Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Write It Down

Thriller Guy works with writers at all levels, from beginners to professionals in their pursuit of a commercially viable novel. My, doesn’t TG sound officious? (TG just looked the word officious up and found that he has always used this word inappropriately. He always thought it meant something close to efficient, in an official, formal kind of way. Imagine his surprise when he found that it actually means “objectionably aggressive in offering one's unrequested and unwanted services, help, or advice; meddlesome.” My goodness, TG didn’t mean that. Anyway…

One of the first things TG does when taking on a new writer, is to send him or her a Field
Notes, 48-page blank notebook. This small notebook fits easily into a shirt, pants pocket or purse and is always available for writing down those stray or not so stray thoughts that float through our brains when we are involved in the creative process. TG has written elsewhere in this blog about the amazing business of getting answers to pesky plot problems, structural conundrums and character difficulties simply by asking your brain to solve these problems and then turning your attention to other matters, letting your unconscious do the work. (Or going to sleep, which is the best method.) It’s really astounding how many times your brain will come up with an answer on its own, so you sure as hell better be ready to record it when it comes floating up into conscious levels.

TG was having lunch with one of the writers he works with, a successful thriller novelist, who said that rather than writing these thoughts down he simply picks up his cell phone, presses a couple of buttons and says, “Note to self,” and dictates the idea where it will be recorded on the device. And TG is sure you other whippersnappers do the same thing with your high tech gadgetry, smugly assuming that we doddering oldsters with our archaic methods are only a few years and a few steps away from obsolesce, and, lets be honest, death, anyway, so you look on with mild amusement as we take out our little notebooks, lick the lead of our pencil stubs and creakily scribble down the fleeting dregs of the dustbins that are our minds. Admit it! You know it’s true!

Except that cutting edge brain science says that we’re right and you’re wrong. There are many advantages to hand writing things down rather than dictating them or even typing them into your computer. Writing turns the process into a “whole brain” activity, involving both the logical and creative parts of the brain. “It heightens recall, focuses attention, facilitates learning, helps prioritization, increases awareness and activates more of the physical part of the brain than any other method.” So take that, whippersnappers.

TG was struck by an interesting fact while doing research on Thomas Edison for Allen Appel’s novel-in-process, number six in the fabulous Pastmaster Series (available here for Kindle). After Edison’s death in 1931, 3,500 small notebooks were found in his home. He kept these “idea books” always with him and would often read through them looking for ideas to work on. A quick search on the Interweb shows that many famous men throughout history have kept these same sorts of small books and usefully employed them. A blog on the site, The Art of Manliness, (excellent site) lists twenty notebook writers, with pictures of the small books they always carried and how they used them. Among them are Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Frank Capra, Larry David and others. Sure, none of these fellows, except Larry David, could have used his cell phone or tablet computer instead, but the obvious point is that it worked for these guys, and if it worked for them, maybe you should give it a try.

As noted above, TG uses the Field Brand of notebooks. (TG is in no way connected to this brand, though if they would like to take him on as a spokesperson, this could be arranged to mutual benefit.) They’re a lot cheaper than those moleskin things, cooler and really portable. TG carries his in the back pocket of his jeans, and by the time the pages are filled it’s pretty beat up, but it never loses structural integrity.

TG thinks that after working by hand with one of these for awhile, your writing ideas will come to you in greater numbers and in particular with more focus. And besides, it looks a lot cooler to see someone writing something down in a little notebook than yammering into a cell phone like one of those idiots who walk around in the grocery store talking to their phone friends while they shop.

Here's an actual page shot from one of Allen Appel's notebooks.

 So here’s the deal. The first couple of readers to send TG their land addresses at Appelworks@gmail.com will receive one of these nifty Field Notes notebooks.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thriller Guy has just finished a short crime novel and is in the throes of writing the sixth entry in Allen Appel’s epic, historical time travel Pastmaster series, so he is acutely aware of the perils of taking any opportunity to not write. Going upstairs to check out the refrigerator, stepping outside to get a little vitamin D, checking Facebook, checking e-mail, there are hundreds of ways a writer can fill the time when he should be writing. (TG has blogged about the pain of writing on many occasions, so he won’t go into that here.)

 One of the chief methods of putting off writing -- particularly dangerous when writing novels with a strong historical element -- is the peril of Internet research. Being always aware of this danger, TG was struck when he recently read this quotation from Michael Chabon in The
Wall Street Journal.

"Research is incredibly pleasurable and seductive and you have to be on your guard against it. It's very easy to use it as an excuse not to write. There's always one more fact that could help you and you probably shouldn't start writing until you find out the boots worn by German troops in World War II, and if I just knew who made those boots then I could write my chapter. So you have to be on your guard against that.

"The Internet is there to say 'just one more link, just one more link.' The Internet wants you not to get your work done and the thing that is most insidious about it is the way it does that is by being the greatest research and productivity tool in the history of the human race."

And today, whilst perusing Facebook -- instead of writing -- TG found an entry by thriller writer Joe Finder about the same subject. TG will now lift whole portions on the article from his newsletter. Readers can go here to read the entire piece. Finder is a nice guy, TG has interviewed him, and he writes good thrillers.

Finder: “But every hour you spend doing the fun stuff of research is time you're not writing. And I'm here to tell you that research, while fun and often necessary, is addictive and dangerous.
“It's also a great crutch. All novelists feel like impostors at times; it's only natural to feel unqualified and insecure in what you're writing about. You don't really know it — what do we
know, we're writers, right? So you want to find out as much as you can. But in the age of the Internet, you're always one hyperlink away from the next website or article, and it can go on ad infinitum. The easiest thing in the world is to put off writing while you find out exactly how many gallons the New York City reservoirs hold, or how long it takes to fly from Washington to Timbuktu, or whether Brazilians drive on the right or the left-hand side of the road.
“So stop. Put the story first. Write your story first, and fact-check later. It doesn't have to be 100% accurate; it just has to be plausible.

“John Grisham was 100 pages into his latest book, The Associate, which was set at the Princeton Law School — when he found out that Princeton doesn't have a law school. It didn't derail him; he just moved the story to Yale, which does have a law school. The key is that the setting wasn't the important part, the story was — and he'd already written 100 pages, so he was able to go back and make the necessary changes.
“In Hollywood they call this “fixing it in post.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces need to come together just so in order to get a scene right on film. If 99 things are right and one thing is wrong, it's not worth shooting an entire scene again; they can fix it in post-production, by overdubbing sound or correcting color or editing something out. The key is to keep going, so the production can “make its day,” and stay on schedule.
“That's what John Grisham knows: the key is to keep going. “When I write fiction, it takes a lot to get me out of the seat to check anything,” he said in a recent interview. “I hate to stop writing to go check a fact, to go find a city, to go to a hotel — I'll just make stuff up.”
“And you know what? Readers hate it, too. Nothing is worse than stopping a story to give your readers all the great research you did about how and when some government agency happened to be based in West Virginia instead of in Washington, DC, or why that particular vintage of Burgundy is considered the best, or who manufactures a particular kind of pistol in the United States.”

(TG here. Finder goes on to discuss what happens when you make a firearms mistake. You get tons of irate emails from gun people. This has also been TG’s experience as well.)

Finder: “But then I defer to that king of all research, James Michener, whose Herculean efforts filled whole bookshelves (Hawaii, Caravans, The Source, Centennial, etc., etc...).

Even he admitted that research can only get you so far: “The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than that writer's solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth ... To praise a writer for having done research is like praising a bus driver for knowing how to shift gears; if he can't perform that function, he has no right to climb into the bus.” Because the story, like the bus, has to go somewhere.
“I wrestle with this constantly. I've had to set time limits on my research. If questions come up while I'm writing, I might make a call or fire off an email, but I don't stop writing while I wait for an answer; I keep writing, and fill in details later.”

TG agrees. And adds… Many times you don’t need to be absolutely accurate, or even pretty much accurate. Not as long as your story is dragging the reader along by his collar. TG has had this proven to him many times. After a first, second or third draft, TG has readers who will go over the manuscript to check for typos, plot flubs, anything that’s wrong that can be fixed. Time and again, TG has found that in the action sequences the amount of editing is drastically reduced. The errors are still there, but the readers, even those who are tasked with finding mistakes, get caught up in the story just like everyone else and miss many more errors than they usually do. The takeaway?

Story, story, story. Readers will forgive mistakes. They will not forgive boredom and frustration. Stories will never get written by writers seeking perfection.

First draft = story. The rest is simply details.