Sunday, January 31, 2010

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith

Today I finished reading Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1983) by Patricia Highsmith.

     "Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers On a Train, The Talented Mr.Ripley, Found In The Street, and many other books, is known as one of the finest suspense novelists. In this book, she analyzes the key elements of suspense fiction, drawing upon her own experience in four decades as a working writer. She talks about, among other topics; how to develop a complete story from an idea; what makes a plot gripping; the use (and abuse) of coincidence; characterization and the "likeable criminal"; going from first draft to final draft; and writing the suspense short story.

     Throughout the book, Highsmith illustrates her points with plentiful examples from her own work, and by discussing her own inspirations, false starts, dead ends, successes, and failures, she presents a lively and highly readable picture of the novelist at work." - Google Books

This book was a total dud for me.  And I really wanted to learn about plotting and writing suspense.  I rated this book as 1 star.  The lowest rating I can give.  Don't bother.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Key: How To Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth by James N. Frey

Today I finished reading The Key: How To Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth (2000) by James N. Frey

"Myths, says James N. Frey, are the basis of all storytelling, and their structures and motifs are as powerful for contemporary writers as they were for Homer. In The Key , novelist and fiction-writing coach Frey applies his popular "Damn Good" approach to Joseph Campbell's insights into the universal structure of myths, providing a practical guide for fiction writers and screenwriters who want to shape their ideas into a powerful mythic story. James N. Frey is the author of the internationally bestselling How to Write a Damn Good Novel and How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II , as well as nine novels. He has taught and lectured on creative writing at several different schools and conferences throughout the U.S. and Europe. Frey here applies his widely celebrated "Damn Good" approach to writing fiction to the wisdom and scholarship of Joseph Campbell. His book explores Campbell's insights regarding the universal structure of myths, thus providing a practical guide for writers wanting to shape their ideas into powerful mythic stories. "You could struggle through learning the basics of storytelling by trial and error or you could just read this book. I wish I had this fifteen years ago."' Sara Pariott, screenwriter for The Runaway Bride "For me, the mythological approach has indeed been the key to creating stories that have a far greater impact on the reader than anything I'd written before."' Tess Collins, author of The Law of Blood and The Law of Revenge "This well-written and witty how-to [focuses] on the tradition of myth as a recipe for storytelling. Drawing from Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth , Frey explains that people respond strongly to mythic images and will essentially read the same stories over and over again; readers of romances are a good example of this concept. The first half of the book is especially interesting, for it examines the mythic structure in such diverse works as Robin Hood , Beowulf , and Jaws and looks at myths that function in everyday modern life. In the second half, Frey provides the reader with a sample novella titled 'The Blue Light' to illustrate the use of myth as a writing tool." - Google Books

Friday, January 22, 2010

Teach Yourself: Writing A Novel by Nigel Watts

Today I finished reading Teach Yourself: Writing A Novel (1996) by Nigel Watts.

"Successful author and veteran writing teacher Nigel Watts walks you through the novel-writing process-from germinating an idea, through developing plot, character and theme, to finding an agent and contacting publishers. He also provides priceless pointers on how to get started and keep the momentum going and how to conquer writer's block. Each chapter features examples from some of the greats along with skill-building exercises. This new edition contains fully updated listings of writing courses and additional resources not found in the previous edition." - Google Books

This book is a clear case of "Don't Judge A Book By It's Cover".  I bought the book through Amazon from it's descripton.  When the book came and I looked at it, I almost didn't read it.  I thought, "nothing good can come out of this book."  But I was wrong.  Watts covers the issues very well.  It is one of the best books for a beginning writer that I have read.

I rate the book 3 stars.

How To Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat

Today, I finished reading How To Write Killer Fiction, The Funhouse of Mystery & the Roller Coaster of Suspense by Carolyn Wheat.

“The best advice on writing I’ve ever seen came from a fictional character, Seymour Glass, J.D. Salinger’s cryptic antihero, tells his brother, Buddy, an aspiring writer: “You think of the book you’d most like to be reading, and then you sit down and shamelessly write it.”

While I read both Mysteries and Suspense, I realized from her description of the difference between the Mystery genre and the Suspense genre that my favorite is not actually a Mystery but Suspense. The type book I best like to read is Suspense, whose authors include: Francis, Grisham, Clancy, Ludlum, DeMille, Lustbader, LeCarre, Follett.

“In contrast to the intellectual pleasure of the mystery, suspense is an emotional roller-coaster ride; if there is a puzzle element, it is decidedly secondary to the visceral experience. The suspense hero, like the protagonist of a folk or fairy tale, faces tests that will elevate him to another level of maturity. The suspense hero, unlike most detectives who already have the skills to detect, must learn skills to cope with the new reality that has overtaken him. We readers want to see him becoming a hero through overcoming obstacles on the way to the showdown with evil. By the end of the novel, he has walked through the fire and has emerged as a different, larger person.”

The book contains three parts. Part one is devoted to the mystery. Part two is devoted to suspense. Part three touches on the writing process.

In Part Two - The Roller Coaster of Suspense, Wheat provides an in-depth analysis of the various branches of the suspense family tree. Writing about Suspense vs. Thriller she wrote, “What makes a suspense novel a thriller? My facetious answer used to be, ‘A six-figure advance,’ but I’ve come to see that it’s more than that. Yes, thrillers are big sellers, but they also take the reader to a higher level than an ‘ordinary’ suspense novel. Thriller writers aren’t afraid to take their plots, characters, situations, and locales to the max, pushing the envelope of credibility at every possible turn. They pile it on, pitting their protagonist against super-powerful enemies and putting obstacle upon obstacle in the way of success. They squeeze everything they can out of their settings, to the point where the reader ends up knowing more than he ever wanted to know about the internal working of submarines or dinosaur DNA.

And yet that’s part of the thrill, inherent in the thriller: the sense of getting more than you bargained for of being taken inside the inner circle and told things no one is supposed to know. Just when you think the plot can’t possibly take one more twist, it throws one more monkey wrench into the hero’s plans and spins your head around. It takes you toe the highest highs and the lowest lows, and if it does these things at the expense of credibility and ordinary human emotion – well, that’s what you want… You want something to rivet your eyes to the page, to let your escape into an exciting, danger-filled place.

And that's what I want to write.  Not just suspense.  I want to write a thriller. 

Now, I just need a story.  I 'm having doubts that my idea for historical mystery set in early 1800's Georgia will work for me.  If I, “...think of the book you’d most like to be reading, and then you sit down and shamelessly write it.”, it won't be a historical mystery.  It's got to be a thriller.

Also in Part Two, Wheat writes about how suspense novels borrow from The Hero’s Journey of myths. My favorite chapter is devoted to the structure of a suspense novel. For me this chapter is worth the price of the book. I will be using its instructions extensively. Another valuable chapter is on writing the ending, a difficult job at best and critical for a suspense novel.

In Part Three – The Writing Process, Wheat gives a concrete example of how to implement a storyboard to pre-plan scenes that will be very valuable to me. (especially since I’m a pre-planning freak)

I love this book. It has definitely given me a kick in the seat of the pants down the right path.  I give How To Write Killer Fiction, The Funhouse of Mystery & the Roller Coaster of Suspense four stars!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing by Meg Leder

Today I finished reading The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing by Meg Leder, Jack Heffron, ed., and the editors of Writer’s Digest. This is a big book. Four hundred fifty two pages divided into fifty-five chapters. Each chapter is written by a “named” author. I recognized a lot of the names. I’m clueless about some.  I read it in one day, in part, because it is an easy read and, in part, because I didn't feel the need to stop and highlight or underline a lot of passages for emphasis upon later review.

The articles are organized into sections: The Craft; The Art; The Process; The Genres; The Market Place; and The Interviews. While most of the articles contain gems of wisdom, some fall flat. I found the first three sections to be the most interesting to me, a newbie.

There are interviews with several household names and a couple of my favorite authors.  But I was disappointed.  I found most to be just filler, occupying several pages without saying anything important. 

While it may be a Complete Handbook, it certainly is not a how-to book. I think it will be useful as a source of ideas on how to make my manuscript better after it is written.

I give The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing two stars.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Today I finished reading Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maas. It’s funny sometimes how a title conjures different images in the minds of different people. I thought the title meant Writing The Breakout Novel was going to be about developing a totally new plot idea, e.g. Harry Potter, or the Twilight vampire novel.

Instead, Writing The Breakout Novel deals, excellently, with what it takes to write at the level above beginner. The content of Writing The Breakout Novel will definitely join How to Write a Damn Good Novel in my personal how-to-write a first novel notebook

The Foreword by Anne Perry contains several treasures: “You are in control of your success or failure. If you write a book people want to read – a story that grips; characters that people care about, identify with, are interested in – your book will sell. Your destiny is in your own hands.”

“Sometimes I am asked, “Is it true you should write what you know about?” I say, “No, write what you care about. If you don’t know you’ll find out. But if you don’t care, why should anyone else?”

Maas writes, “To write a breakout novel is to run free of the pack. It is to delve deeper, think harder, revise more, and commit to creating characters and plot that surpass one’s previous accomplishments. It is to say “no” to merely being good enough to be published. It is a commitment to quality… A truly big book is a perfect blend of inspired premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply felt themes, vivid setting and much more. It is a kind of literary gestalt, a welling up of inspired material, enriched by close observation, or at lease detailed research. It flows together in ways that seem destined to be.”

The author, Donald Maass, is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. He represents more than one hundred fiction writers and sells more than one hundred novels per year to top publishers. When he writes, “The number one mistake I see in manuscript submissions is….”, he gets my attention. He’s not someone who can’t write so he teaches. He’s the guy I want to sell my story to. What he says matters.

Writing The Breakout Novel is a good book and I enjoyed its instruction.  I give it three stars.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb

Today I finished reading Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb (2006). Compared to James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel, it was a disappointment. This book contains a lot of really good information but the style was much harder to read. Reading Frey is fun. Reading Rittenberg and Whitcomb is work.

That said, the content is worth the work. I decided there was enough new material that I didn’t want to forget or lose that I’ve started my own ‘how-to-book’. I created a word document where I’ve begun entering excerpts from Your First Novel and from How to Write a Damn Good Novel. It is interesting how much 'complete coverage' in any one how-to book leaves out.  And, how much the authors agree with each other on the common items.

The second half of the book is written by Ann Rittenberg, an agent, and deals with how to get published. Ms. Rittenberg says that an author might be able to get a $50,000 advance on a first book. But, that $10,000 - 20,000 is more like it with $7,000 on the low side.

Certainly, not very encouraging information for someone wanting to earn a living as an author unless you can write really fast. I was looking for a bigger payday.

Dennis Lehane, in the Foreword to Your First Novel, wrote, “If you learn how to write well, you will get published. The cart follows the horse. Simple. Not easy, mind you, because the learning is hard. It separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, the authentic from the poseurs. If you are writing merely to get published, and you equate publishing with seeing your name in lights, with adoration, with your very self-worth, you are writing for the wrong reasons…. why are your writing? There are hundreds of easier ways to make money. Thousands of better methods by which to self-actualize. Millions of less taxing ways to entertain oneself. You should write because you can’t not write….which is to say you have to love it… There is no guarantee it will love you back. No guarantee you’ll ever make a living at it.”

Time to re-think making a career of being an author vs. undertaking writing a novel as a one time learning experience.

I give Your First Novel three stars.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey

I just finished reading an amazing how-to-write a novel book, How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. It is an excellent book written with humor and authority.

“A ‘Damn Good Novel’ is intense, and to be intense, a novel must be dramatic. A dramatic novel embodies the following characteristics: it focuses o a central character, the protagonist, who is faced with a dilemma; the dilemma develops into a crisis; the crisis builds through a series of complications to a climax; in the climax the crisis is resolved…. This is a how-to book on the art of the dramatic novel and does not claim to be anything else.”

In 173 pages, he give you the stuff you need to know in a way that makes me believe that I can do this.

He covers the waterfront in the chapters:
• What it’s all about is “Who”
• The three greatest rules of dramatic writing: Conflict! Conflict! Conflict!
• The tyranny of the premise, or, writing a story without a premis is like rowing a boat without oars
• The ABC’s of storytelling
• Rising to the climax, or, the proof if the pudding is in the premise
• Viewpoint, point of view, flashbacking, and some nifty gadgets in the novelist’s bag of tricks
• The fine art of great dialogue and sensuous, dramatic prose
• Rewriting: the final agonies
• The zen of novel writing.

A reviewer with vastly more experience than my own wrote, “The kind of book that should be kept by every author next to the typewriter. Mr. Frey not only includes the basics of good writing, but the invaluable hints of how to add depth and texture to a novel. Inspiring and clear, the book gives clear detailed examples of common pitfalls and how to correct them, with food for though to any careful writer. Laced with delicious humor, it makes the reading not only instructive but pleasurable.” Amen.

I really like how this guy writes. His ideas seem very practical and doable. I give this book 4 stars.

I want to read more by James Frey. Tomorrow, I’ll order the sequel, How To Write A Damn Good Novel, II

“If you’re an aficionado of one type (of novel), that’s what you should be writing. Write the kind of book you like to read.”

And for me that is: A Mystery!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Story Idea – Post Revolutionary War Mystery

If I'm going to write a novel, I've got to have a story idea.  I've been struggling to come up with an idea since I made my New Year's resolution to write a novel.  Finally, I've got one.

After I recovering from 1st round of chemo, radiation, surgery, and 2nd round of chemo in 2000, I began doing genealogical research on my ancestors.   Over the past ten years I've collected information on about 12,000 individuals.  Most of whom are very distant cousins. 

In the process, I've learned a lot about General Edmund Hogan. 

He was a wonderful bigger than life character who died in 1828 in Little Rock, Arkansas Territory when he was stabbed by the walking cane sword of a political rival.  Edmund was born in North Carolina and migrated to Georgia in the early 1800's to Georgia where he gained land through the land lottery.  He served as a Sheriff, a Colonel in the state militia, a Senator in the Georgia legislature and a Judge.  In 1814, he abandoned his properties and "ran away" to the Missouri Territory where began operating the first ferry across the Arkansas river at the 'Little Rock'.  In 1820, he was reported to be the wealthiest man in the Arkansas Territory.  He later became the commanding general of the Arkansas territorial militia.  He had spent most of his wealth by the time of his death. 

I'm reading that I should write about what I know about.  Edmund Hogan seems like a good character to build a story on.

Story Idea: My protagonist is Edmund Hogan living in Georgia in 1801. He marries Frances Green. She is from a wealthy family who give her a domestic slave and a field hand slave for their wedding. He has a gambling habit that will make him flee from GA to AR in 1814. 

I think Edmund would be a really good hero for a mystery series.  I'm imagining an Anne Perry type historical mystery series set in Post-Revolutionary War Georgia

Unfortunately, I don't know much about the customs, and dress of this period.  If it isn't in Mel Gibson's movie, The Patriot, I don't have a clue.  My wife, Suzy, tells me that President Jimmy Carter wrote a book, The Hornet's Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War. 

It looks like I'm going to be going back to Amazon for another book.

Friday, January 15, 2010

So You Want To Write A Novel by Lou Willett Stanek

Today I finished the first book on how to write a novel, So You Want to Write a Novel by Lou Willett Stanek, that I have ever read.

“You have a story to tell….start here! You know there is a novel locked inside of you – cock full of conflict, humor, irony, enthralling events and fascinating characters. What you don’t know is how to set it free. “  “A direct, practical, step-by-step guide for the aspiring author”, is the promise.

And the book delivers on its promise. The book is very practical. It’s loaded with blanks to fill in and exercises to work on every topic. 

It seems to touch on everything that I can imagine to be important to a novel and I found something I considered important to highlight on almost every page.  But, I didn’t work the exercises. This will be a good book to come back to. But, at this time, I’m just not making a connection with the author, Ms. Stanek. Perhaps, I'm overwhelmed by the style of the book.  She’s being really practical and I’m looking for an overview of the writing process.

As this is the first book I've read about ‘How to Write a Novel’, I simply don’t know enough to rate this book. And while I think its going to be valuable addition to my reference shelf, I seriously doubt that I’ll ever get around to working all of the exercises. No doubt it would be good for me but I may be just too lazy.

Ms. Stanek writes, “Writers learn to write by writing.” Guess I’d better start writing!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Enrolling in Self Educated U

Today I began my education as a writer by going to the Self Education University’s book store, . After searching for books on the topic 'How to Write a Novel', I selected:

• Your First Novel: An Author Agent Team Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream by Ann Rittenberg, and Laura Whitcomb (Well, it is my first novel and you need an agent to sell your book.)

• Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (I don’t know what breaking out means but it certainly sounds like something you want to do.)

• The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing byEditors Of Writers Digest Books (I’ve heard of Writers Digest. And I need completely everything.)

• On Writing by Stephen King (I think he’s sold enough books to be worth listening to.)

• So You Want to Write a Novel by Lou W. Stanek (Yes, I do want to write a novel.)

• Teach Yourself: Writing A Novel by Nigel Watts (Ok, teach me.)

• How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling by James N. Frey (I just like this title.)

Now, I’ll wait for my first book to arrive and to begin my education.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tom - What Makes You Think You Can Write?

We can all write. Some write with style and content worth considering. Others just make to-do lists, grocery lists, and such. Our teachers taught us letters, then sentences, then paragraphs and book reports. Some of us endured writing short stories, essays and even poetry at the hands of our teachers. But, all of us were taught to write. Hence, we all think we can.

I think it’s interesting that so many people I talk to have a book they want to write. A book that they’ve been thinking about for many years but haven’t taken the time to put on paper. I’ve listened to their story ideas. Some are great. Some are not so great. But without a doubt everyone has a story to tell.

I have never personally known a professional writer. So, I don’t really know what being a writer means in daily life. I’ve seen movies about writers, writing and book publishing. I imagine these stories have been glamorized more than a bit.

While in college, I fell under the spell of two creative writers, J. T. Burney and Ava Levell. They held a magic that I wanted to share. So, I attempted to write poetry. I probably wasn’t very good but I enjoyed it. And, one of my poems was published in Baylor University’s 1963 literary magazine, The Phoenix. I have never found a place to put it on a job application, but, I am a published author. :)

Most of my working life has been spent as a financial executive or entrepreneur. I have written non-fiction extensively in the form of company brochures, annual reports, training and procedures manuals, employee benefit handbooks, technical articles for magazines, and a five volume operations manual for sub-prime lending.

It has been a pattern in my life to take on a new activity of self expression every ten to fifteen years. First, it was model railroading, then drawing and painting portraits and landscapes, and most recently building performance engines and hot rods. In each instance I’ve approached it systematically by learning everything I could about the subject by reading about it, instruction from a mentor and then immersing myself into the activity.

Deciding to write fiction is just picking a new way to express myself.

Of course, the problem is that it is a lot easier to think you can write with Grisham or Follett than actually writing a paragraph that can stand up with theirs!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Goal 2010 – Write a Book

On my birthday in August and at New Year’s Day, two times every year, I set goals.

Some of these goals have been the same every time. You know, “Lose 20 pounds.” Lord, I’ve been moving that goal forward every time for the last 30 years without much success.

Mostly, I don’t reach my goals. Probably because I set really high goals. But, sometimes I do. And when I have, it’s been life changing.

This year my main goal for the New Year 2010 is to write a book.

Why? Because, I’m bored. I need a challenge.

Ten years ago I fought a battle with colon-rectal cancer. It was a long hard fight against stage 4. My daughter, the MD, told me, “Daddy, make a list of everything you want to do and get on it Half of those who make it 5 years don’t make it 10.” I made my bucket list, sold my business, retired and spent the last ten years marking things off.

But here I am ten years later – healthy and bored. I’ve occupied myself by doing a lot of genealogical research on my family over the past nine years, but I need a bigger challenge.

So, I’m going to write a book. I don’t have a clue how. But, I’m going to learn how and do it!

Come along on the journey.