Wednesday, November 23, 2011

If You Wrote It No One Would Believe It

Fiction writers want to create believable plots. It's called suspension of disbelief. Writing 101. Readers know the difference between plots that work and those that don't. If the plot isn't believable, they will put the book down, never to pick it up again.

Life, it's been said, is stranger than fiction. Sometimes life provides plots that are not believable.


Here's a plot line. You tell me if it is believable or not. A dysfunctional loner with immature, radical views decides to assassinate the President of the United States. He ends up high in a building in Dallas. With a $39.95 bolt action, inaccurate WWII rifle and a poorly fitted scope, he fires three quick rounds (or was it four?) and achieves his goal. The President is dead. The fatal round is miraculously found (after an improbable ballistic journey) in pristine condition on the gurney bearing the President to the hospital. Tests prove it came from the assassin's rifle. Shortly thereafter, the assassin himself is killed while in police custody.

Films and eyewitness accounts raise many questions, quickly dismissed. A special government commission finds that the assassin acted alone. The records are sealed. Over the next two years a long list of people in some way connected to the assassination are found dead. Suicide. Accident. Heart attack. Disease. Murder. Drug overdose. No one is left to question. Other high profile troublemakers are assassinated, changing the face of American politics. Lone assassins are identified, once again.

If you wrote that, would you believe it? A better question is if you wrote that how would you bring the plot to resolution? What would be revealed?

Pictures of trucks parked in the desert are presented to a world body as proof of Weapons of Mass Destruction (capital letters are intentional) by a man fully respected and, it turns out, misinformed. Some might even say, a patsy. An unprovoked war begins, with ongoing disastrous consequences for everyone except some people who become very, very wealthy. How would you write that one? Probably a bad example, since it is way too believable.

How about this one? A man from a foreign country which is not our friend plots to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US. He decides to use the Mexican Mob to help him do the job. He jaunts off to Mexico. He hires a hit man who will help him. Oops! The hit man turns out to be an informant for the DEA. A sting provides lots and lots of incriminating evidence. Sabers start rattling, once again.

What are the odds of picking exactly the wrong guy out of all the possible choices? If you wrote that, would you believe it? I write thrillers. If I wrote that, I'd be ashamed of myself. I can think of at least a dozen better ways to pull it off, especially with the backing of a hostile government and its resources. If I wrote it, the target would be toast. It would be believable.

Want some more plot ideas? The economy goes down in flames. Massive amounts of money are needed to avoid disaster. Okay, that's believable. But no one is held to account. The same people responsible for the meltdown guard the financial henhouse and "advise" the President on the economy. The economy continues to burn.

That's a lousy plot. If you wrote that, would you believe it?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blog Blah Blues

I counted them yesterday. There were 4,357,987.36 blogs circulating on the net. Took me all day.

Naaahh. I made that up. There are more than that.

I don't know about you, but after a half hour or so pursuing these little gems across the ether my eyes start to cross. There are good blogs, bad blogs, pretty blogs, ugly blogs, dumb blogs, super smart blogs. Perhaps you have a blog. Perhaps you have thought to yourself, "Good grief! It's time for another post. WHAT am I going to write about that is interesting to anyone but myself?"

I started this blog partly from self interest (I want folks like you to buy my books) and partly from a desire to help all us independent writers polish our craft.

Okay, so far so good. Write about writing. Okay. Let's see...I could write about editing (yawn). I could write about sentence structure and plot (double yawn, triple yawn).  Kind of boring. In fact, really boring. In terms of writing a blog about writing, I'd just hit a stone wall. Thus, the title of today's post. Thus, the question: WHAT am I going to write about?

Well, good question. I asked my wife, Gayle. In the best tradition of psychotherapy (and wives), she responded to my question with one of her own: "What do you like to write about?"

I thought about it. An obvious question (it wasn't to me). The answer appeared from the mysterious alternate reality where the inspirational muse hangs out. Here's what she (the muse) told me: Write about the authors you love and why you think they're so good at what they do.

Stephen King says if you don't have time to read, you can't be a good writer. Something like that. He's right. We have to read. We love to read. If we didn't love to read, why would we want to write? You can't write unless you love it. It's too much work.


I think reading the best authors is the best way to learn how to write well. Not to copy the style. God forbid. But to absorb the sense of how something so good comes together. What makes a book memorable, for good or ill? Why do we have favorite authors and authors we hate? What can we learn from their work to improve our own, just by reading them and then thinking about what we've read?

I like thrillers and mysteries. I like thoughtful books. I like books with deeply drawn relationships, inner and outer. I like action books. I like accurate books. I like authors like Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker and Shakespeare. I like Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Herman Hesse and John Steinbeck. I like Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Larry Block, Nelson DeMille, Robert Crais, Stephen Hunter, Stephen King, Lee Child and Diana Gabaldon. Not to mention the new voices of the self publishing revolution.

I'm going to blog about how reading my favorite authors has helped my writing. I think I'll start with Michael Connelly next time.

By the way, who are your favorite authors? Why? Let me know. Maybe I'll learn something.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Human Spirit

Today I want to write about a truly inspiring video that restores my faith in humanity. It reminds me that most people, really, are pretty decent at heart. It's a few years old, but in terms of the human spirit, it's timeless.

Jason McElwain is an autistic student at a high school in Rochester, New York. Jason is "highly functional", meaning that unlike many autistic kids he is able to go to school, interact with others, and do a lot of the things we non-autistic people take for granted. For Jason, you can bet that's a real challenge. Jason is a senior in high school. He was a student assistant member of the basketball team, helping out at practices, games, stuff like that. He had never played. Then one night his coach let him suit up. The game was down to the last five minutes. Remember, Jason had never played in an actual game. Coach Jim Johnson sent him in.

Your first clue is the cheers from the crowd when he goes in. But wait a sec...don't we all know that high school kids are intolerant, bullying, self absorbed, etc. etc.? Isn't that what we see on the news or in the papers all the time? Examples of bad behavior with various pundits shaking their heads about the dissolution of values and our society?

So Jason goes in and the crowd cheers and the coach is just praying that maybe Jason will get a basket. Just one. Jason misses his first shot by a mile. For him to even get a shot means his teammates had supported him. A minute after missing that shot, Jason makes a three pointer. The crowd goes wild. By the end of the game, Jason made not one, not two, but SIX three pointers. School record.

Ever shoot hoops? Three pointers ain't easy.

If you want to skip right to it, here's the link: Http://

Folks, it's not all bad out there. Sometimes we just need to be reminded.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sex, Sex, More Sex and the Reader

You're hooked into reading this, aren't you? Few things are more fascinating than sex. Movies are full of it. Television is full of it. Books are full of it. Even the Bible is full of it.

So what has this got to do with writing? Everything, that's what. Even if you are writing a novel about a convent in the fifteenth century, sex will come up sooner or later. Especially if you are writing a novel about a convent in the fifteenth century. And for every character there is an unspoken or clearly obvious sexual point of view.

Explicit sexual scenes that would once have been considered pornographic are now commonplace in popular literature. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries. Writers like Jonathan Kellerman and James Lee Burke are masters at creating steaming sexual scenes that reveal the inner depths of a character.  

That's the key. Sexual scenes reveal, they're not there just to titillate the reader. If a sexual encounter doesn't deepen identification with your characters (it does usually take at least two), it doesn't belong in your story.

Okay, you've created the scene and it's the right place in the plot for it to happen. Good. Have you thought about the reader's point of view? If you are a man writing about sex, how do you think about it? If you want any loyal readers of the female persuasion, you'd better come up (pun intended) with something more than the typical masculine thinking about sex. Because, guys, (drum roll) women don't think about sex the way we do.

I refer you to any book by Diana Gabaldon, who has only sold about umpteen million copies of her fabulous Outlander series. Sex is one of the reasons, but not the only one. She took the classic historical bodice ripper into the stratosphere and blew away half a dozen genre barriers in the process. You want a female point of view about sex, study her work. She is pretty good at capturing the male viewpoint as well. Her sex scenes rock.

As a male writer, you can get away with only the male point of view, because everyone likes sex. But getting your reader to identify with the character while he/she is in the act is a different story. Can you engage your female readers in that way, if you have any? It ain't easy. The same is true for women who write, in reverse. Many sex scenes written by women tend to leave male readers yawning, if they somehow find themselves reading any book by a woman. Because (drum roll again) men don't think about sex the way women do.

Okay, so you all knew that. But maybe you forgot when you were writing that scene. Writing sexual scenes that feel authentic to both male and female readers requires understanding the difference in the way men and woman think about sex. As for me, I'm still working on it.

I challenge you to write a sexual scene from the feeling/physical/emotional point of view of each character. Run it by readers from both genders for an honest opinion. Prepare to be surprised.

Let me know how it works out.