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Archive for Writing Advice

Family Life, Writing Advice

Lessons on Writing from the Piano Man

Friday night, we took our nine-year-old daughter to see Billy Joel perform at Fenway Park. He’s her favorite, you see, because she was born in the wrong decade. The concert shook the baseball stadium as hard as any Red Sox playoff game, and The Piano Man can still tickle those ivories at age sixty-nine. Joel was in a reflective mood as he took us through the songs that made up his career, and I came away feeling inspired as an artist. Here are some of my takeaways from Joel’s wisdom:

Billy Joel performs on stage at Fenway Park.

 

  1. Not every piece you produce will be a hit, and that’s okay. After opening with a couple of chart-toppers, Joel down shifted into several of his lesser-known songs. At the third one in a row that he introduced by saying, “This one…was also not a hit,” the audience chuckled. Joel protested. “Hey, I spent just as much time writing the non-hits as I did the hits!” It’s hard to know when you produce a story or a movie or a song whether it will resonate with your audience. The best you can do is keep on creating.
  2. How you feel about your work right now may not predict how you feel about it later. Joel performed “The Entertainer,” which he says he wrote during his “cynical period.” The song details all the downsides of being a hit singer—the constant travel, the pressure to conform to a certain popular aesthetic, the sense that you’ve lost control of your art. Decades later, Joel is amazed and grateful that he can still pack a stadium with thousands of fans. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, “for showing up.”
  3. The best way to have a great idea is to generate lots of ideas in the first place. As Joel noted, he’s had more non-hits than hits. But he didn’t give up or go away angry at the first song that failed to make the charts. He kept writing and eventually he created more hits that are still in the rotation on pop stations today. This is a hoary chestnut from the writing world but it remains true: you are only a failed writer if you stop writing.
  4. You never know where you may find your biggest fans. Most of the people at the concert were solidly in Joel’s demo—my age and older. We’re the people who grew up with his music. But we were there because my nine-year-old loves his songs, these pieces written decades before she was born. Once you put your art out there, it can go places you’d never expect, and touch people you’ve never met.

    My daughter, rapt, watches Bill Joel perform her favorite songs.
  5. Once you put your art out there, it’s not quite yours anymore. It belongs to the people. “The Entertainer” deals with the frustrating aspects of this truism, but Joel is now in his closing act and he is thinking more of his legacy. The songs aren’t his to keep forever. They are inherited by the fans who will carry them forward.

 

“Piano Man” is beloved almost to the point of cliché among those of us at a certain age, but one of the reasons it persists is that there are so many places in the song to see yourself. Are you the waitress just trying to do your job while getting hit on by the guys? Maybe you’re the real estate agent who prized career over family, potentially to your regret. Or maybe you’re the bartender, someone could really make a mark if you “could just get out of this place.”

 

We’re sharing a drink we call loneliness because we’re all lonely at one time or another. No one was lonely at Fenway on Friday, though, when the band cut out and the crowd sang the “Piano Man” chorus in a thundering, unified roar. Joel sat on the stage and took it in, the emotion pouring out at him from these masses who had adopted his song and made a home for it in their hearts.

Writing, Writing Advice

The Monster at the End of This Book

One of my favorite childhood reads was “Grover and the Monster at the End of This Book.” In the story, Grover the Muppet begs the reader not to turn the pages because he’s heard there is a monster at the end and he’s afraid. The shocking twist is that lovable old Grover is himself the monster at the end! I was thinking of this kids’ classic the other day while reading advice on how to craft a memorable villain. Your book’s monster, according to this advice, should be a reflection of the hero. But what does this mean?

Grover despairs that there is a frightening monster at the end of the book he is in.

 

Sometimes, it means that your protagonist and your antagonist share the same flaw, especially at the beginning of the story. Maybe they are both stubbornly independent and believe themselves to be uniquely gifted. The villain, however, ends up using his or her powers for evil, whereas the hero overcomes this flaw to band together with others to defeat the villain.

 

It also means that your villain should have roughly the same power as your hero. There’s a reason Sherlock Holmes goes up against Moriarty, a cunning antagonist who is a worthy foe for someone as brilliant as our iconic detective. It’s also the reason you so often see superheroes fighting some ‘bad’ version of themselves in comic action movies. If you’re a Hulk, then it’s not interesting to see you fight a bunch of little guys. Instead, you get to tango with a tricked-out, mean-tempered version of yourself.

 

This doesn’t mean that every protagonist/antagonist needs to have literal super-human powers. It just means their skillsets should be evenly matched, whether that’s an actual army or the ability to spread gossip through a small town.

 

A memorable antagonist should also bring out a unique side of the hero. In the Hulk example, the Hulk is both a villain-fighting hero and a kind of antagonist for Bruce Banner. He forces Banner to wrestle with relatable human problems like controlling one’s temper but also keeps Banner from living the normal existence he often craves.

 

Another strategy is to give your villain and your hero the same goal or dream, which puts them in natural competition. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert has two primary antagonists—Quilty, who also wants Lolita, and Lolita herself, who wants to get away from Humbert. Giving your hero and villain a shared goal can be a way to flesh out your story as the reader may be forced to question whether the villain or hero’s strategy is the best one. For example, you could argue that Danny Kaffee and Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men have a shared goal of protecting U.S. troops, but they have very different ideas about what that protection looks like.

 

All of this is to say that, unlike Grover, your hero won’t find himself literally at the end of the book. But he or she should find a part of themselves, a new understanding that the villain is uniquely designed to precipitate.

Storytelling, Writing Advice

What I Learned from Fanfiction, Part I: Gatekeepers

Lo, many years ago now, I wrote a fair number of X-Files stories and put them on the internet for others to read, enjoy, and critique. The stories were tremendously fun to write, and along the way, I learned a great deal about the craft of writing and how to reach an audience. One day I will tell you about the time I missed the ending to my story by about nine chapters. Today I’m here to talk about the relative benefits and drawbacks to gatekeepers. A gatekeeper in this sense is anyone standing between the writer and her potential reading audience. Fanfic has essentially no gatekeepers, whereas the traditional publishing world is full of them. Each approach has its own advantages.

Fanfiction has no barriers to entry. If you have a story you want to tell, you can type it up and share it with the community in a matter of hours. The downside to this, especially for readers, is that many stories are published before they’ve had time to cook. (“Hey y’all, here’s something I wrote in homeroom!”) It can be difficult to find a quality story among all the noise. The upside is that everyone with a cool idea gets to test it out; there is no gatekeeper to say, “Sorry, there’s no audience for that” or “Shapeshifting aliens are so last year.” The readers get to vote with their clicks and their comments.

I learned a ton about storytelling from The X-Files. One lesson was when to walk away because the story was finished…

Traditional publishers have the same problem as fanfic readers: they want to find the good stuff so that they can put it on the shelves, but the sheer volume of manuscripts coming at them means it’s difficult to sort the quality manuscripts from the ones that are ill-suited. So the publishers transfer the first-pass filter onto literary agents. Most often, if you want a traditional publisher to read your work, you first must acquire an agent. The agent is the first gatekeeper.

If you’re curious what that process looks like, you can go here to see several examples of the query letter, in which the author tries to convince the agent to take a look at his or her work. The agents have weighed in with their responses—and they don’t always agree!

If the agent likes your work enough to represent it, he or she will then try to convince an editor to take your book on. The editor becomes the next gatekeeper. Editors, if they like the book, then turn around and try to convince the publishing house to publish it. So yep…that’s a third round of gatekeeping. If your book manages to get past all the steps, it now has a shot at connecting with an audience. Yay! You’re not done with the gatekeepers, though, because there are still booksellers who decide whether to stock it, publicists who decide how much attention to give it, and reviewers who decide whether to offer any commentary. Whew!

The benefit to all of this is that the process weeds out most of the terrible books with hackneyed plots, wooden dialogue and horrible grammar. The writer also receives a certain amount of “street cred” for having made it to a bookshelf. Moreover, this filtering is a boon to readers. Tens of thousands of books are published each year, and readers have precious little time. They are looking for cues and advice that says, “Read this, not that.” The agents, editors and publishers have done the work to say: here are some excellent books. Choose one of these.

The downside is that this process starts way back with just one or two opinions acting as a go/no-go signal on a book, and these opinions aren’t always right. The agents and the editors may miss books that readers would love, if only they got a chance to see them. For example, romance novelist Rosalind James wrote to several dozen agents seeking representation for her work and was initially turned down by every one of them. So she decided to self-publish her books and has sold thousands upon thousands of copies. The gatekeepers standing between Rosalind and her audience were just plain wrong.

With fanfic, I acted as my own gatekeeper. The only metric I used was whether I thought I would enjoy writing the story or not. Each time, I wasn’t sure how the story would be received. Some were wild hits, popular even fifteen years later. Others were rather duds. I couldn’t have predicted which would be the winners during the writing process. I put the story out there, and the readers got to decide.

So there you go. Writers may not have any idea if they’ve crafted a compelling story. Agents might mistakenly pass on the next bestseller. Readers, though, are the ones who sit in final judgment, and they are never wrong.

Storytelling, Writing Advice

How to Write a Book

Preparing to write a book can be a daunting progress. It gives me the sweats each time. How do you even know where the beginning is? What if you can’t find the end? And, curse it all, what the heck do you put in that big empty middle? Some writers are plotters, meaning they construct detailed outlines for each chapter before they start the story. Others are pantsers, meaning they make it up as they go along—flying by the seat of their pants. I am somewhere in the middle. I’ve found if I write a detailed outline ahead of time, I won’t write the actual book because there is no surprise left in it for me. However, I do like to have a loose roadmap so that I can see where I am going.

There is no one path that a writer must follow. The best techniques are the ones that work for you.

When I am starting a new book, I picture myself standing in front of a long wall filled with doors. I could choose any door! Eventually, I pick a beginning, and that means choosing one of the doors. Once I go through it, I have a new wall in front of me with fewer doors, because the possible directions of the story have been constrained by the place I began it. So I pick one of these new doors and go through it to advance the narrative, and in doing so, reduce my choices for the next chapter even more. By the time I get to the end, if I’ve done my job right, there should be only one door. It’s marked THE END, and it’s the logical conclusion to everything that’s come before it.

I also subscribe to the Alton Brown theory of scene construction. Alton Brown has a rule that every tool in the kitchen must serve multiple purposes. No point in having a juicer that only does lemons, for example. Likewise, a scene in your book should ideally have multiple reasons for its existence. Here’s a short scene from something I wrote ages ago:

James Dean Trumbull had, at age thirty-nine, outlasted his namesake by a good fifteen years.  His mother had fallen in love with the fifties film idol’s tragic, romantic saga, and since Jimmy’s father was not around to dispute her name choice, James Dean had been reborn in a Hoboken hospital in 1960.  His mother was a great believer in karma, and she had felt the previous James Dean was cut down before he could achieve the successes due him.  By christening her son in the dead man’s name, she truly believed that fate would pick off where it had left off, and Jimmy would enjoy a magic carpet ride into history.

Forty years later, she was still waiting.

Jimmy sat at his cramped kitchen table, surrounded by avocado-colored appliances, and leaned closer to the scanner.  He had a cigarette in one hand and a pen in the other, just in case he heard something worth writing down on his brand-new tablet of paper.

Amy entered the room just as he was blowing out a smoke ring.  “If you must do that, at least go out to the stoop,” she said, waving her hand in front of her face.  She had

her night watchman’s uniform on, with its sensible black shoes, blue polyester pants, and a shiny metal gun hooked to her hip.

“Can’t,” he told her.  “Got to be in here to listen.”

“You listen to that damn box more than you do me.  Sitting here all the time with that radio playing constantly.  What if one of the kids had a nightmare or something?”

“I’d hear ’em.”  He blew out another long train of smoke and aimed it upstairs to where their children lay sleeping.  The police scanner crackled as the dispatcher radioed an armed robbery in progress.

Screw that, he thought.  Get to the good stuff.

Amy’s keys clattered onto the counter as she fished around in her purse for something.  “Well at least do the dishes if you’re going to be sitting here in the kitchen all night.”

“Something big is going down,” he said.  “You can tell.  No one’s saying anything yet, but you can hear it anyway.  They’re all on edge.”

She picked her heavy winter coat up from the back of a chair.  “You think you’re the only one with this toy?  You think there aren’t a hundred reporters out there listening to the exact same thing you are?  And they’ve got jobs, Jimmy.  The papers are going to take their stories over anything you might come up with.”

“That’s why I’ve got to stay on top of this.  I have to find an angle no one else has.”

Amy shook her head as if she had heard this story before.

“You wait,” he said.  “You’ll see.  I’ll get my headline and then everyone will want a piece of me.  I’m going to be an overnight sensation.”  He grinned and reached for her ass.  “You can say you knew me when.”

“I know you, all right,” she replied, ducking him.  She shrugged into her coat and picked up her old leather purse.  “I’ve got to run or McCracken will have my ass.”

“He can’t have it.  Your ass is mine.”

She made a face, but he could see the smile in her eyes.  “There’s leftover cupcakes in the fridge,” she said, leaning down to kiss him.

He’d seen them in there, right next to the beer: chocolate frosted cupcakes with little hearts on them for Valentine’s Day.  Amy talked tough, but she was such a sap.

“I’ll see you at six,” she said.

“Drive safe.”

She left out the back way, into the alley, and cold air stormed in through the kitchen, stirring the curtains and lifting the pages of his writing tablet. A voice crackled through on the scanner. “Five-six, be advised, the suspect has a previous warrant for attempted homicide.”

Jimmy leaned back with his smoke and listened.

This scene introduces Jimmy Trumbull as a would-be reporter searching for a big crime-related scoop. He’s a family man, watching the kids while his wife Amy works, but we can see there are limits to how much of himself he’s willing to give up for them: he won’t go outside to smoke.

The crimes he is waiting to hear on the radio form the backbone of the mystery, but the twist here is that Jimmy is the killer. He’s waiting for the cops to discover his handiwork. Finally, the other player introduced in this brief exchange is Amy’s gun. It’s crucial because the story ends with her using that gun to shoot Jimmy.

All this information is packed into 700 scant words. So that’s my other piece of book advice: make each line work hard for you. With all the effort you’re putting in, the least those words can do is hold up their end!

Family Life, Writing Advice

Family Secrets

Family secrets form the backbone of many delicious mysteries, and for good reason. It’s shocking to find out your neighbor or your coworker is not the person you thought they were, but it can up-end your whole world if you discover your loved ones have been hiding a deep, dark secret. They are your intimates, the people you live with or see often, and you’re supposed to know them better than anyone else. So learning a scandalous tidbit about a family member can sometimes change not just how you feel about that person, but also how you feel about yourself. Occasionally in real life, and often in fiction, these revelations can have deadly consequences.

When Kristine Fitzhugh was found dead at the foot of the stairs in her Palo Alto home, her doctor husband Ken Fitzhugh claimed it was an accident, blaming her slippery shoes for Kristine’s demise. The subsequent investigation found that Kristine had been beaten and strangled, and that someone made considerable effort to clean up after the crime. Cops eventually arrested Ken, and his motive turned out to be a long-held family secret: the couple’s oldest son was not fathered by Ken, but by a man Kristine had an affair with early in the marriage. Kristine had threatened to tell the young man about his true paternity, and Ken killed her to conceal the truth.

Author Liane Moriarty has spun many intriguing tales that hinge on secrets kept within families. These can be large and ominous, like murder or kidnapping, or smaller but no less devastating, like an affair or other indiscretion. The Husband’s Secret in particular explores how one man’s misdeed ripples out across everyone else around him, those whose choices become shaped either by knowledge of his secret or by the lack of it.

I love mining family secrets for book ideas. Secrets that aren’t harmful can even be fun and a way of deepening someone’s character. My grandmother and grandfather were married for sixty years, but I discovered after his death that this had actually been a second marriage for her. My straight-laced old granny had run off with a beau at age fourteen to get married! I’m just as glad this didn’t work out, because if it had I wouldn’t be here, but I enjoy thinking about her as someone who took a reckless chance in the name of passion. Maybe I’ll put her in a book one day…

Writing Advice

What I Hate About You

Here is my one top tip to building fictional characters: their greatest strength should also be their biggest weakness. There are some quizzes that circulate on the internet, like this one, that purport to tell you what people secretly hate about you. There are always a bunch of silly questions thrown in about picking your favorite animal or your signature dance move, but the meaty questions, the ones that determine the answer, are the ones that ask you what people love about you. Because whatever trait it is that people love about you, that’s also the one that drives them nuts.

If you are charming, gregarious, and the life of the party, chances are that other people read you as shallow or self-involved. If you are quiet and reserved, like me, you probably come off as cold or snobby sometimes. Also apparently scary, from what I’ve been told! A person who’s a smarty pants may save the day in times of crisis, but on a regular day, some folks find him to be a giant know-it-all.

This push-pull of your best and worst traits holds true for fictional people as well. Characterization is most satisfying when it is rich and consistent. So if your character has a tendency to act first and think later, she might shine in an action sequence but create friction with her boss. Similarly, if your character believes passionately in the bonds of family, he’s probably willing to make huge sacrifices for those he loves—but may be blind to their faults.

Strength and weakness are interwoven, interdependent.

Characterization is also situational and relational. You don’t act the same way with your mom that you do with your friends, or with your boss. There are always shadings and exceptions and times when your actions may surprise even you. I have a petite, mild-mannered friend who chased a male intruder out of her home when she caught sight of him. She never would have imagined she’d do such a thing until she found herself shouting and running after him!

Broadly, though, who we are in terms of our core personalities don’t change much over time, and the things we do well, whether that’s socialization or analytical thinking or caretaking, have a cost to them. Considering this inherent yin-yang when building your characters can help you mold them into believable, complex people.

Family Life, Writing Advice

Grammar Counts…or How I Met My Husband

I met my husband via online dating about a decade ago, when the odds tilted even more firmly in favor of women seeking men. Does online dating really work? One of my family members wanted to know. I said sure, you could definitely find a guy on the internet. Of course, the catch was…you would find a guy—who was on the internet. I was inundated with replies from engineers, gamer geeks, coders and anyone else who was most comfortable behind a screen. I wasn’t judging these guys in the least—after all, I was a geek behind a screen, too—but they did have a certain sameness to them.

In this sea of anonymous men, my husband immediately stood out to me. On our fourth date, he wanted to know why. “How many replies did you get to your profile?” he asked.

I squinted, estimating. “Around 4,400.”

He made a choking noise. “4,400? Then why did you pick me?”

“You wrote in complete sentences,” I told him sweetly, because it was the truth.

He gaped at me, disappointed. “That’s it? That’s all? Wow, talk about a low bar!”

Except it wasn’t a low bar at all because so few of the guys actually took the time to construct actual English sentences.* They wrote in text speak or emojis or lacked any kind of punctuation whatsoever. Meanwhile, Garrett’s initial note to me used correct grammar, a wide-ranging vocabulary, and also demonstrated both humor and curiosity. 

See, he’s cute too!

You know who else has hundreds of would-be suitors in their inbox all the time? Literary agents. They may see hundreds of query requests per day, many of them from authors who do not follow the rules for submission. Their queries are too short or too long, or they leave off important information like genre and word count. Authors will send pages when pages are not asked for, or leave them off when they are required. I heard one agent say that almost 90% of queries fail to follow her preferred procedure, and of course, this is an easy way for the agent to reduce her reading list by 90%.

Writing a tight query that follows all the directions won’t necessarily land you a deal, in the same way that I didn’t marry my husband just because he writes coherent emails. Content still matters. But in each case, it’s a small step that shows you take the relationship seriously. Your novel can be experimental. Your query shouldn’t be. Take the time to look up the agent’s submission guidelines and follow them. Think of it this way: you’ll already be standing out from the crowd!

*Please note, however, that writing complete sentences did not guarantee you any sort of date with me. I had one respondent to my profile who wrote, “I like white feet.” This is a complete (and very creepy) sentence! I did not write back to him.