Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Your Book's A Page Turner? How Sad For You

Today's Guest Blog comes to us courtesy of Larry Kahaner. Larry, the author of many non-fiction books, including the excellent AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, is presently writing a thriller. He and Thriller Guy are writing pals and spend many long lunches delving into the intricacies of the thriller writing process. When TG runs flat up against a seemingly insoluble plot problem, Larry is his go-to guy for an original and clever solution.

This is a true story.

Scene: A creative writers' retreat.

Location: Picnic table among the trees where residents congregate.

One resident, who was writing historical fiction, had her research books in front of her when another resident spied the classic "Caribbean" by James Michener. This other resident had published one book of fiction, 20 years ago, about a young woman and her life in the world of New York publishing. It was autobiographical, sexy and trite. I would tell you her name but she comes from a line of famous authors and it wouldn’t be cool. Suffice it to say that this one-book, non-wonder has been trading on the family name for two decades and bounces around creative centers, hoping to find her muse. She is what's known in the biz as a 'residency slut,' and she would much rather put down the work of others than sit her ass in the chair and pound out a few pages.

Focusing on the Michener tome she says loud enough for everyone around to hear, and in her most condescending voice, "Oh, isn't that just a page turner?"

The historical fiction writer ignored the comment knowing full well that what was meant as a curse was a blessing.

Ask most would-be authors about their main goals and you'll get a ton of answers like this: "entertain…enlighten…write a clever plot… produce compelling characters…"

What they never say is the most important job of a writer, and I offer it here in big type so you can print it out and tack it to your bulletin board or cut and paste it as your screensaver:
Get the reader to turn the page.

If you can do that, you have reached your target. Writers write to be read. Period. (The logical extension of being read is that people bought your book. Yeah, that's really the goal: selling books, but that never happens if you're not being read, right?)
And I can prove it (as if this needs proof) by citing the recent survey below.

Almost half of all readers don't finish a book because it's too slow or boring. They didn't turn the page.
So how do you force readers to turn the page?

There are many ways, and for this I turn to television. There's a rule in TV that no scene is static for more than two seconds. After two seconds something has to change. Either the whole scene changes, or, if it’s a close-up, a face grimaces, a voice calls, the camera pans out… something has to change. TV folks know that movement equals interest.

So it is with thrillers. For readers to stay with you, you must provide constant action. Long gone are the days of lengthy descriptions of people and landscapes. No more narratives that don't move the story forward apace. And no longer do readers tolerate protracted internal dialogue (this goes for dreams, too) unless there's movement and action within it.

Use every trick, subterfuge and ploy to get your reader to turn the page and that includes cliff hangers, kicker-quote questions and bullets fired but have not yet reached their target – and may not.
Be brave. Be sneaky. Be clever. Do anything that works. Nothing is off limits except what I call the "Superman Tease." As a boy I read Superman comic books as fast as they were printed. The covers drew me in as they promised that Superman was going to die, or he would destroy the earth or Lois Lane and the Man of Steel would marry. Once paying my money and unable to wait, I read it on the street, only to discover that the story took place in an alternative universe, it was a dream or it was a bad guy in a Superman mask. Tease.

Although I was unsatisfied and angry at how I was cheated, I continued to buy the comics until I got older and was tired of being fooled.

Don't tease your readers without a satisfying payoff.

Otherwise feel free to wheedle, cajole, sweet talk and coax them into turning the page.

Do what you gotta do.

And that's all you gotta do.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

More On First and Last Lines

After finishing up the Five (or so) Mistakes Thriller Writers make, Thriller Guy is instituting some new changes in the blog. TG is going to try and make the entries shorter and more varied and post much more often. He is also going to allow AdSense to put up ads as it should prove at least mildly interesting as to what they choose. If what they do annoys TG, he will take them down. TG wants everyone to know that he is in no way asking you to click on anything you aren’t interested in.

In the last several posts, TG has addressed the difficulties and possibilities of the opening and ending lines of a manuscript or book. Several interesting additions came in over the last several days. Yesterday, TG listened to Bob Edwards interviewing Clive Cussler on
Edwards’ XM Radio show. Clive sounded like what he is, a mega-selling thriller writer who’s been around a lot of years who simply tries to give readers the types of stories they like to read. He answered a question I’ve been interested for a while: How does he work with the writers who write his books with (or maybe for) him? He said he first has the writer come to his place and they hash out a plot and an ending to aim for. Note the itals: “and an ending to aim for.” So if you want to make money like Clive, it’s way smart to have your ending before you even start writing.

Stephen King has a new article in The Atlantic titled: Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences. TG recommends the article to all writers and offers a couple of quick quotes.

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You
want to know about this.”

“But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about "voice" a lot, when I think they really just mean "style." Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But they don't come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don't come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.”

“My favorite example is from Douglas Fairbairn's novel, Shoot, which begins with a confrontation in the woods. There are two groups of hunters from different parts of town. One gets shot accidentally, and over time tensions escalate. Later in the book, they meet again in the woods to wage war -- they re-enact Vietnam, essentially. And the story begins this way:
“This is what happened.”
For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It's flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we're dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I'll tell you the facts. I'll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there's an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.”

“When I'm starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I'll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I'll word and reword it until I'm happy with what I've got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I'll know I can do the book.”

“A book won't stand or fall on the very first line of prose -- the story has got to be there, and that's the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice -- it's the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there's incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.”

All this talk about first lines got TG – or rather his alter ego, Allen Appel – thinking about his own first lines. So he went and looked up the first chapter and the first line of the book he’s now writing, the sixth book in his Pastmaster Series. Here it is:

“Alex Balfour stood at the second-story window and watched as the one woman and three men who were about to die were walked out into the courtyard and up onto the scaffolding where they would shortly hang.”

Not bad. It will probably get some tweaking on the many rounds of rewrites coming up, but all in all it fills the bill for an evocative first sentence and an indication of the voice of the writer. What do you think? Any comments? Any first lines of your own or other favorite writers?

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Five Mistakes Thriller Writers Make: Number Five -- Weak Endings

Oh how Thriller Guy envies the lucky writer who has his book’s ending in mind before he even starts writing. TG has been in this position a number of times, and it feels like having money in the bank. But he’s also been in the position where he just starts writing and prays that by the end he will have figured it all out. Both methods can work, and writers must always be open to the idea that ending you originally envision can change, even radically along the way. TG assures nervous writers that you will always come up with an ending; it really can be magical when you come up with something you never thought about but once thought proves to be exactly right.

Mickey Spillane said, “The first page sells the book, the last page sells the next book.” Wise words. TG wishes he had a formula for writing endings that would guarantee success every time, but he doesn’t. Some major points to remember, though…

Make sure that all loose ends are tied up, unless the book is going to be a series, in which case leave a few untied. Have the ending be satisfying: Good does not always have to triumph completely over Evil, but it must be weighted heavily on the good side. There can be sadness in an ending as long as it is of the elegiac kind and hope is triumphant. Good cannot win through bogus deeds or lucky breaks: Victory must be earned. In the end, characters must be wiser, even if they are sadder, than when the book began.

Here are fifteen great endings from fifteen excellent books.

...you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. –Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953; trans. Samuel Beckett)

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. –F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. –James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty. –Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days. –Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance. –Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow. –Toni Morrison, Sula (1973

I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them. –Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)

He heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut. –Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)

He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die. –Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)

That’s it. The sun in the evening. The moon at dawn. The still voice. –John Hawkes, Second Skin (1964)

So that, in the end, there was no end. –Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955

And he couldn’t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here. –Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater (1995)

Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine. –Malcolm Lowry,
Under the Volcano (1947)

“GOOD GRIEF—IT’S DADDY!” –Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, Candy (1958)

TG will leave you with perhaps his greatest writing tip, certainly his greatest ending-writing tip: Always tie the end to the beginning. Go back and read the opening of your book, and then make your ending come full circle. You will leave your readers satisfied, which is the greatest gift you can give them. They will appreciate it, and they will read your next book.

And so endeth the series, Five (or so) Mistakes Thriller Writers Make.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

More Mistakes Thriller Writers Make

Before we get to Mistake Number Five, (or is it Number Six? Thriller Guy has lost count) which will be about Endings, perhaps TG should address an equally important element in the writing of a thriller: Beginnings.

There is a Publishing Law these days that says that all thrillers shall have a Prologue that consists of a single or multi page chunk of the upcoming thriller that consists of a Very Exciting Scene or snippet of a scene that will reoccur at some point in the main body of the story. The point of these prologues is to grab the interest of the casual browser who, popular publishing wisdom dictates, picks up a book because it has an intriguing cover or title, flips to the first page and reads a few lines. If you can grab him/her with those first lines, you can snag a buyer. To test this theory go to a bookstore, (remember those?) pick up a thriller, any thriller, and there’s your Exciting Prologue. (Why is TG using so many Capital Letters today? Who knows, perhaps it’s because it’s a grey rainy day and the world needs a little ersatz excitement.)

The thing is, it was not always thus. 20, 25 years ago, a book might have a prologue, but most didn’t. And back then the prologue’s function was more to set the scene rather than excerpting a chunk for exploitation purposes. Thriller Guy remembers, back in the dawn of time, when these prologues first began to come into fashion. (TG has written about this in the past, but he knows that most of you don’t read the old posts.) TG’s writer pal, Bill Garrison, dubbed these prologues our “Frazetta Covers.” Frank Frazetta was an extremely popular illustrator who worked mainly on Science Fiction and Fantasy books. When you saw a book with a Frazetta cover
it was almost impossible to not pick up and take a closer look. We realized that if we were ever lucky enough to have a book actually published, no publisher was going to spring for a real Frank Frazetta illustration, so our trick was to write a prologue that, if we could get the browser to actually pick up our book, would imitate a fabulous cover, only in prose form. Evidently lots of other folks had the same idea, if not for the same reasons.  So, the exciting prologue was born and went on to rule the industry.

But now it’s time for it to die. Like many popular, even effective ideas, these prologues, at least to Thriller Guy, have become tired at best, silly and even annoying at worst. TG’s impulse, when he opens a book and one is forced upon him, is to think Don’t try to trick me, I’ll decide if the book is exciting.

There are two types of these prologues, the ones that simply excerpt or rephrase a section that will appear later in the book, and the ones that features an old monk or maybe a native, someone from early history, who, usually, is trying to save a Mysterious Artifact from invading hoards of savages or conquistadors or aliens who are bent on destroying every member of whatever civilization they are invading. Discovering and keeping possession of this artifact in modern times becomes the main plot point of the ensuing thriller. Both of these prologues are quickly forgotten. TG’s point is, why not just work harder on the first sentence, paragraph or page of the book? Make that exciting, compelling or intriguing enough to engage the reader and skip the phony attempt to fire up a pulse in the browser. Think it can’t be done? Well, it’s difficult, that’s for sure, but writers need to spend the time and effort on the actual writing of thrillers, not just shooting (and TG uses that word advisedly) for excitement. It’s amazing what a finely-crafted first sentence can do. Here are ten first sentences that when TG reads them, after having read them many times over the years, he finds his pulse rate elevating, not because he knows there are going to be explosions and excitement coming his way, but because the books themselves are going to be wonderful. Two blog entries ago, TG suggested that when he reads the title of the Bond Book, Live and Let Die, he immediately hears the first few bars in the theme song for the movie In his mind. The words evoke that auditory memory. When TG reads these first sentences they evoke an intellectual memory of the wonders that follow.

Pretend you’re browsing. Could you put these books back on the shelf after reading these first lines?

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
 Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
Elmer Gantry was drunk. —Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)
OK, you probably noticed that the newest of these books was written 25 years ago and the oldest more than a hundred. And they’re not thrillers. In another post TG will give you some newer excellent first lines, but for now here’s the lesson: none of these books burned up the potential of their openings by trying to whip up misplaced enthusiasm with an out-of-sequence scene, just because it is supposedly more exciting that whatever first words are going to begin the story.
TG is well aware that this lone blog entry will not in any way stop what has now become a Hallowed Tradition. And he doesn’t even recommend that writers even try to thwart the practice, as it probably will just piss off publishers and editors and writers certainly don’t need to do that. But why not try to come up with that great first sentence? If you pull it off, then see if you can just dump the stupid prologue. Just because we’re thriller writers doesn’t mean that we can’t write well. Sometimes it takes work, hard work. Make the reader want to buy the book from the very first line.
Note: TG has read all of the books whose first lines are above. All of them are wonderful in their own way. TG always says that one has to read within the genre to know what has been done and can be done. Reading outside the genre gives a writer a taste of the great, wide, universe of possibilities. Grow. Stretch. Experience the rest of the world.