C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

The most important writing lesson via Christopher Hitchens

 

Christopher Hitchens

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By now, you’ve heard the news: Christopher Hitchens is dead at 62. He was witty and tough in debate and so eloquent in his writing. I disagreed with him thoroughly on Iraq and nodded in agreement often as I read God is Not Great. I recommend Letters to a Young Contrarian and his autobiography, Hitch-22. Of all his writing, I found his biography most compelling. He has heroic moments, but I think it’s his bare honesty about the challenges of his childhood — especially the casual brutality of  English boarding schools — that I’ll remember most. He had a superior education that contributed greatly to his career, but I believe it was his childhood that made him the man he was. Hitch could be arrogant, sure, but  also see his passion for truth and justice. Compassion for the abused drove his so much of his life and his work.

As writers, there’s something of Hitchen’s work we should take with us to our keyboards: We lay ourselves bare to make our stories better. For instance, my friend Christopher Richardson is a documentary film director whose next film is titled Regret. He will revisit the site of his greatest regret this spring at his college reunion and he’s taking a film crew with him. He will explore the nature of regret, but not from the remote perspective of an outsider. He’ll make the universal extremely personal. He’s brave to tackle the subject in the way he’s doing it. It promises to be gripping.

In my podcast, I tell funny stories and read from my books. Last week I went into detail about being on the receiving end of a colonoscopy (which really reinforces the edict of the season: It’s better to give than to receive.) I’ve talked about several personal subjects and will continue to do so. I’m not saying writers should start a meth lab so they can reach for the brilliance of Breaking Bad. I am saying our shared experiences achieve resonance with readers. On Breaking Bad, it’s not the details of cooking meth that keep you watching. It’s Walt’s failures and his struggle to save his family from himself. We can all identify with his fears and his needs to succeed and provide.

This exhortation for honesty isn’t just for journalists, documentarians and jokemeisters on silly podcasts. I’m writing a suspense novel. It takes place in a fictional town in Maine. There’s some screwy family dynamics and odd characters and small-town claustrophobia and it’s all fiction. Except it’s not. The town is a conglomeration of the small town I grew up in and another town where I spent a lot of time. The roots of conflicts, like the need for escape and the heat that rises from the friction of close proximity are all real. Even in fiction, the tone and subtext can be brutally honest.

To achieve greater impact in your readers’ brain pan, your writing must be honest, even when you’re lying. When you’re really honest, they’ll feel it in their guts that you’re telling lies that tell the truth. Their guts may roil or you’ll give them a belly laugh, but through honesty you will connect. Reach farther than mere verisimilitude. Strive for authenticity in whatever you write.

Honesty is the carrier wave to the destination where we meet our readers’  minds and emotions.

We want them to recognize themselves on the page.

We must achieve resonance.

 

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Improving ourselves: Bruce Lee, Reading self-help, writing horror

I’ve been trying to improve myself to make me worthy of your love. I’m not eating sugar so I’ll lose more weight (after gaining some back.) I’ll get to the gym. I’ll keep slogging on making my ebooks. I’ve been reading a time management book by the Bruce Lee of Time Management.

I’d tell you more about the book, but it turns out the author and Bruce Lee have something in common:

good at what they do, sure, but jerks.

Bruce Lee was a kung fu legend who made some interesting movies for 14-year-old boys and those with chronically arrested development. (Yes, I was so afflicted until quite recently.) But Bruce Lee also picked a lot of fights just so he could beat up his physical lessors . (You didn’t see that much in the biopic Dragon, but getting into too much trouble and buying too deeply into his macho bullshit was one of the reasons he had to flee Hong Kong for the United States.) Bruce Lee was also (struggling for a kind euphemism here) an intense individual. He had a thing about staring into people’s eyes as he spoke, even when he was driving. He got into several fender benders because of that macho man/genius policy. Bruce was an amazing innovator and there is much about him that is enviable. He’s inspired people far beyond the bailiwick of kung fu. The legend obscures the flawed person who stands behind the fiction.

Then there’s the time management guru: He started off with some good points, though his unexpected obsession with making more time for sex hit kind of a weird note. I’m sex positive, so I didn’t write him off quickly. Making more time for sex is a good thing rarely spoken, so good on him for speaking it. Then, for some reason (no editor or an editor who got overruled) he veered off into a narrative ditch. People in China die without healthcare because they don’t have money, he said, and that’s the way it should be. If you want to be able to afford healthcare and not die horribly, get off your lazy ass. Surgery is for closers!

Whoa.

His vision of getting the best out of life seems to be scheduling your time properly in an Ayn Rand hellscape where only the strong survive as you drive your enemies before you, crush them and hear the lamentation of their women. Okay, I’m paraphrasing Conan the Barbarian there, but seriously, the author crammed some pretty ugly beyond-far-right politics into his time management book and derailed his book.

I’ll learn to manage my time from someone else. I admit it, I’m not reading the whole thing. This isn’t a book review. It’s a warning to keep your inner disregard for fellow humans tucked away when you write a self-help book. Unless you’re a horror writer. I don’t want to read more and share a mind meld with someone whose concept of compassion for the sick is to cackle while he watches the poor die, drinking from a gold goblet while scheduling a spa treatment on his oh-so-organized Blackberry.

Hey, come to think of it…I am writing a book that has “self-help” in the title and there is a lot of horror in it.

Hm. I’m complex. And I’m trying to do better.

In my horror stories, I hint at a high regard for the worth of humanity.

There’s no horror at the loss of a life if you’re just losing another nosey neighbour you never liked anyway.

Filed under: book reviews, Books, writing tips, , , ,

Writers: Story first. Message last.

Solar panels, thermal energy, wind power, nuclear power, the fact that you can read these words in pixels: Ours is a sci-fi continent in a horror world. The horror world is patrolled by robot drones whose pilots are on the other side of the planet raining death on warmongers and civilians alike.

So where are you in this world? Does your fiction enhance understanding? Are you making anything better? Is that even your job as a writer?

You may have a lot to say and a lot to teach, but don’t start from that place. Your themes will emerge from your story. And let your readers draw their conclusions instead of telling them what to think and how to feel.

It’s tempting to speechify. My first drafts are full of speeches. Then I cut it, or break it up or intersperse action or provide another character’s counterpoint to increase tension, drama and conflict.

A good story well told will evoke emotions. Find the truth of those emotions and people will read your story all the way through. And after they’ve closed your book they’ll still have something to think about.

Start from the message and they won’t get to the end of your book.

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Write your thriller in chapters: 10 tips for greater productivity

There’s no one way to write a novel. I do, however, have ten suggestions to make it go easier and faster:

1. Outline. Have some idea where you’re going and what the destination might be. It’ll save you time doubling back from dead ends. Believe me, I’ve written myself into cul-de-sacs and it’s a time suck no one can afford. (No, you’re not married to the outline and you don’t have to go OCD with the Roman numeral outline you learned in grade eight. I’m trying to increase your productivity and enhance your creativity, not shackle it.)

2. If you outline, you don’t have to write your story in sequence. With an outline, you already have the beats, the bases you have to touch as you tell your story. If you’re not feeling very inspired one day, no big deal. Focus on the high points of your outline on the days you don’t start off “in the mood.” Bonus benefit: you’ll get all your sex scenes written first.

3. Write each chapter as if it’s a short story. Your novel has a beginning, middle and end. So should your chapters. I often see substandard chapters which finish without the pulls of intrigue, a cliffhanger or a bang. Some writers reason that if they make the larger story interesting, they can afford to have a chapter or two that isn’t compelling. It does sound reasonable. It’s also wrong. Tension has one direction: up. There are way too many great books to read (and a million other things to do) so, for many readers, you bore them, you lose them. Sure, you’ve made this sale, but they won’t be burnt again.

4. For each chapter, identify a purpose. If a chapter has no dramatic purpose, drop it. Too often I see manuscripts where the characters are up and moving around, but to no purpose. (When editing, purposeless activity is called “business” as in “busy-ness.” There’s movement, but nothing’s really happening.  A chapter without purpose signals self-indulgence, a writer who got lost for awhile, not enough editing or an author who insisted on a tangent at the expense of the book.

The other common problem? Too much world-building and not enough character. A writer once described to me in excruciating detail about the far out environment of his book. It was a very ethereal place in space with no points of reference between human readers and the gaseous clouds that were his characters. I had to shut him up. He was driving me crazy with exhaustive, pretty detail. “But what’s the story? How is your reader going to relate to that?” Science fiction is about people first. Fantasy is about people first. Stories are all, at their core, about people and the choices they make. Sift your world-building detail in amongst action and character development. Otherwise, it will be unreadable, confusing or the reader won’t care.

Chapters with purpose are compelling and propelling toward an conclusion the reader wants to discover. (But they also want to be fooled, too. So make them say, “Ah, I bet I know what happens next.” Then find a way to surprise them. Read any of William Goldman’s novels to really get this deep into the marrow.)

5. What are the scenes in your chapter and are they in the right sequence? Are you revealing too much early in the story? Are you being too coy with the reader in later chapters? Does the pace pick up as you reach the climax and solve the novel’s core problem? Is it really a surprise (and logical) when you get to that climax?

6. Are you taking shortcuts in logic or logistics? Somewhere in your book there’s a less favorite scene or something that requires more research that, frankly, you don’t want to do. If your heroine is in Paris and your hero is in New York, they can’t meet in the middle of the Atlantic on a train (unless your novel is set in the future or a past that never was, of course.)

Are you missing a bridge to get you from one event to another? This is a logistics problem. Your FBI investigators are in Virginia at Quantico. The kidnapping is in the Pacific Northwest. Do you need a scene of conflict within the team on the private or military jet to get to the crime scene? You may make that transition in just a single sentence or it might be a chapter, but without some acknowledgement of the travel issue, it will be jarring for the reader to have them materialize in Seattle. Time and space and placement of people in relation to each other is something to trip over if you don’t make the effort to handle it logically.

7. Do your chapters fit together? Suppose you have an entire book that takes place, A to B, sequentially over the course of the hottest August in a century. But there’s that one winter scene you’re slipping in with a flashback. Does this puzzle piece fit in with the tone of your other chapters? If not, is there a reason for it? For instance, if your hero needs a look back at an early Christmas morning for the one time he was happy to give him a clue or change of direction, it fits better than an odd chapter that seems plugged in.

8. Is each chapter satisfying? This is a little different from #3, and a larger, more esoteric editorial question. You’ve written each chapter as a short story. That’s fine and can help you face the challenge of writing an entire novel-length manuscript. Now I’m asking, does each chapter feel full? Is it contributing something more to the larger story arc? When all these short stories are cobbled together, will each contribute to a greater whole than the sum of the parts? Is there a richness in description, character and action that will leave the reader satisfied with the effort overall? Is the core problem big enough to bother with a full-length book? Do you force the reader through several hundred pages only to kill off the protagonist (can be done, but often iffy) or worse, find out said protagonist is a lummox they hate? Too often, authors make their obstacles too small, the villains too stupid, the stakes microscopic and the core problem not nearly big enough. You don’t have to save the world on every outing. Maybe you’re just saving one person, but make us care.

9. Does each chapter’s length make sense? When I say “make sense” here, I mean, do you achieve in the chapter what you need to accomplish at an appropriate pace? Chapters don’t have to have a uniform length. Mary Higgins Clarke’s chapters get progressively  shorter as she goes so it feels like a race to the finish. I find I like short chapters as a reader (and as an editor) because I feel like I’m making progress as I go through, marking up the milestones. Short chapters often feel like a breezy  read. As a writer, however, I find my chapters are longer so they have time and space to wind to their conclusion. However, some writers go so short they aren’t providing enough beats within each chapter. I sometimes see underwritten, choppy chapters where action isn’t happening and characters aren’t developing. When that happens, you don’t have a chapter yet. In that case, you probably have the components for scenes within one chapter.

10. Set a schedule. If you use each suggestion here as a guideline, you also have an estimation for how long it will take you to write your novel based in real time.  Since you’re writing your novel as short stories, progressing at a fairly predictable pace, set an end date for the first draft. Make a schedule to get to that date and stick to it.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll make real progress toward your goals. 

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Editing Part II: Writerly idiosyncrasies

40 killer phrases

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There are words you can lose without losing meaning. For example, writers who repeatedly precede statements with “I think” generate in their readers a suspicion of insecurity or uncertainty. Make your assertions, state your arguments, declare your narrative.

Writers have idiosyncrasies. Repeated phrases crop up. As you revise your manuscript, look for them and make a note.

Take the example “my own.” That can — and should — be shortened to “my.” That’s my own business. See? You lose nothing by losing “own.” What you gain is economy with this small edit and your reader will appreciate it (though they won’t know why.) I’m an editor. It’s my own business to know.

When you identify your own idiosycrasies, use the search and replace feature and you’ll find the number of instances of the phrase. You may not want to replace them all. Idiosyncratic phrases can be fine in dialogue.

I think that’s right.

No.

That’s right.

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Writing Tip: 3 Common Exposition Mistakes

1. Don’t let your villain explain everything to the captured hero (e.g. “I expect you to die, Mr. Bond, but first let me give you a tour of the rocket base whose deadly payloads are aimed at Topeka!”)

2. Don’t allow your exposition device to go on too long. Your hero should struggle to solve the mystery, a little at a time and with a few red herrings. If your protagonist finds the one person who knows it all–and all is explained in one big info dump—the narrative will lag and it’s a variation of deus ex machina.

3. Avoid overexplaining. Enough said.

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Should you outline your book?

Outlines save time.

The novice should outline so they don’t get sucked down too many rabbit holes. It is soul-crushing to write and write and then to discover that you need to back up 50 pages to get out of a dead end. I just write a sequence of events and don’t bother with the Roman numerals they taught you in grade school. A good outline will help you avoid pitfalls, allow you to play with timelines, beats, plot structure and pacing.

Outlines get a bad rep because people think an outline stifles creativity and gives too much structure. My reply: an outline is only a straitjacket if you allow it to be. You can deviate from the road map and explore but retain the strength of story through an overview.

If you are a discovery writer, it is incredibly freeing to just sit down and go, but you are risking wasted time. Given how long it takes to write a book, who has time to waste? At least have some target for where the story is going to end up.

There will be a thousand small changes to make when you’re done the first draft. You’ll have to adjust times, facts, locations and ensure a believable character arc.

Outlines will save you at least a bit of that work.

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I resolve to be a better supervillain, uh, no, I mean, writer.

Amidst a flurry of productivity pumping out short stories lately I was reminded of a book I read a long time ago. Had I heeded its message when I read it I would have several books behind me by now.

The book is The War of Art, Winning the Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield. (Highly recommended!) One key is, treat it like it’s a job. You don’t wait for time to surface, you dive deep to get it. You don’t wait for inspiration to strike, you assume inspiration will appear once you start typing (sadly this never happened for the writers of Sex & the City, the story of three hookers and their transvestite dad, Kim Cattrail.)

Don’t be a dilettante. Establish a writing schedule and stick to it.

I’ve called this meeting because we must come up with a plan to kill Superman!

Whoops! Sorry, wrong speech.

Filed under: book reviews, publishing, Rant, rules of writing, writing tips, , ,

Most Depressing Writing Tip Ever

Get a Merck’s Manual or just peruse medical databases or watch House. However you get the information, I find that delving into the perverse ways God screws us over can really take your writing to another level.

I had a plot problem in a story because I wanted something interesting to keep a man from getting on a plane to attend his brother’s funeral. I found something exotic and X-files wierd for him to suffer and voila, interesting things ensued.

It’s a ghastly world. Babies are born with two heads and people have strange perceptions of the world, like that it’s a happy place, for instance.

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Writing Tip: Can you say it?

I just finished listening to a CBC Radio interview with Clive James. He’s one of those fascinating writers who also speak in complete sentences and paragraphs, off the top of his head as if from a prepared text that’s informative, entertaining and engaging.  He’s led a wonderful life and he’s been paying attention, it seems, to everything.

He said something that will stick with me: “Sayability.” In everything he writes, one of his tests for whether it’s worthy is whether he can say it, perform it, speak it to an audience and be easily understood.

Nice. It’s a solid standard and makes me want to check out his book Cultural Amnesia.

I can say that.

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Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

The first 81 lessons to get your Buffy on

More lessons to help you survive Armageddon

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

Available now!

Fast-paced terror, new threats, more twists.

An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

Action like a Guy Ritchie film. Funny like Woody Allen when he was funny.

Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

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