Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tip O'Day #440 - What Makes a Thriller?

Guest blogger Gary Williams on “Pacing.”

We’ve all heard the real estate adage when buying property. The three most important things are location, location, location. Well, when you embark on writing a thriller, there’s a similarity. The three most important traits of a successful thriller are pacing, pacing, pacing.

Aside from an interesting story, good writing and meticulously editing, a successful thriller must launch the reader on a path. It’s a slow progression in three acts. Act one sets the story up by building the character, settings and mysteries. Act two is where the protagonist and antagonist begin to feel each other out, and small battles are won and lost. Act three ratchets up the tension. The stakes have been clearly defined. The protagonists are usually in dire situations and the antagonists appear to have the upper hand. It all builds to a staggeringly swift pace as the two sides clash in a pulse-pounding finale that usually involves life and death.

So you think I’ve over simplified it? Maybe, but think of any great thriller you’ve ever read. Either the story started slow and turned on the jets, or kicked off with a bang and never let up. Either way, when you got to those last 100 pages, you couldn’t stop reading. You were so entrenched in the characters and learning their fates that you couldn’t put the book down. Laundry, yard work, school homework, walking the dog, and everything else became secondary until the final resolution was revealed. And it’s all because the pace of the story sucked you in, refusing to let up.

As a writer, what are things you can do to ensure your thriller is paced properly?

Limit scenery descriptions

I’ve read thrillers that were exceptionally well-written, the prose glistening off the page. Yet the story was marred, bogged down in scenery details or a character’s rambling thoughts to such an extent that it not only interrupted story-flow, it brought it to a grinding, teeth-rattling halt. A thriller is not the time to get flowery with your descriptions. Describe what’s important to the story, and move on. Extensive scenery descriptions should only be done if it’s vital to the storyline, if something about the scene will come into play later, or if you plan to have an action scene occur there later in the story.

Let me expound on this last point. Action sequences, especially late in the story when the pace should be amped up, are not the times to elaborate on scenery details. It bogs down the frenetic pace. You can get around this is by describing the location earlier in the story, if possible. Then, when the action heats up at the end, the setting has already been presented to the reader. All that’s necessary is brief setting reminders. Of course, sometimes this isn’t possible. The crescendo chapter might be the first time a location is visited in the story. In this case, describe it briefly. Remember, action (and pacing) is paramount. Don’t lose the reader because you were more interested in writing about the specific art work that adorns the walls at the Elizabethan home, instead of focusing on the antagonist tied up in the chair in the parlor with a ticking time bomb.

Limit Character thoughts

As writers we always want readers to relate to characters. This is accomplished primarily by displaying character actions and allowing readers to hear their inner thoughts. Caution must be taken as to the extent a writer allows the reader inside a character’s mind. Again, early on in the story is a good time to expose his/her thoughts and provide insight into their personal history. But once you reach the last third of the novel, keep the character’s musings in check. (Unless, of course it’s a delusional character and his thoughts are germane to the storyline!)

Sex

Thrillers sometimes have a heavy element of sex. If it’s necessary to the story, that’s fine. Yet gratuitous sex can be overkill. If the theme of the story is sexual in nature, then by all means, describe it how you see fit. But the same rules apply as mentioned with scenery details. Unless it’s critical to something in the story or shows a character trait, readers don’t need graphic details.

Self edit until it hurts

Writers write. It’s what we do. Yet we have to recognize when text is superfluous. Some of my best descriptive work never made it into print because it simply wasn’t necessary and caused the story to drag. It’s very important to ensure all scenes are core to the story. Although not a book, as an example, I own the Director’s Cut version of the 80’s action movie Lethal Weapon. It contains deleted scenes that never made it to the theatrical release. One such scene early in the movie shows Mel Gibson’s character, Riggs, dealing with a crazed gunman who is holding a classroom full of school children hostage. The intent was to display Riggs' suicidal nature. The scene itself takes several minutes and, ultimately, was cut because Riggs’ suicidal obsession was best presented while he was in the presence of his new partner Murtaugh, and not in a stand-alone scene that had no bearing on the rest of the story. In this same fashion, writers must truly evaluate scenes that can be edited from the story to help the pacing. Remember, thrillers are typically shorter in length that other genres. It’s not about word count. It’s about gripping the reader and keeping them craving more.

A thriller combines stellar writing with whirlwind pacing. This pacing should grow rabid by the time the reader reaches the last third of the book. That is not the time to gum up the works with unnecessary descriptions.

Gary Williams writes with Vicky Knerly. They have co-written four thrillers, including Indisputable Proof, named as one of the top fiction books of 2012 by Rosa St. Claire of the Miami Examiner. Their latest thriller, Manipulation, was released just last month.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Saying for Writers #160 - Tom Clancy

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.” — Tom Clancy

Bear grass is not a grass and has nothing to do with bears, but it is everywhere you look in the higher altitudes of NW Montana. Every 5-10 years, there's an explosion of the plant, and this is one of those years. Naturally, this has nothing to do with the above literary quote...

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tip O'Day #439 - Dig in Your Own Garden

Guest blogger Pamela Foster on herself and her characters.

At the recent Northwest Arkansas Writers’ Conference, someone asked me, “How do you keep all your characters from being nothing more than parts of yourself?”

“I don’t. And why on earth would I want to?”

The essence of the joy and pain and addiction of writing is exploring parts of myself that I keep hidden. Sometimes these treasures are buried deep, covered with false memory and justifications. Sometimes they exist within me for one brief moment of joy or terror or comprehension.

I’m not telling you I don’t base characters on individuals in my family or my friends or the guy in line behind me at Walmart. What I’m saying is that the quirky or evil or selfish or saintly characteristics I am attracted or repulsed by in others, are within me. If these emotions were not within me, I would not be drawn to them in others.

Jesus told us, “Do not say to your brother, ‘here, let me remove the splinter from your eye,’ when you have not yet removed the plank from your own.”

Or, as my grandma was fond of saying, “Go dig in your own garden.”

Let me show you what I mean.

I’m writing a western with two point of view characters who are mirror opposites of one another. Jeremiah is an emotionally deadened, haunted civil war veteran. Adeline is a na├»ve, innocent young girl. Jeremiah rides up a hill, kills three men, reloads his weapon and gets on with another in an endless series of dull, gray days. Adeline nurtures an abandoned baby, cares for a wounded man, and wakes each morning to a new dawn.

Both of those characters reside within me, everything beautiful and everything ugly in each of them.

Creativity demands I dig deep, find and then expose myself to the reader, in all my emotionally naked glory. The trick is the balance. Nobody wants to read 80,000 words of an author wading through muck; I certainly don’t want to write that book. Very few people will tolerate an entire novel of sunshine and roses; I certainly cannot pretend the world is always a joyful wonderland.

So, all my characters are me. I bleed all over every page while recognizing the beauty and joy within myself, as well as the darker side. I struggle daily to find the balance, to share all of myself with my readers, in the guise of my characters.

Pamela has written Redneck Goddess and co-wrote Bigfoot Blues along with Chris Simpkin. You can learn more about her at her Wordpress page found at http://pamelafosterspeakerwriter.wordpress.com/.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Saying for Writers #159 - Andre Gide

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.” — Andre Gide

A photo of Synder Lake in pristine Glacier National Park, taken by Kalispell friend Sue Haugan.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tip O'Day #438 - More Writing Rules

Author, blogger, columnist and writing teacher HMC is today’s guest blogger on “Don’t Tell Me What to Write” (Part II of II).

Killing a New Scene: Do you want to be the next Scorsese? No? Then here is how to move away from dialogue overkill. Atmosphere is crucial.

Before my students write a story (oh, I’m a teacher by the way, can you tell?) I always get them to imagine. I ask where they are and get them to write everything that they see, then hear, smell, taste, touch and feel. If you are ever stuck on describing a setting, this is a wonderful exercise.

Setting: Graveyard

See: stone, grey, cracks, shadows.
Hear: wind, trees rustling.
Taste: salt from tears.
Smell: damp earth.
Touch: hard and smooth.
Feel: sorrow, mourning, heavy.

Becomes

Long shadows were cast over the stone graves, and I could taste the salt of my tears as I mourned for my father. The wind rustled the trees. I smelt the damp earth underfoot. Cracks formed in the older graves, but his was smooth and new. The heaviness of his passing weighed a tonne upon my shoulders and it was difficult to drag myself away.

Building Suspense with a Packed-Punch: Ever feel deflated by a climactic scene? Perhaps the story was there, but why did the suspense not quite peak as it should have? It could be to do with the sentences — shorter, sharp sentences pack-a-punch. Also, try to end some sentences with a strong word. Take a long, descriptive piece and slash it. See what happens.

The corridor seemed endless and he could hear the soft engines of the station wagons, work-utes and family vans that purred along the street in front of the old, Fairholmes, arcade building. Perhaps he could make it out in time, and perhaps the daylight would be his saviour from the man who was chasing him. Close now, he could feel a rush of adrenaline, but it was too late; the man was gaining on him now. Damon wrapped an arm around his throat and took him to the ground, scattering the resident cockroaches.
‘Relax, Doc. I’m not gonna hurt you. We just have some questions for you.’ The doctor’s body went limp and he let his assailant win the battle.
Becomes
The corridor seemed endless. He could hear the soft engines of the station wagons, work-utes and family vans. They purred along the street in front of him. If he could just make it out into the daylight, visibility might be his saviour. Close now, he felt one last rush of adrenaline. Too late. He felt the heat and smelled the sweat of the man gaining on him. Damon wrapped a strong arm around his throat and took him down. The two men grappled, raising clouds of dust and scattering the resident roaches.
‘Relax, Doc. I’m not gonna hurt you.’ His body went limp. Damon won the battle. ‘We just have some questions for you.’
Streamlining Sentences: I’ll be the first to admit that I have to work hard at my writing. Stories come to me easily, though, which is lucky. Some people are the other way around. My sentence structure often needs work as I am a waffler. It’s why I received mixed marks at uni — some liked my waffling, others didn’t. As a rule now, I check each sentence and remove excess. Streamline is the word my editor uses, and I love it.

Freddy started to sneak out the door to evade any trouble that would come, if Anne were to notice them missing, but Sam caught him.
Becomes
But before he could make good his escape, Sam caught him.

You see, the readers already knew that Freddy was sneaking around and that Anne might catch him. So the first sentence is not only confusing, it’s redundant. Using ‘started to’ or ‘began to’ is useless… either they are doing it or they are not. These tentative words bog writing down.

Well, that’s all for now. I could keep going, but I’ll pass it over to you. If you have any more that you know of, please, add them to the comments section!

You can learn more about HMC at her website http://www.hmcwriter.com/ with links to her blog as well as the trailer for her thriller White Walls, which is having its online release during June 21-23.
As a reminder, guest bloggers wanting to share tips or stories of their writing triumphs/ordeals are always welcome. Please email me at montananovels@yahoo.com

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Tip O'Day #437 - I've seen how the rules worked for you...

Guest blogger author, columnist and teacher HMC on “Don’t Tell Me What to Write” (Part I of II).

I am overwhelmed with writing rules, just like I was when my daughter was born and all of a sudden everyone was an expert at parenting. No offense, loves, but I’ve seen how your kids turned out.

There are rules that some writers should follow and others should not. You know your capabilities. Take the rules that work for you. Someone once told me that it’s lazy to use brackets (as if I’d listen…I love brackets).

I am going to talk about what I have personally learnt from my amazing editor and mentor, Carson Buckingham, and some others here and there along the way. These are MY rules, not yours, so follow them… or don’t. I honestly don’t care.

You guys are getting an exclusive peek at my book today, as I use some short excerpts as examples — lucky.

Here are some nerdy things I’ve been practicing lately, in order to become a better writer.

The Adverse Adverb: We all know how terrible adverbs are when you can use a stronger verb instead — well I didn’t, but I do now. Take a verb and adverb, and then try to create a stronger verb. Then, the adverb becomes redundant (What? Can you repeat that?) Here ‘tis:

Hit hard = slammed
Touched softly = caressed
Moved clumsily = clattered

And backwards for fun:

Stressed = terribly concerned
Gawked = looked closely

Sentence play:

The door slowly opened = the door creaked open
The nurse was overly round = the rotund nurse

See the difference?

Underestimating Dialogue: Dialogue shmialogue! No, really, dialogue is your friend, not your enemy. If you find yourself reading a book and think ‘booooooooring,’ take the challenge and write the scene as dialogue between the characters. If you already do this too much (and your stories read like scripts) skip this one and go straight to ‘Killing a New Scene’ (in Part II tomorrow). Here is one — just for fun.

The policeman stood outside the building and waited to be buzzed-in to the apartment building. He argued forever with George, who simply refused to let him in. The policeman was getting mad as a hornet’s nest, and would soon crack it, and kick the door in.
Becomes
‘What do you want!’ George snapped through the speaker.
‘Let me up. I have a warrant.’
‘Do you have donuts too? How about bacon?’ George cackled.
‘Not funny. You have thirty seconds before I kick this door in.’
‘Go ahead officer, make my day.’

Ha! I threw that last line in for good measure. Dialogue tells a story and notice that I didn’t have to use ‘he said’ all the time? Good dialogue shows who the speaker is.

Look for Part II of HMC's writing advice tomorrow.
Has anyone noticed that Dixon hasn't been blogging lately? The Wredheaded Writer blog froze up harder than a banker's heart and it took nearly a month to fix it. But now, life is good once more.