day soon the bank is going to swoop in here and snatch this place right from under us.”

Other things to remember when using dialogue in both the theater and in the novel:

• Less is More – Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Dorothy parker added “and lingerie.” Mark Twain once said “Never say metropolis when you can say city.” The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. This is so applicable to stage plays that it is worth committing to memory. Brevity and clarity are keys of writing good dialogue.

o For plays brevity is important to assure the actors can utter the words effortlessly and that the audience can understand what is being said easily. You don’t want the audience to think about what a sentence means for so long that the play has moved on to the next scene.

For example, one of the original lines in Shakespeare in the Trailer Park, was “Dry as a tumbleweed dipped in alum and rolled in a blue law.” It was painful watching the audience try to figure this out while the actors moved on to the next scene, and then to the next act. I changed it to “dry as a funeral drum.”

o In novels you can be a little more verbose but don’t overdo it. For example, it is generally known that the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities begins, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," which actually covers a lot of imagery. However, that is only part of the opening sentence, which continues for a total of 119 words and is also the opening paragraph.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….

Can you see an audience sitting still for this?

• Constantly fill your Toolbox –Develop skills in using dialogue by exposing yourself to different types of media, plays, screenplays, novels, etc. I have written novels, plays television commercials and restaurant reviews and learned something new each time. Also, read a variety of genres to pick up tips on the subtleties of dialogue in that genre and how they differ from the others. Sci fi dialogue will be very different from romance or historical fiction. Mix genres, read some sci-fi, steam punk, southern gothic, humor, westerns. Different authors use different devices. Build your toolbox. When the only tool you have is a hammer all your problems begin to look like nails so the more tools you have better a builder of books you will be.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tell Me a Story

Back when the first primitive humans huddled around an open fire after a long day of hunting and gathering they shared the events of the day by grunting and gesturing. Mostly this was to kill time while watching the day’s kill sizzle to charred doneness over the fire. Then, somewhere along the way, those grunts and finger points turned into actual dinner conversation. I’ve often wondered about that first conversation, the first time that early man managed to string together a subject and a verb into a coherent expression of his thoughts. I don’t think that first sentence was a rambling narrative of the teller’s opinion as to why the weather has turned colder, or a complaint that dinner was a tad overdone. I don’t even think it was about sex or even a recounting of the teller’s heroics during the day’s hunt and why the teller should now be immediately voted chief of the clan. I think the first sentence ever uttered was very simple, “tell me a story.” I think people wanted, and still want, a good, old fashioned story. Of course, I believe the second sentence was probably a rambling opinion or a glorified tale of the hunter’s prowess, his qualifications as clan leader, and why he should have the prettiest woman and the lion’s share of the meat. This later became the political stump speech and even later the ‘blog’. The third sentence uttered was probably a fart joke. I don’t think early man qualified his request for a story with “give me a character-driven narrative” or “give me an in-depth description of the main character’s thoughts and feeling as he hurled his spear toward the antelope,” I think he just wanted to hear about people or animals or even the gods of that time, doing things. It wasn’t until the invention of puffery by the romanticists in the 18th century that character driven narratives and deep introspection evolved to plague the storyline. When Homer penned the Iliad and the Odyssey stories were about people, gods and creatures actually doing things.

OK, we all love a good story but I’m finding good stories harder and harder to come by. I read books that have great characters, the heroes and heroines have depth, they are multi-dimensional, full of angst or humor or perseverance in the face of calamity, but they tend not to “do” much of anything throughout the story (unless you count their constant spewing of angst and introspection). I find that a lot of authors tend to get bogged down in the character’s introspection, or in the background information of the novel. I have even seen authors describe the scenery in agonizing length, taking the reader from anticipation to boredom until the story line dies. I tried to read a Barbara Kingsolver novel recently, it started off innocently enough, describing a very bucolic scene of a deer drinking at a stream in the forest with sunlight sifting through the tree branches. Thirty-two pages later that same damned deer was still drinking at the same damned stream and I now knew more than I ever wanted to know about the many ways sunlight can sift through leaves. I personally don’t hunt game, but by this point I was hoping a hunter would come crashing through the forest, shotgun poised, and blow that dear to bits. I also hoped that hunter would then reload start in on those damned leaves. So, on page thirty-three I got up, walked to the window and pitched the book into my back yard. I hope the sun gently filters through the leaves toward it for a long, long time.

A novel should be like a river flowing to the sea, the current pushes the plot along and the characters react to the changes in the flow and speed of the water. In their little character boat they survive the white water, curse the doldrums, or go down with the ship, but the focus should be on the journey to the sea, not those journeying. When the current slows, and the boat begins to flounder in the backwater, the reader quickly loses interest. But when that boat is sucked into class five rapids, and rushes along at a good clip, the reader’s heart begins to beat a little faster eyes are glued to the text, fingers poised to flip to the next exciting page. This is not the time so pause and tell the reader what boat company made the boat, that the boat maker’s tools were passed down from his father or that his daughter has a large nose, that’s the best way to lose the momentum of the book, and in doing so, lose the reader. Now, I’m no enemy of sub-plots. A good sub-plot can add to the depth of the book and give the reader a change of scenery, and/or let characters and take a breath after an exciting passage in the book. Notice I said after, not during. I have seen lots of writers try to “create suspense” by switching scenes to a sub-plot in the middle the action. This may suspend the action enough for your reader to start eyeing his open window. Also, be careful of how much time you spend in the sub-plot(s). Never linger in the subplot so long that the reader loses the string of the major plot line. The major plot-line should always be going full speed ahead in the reader’s mind.

OK, so yes, I’m a story-driven writer. I feel that the story should drive the characters and the characters should, in turn, react to the twists and turns of the plot. And when my characters start messing with my plot I calmly remind them that ‘I’m the writer here, and with a quick visit to the ‘replace all’ function I could change their names from Brick and Desiree to Eugene and Bertha. Like the Gods of old I speaketh to them; ‘I made thee and I can take thee out, so don’t tryith it’. I’ve even had to threaten to “pull this book over and turn it around” from time to time when my characters started to wander off toward the edges of my story outline.

Character driven novels move along at the whim of the characters and usually with a lot of ruminating, soul searching and belly-button staring contemplation. I don’t give my characters that kind of time. If you give your characters even a little slack time they will soon be eyeing the edges of the storyline and began to shuffle, ever so casually and stealthily, away from the plot. When I see them start to look introspective I quickly send in a tornado or have an alligator turn up in their bathtub. That’ll show those slackers. Of course I’ll go back a couple of chapters and plant the seeds of catastrophe very subtly so the characters won’t know what’s coming. They may ask “why the sudden appearance of my ten year old nephew and why are you having him flush his pet baby alligator down my toilet?” I smile and say, “just keep to the storyline and you have nothing worry about.” I alone know what these mutineers will be plotting a mere few chapters on, and now I’m ready for them.

Whether the plot drives the characters or the characters drive the plot, the major plot is still the overriding premise of the book. You should be able to express the premise in an “elevator description”. One or two sentences that describe the major plot that can be communicated in the average ride in an elevator. From that major premise you began to break out your scenes.

The flow should depict the continuity of scenes, each following logically from the one before. Once you have a general idea of the action that will happen in each scene you can begin fleshing things out. The first bit of flesh to be added is the opening scene. The first scene should draw the readers in and make them want to read on. This is not the place for background information or a narrative about the history of the characters (or to go on and on about the sun drifting through the leaves). That will mire up your story before it even gets out of the gate and the reader will glance again at that open window (you don’t want to see the sun filtering thorough the leaves onto your book). The first scene should be action or a mystery or steamy, or anything to spark the reader’s interest right away and draw them into the story. You can acquaint them with the characters later, preferably through another character’s eyes and thoughts or through dialogue. Be careful here though, dialogue can also bore the reader and slow the pace if you don’t pair it with some physical movement. I try to have my characters do something while they are talking, even if it’s just driving or eating. Try to break up long strings of dialogue with a visual image of the character doing something. I think everybody who has read Atlas Shrugged has skipped over half of John Gault’s radio speech in the middle of the book - talk about beating a dead horse. You don’t want to do anything that will make the reader put the book down. A tip I got from Tom Robbins is to “never mention food or sex in a scene or you will make the reader hungry or horny and he or she may just put your book down and go in search of something more satisfying than the written word”. Of course this doesn’t apply to erotica or restaurant reviews.

Here is an example of where I managed to put some action between the lines of dialogue.

“What is it you want Deputy?” Dorcas still didn’t turn from her keyboard. She was twisting her joystick and moving and clicking her mouse that brought images closer in whatever screen she chose. Blazer watched Dorcas’s eyes scan the screens as the camera changed from location to location, from grocery store, to convenience store to liquor store faster than Blazer could follow them. The fleeting images were different, but similar. A hopeful face in each camera before a backdrop of stocked shelves and beer packed coolers, and a clerk presenting that hopeful face with a lottery ticket.

“Am I interrupting your lunch?” Blazer Moore lurked, leaning in the doorjamb.


Ok, we have the action moving along and we have the characters doing something while they are talking, the next thing to worry about is voice. Volumes can, and have been written about the use of voice and tone in novels. In relation to the plot, just remember to be careful when changing voice so as not to disrupt the flow of the story. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn, to use only one narrative voice per scene. My characters all want to be the center of attention and they all have something so say in every scene so I keep my finger threateningly poised over the “replace all” button. Like our caveman story-telling around the fire, it’s a one person job. If too many storytellers start talking the listeners won’t know who to listen to. The reader is seeing action unfold in a scene and he or she can only see it through one set of eyes. More than one voice per scene can confuse the reader and disrupt the pace.

Now, your book be cruising along, plot purring like a well oiled machine, your characters spinning in a well greased groove and then you realize you’ve written yourself into a corner. Your main character is poised on the edge of a cliff over an abyss and an army of bad guys is closing in. You will be tempted to use a plot device - suddenly your character looks down and finds a parachute as his or her feet, or the ultimate plot device the deus ex machine. Suddenly a huge bird flies over and your main character grasps his mighty claw and is carried to safety. Resist the temptation to use a cheesy plot device. Or, if you must, go back and first introduce that plot device earlier in the book, like that baby alligator dropped into the toilet.

So, you have honed your premise to that two sentence description, you have broken out your story scene by scene and have begun your first scene with something to draw your reader in and you are steering your boat of characters through the fast moving current. Now is not the time to let down your guard and watch that plot boat float gently down the stream. If your characters are anything like mine old Bertha and Eugene are already plotting their next mutiny.