Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

Who are the humor writers you enjoy?

May 19th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 6 Comments

I recently got this question in my in-box: “How about tossing a few crumbs to us humor writers on your blog? Do you have a favorite book on humor writing? How different was doing stand up comedy compared to writing humor?”

 

My favorite books on humor writing probably include:

The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus

The Hidden Tools of Comedy, by Steve Kaplan

The Deer on a Bicycle, by Patrick McManus

Stand-up Comedy, by Judy Carter

There are a bunch of others that have value. Gene Perret has several good books on comedy writing. Greg Dean and Jay Sankey offer great pointers in their works. And Judy Carter’s book is there to help you be able to tell funny stories, more than write comic novels, but I find it’s a book I used to go back to time after time.

There are similarities with these books, by the way. You create a script. You establish a character. The words you choose are important. But writing a humor piece is very different from performing standup comedy. When I did standup, it was all about timing and attitude. Pauses (silence) were crucial. The energy I brought to the stage was important. And, of course, the single most important thing to success as a standup comic is that the room has to LIKE you. If they like you, then you can do anything, and they’ll find it funny. If they don’t like you, no matter how great your material is, the performance won’t work. In writing, on the other hand, there’s no facial expression or tone of voice or obvious attitude for people to pick up on – all that matters is the word on the page. And it better be VERY good, because people who want humor don’t want to just smile once in a while… they want to bust out laughing while reading. That’s incredibly hard.

It’s easy to tell a story and get the occasional smirk out of the reader, but really tough to create a belly laugh. That’s why these are books on “how to create humor in your writing,” as opposed to actually being “funny books.” There’s a difference. Kurt Vonnegut used to make me laugh out loud. Dave Berry does. Jenny Lawson is a brilliant comic writer. And the memoirs of Tina Fay and Haven Kimmel and Ellen DeGeneres have all been very funny. But in my view, it’s a short list.

Who are the funniest people writing, in your view?

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 5, The Bait and Switch Ending

April 29th, 2015 | Questions from Beginners, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’m nearing the end of my series on how to write great endings, and am talking briefly today about one of the most frustrating types of endings to read, for an agent, editor, or any other reader, the “bait and switch” ending, particularly in terms of the tone of a story.

I’ve talked several times throughout this series about the importance of being fair to your reader in your endings– that you satisfy their sense of justice, that you’ve laid some groundwork for any surprises, etc.– yet I’m constantly surprised by the number of manuscripts I read that end in a way that is completely dissimilar to the tone/story universe/set of expectations the author has spent the entire preceding manuscript establishing. If you’ve spent 200 pages developing a nice, sweet, wholesome romance, don’t try to get all depressing and cynical at the end. If your comedic cozy mystery stayed on mostly “safe” ground for the first 3/4ths of the book, don’t turn it into a chilling, violent crime novel at the end. If you spent the majority of a book developing deeper themes and a more literary voice, don’t just slap a conventional romance ending onto it and call it a day.

I want a book to end with the same “flavor” that compelled me to follow the story through to completion. It’s as if someone ordered a mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cone but the soda jerk decided to put a dollop of lemon sorbet at the bottom– even if the lemon sorbet is good, it’s not what the customer was expecting, and it’s not going to compare favorably to the mint-chocolate-chip, coming as it does when they’re not expecting it and have their mouth all set for something completely different.

There are a number of reasons this happens, even to experienced authors. First, writing is largely a solitary profession. Even if you have a critique partner/group to bounce ideas off of or solicit feedback from on certain scenes, the majority of your writing is done in a vacuum, with no eyes but your own seeing your work until it’s done, and no voices but yours chiming in to offer perspective. This solitude can lead to a bit of tunnel-vision where your story is concerned– after living up close and personal with your story and characters for so long, it’s no wonder that you can lose track of the big-picture arc of your story, especially if you’re the type of writer who prefers to let the story develop organically (i.e., “see where the characters take you,”) as you write rather than plot it out in detail at the beginning of the process. As I’ve said before, there is nothing wrong with this process, but you do have to stay true in the ending to the rules you made/tone you set throughout the rest of the book, otherwise your reader is going to feel cheated when the ending is dramatically different from what they had every reason to expect based on the first 9/10ths of the book. (And no, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have surprises at the end, or that your ending has to be predictable, but readers who pick up a thriller don’t want to read 100,000 words to get to a cozy mystery ending.)

Another reason authors can sometimes struggle with a tone change at the very end of a book is that they’re trying to make their book fit into a segment of the market it doesn’t really fit into, usually in the interest of making the book more commercial or more “timely.” Hey, someone dies at the end of The Fault in Our Stars and that book was a huge success; if I slap a sad ending on my otherwise lighthearted YA, it might sell! This sounds silly, but I’ve definitely seen this phenomenon in my inbox as different trends or themes spend time in the market spotlight and authors attempt to tweak their manuscripts to follow a trend, especially by messing with the endings. It’s a pretty well-established rule that you shouldn’t try to tailor your writing to fit the current trends– trends come and go, and publishers acquire so far out that a trend that’s hot right now might be dead and buried in a year when your book would be coming out, so you’re always better off staying true to your voice and your story and trusting that editors (and, eventually, readers) will appreciate your work for what it is rather than for the mold it fits into.

In the end (pun intended), you want to be true to the story you have to tell, but you also want to be sure that you’ve presented it in such a way that the tone of the ending matches the tone you’ve been writing and rules you’ve been playing by for the majority of the book.

Have you ever read a book in which it felt like the author pulled a “bait and switch” at the end? Are there any other types of disappointing/bad endings I should address before I wrap up the series? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

How do I clean up my writing voice?

April 24th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

Someone sent in this question: “How do I clean up my writing voice? My critique partner just sent her feedback and said, ‘There are times when the writing is very formal and sophisticated, and then suddenly a slang word or colloquialism is thrown in, and it can be a bit jarring… there needs to be more uniformity in the voice of your writing.’ The fact is, I never studied literature and could only put this vocal difference down to writing on different days, in different moods, and often in between family members pestering me (er… seeking my attention). How do I find these differences and tidy up?”

 

The fact that you sound different at different times or under different circumstances isn’t unusual – most writers experience that. It’s possibly you just need to spend more time writing in order to determine what your voice is, or how it sounds the most true. But there are a few suggestions for cleaning up your writing voice.

–First, go back a day or two after you created something, and read it out loud. Your ear will tell you if it sounds correct or not.

–Second, read a long passage of your work, not just a few pages (or even just one chapter). A longer body of work will help you see how your voice changes from one passage to another.

–Third, see if you can make a list of the way your voice changes. Is it attitude? Word choice? Sentence length? Emotional content? Seeing how it shifts over time will help you know what to watch for.

–Fourth, ask your proofie friend to read your work specifically for consistency – what is it that changes? What is it doesn’t seem right to him or her?

–Fifth, consider hiring an experienced outside editor to read your work and comment on the voice sometime. Sometimes an outsider who doesn’t know your voice or personality can best help you see where the problems are coming in.

 

Does that help?

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 4, The Lukewarm Ending

April 14th, 2015 | Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’m continuing my conversation on writing great endings today with a look at what makes a weak, or “lukewarm” ending and how to scrub this kind of ending from your writing.

There are few things worse than being in the middle of a great book or movie and having someone spoil the ending for you, right? All the fun of the building tension, the suspense as to who’s going to live or die, the question of which guy the protagonist will choose– I personally feel that you’re totally justified in punching anyone who ruins the ending of a great book for you. Now, imagine someone is reading your book and some jerk decides to spoil the ending for them– and instead of being furious, the reader’s reaction is, “So… that’s it?”  The best endings, the ones that readers can feel the strongest emotional connection to and find the most satisfying, aren’t just a checklist of “resolved the conflict, established the immediate future, wrapped up subplots.” While these elements might meet the “requirements” of an ending, your readers are looking for something more than just mathematical resolution at the end of a story. Our favorite endings are surprising, or complex, or poetic, or even aggravating or sad or cynical, but they’re rarely just “fine.”

The best endings are those that it is impossible for the reader to be ambivalent about. They should love it, or hate it, or be deeply conflicted about it, or be left with lingering questions about it (in a good way, not in a the-author-dropped-four-plot-threads-and-so-the-reader-has-no-clue-what’s-going-on kind of way). Think about some of your favorite books, specifically their endings– if asked to talk about how one of these books ends, you’d probably say things like, “It’s so beautiful!,” or “It’s SO sad,” or “It’s really happy!” Your reaction to the ending of a book isn’t specific to a certain kind of ending– happy, sad, poetic– but to your connection to it– whether you stayed sufficiently emotionally engaged with the characters and the storytelling universe that you felt something at the end of the book other than a sense of technical resolution because all the right boxes were checked. “What I’d really love for my reader to feel at the end of my book is apathy and mild approval,” said no writer ever. So how can you ensure that the reader who has been perfectly willing to follow your characters through their story aren’t left lukewarm after the last page is turned? A few suggestions:

  • Raise the stakes in your conflict. Often, the ending of a book feels bland because it doesn’t contrast sufficiently with the climax– one moment, the main characters are in a disagreement, the next they’ve worked it out in a long conversation over coffee and are happily planning their wedding. Yawn. The more the main conflict and climax disrupt the characters’ lives, the more the conflict affects the world surrounding the main characters, and the harder it is to resolve that conflict, the more deeply we feel for the characters when the do get their happy ending.
  • Surprise the reader (fairly). The reason the ending of “The Sixth Sense” works so well is that, as the viewer is reeling from the shock of the final revelation, we’re frantically playing back certain scenes and relationships in light of that new knowledge and discovering that it actually DOES make sense that (spoiler alert) Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. It’s a twist that makes perfect sense in that story universe but that hooks the viewer anew right at the end, so they’re essentially glued to the screen right until the very end. Last-minute surprises and revelations and twists can certainly be gimmicky, but when the right groundwork has been laid, they stoke the reader’s interest in the story just at the moment when he was ready to skim over the happily-ever-after fluff and leave him energized and more fully connected to the story, which is exactly what you want– you want to end the book on your terms rather than give your reader a nice sleepy chapter in which to detach from the story universe as the last pieces fall neatly into place. These don’t have to be big surprises– you don’t have to end your cute romance with an evil twin showing up at the wedding (and probably shouldn’t)– just fun, clever, or sweet twists or inclusions that make the reader feel more deeply about a character or situation.
  • Make strong choices. Now, I’m the last person to encourage you to kill a character or break up the main couple at the end just for shock value (I personally Hate unhappy, cynical endings), but the truth is, sometimes the stronger writing choice, the choice that stays true to the characters you’ve written or the world you’ve created, IS for the main character to have to make a major sacrifice or hard choice, or for the couple decide NOT to stay together (within the expectations of your genre, that is– no romance reader is going to want to read a book where the couple doesn’t end up together, and no romance editor is going to publish it). There still has to be resolution, and there should still be hope and a sense of justice having been done or potential for something good to come out of the events of the ending, but a strong choice generally makes a more memorable and more polarizing ending than a weak or easy one.

By making every effort to ensure your reader can’t remain neutral about the ending of your book, you guarantee that they’ll remember your book, think about it, have conversations about it, and will be more likely to seek out additional titles from you in the future.

Have you ever been left “lukewarm” by the ending of an otherwise enjoyable book? How could the author have salvaged it? How have you avoided lukewarm endings in your own writing? I love to hear about your experiences in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!

The Thrill of the Journey (a guest blog)

April 9th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

 

As a fresh kid rounding the bend on the second half of life, and after a series of challenging events, I’d determined again to dive into a childhood calling of becoming a writer.

A trip to the Oregon Coast never failed to give me the much needed kick in the aft, so off I went. I strolled the docks at Newport, admiring the wizened characters of assorted commercial fishing boats, and recalled one summer of my first youth when I considered donning a flannel shirt and chest waders to become a commercial fisherwoman in pursuit of romance and valiant endeavor. But my goals, while no less valiant and only slightly more realistic, had since changed course.

I moved along, skirting tackle and dock debris, and shooting portraits of the more experienced, therefore more aesthetically interesting vessels, until there before me, requiring an entire length of dock, I saw an imposing black giant of a boat, moored with the others but not of their ilk. It arrested my attention for its sheer mass and for her name. Her hull was free of rust and barnacles, like they scrubbed her clean after each run and added a freshen-up of marine paint as needed. Ropes as thick as my wrist tethered her close, while trios of fat, orange fenders cushioned her side. Rigged for success with high-powered lights, radar equipment, and the most rubbish-free deck of the lot, this lady floated high for action. And her name in bold gold against the black read, PERSISTENCE.

I wondered what kind of struggles and disappointments her skipper and crew had overcome, with a handle like that. I was curious about how long the owner had sweat and waited to save enough for a boat of his own. How many legal hassles or personal setbacks? How much waiting.

Suspecting I’d have need of it along the course I’d chosen late in life, so-called, I snapped her picture and walked on to satisfy my yearning for the open sea with a salmon dinner.

I’d attempted writing before, but always let discouragement preside over determination. I became familiar with writing conferences and attended a few, took classes, and read great books on how to do the deed well. But nothing prepared me for the waiting.

The first version of my manuscript took two years of purposeful writing to complete. I figured the infant was ready for delivery, or as close as I could make it before working with a professional editor or agent. During the following four years I queried, waited, received denials, received nothing, declined one myself, inhaled deeply enough professional and subliminal encouragement to plod forward, rewrote the query, waited, revised the story, you get the picture. Throw in to the mix several helpings of wine, whine, prayer, and tears and you’ve got a good image of the journey.

When I wasn’t questioning my sanity, I wrote other stories and articles. By God’s amazing grace, I ended up with my own weekly column in a regional newspaper and sold an expanded article to the folks at Chicken Soup for the Soul.

I likely would have called it quits on the novel and hunted for a job that paid money if it hadn’t been for a sustaining supply of go-juice from people in the business. They fed me the right mix of constructive criticism and sugar to enable hope to light the path, one step at a time. And I listened. Oh, I may have thrown a few tantrums. But, the cat eventually stopped racing up the stairs, and I put my hands to the keys because what the critics said made perfect sense, and I wanted to improve—still do.

With help from a patience that I lacked in my twenties, and stubbornness I brought with me, the hard work paid off. I had won my dream agent, Chip MacGregor, or so I’ve heard. After all, I’m a newbie and the proof is in the shortbread, eh Mr. Chipping?

What I find crazy is, how every wave that threatened to swamp and mouthful of froth swallowed was worthwhile to land on the next plateau, writing—and waiting.

 ======================Peggy

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer living in Southern Oregon. She writes the weekly column, “Southern Oregon Journal,” for the Mail Tribune Newspaper. Dover is represented by MacGregor Literary.

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 3, Avoiding Anticlimax

April 8th, 2015 | Books, Quick Tips, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on writing great endings, I’m talking today about how to provide satisfactory resolution without letting the energy of your story run out.

I spent last week talking about all the resolution the reader expects from the denouement– resolve the events of the climax, answer unanswered questions, wrap up subplots, and establish main characters’ immediate futures. Sounds like a lot of content, right? But you as the author have a delicate balancing act to maintain, because while it’s true that the reader is going to be dissatisfied if you leave out the resolution they expect, it’s also true that there’s no better way to make sure your reader’s enthusiasm has flagged by the time they read the words “The End” than by dragging the book out two chapters after the story has actually ended. Ending on an anticlimax leaves a dull taste in the reader’s mouth and causes their last impression of your book to be a less positive one than if you send them out on an emotional high note, and the way to do this is to fit all your resolution in before the excitement of the climax has fully worn off.

The reader’s emotional high point usually coincides with the characters’, which is usually the climax– in a romance, the climax is not the wedding, but the dramatic moment when Slim rescues Peggy Sue from the train tracks and confesses that he always loved her, he just didn’t think a lawman had any right to ask a nice well-bred young lady to marry him and share his dangerous life. This is the moment when tension and emotions are the highest, and this is the moment that readers have been waiting for. Sure, they want to read that the happy couple got off the train tracks in time and know that Salty Sam is going to jail for his crimes, but the story is effectively over when Slim and Sue finally get together. The author then must resist the temptation to spend a lot of time on the new status quo– yes, the reader wants resolution, and glimpses into a character’s future can be fun, but it’s ultimately anticlimactic to spend a lot of time on the “happily ever after.” I’ve been disappointed by book weddings a surprising number of times, not because I’m heartless and cynical (I cry watching those “surprise Disney trip reveal” videos), but because the wedding scene has kept me in the story universe too long after the climax without really continuing the story.

Think about how much time it takes to reach the climax in the average novel– the climax is usually near the end, so the author has about 90% of the book to take the characters from their nice, safe, boring, everyday life into the exciting, different, dangerous, emotional atmosphere of the climax. The reader enjoys the building tension and the changes taking place because of the expectation of a dramatic climactic scene and some significant change/result– the main character will finally find his soulmate, the world will be saved, the murderer will be stopped, etc. Once this has happened, the story is essentially over, and the author who takes the characters all the way back into the nice, safe, everyday life where we found them at the beginning of the book risks the excitement of the climax fading into the background and a reader who’s left feeling like nothing much changed. I definitely don’t want to go from the exciting train tracks rescue scene to three chapters about Slim and Sue planning their wedding and how Sue is afraid Mama won’t want to come out from Boston for the wedding because she hates the west. This is Not part of the story and isn’t vital to its resolution, either. So, how to finish on a high note without sacrificing resolution? Here are some strategies to keep in mind:

  • Resolve the events of the climax quickly. I talked last week about how, if there were loose threads related to the immediate aftermath of the climax, they needed to be at least partially resolved, but this doesn’t have to happen in fully-realized scenes. Think about the end of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy– the various hobbits and dwarves and elves have essentially spent nine hours getting to their various scenes of climax, but do we watch them retrace every step of their journeys after the ring has been destroyed and the battle won? Nnnnno. That would be excruciating. Obviously, the filmmaker couldn’t just jump from Frodo and Sam watching the ring tumble into Mount Doom straight back to Frodo at home in the Shire, but by letting us see a glimpse of approaching eagles and a shot of the ground passing beneath an unconscious Frodo, we’re given enough to connect the dots as to how Frodo and Sam got back to safety without the filmmaker having to spend three hours showing exactly how. Exit your climax scenes the same way, in a fast retreat or select flashes of scenes, picking up scattered characters and dispatching leftover minor villains as needed.
  • Use representative, rather than inclusive, resolution. The problem with packing all your resolution into the denouement is that often, if you try to resolve every single thread/minor character’s story line, it will start to read like the family Christmas letter– “Billy did this, Sally went here, Joe married Lisa, Grandpa died, Bev started a business–” and no one likes to read those Christmas letters. They’re tedious. (Except for mine. They’re hilarious.) Let’s take one of the types of resolution readers typically expect in the denouement– that some kind of justice be done for the characters who were wronged. This doesn’t have to be a matter of “make sure every bad guy is caught and goes to jail and every bully learns her lesson,” which would be tedious and unrealistic, but as long as some restitution is made for the places the reader felt loss or injustice or helplessness, the reader will generally be satisfied. The last Harry Potter book is a great example of this: there are about a million “bad guy” characters and betrayals and wrongs and murders that happen over the course of Deathly Hallows, and it would have been dull, unreasonable, and extremely unwieldy for Rowling to have shown resolution/justice done for ALL of them– we don’t see Harry get a new owl to replace Hedwig, Umbridge isn’t shown being eaten by piranhas like she deserves, Griphook is never confronted on the page for his betrayal– but we are given enough scenes of justice and triumph over evil to satisfy us– Mrs. Weasley’s duel with Bellatrix and Harry’s showdown with Voldemort are cathartic and serve to vindicate many earlier wrongs, and the story is allowed to end very shortly after the climax while still satisfying the reader’s need to see justice done.
  • Layer your resolution. The more information you can impart in a single scene, the quicker you can bring the book to a close after the climax. Consider how you can accomplish resolution through the setting– a scene taking place in the new wing of the hospital tells us that they eventually did raise the million dollars they needed without wasting page space talking about the last three fundraisers they had to do (yawn), a scene taking place at the B couple’s wedding reception answers all the questions about their on-again, off-again relationship without us having to watch their reconciliation, their proposal, etc. Observations on the part of a main character can also serve to provide a lot of resolution– if the main character glimpses his ex across the room, laughing and talking with the friendly lawyer who’s popped up a couple times before in the story and is known by the reader to be a nice guy, we can assume that she’s moved on and won’t be trying to sabotage the main character’s happiness anymore and that the lawyer is not going to be lonely anymore, again without the author having to spell it out for the reader. Readers are pretty good at picking up on clues, don’t be afraid to give them some pieces to put together on their own rather than fitting each one into place for them. A line of dialogue is another way to include resolution in a scene that’s really about something else– a character finishing a phone conversation with, “No, I’m sorry, I’m booked through June of next year” lets the reader know that she did start that photography business after all and it’s a big success without drawing focus from whatever the scene is actually about.
  • Fast-forward. Epilogues are in danger of becoming as overused as prologues, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sometimes the best way to provide a lot of resolution without compromising the momentum of the story. The popular “X years later” format is a good example– it may only be a page or two, just a tiny glimpse of a scene from the future story universe, and it doesn’t have to fill in all the gaps, but that glimpse at the main couple welcoming the B couple to a Christmas party at the family homestead with a baby crying in the background lets the reader know that, yes, they did rebuild after the fire, she was able to have kids after all, the B couple eventually made up and got together, without following the exciting climax scene with ten tame ones to show the resolution for each one of these plot threads. Remember, the reader rarely needs to know everything YOU know about a character– as long as you sow the right bits of information and have laid your foundation well, they’ll connect the dots on their own.

If you need more examples of how to fit a lot of resolution in before the “buzz” of the climax wears off, watch some action-adventure movies or a formulaic mystery show or any movie with a quest-type storyline, paying close attention to how many subplots and plot threads/minor characters are introduced throughout the rising action, and then noting how each is resolved after the climax– through a single shot showing something revealing about a character or a situation, through a line of dialogue, by using a setting, by providing epilogue-type title cards at the end of the film, etc. Hopefully, you’ll get even more ideas for ways to satisfactorily wrap up a story before the reader’s enthusiasm has the chance to lag.

 

 

Five Lessons I’ve Learned About Writing (a guest blog)

April 3rd, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 6 Comments

  1. Have something worth saying.In his book Culture Care, artist Makoto Fujimura tells a story he confesses may be legendary about a Yale student taking Hebrew from the great Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs. The student, discontent with his grades, asked the scholar how he could raise them. Childs’s answer: “Become a deeper person.”

Peggy Noonan writer of seven books on politics, religion, and culture, and weekly columnist forThe Wall Street Journal, was at one time the speech writer for the man considered The Great Communicator. In her book Simply Speaking, she says that what moves people in a speech is the logic. The words “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev” are not all that poetic when taken at face value. But they express something that resonates in the human heart. In the words of Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
In the same way that logic is what moves people in a speech, logic is what moves people in writing.  And to have logic, to move people, we must have something worth saying. In fact, probably about 90% of writing is having something worth saying. And how do we get something worth saying? By expanding the world of ideas to which we expose ourselves and by cultivating a rich inner life.

  1. Decrease your vision. That is, “think local.” Start with your family. Doug Bender, the bestselling author of I Am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives. wrote a book for an audience of one. When Doug’s wife had a miscarriage, it grieved the Bender’s little girl. So Doug wrote a child’s book about death and loss just for her.

    My husband’s favorite seminary professor told his students, “Stop thinking you will go out and save the world, and instead become the best family member you can be, the most grateful child of your parents, the greatest and most dependable encourager in your church, the best contributor to your community.” We influence the world one small corner at a time. Cherish the small.

In the days when Abraham’s descendants had been carried off from Israel to Babylon, their prophet, Jeremiah, sent a letter to King Nebuchadnezzar for the surviving leaders in exile. Jeremiah’s counsel: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce….   Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jere. 29:1–7). Seeking the good of the city where we live is always good counsel. So write for your kids, if you have any. Contribute good columns to the local paper. Donate some book reviews for your favorite local web site. Do readings at the library. And do so simply to give back and because you wish to make your corner of the world a better place.

  1. Read or listen. A lot of people say that to be a good writer you have to read. But that is not totally true. Not everyone can read—even among bestselling writers of worth. Bodie Thoene, who has sold millions books, has dyslexia, which makes it nearly impossible for her to read. My own husband, who holds a master’s degree from a rigorous program, can hardly read without falling asleep, due to a mild form of dyslexia. But he watches a lot of National Geographic shows and keeps up with the news in non-written forms. Some say that Emily Dickinson’s meter draws not on the cadences of authors she read but of hymns she sang.

Those who cannot read can listen. And even those of us who do love to read can benefit by hearing. These days I learn aurally from NPR’s book reviews, the weekly podcast of the New York Times Book Review, and at least one Audible book per month. In the past six months, I’ve switched my drive time from passive radio listening to more active listen to books on audio. The list has included mostly fiction such as The Goldfinch, The Invention of Wings, Lila, Gone Girl, and The Fault in Our Stars. But I’ve also enjoyed Unbroken, Quiet, I Am Malala, and Bonhoeffer. I would never have had time simply to sit and read those books.

  1. Write what contributes to human flourishing, not what you perceive as the next hot market.Trying to predict what will sell is like leaning on cobwebs. Just about the time you find a post to rest against, it gives way. By the time you finish writing a book to meet demand, the market will have left you in the dust. So write what you love to write and/or what you can write with excellence. (Sometimes we must write what we do well to pay the bills, even if it’s not our favorite.) Of the twenty or so books I’ve authored or coauthored, the one that continues to bring the most income is Sexual Intimacy in Marriage. There are fifty shades of books available on the topic of sex that sell many more copies than the one I coauthored. I could have turned up the steam and helped people live less fully human lives. And I probably would be making a lot more money. But the world needs more beautiful relationships, not those that are more hollow.
  1. Measure success accurately. You will be tempted to measure your own success by a number of externals that have nothing to do with your worth. Tell yourself they are lies.

Someone once told me that the only human-made structure visible from space was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower or even the tallest building in the world, but only the Great Wall of China. Think of all the amazing structures that “failed” to make that list.
But that does not make these structures failures. It just means that when measured by one narrow definition of success, they failed. As writers, any number of false measures can make us feel like losers. Did our last book fail to earn out its advance? Did we do a book tour? Did the work gain rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal? These are not accurate measures of whether we can write. Lots of crummy books sell big. Many divergent books make their authors lots of money, but that does not make the books or the authors successes.
At one time, I thought doing a book signing would indicate I had really arrived. Imagine my humiliation when I had to share a book-signing table with a famous person who had a long line of fans lined up out the door while I had nobody. Well, okay, one person. But she probably felt sorry for me. Still, that book itself changed some lives for the good. The humiliating signing experience had no correlation with the book’s success or mine.

So measure not by money or fame, but in influence on human flourishing. And of course, that is impossible to measure. Which is precisely my point.

===================Sandra Glahn

Sandra Glahn (PhD, UT Dallas) teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, her alma mater. She is the author or coauthor of eighteen books, including the CBA bestseller and Christy Award finalist, Lethal Harvest. She is also editor-in-chief of the award-winning magazine Kindred Spirit.

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 2, The Art of Denouement

April 1st, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on writing great endings. This week, I’ll be talking about a misunderstood but vital part of any story, the denouement.

The Google dictionary definition of “denouement” is “the final part of a narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.” “Denouement” is one of those literary words that most of us learned somewhere in high school or college English classes and then filed away along with “synecdoche” and “antithesis” to be trotted out when we need to sound smart, but whereas you could probably write a pretty great novel without being able to identify the areas where you used antithesis, it’s REALLY hard to end a book well without having more than a dictionary understanding of the functions of a denouement.

Think of the denouement as “the beginning of the end.” If you’re plotting the arc of a story or plot, the denouement appears right after the climax and generally encompasses everything else taking place between the climax and the end of the story. Let’s start by looking at the jobs a denouement needs to do:

  • Resolve the events of the climax. If the climax occurs when Slim pulls Sue off the railroad tracks seconds before the train thunders by, we don’t have to see every second of what happens next, but we would eventually like to know how they made it back to town after Slim’s horse ran off, how Salty Sam was finally apprehended, and whether or not Slim’s sidekick died of his rattlesnake bite. The actual top-of-the-tension moment is when Sue and Slim declare their love seconds before they might be smushed by the train, but these other events were all pieces of the climactic scene and the scenes leading directly up to it, and the reader wants to know how they turned out, even if it’s in a paragraph of narrative at the beginning of the next chapter rather than in five more scenes showing the aftermath/resolution of each. (And actually, it’s usually better to resolve the events of the climax more quickly than not, but we’ll talk more about anticlimactic endings next week.)
  • Solve mysteries/answer unanswered questions. Think about the end of an Agatha Christie novel, when Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple are explaining how they figured out the identity of the killer. They go through each of the clues/mysteries involved in the crime and helpfully point out which were red herrings, which could be explained by the hitherto unsuspected romantic sub-plot, and which actually point to the killer. While most novels won’t end with a nice tidy monologue listing mysteries and their solutions, these answers all still need to find their way into the denouement, otherwise the reader feels gypped and the author comes across as either flaky or untrustworthy.
  • Wrap up your subplots/follow through on your promises. Is there anything more frustrating than getting to know some fun minor character or glimpsing an interesting subplot and then never hearing from them again? It’s like the old rule about the rifle– if you tell the reader there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in chapter 1, somebody better fire it by the end of the book (there are various versions of this quote having to do with both novel-writing and playwriting, and it has been attributed to Chekov, thought not 100% confirmed). Don’t spend words to bring in minor characters’ conflicts or spend the whole book talking about the upcoming town carnival without giving the reader some resolution for those conflicts, or letting them experience a bit of the carnival before the book is over, even if it’s just a mention in passing or a single scene at the end of the book.

  • Establish your main characters’ immediate future. The extent to which you need to do this varies widely depending on the genre you’re writing, but no book should end with the main character being dangled off a cliff by his ankles. In a romance, the reader wants to know that a relationship finally has staying power (we’ve probably seen them break up at least twice over the course of the novel, after all, so we’re a little skeptical). We don’t need to find out an exact wedding date or how many kids they’re going to have, but a proposal or a reference to whose family they’re going to spend Christmas with or a longtime commitment-phobe giving her boyfriend a key to her apartment gives us some closure and assures us that it really will be “happily ever after.” In a thriller, the reader wants to know whether the main character changed his mind about leaving the CIA or what the lawyer is going to do now that she’s been fired from her elite law firm for standing up for the little guy. Again, we don’t need to follow the main character’s every move for the next five years, but some clue about the direction their life is taking, or even just assurance that the main character is happy even if her future is a bit unsettled is important to the reader’s sense of whether or not a complete story has been told. In books in a series telling a larger story, we still need to get to a somewhat “safe” stopping point for the main characters and have reached resolution for some of the story arcs, even if there is unresolved tension and continuing danger, e.g., the end of The Hunger Games, after Katniss has survived the games but realizes that there is more trouble and danger coming for her family and her district.

So there you have some of the major roles of the denouement. Authors who skimp on resolution at the end of their books risk alienating readers who feel cheated out of the full story, especially if the author dangled “bait” in the form of subplots, mysteries, and upcoming events throughout the book.

Now, as I cautioned several times in today’s post, one of the biggest dangers in writing your denouement is that your narrative can start to drag as you dump all kinds of info and resolution at the end of the book, so before you go too far down the Miss-Marple-monologue path, make sure you come back next week when I talk about how to make strong choices in your denouement that allow the energy of the narrative to remain intact while satisfying the reader’s need for resolution.

What else do you expect a denouement to provide? Have you ever been frustrated by unanswered questions or dropped plot threads after finishing a book? I’d love to hear your examples. Thanks for reading!

Mystery vs Suspense… What’s the difference? (a guest blog)

March 27th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

I started out my career writing mystery and now I write mostly suspense novels. What is difference between mystery and suspense anyway? It’s a question I hear often. I suppose I ought to know the answer since I’ve written twenty plus books in the suspense genre. I tell folks who ask that suspense is a situation in which the stakes are high and some is usually running for their lives. Yes, stakes are high in mystery, too, but there is not the same level of danger to the protagonist. It’s more about solving the puzzle, than survival.

Creating suspense is trickier than it sounds for the hardworking author. Conflict is not the same as suspense and neither is surprise. Those are lessons I’m still learning! A while back I stumbled across an interesting view from the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s idea was that the difference between surprise and suspense has to do with what the audience knows. Surprise occurs when something we don’t know is going to happen, does. For example, a car bomb goes off. Suspense is when the audience knows and watches it play out on the unwitting protagonist. “Don’t turn that key,” we silently shriek, wondering if what we know is going to happen actually does. The bomb doesn’t necessarily have to explode, but the suspense comes in our knowledge that it most likely will.

So what do you think? Does Hitchock’s analysis work for you? What suspenseful book or movie have you seen recently?dana

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Dana Mentink is an award winning author of eighteen mystery and suspense novels. She is honored to have received an ACFW Book of the Year nomination, a Holt Merit Award, a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award and two ACFW Book of the Year Awards. Please visit her on the web at www.danamentink.com or find her on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. Dana hosts monthly contests at www.dmentink.wordpress.com.

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 1, The Importance of Endings

March 25th, 2015 | Books, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’m starting a new series today, one that will last until I run out of things to say on the topic or until I get bored, whichever comes first. I’ve received several ending-related questions over the past few weeks as well as been disappointed by the endings of several otherwise-good submissions I’ve read lately, so I thought we’d spend a few weeks talking about how to end a novel as effectively as you began it.

There are a whole lot of resources out there to help you craft a dynamite beginning of a novel– plenty of “first five chapters” workshops, lots of conversation on the importance of a great opening sentence, a bunch of opinions on how soon in a book the action needs to kick off– but not as much attention paid to how to END a novel well. It makes sense; the beginning is what makes someone decide whether or not to keep reading, and therefore gets most of the responsibility for selling a book to an agent, editor, or reader, but too often, all this emphasis on the beginning of a novel leads to some neglected or rough endings by comparison, and endings are what make someone decide whether or not to look for another book from that author. If you’ve managed to entice a reader into picking up your book and making it all the way through, you want them to stick around longer than just that one book. This week, we’ll talk about how the end of a story and the end of a book are (or should be) connected, as well as preview some of the topics we’ll address over the next few weeks.

“When is a book done?” “When is a story over?” These questions came in separately, and while they’re asking about two different things, the answers are related. A complete story has been told when the major conflict has come to a head (climax) and the events of the plot and sub-plot have been resolved in the aftermath of the climax (denouement). A book is done (or should be done) when the story has been told. The majority of problems I have with endings can be traced to a failure on the part of the author to either A) finish the story satisfactorily before ending the book, or B) end the book when the story is over.

Let’s look at problem A first– failure to finish the story to the reader’s satisfaction. Obviously, “reader satisfaction” is a subjective quality, and you can always find a reader who will want more details or more resolution than whatever you’ve given them, but for the most part, readers expect that the major conflict will be resolved (or at least ONE major conflict will be resolved or brought to a stopping point, in the case of individual books in a series), loose ends related to subplots or secondary characters will be tied up, and some lingering questions will at least be addressed, if not answered. When an author loses track of a subplot, or introduces a secondary character and a problem or scenario and then never brings it up again, the reader is left feeling cheated, and justifiably so.

That’s not to say that everything has to be sewn up tidily at the end of a book– unanswered questions, relationships in limbo, and continuing conflict are all parts of life and therefore are legitimate choices for inclusion in fiction, but there has to be some kind of resolution (a “story” is defined at its most basic, after all, as having a beginning, middle and end), and  the reader does have to be left with the sense that the author is still in control of his universe and is fully aware of the lack of resolution rather than feeling like the author has been stringing them along and dumped them in the middle of nowhere without a map, or worse still, that the author has forgotten about the plot holes, unsolved mysteries, and unfinished subplots. The former feels like a con on the part of the author, and the latter like bad craftsmanship.

Problem B is less frustrating, but almost more damaging to the reader’s perception of your book. Psychology 101 teaches that people’s memory/impressions are tied most strongly to primacy and recency– in other words, the things that stick with us the most from a study session or a conversation or a movie or a book are the first things we see or hear, and the last, or most recent, things we see or hear. There could be a lot of good stuff in the middle, and we might enjoy it while we’re reading/watching/studying, but that middle content just doesn’t stick with us like first and last impressions. Need proof? Think about someone you see on a regular basis, such as a coworker or a teacher or a pastor. You can probably recall the first time you saw or met that person, or at least one of your earliest interactions with them– where it took place, maybe who else was around, perhaps even some aspects of their appearance, such as a different hair color or cut– and you can probably recall what your last conversation/interaction with them was about and where it took place, or even what they were wearing the last time you saw them, but you probably can’t pin down a whole lot of specific outfits or conversations or sermon topics from the time between when you first and last saw or heard them. If you’ve ever had a falling-out with a friend, you know that your perception of that person is colored by your most recent interaction– even if you had five great years of friendship with them, if it ended badly, with an ugly confrontation or hurt feelings, that’s going to be how you remember that person.

What this means for authors is that, even if a reader loved the beginning of your book enough to keep reading, and even if you do a great job of building tension and they really enjoy reading the middle, that enthusiasm will be tempered with apathy if the ending leaves them cold– you want them to remember feeling excitement and satisfaction at the end of the book, not just pleasant interest, so you want to end the book while the reader is still basking in the emotional high of the climax rather than giving them time to come back down to neutral, emotionally, while you drag out the book for four more chapters. This causes the reader’s last impression of your book to be more tame or more forgettable than it could have been had the book ended at a point closer to the emotional high point.

I’ll be talking more about how to avoid anticlimax while still satisfying the reader’s need for resolution after the climax in the coming weeks. Next week, I’ll be talking more about denouement and how to give readers the resolution they expect without letting the momentum of your story peter out. If you have any ending-related questions or issues you’d like me to address in this series, let me know in the comments! As always, thanks for reading.