Thursday, May 31, 2018

Magic Cure for Blurb Paralysis

Zestful Blog Post #266

I predict that someday soon we will be able to load the master file of our novel into a program, and the artificial intelligence therein will fashion and spit out a compelling back-cover blurb in .4 seconds, as well as a coupon for half off that rib roast you were looking at in the grocery store the other day. And I’m sure that six months after that, AI bots will write all of our novels for us, collect our royalties, and spend the money on themselves. Until then, we wrestle with all of this. (Zestful friend B, it’s been a long time since you made this request, but I didn’t forget it.)

Using my own ALI (admittedly limited intelligence), I spent some time analyzing back-cover blurbs for a bunch of bestselling novels, and have come up with three foolproof formulae, which you may use at will.

[Name of protagonist] is [doing something normal] when [extraordinary thing happens]. Now, [specific danger lies ahead] unless he gets involved in solving truth behind extraordinary thing. Meanwhile, an old [friend / associate / romantic connection] shows up, with [an entirely different problem / an unexpected gift / an astonishing proposal]. [Protagonist] is reluctant to get involved, but because of [a debt owed / a guilty conscience / an old grudge / a dying request], he can’t say no. His quest takes him from [dangerous location] to [dangerous situation]. As the tension ratchets higher, the two [seemingly separate plot strands] converge. Along the way, [protagonist] learns [a life truth, like things are more complicated than they seem] as well as the fact that [morals can be ambiguous / he never really knew what loyalty was before now / a person we love the most can be toxic].

[Spend less time on troublesome crap so you can get out and play once in a while. Photo by ES]

Cozy suspense:
Everything’s going great in [name of happy place]! Everyone we meet [the three or four main people and how they’re related] think they’ve got life figured out, as they go about their business of [running a resort / managing a farm / being the city council]. Until, that is, [a messenger arrives with a disturbing piece of news / a family secret springs out of hiding / someone dies under strange circumstances] and everything is turned upside-down. It’s up to [name of main character or pair of main characters] to dig into [the past / a scary neighboring ranch / the deepest computer databases of some government agency] to find the truth. Along the way, they discover [ancillary weird stuff], and they come face-to-face with their own [demons / prejudices / comforting yet creepy family myths]. Shocking revelation follows shocking revelation as they grapple with [their own thirst for revenge / the fact that things aren’t what they seem / the knowledge that love can be toxic] —and begin the healing process.

[Name of protagonist] is having a bad day. Everything’s wrong, from [crappy thing] to [disappointing event]. Now, to make matters worse, here comes [name of antagonist], who is the [new hire / lead detective on the case / biology class lab partner] and with whom she must cooperate or [some consequence will happen, like get a bad performance review / blow the case / get a bad grade]. [Protagonist] and [antagonist] are at each other’s throats day and night. Until, that is, [event happens, like a shared crisis / a new enemy appears against whom they can unite / one of them gets in a dire situation that can only be solved by the other]. Suddenly their petty grudges don’t seem so important anymore. Love molecules fly, and as the two discover true passion, [another serious event occurs]. Can they continue to build their love and trust even in the face of [dire happenings which require one to betray the other]?

The magic here simply is that you can easily analyze and appropriate for yourself what, in many cases, was put together by people who are specialists in blurb-writing, such as the editing staff at major publishers.
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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Escape from Synopsis Hell

Zestful Blog Post #265

Recently an aspiring novelist asked me for help in writing her synopsis. Then another one did, and I figure it’s time to say a few more things about doing synopses, beyond last year's Zestful Blog Post #206, "Magic Cure for Synopsis Paralysis." The Web abounds with good advice on how to write a synopsis for your book project, and you can google around. Here is my minimum advice for maximum success.

A synopsis is a short document that tells what happens in your book. Agents and editors want them so they have to do less work, like reading your manuscript. The format they expect is third person, present tense, so do that, no matter what you’ve used in your story. They also expect that when they see a character’s name for the first time, it will be in all caps and/or bold. That’s it. Don’t add pictures or curlicues.

Relax and decide you’re gonna have fun doing this, goddammit. Even though writing a synopsis feels like a matter of life and death, getting tense just becomes its own problem.

Forge your material with an iron will and a light heart. Photo by ES
 Here we go.
  • Accept the fact that there’s no such thing as a perfect synopsis. Just as you need to dump perfectionism while writing, you need to dump it here too. You might need to write a long synopsis (thousands of words) and a short one (hundreds), because agents and editors ask for different things. Start with the long one. Then just cut it down to make the short one. We’ll talk about back-cover blurbs some other time.
  • In your rough-out session, flip through the manuscript and write down the heart-clutching moments. You’ve just created your synopsis framework. In "Magic Cure," I advise talking it into a recording device instead of writing it. This works for some writers but not others, so you can do it whatever way suits you.
  • Flesh things out by writing how each heart-clutching moment is connected to the next. If you get stuck, just tell what happens next as simply as you can.
  • Prompt yourself with these two questions: What does your main character lose (or expend) during the story? What does he win (or gain) at the end? Because that’s basically your plot. Keep that character’s wins and losses in front of your reader.
  • Give yourself a short amount of time to do this. You can and will dick around with this forever, unless you decide something like, “I’ll get it roughed out between 2 and 3 this afternoon, and come what may, I’ll get it finished before meeting Joe and Rose Ellen for cocktails on Saturday.”
  • Break up your time on it. This might sound counter to what I just said, because won’t more work sessions add up to more time? Not necessarily. If you try to get the thing done in one long session, you’ll glaze over and stop being able to tell what sounds/reads good. But if you let it sit overnight and come back to it, maybe even three or four times, you’ll keep bringing a fresh perspective to it, and you’ll save time in the end. Spend no more than an hour at a stretch on it.
  • Cut anything that doesn’t sound peppy.
  • Declare victory and move on.

Before asking for comments, I want to congratulate my friend Alison Solomon on her new book:

Now, what do you think? Do you have any tips/tricks for writing synopses? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Surely We Jest

Zestful Blog Post #264

In the July/August 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine we find a feature by yours truly on writing comic characters. I focused on classic types of funny characters, looking at how master writers handled them, and how we can do it too. There are other great articles about writing humor, including an interview with one of my fave authors, cover boy George Saunders.

Here’s the intro and first section of my article, "Funny People":

[Magazine excerpt begins]
It was 1975, and I was a nervous freshman unpacking my Samsonites in my university dorm room when a strong voice behind me said, “Hey.” Standing in the open doorway was the darkly beautiful girl who was already establishing herself as the floor’s alpha. She looked at me with a stern expression and demanded, “Are you hip?”

Unsure what the hell she meant, I thought a moment, then responded, “I wouldn’t think that’s for me to say.”

She looked stunned, then burst into uproarious laughter. “Oh! You are a character!” she cried. “That was deadpan! You will be my jester!” I hadn’t meant my answer to be funny, but it must have triggered some humor receptor in her brain. I have a feeling she’d been interviewing other girls, who probably sought her approval by asserting that they were, yes, sure, hip. So my answer probably contrasted with theirs, and that’s what seemed funny. This young creature was trying to build a story for herself, in which she was the head of a sort of aristocratic court, right there in the midst of everybody’s textbooks and popcorn poppers and Cosmo issues.

The court situation didn’t exactly work out (for one thing, no one was into being a lady-in-waiting), but this incident got me thinking for the first time about the power of a type. I had long ago learned that being funny can be an asset. Side note: ‘Deadpan’ is a combination word, made up of ‘pan,’ slang for face, and ‘dead,’ meaning expressionless.

Not all authors employ humor; bookstore shelves real and digital are populated with fiction that takes itself deeply seriously. But many authors use humor to brighten their stories, give their readers an emotional escape valve, and add a layer of fun. Comedy can fit into suspense, romance, literary, fantasy, horror, you name it. Why? Because it’s like real life. We’ve all experienced countless humorous moments, even amidst sadness—like the one time I attended a burial where the backhoe fell into the grave.

If you’re considering using humor in your story, play, or novel, I’ll bet it’s because you have a keen sense of wit yourself: You can laugh at the absurdities of life, and you enjoy the humor in the stories you read and ingest via other media. It’s as simple as that.

There are lots of ways to write funny moments. You can put wisecracks into the mouth of your detective or write action sequences where a little kid puts a peanut on the train tracks and changes the course of history. But long-haul comedy—that is, comedy that can develop and sustain a story—starts with characters. The comic character is unique in that he or she can be counted on to deliver humor and truth together.

Just as comedy itself tends to fall into types—slapstick, dark humor, farce, satire, irony, and so on—so too do comic characters. Types are a handy way to understand comedic characters—and to consciously create them. I’m not talking about stereotypes, which most readers recognize as clichéd, unimaginative, or even offensive. The types discussed here are classics. They’re successful because they allow flexibility in a story, and because readers and writers alike recognize them as old friends.
Now let’s break down some of these entertaining breeds and see how to use them.

The Jester
It was no coincidence that my dorm-mate dubbed me jester, as it’s arguably the earliest form of the comic character.

In medieval and renaissance times, royal courts employed entertainers to tell jokes, sing, and dance. We have history that some of these jesters also became confidants of—and advisors to—the monarch, finding a way to speak truth to power under the safety shield of jest. “My lord, the one you banish will gain cunning in the punishment! Haha, just kidding!” And the king may reject that warning, or not.

Shakespeare made liberal use of jesters, also known as fools, in his plays both comic and tragic. Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sprinkles his love potion on the wrong handsome sleeping dude, thus pivoting the plot in a way both humorous and disastrous. Audiences love the “Uh-oh” moment! The Fool in King Lear explains things with biting, rueful wit and provides a voice of reason from which Lear can still learn, even though he’s made a mess of things.

Randle P. McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a more modern jester. He swaggers into the asylum and flings around his brand of street-criminal wit and wisdom—effecting change, comedy, and tragedy all in one story.

How to do it:
·       Give your jester a low place in the socioeconomic pecking order. This sets the character apart, for when he subtly speaks truth, your audience will be surprised—and a little apprehensive. If your jester doesn’t have much in terms of status or resources, he doesn’t have much to lose. That’s an opportunity right there.
·       Make your jester a character of some complexity. Plain silliness falls flat here. Feigned ignorance, however, can work, as when a jester pretends not to understand something while making a sly point. Whether you show much of it or not, your jester does have an inner life. He goes home to his family, makes love to his wife, gets angry at the TV. Your jester might resent his role and strive to change it, or he might relish his role and strive to make the most of it.
·       Show other characters learning from the jester. The school custodian is often hilariously clumsy, but the kids trust her with their secrets because she never tells, and always gives the best advice.

You’ll notice a pattern emerging: A key to successful comic characters is contrast. That’s why pairs of characters can work so well.
[Excerpt ends; for the rest, visit your local newsstand or here.]

Do you write comic characters? Do you like reading them? Let us know your thoughts. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, May 10, 2018

For the Sake of It

Zestful Blog Post #263

The other day as I was taking a walk down the nearby parkway, a runner came along from the opposite direction. Each of us politely bent our paths to give the other extra room. I noted he was young and solidly built; not fat, but not in possession of the typical whip-thin runner’s body. I was struck by his expression, his general vibe, which I can best describe as calmly committed. I got the impression he was neither joyful nor anxious. His pace was faster than a jog, but not a lot. He seemed in a comfort zone, cardio-wise; he was running easily and showed no tension on his face or in his gait. It would seem going on this run was part of his workout schedule and this is what he was doing. Perhaps the running was to provide conditioning for a different sport, in which case the run could be considered a means to an end, or perhaps he simply very much liked to run. But whatever the case, it felt to me as if he was running for the running itself.

[Roam the Parkway and sometimes you get a rainbow. Photo by ES] 

The thing I’m trying to grasp or convey is he seemed not to expect or want anything. He didn’t seem to want to be doing anything but exactly what he was doing, and he didn’t seem to be awaiting—or craving—any particular result. He didn’t seem the slightest bit self-conscious. I guess this guy struck me because I see so many people out getting their exercise with the vibe of “I can’t wait for this to be over,” or “I hope you’re noticing how good I look in my shorts and abs, cuz I work hard to be fit and I’m pretty damn proud of it.” I sometimes find myself being impatient in the pool, counting my laps and wishing for my workout to be over. I have to keep catching myself and re-focusing my attention on what matters: the feel of the water, the feel of my body slipping through it, the inner attentiveness to this moment as a moment unto itself rather than a means to an end. Paradoxically, this allows me to make minute calculations as to how I might be more efficient in the water.

There is, of course, a lesson in here for writers. In order to get the best possible fulfillment out of our path, we should not want and expect, but simply be and do. This is the Zen way, I guess; Zen in motion.

Here’s another situation I’ve given a lot of thought to, which is the question of what is worthwhile? (This next part has a church in it, but religion is not the point.) On holidays and special Sundays, I play the timpani in a big church in a retirement community in Florida; the church is well supported, and they put together musical ensembles for these special days and pay us well. I love the music director and I love playing the timps, so this is good. But I don’t do religion much, personally, and all of us musicians must stay put through three services, which of course means listening to three deliveries of the pastor’s sermon. Because we’re seated up front we cannot get out our phones and watch cat videos or argue politics on Facebook or reread Agatha Christie.

Which gives us a choice: either be bored shitless or find something meaningful to focus on. It’s not easy. Sometimes the pastor’s sermons are corny to me. Some of the congregation have dull faces. Lots of the congregation wear outfits I find incredibly tacky. But they feel good in them. They come to church, they listen, they pray, they sing. I listen too, because I might learn something unexpected, because the pastor in fact sometimes says brilliant things. I might make eye contact with a congregant and learn something there, something very subtle, perhaps. The pastor is sincere, and, like my running guy, does this thing over and over, week in and week out, for the sake of doing it, for the sake of serving his God and his congregation. All of us, even the preacher, might get bored sometimes, but everybody’s there, exposing themselves to spiritual opportunity. When it comes time to play the drums, I give it everything I’ve got, because otherwise why bother? Sometimes people come up to us and tell us they enjoyed our playing. We made a little difference for somebody that day. There’s no point wishing we were touring the world with some marquee orchestra, playing concerts on the banks of the Rhine or the Thames or Sydney Harbor. We are where we are.

If I were to nutshell this whole thing, my message for us as writers would be: Don’t waste time wishing we were sitting in a café in Greenwich Village or Paris, having intellectual conversations, after which we return to our fascinating work as high-minded writers. Let us be, really be, where we are. Let’s not skim over hours, days, years just because much of the shit we have to do isn’t giving us something we want. Because it isn’t ideal.

I’m not saying don’t strive. Yes, strive! Strive like hell. But what we have now is as ideal as anything. It’s as ideal as we make it. Worthwhile, all of it, if we want it to be. Write for the sake of writing. Live for the sake of living. Give it everything you’ve got. Let’s be together.

What do you think of this metaphysical stuff? What’s your take on working, writing, striving, serving? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, May 3, 2018

Powers of Three

Zestful Blog Post #262

The other day I spent some time with an old (91) but still sharp, friend. The subject of television programs came up, and we compared notes on famous shows we liked. She liked Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and a few other series with an ensemble cast of main characters and a multitude of minor characters. “And you know,” she said, leaning forward on her cane, “I notice that all these shows have three plot lines going in every episode!”

Now that’s a trenchant observation.

Any writer can make something of that. Simple. Three plotlines, with characters weaving in and out? Yeah! But how do we handle and plan? Here’s an easy way: Pick a focal, or center, point first. Then everything flows from there.

In Downton Abbey, for instance, it was the estate itself. They didn’t call the show “The Granthams,” which was the family’s name; they called it by the focal point, the place where everybody comes and goes, where characters have roots and history and where new stuff still happens all the time. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Lord Grantham’s faulty investments, Lady Mary’s unfortunate tryst with the handsome European minister, the housekeeper O’Brien’s nasty, relentless scheming.

Sometimes a show’s focal point is one main character, like Seinfeld or I Love Lucy. The action follows that character’s trials and tribulations, and the other characters’ stories interweave with that character.

Take a look at classic plays, and you’ll see the same three-plot dynamic. Looking at Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, we see a very neat three-plot system:

Brick and his self-destruction (with wife Maggie at the side);
Big Daddy’s dreams (with wife Big Mama supporting);
Brother/son Gooper and his expectations (with wife Mae supporting).
Three guys, three wives, three lives. And such thunderous, satisfying drama!

And the novel form (you knew I’d get to it) is perfect for the three-strand plot. Lots and lots of novels feature three or more plot strands, also known as the main plot and subplots. For writers who find the commonly recommended three-act structure confounding or too limiting, thinking about a three-strand plot this way can be a terrific portal to excellence.

Of course, all three plots must intersect. Let’s look at a well-known novel such as To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s the plot strand of the children’s lives as they play and grow, the plot strand of the Tom Robinson case, and there’s the plot strand of Boo Radley. Bam, done. Beautiful. Reread the book from the perspective of three plots, and you’ll learn a ton. Which of those strands would you consider the main plot? Is there a main plot?

What if you’re telling a story from a single viewpoint, such as in a first-person situation, or third-person limited? Well, in my Lillian Byrd books, which are narrated by the main character, there’s always a crime Lillian is trying to solve, and there’s always a love interest—Lillian meets someone; will this work out or not?—and there’s pretty much always something going on with another significant character and their struggles in the world. Lillian is the focal point, and three or more plotlines swirl around her.

Now that you’re more conscious of it, you can bring three-strand awareness to the stories you consume via books or video, and you’re going to be able to see it, and you’re going to keep on observing, analyzing, learning. The next step is to execute a three-strand plot for yourself, and discover the joys it has in store for you. Keep it simple!

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [photo by ES]
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