Tuesday, December 2, 2014


A recent poll conducted on behalf of Romance Writers of America found that the chief factor that motivates book browsers to choose a particular romance novel is attraction to the story (outranking other draws, such as author and reviews).

Equipped with this information, I observed shoppers browsing in a Tallahassee book store and watched how they pick a book. In every case they first read the story blurb on the book flap or back cover and then read the first couple pages before either returning the book to the shelf or heading off to the cashier with their prize.
For you as a writer this means you’ve got to deliver a dynamite opening sentence and first chapter. No long wind-ups, but bang!—straight into the heart of your story. So if you reread your first draft and realize that the story doesn’t kick in until page twelve, that’s twelve pages too late! Ditch those warm-up pages. If they contain important information or character development, salvage it for insertion elsewhere in your novel, perhaps as back-story.
Even as long ago as the First Century BCE, the Roman poet Horace (best known for his poem Carpe Diem—“Seize the Day”) recommended that literature begin in media res—“in the midst of things.” In other words, with characters already engaged in dramatic action.
Study how the masterful Nora Roberts opens the door to her novel Witness with a sentence that immediately conveys both character and the threat of violence:

Elizabeth Fitch’s short-lived teenage rebellion began with L’Oreal Pure Black, a pair of scissors and a fake ID. It ended in blood.

Maxine Hong Kingston begins The Woman Warrior with this hook:  

“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”

The first paragraph of Diana Gabaldon’s blockbuster, Outlander, economically conveys intrigue and setting and characterization:

It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, not at first glance. Mrs. Baird’s was like a thousand other Highland bed-and-breakfast establishments in 1945; clean and quiet, with fading floral wallpaper, gleaming floors, and a coin-operated hot-water geyser in the lavatory. Mrs. Baird herself was squat and easygoing, and made no objection to Frank lining her tiny rose-sprigged parlor with the dozens of books and papers with which he always traveled.

Patricia Briggs begins Moon Called, the first book in her paranormal romance series starring the shape-shifter, Mercy Thompson, with a scene that introduces the heroine as an auto mechanic—with an extraordinary sense of smell.

I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn’t at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil—and it’s not like there are a lot of stray werewolves running around. So when someone made a polite noise near my feet to get my attention I thought he was a customer.

Here are opening sentences from a few of my own short stories and novels.

Mason Drake awoke and saw the pilot burning. Flames climbed up the dead man’s flight jacket and the red nylon melted.

If Tom Harding had been paying attention to his fingertips when they began to tingle, the strangest encounter of his life would not have happened.

When my transition drew near, an Unsurpassable Lover came to my door, her puffy-eyed silence foretelling terrible news.

“Where were you last night?”
I rolled onto my side and a headache thunder-clapped through my skull. A nude woman occupied with me a bed so broad it seemed a landscape of satin sheets.
“Where did you go last night?” she said again. Whoever she was, she was royalty. A holo-tattoo of the Imperial Dragon coiled around the pupil of her left eye, shimmering iridescently.

Once you’ve crafted enticing opening sentences, your readers need to be told within the next two or three pages:

·        WHO is the story’s hero?
·        WHERE does the story take place?
·        WHAT conflict does the hero face?
·        WHY should we care? (Hint: because the hero is likable.)

All of the above does not imply slaving over your first paragraphs, insisting that they be perfect before you can move on with writing your story. If you feel stuck on the opening scene, plunging deeper into the tale might be your best strategy. After fifty or a hundred pages, when your characters and their struggles to find love have become real and alive for you, you’ll probably have a strong idea how to go back and rewrite the beginning. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Let’s talk about talking. The three different types of dialogue are 1) direct, 2) indirect, and 3) mixed.

Direct dialogue is the most dramatic form. By convention, direct dialogue requires quotation marks and each speaker gets his or her own paragraph. At the end of each speaker’s part, simple attributions (he said, she said) are best, and even they can be omitted when it’s clear who is speaking.

“You?” she said. “No way.”
“Trust me,” he said, “in a big way.”
“That’s just it; I don’t trust you.”

While “he said, she said” are virtually silent and invisible to the reader, the menagerie of other attributions (asked, answered, replied, retorted, added, commented, snarled, whined, etc.) draw attention to themselves and, like blush, should be used sparingly. Also, resist the urge to glom adverbs onto the attributions (she said grudgingly, he said wolfishly, etc.). Adverbs are not needed and are often used to explain what is already obvious to the reader (“I despise you!” she said angrily).
Using indirect dialogue can summarize a conversation in a brief report that, without quoting, still conveys richness:

Sheryl said that going to bed with David was selfish, crazy and impossible to resist.

Mixed dialogue, the third type, is a hybrid of direct and indirect:

Rob told Trisha she was narcissistic. That she paid no attention to what was right for him. Their pink bedroom with the four-poster bed and lace curtains was a good example. He told her, “I don’t want frills and flowers!” He said it two or three times.

  People speak variously and dialogue is an effective way to establish unique characters. A common critique in writing circles is that a story’s characters all talk alike. Hear the difference in the diction of these two speakers:

“I’m not a forensic scientist, but it appears to me the bullet entered her body from behind.”
“Hell, you don’t need to be no expert on this stuff. Sure as hell she got offed from the back.”

When we converse, we communicate not just with words but with our bodies. Realistic dialogue is more than a sequence of quotations; it includes nervous grins, fiddling with fingernails, lowered eyes, raised eyebrows: our whole human language. Such details and actions that punctuate dialogue are called “beats.” Writing good beats makes for vivid conversations that your readers can readily follow, and allows you to show which character is speaking without using attributes.

“Sorry, but that’s not what we agreed to.” Johnny tapped the contract on his desk, then flipped to the last page and held it up. “This is your signature, right?
I was doomed. I nodded and stood to leave.
“Just a sec.” He opened a drawer and took out a Glock handgun. “Take this. It goes along with the envelope.”

Beats are also used for conveying a realistic rhythm of speech. Instead of writing “he paused,” toss in a beat:

“Divorce?” He dragged on his Camel. “Really?” He screwed his mouth to the side and blew out smoke. “How long you been married, four, five months?”
“One hundred forty one days.” She glanced at her watch. “And eight hours, fifteen minutes.” She gave an unhappy laugh. “But who’s counting?”

Also consider using sound effects as a rhythmic element in your beats:

“A hundred dollars.” He stacked a log vertically on the stump. “What you mean is…” He swung the axe and the wood split halfway with a loud crack! “…a hundred more.” He swung again. Crack! The split halves fell onto piles on either side of the stump. “That makes a couple hundred.” He stacked another log without looking at his son. “I got to ask myself if you’re worth it.”

Lastly, keep in mind that the words in a dialogue reveal only the surface. Like icebergs, most of a conversation’s weight is hidden below. You can create tension between what is visible and what is submerged by keeping the dialogue evasive, filled with unspoken feelings.

If he used one more French phrase tonight, she was going to spit out the Bordeaux he ordered for her and get a pitcher of Bud. Why was he showing off? He grew up right here in Burnt Mill, same as her. He worked at the lumberyard, like her dad and brothers, and he drove a Ford pick-up, not a Lamborghini.
J'aime vos beaux yeux verts.”
She smiled. “Oui, monsieur!” She had no idea what he said. By now any other guy would have said something sweet, maybe complimented her on her green eyes. How do you say in French, “Billy Ray, just be yourself!”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reinventing Reality

 Unless the plot of your romance absolutely demands a real-life locale, you’ll do yourself a favor by inventing your setting—but not out of whole cloth. For authenticity, it’s best to thoroughly research factual models for the fictional elements that you create.

For example, most of the action in my first novel, Ember from the Sun, takes place in the Pacific Northwest among a contemporary Native American tribe. I used as my model the Haida tribe who live on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada). I studied the Haida Indians in depth, learning about their history, language, customs, religion, art, clothing, housing, and methods of fishing and whaling. I also researched the Queen Charlotte Islands’ flowers and trees, birds and mammals, topography and climate. Then, after two months of research, I named my fictitious tribe the Quanoot, and its imaginary homeland, Whaler Bay Island.
Studying the real tribe and its actual territory enabled me to enhance the novel with authentic particulars. For instance, the story included a scene in which modern Quanoot men build a war canoe by the ancient, traditional method of the Haida. 

On the other hand, creating an imaginary tribe gave me the wiggle room to focus on the needs of my narrative without stressing about getting facts wrong, and I was free to invent a Quanoot legend that was central to my plot without feeling that I was appropriating a real people’s culture.
At first glance, it may seem that this advice mostly pertains for authors of historical romances, but it is at least as relevant for authors of contemporaries. Consider that while there are many readers who are experts on various historical periods, there are probably far more who know about whatever contemporary reality you plan to describe. They’ll be swift to notice errors of fact. Therefore, unless your story utterly requires an actual place, set it an apocryphal locale.

Let us say that your love story involves a hero who was once a logging crew foreman, but now he’s seeking employment because the logging industry has collapsed. For authenticity, find a real town that fits your story’s needs and use it as the pattern for your research. Read everything you can find about the town and the logging industry; study maps and nature guides; visit the area and interview loggers and the mayor, and so forth. But when your research is done, don’t write about the actual town; make up your own.

I’m currently researching a YA novel whose heroine is the Eastern Surfing Association Junior Women’s Champion. This is a case of writing what I know: I grew up in the surfer subculture in Melbourne Beach, Florida, and I once dated the current ESA Junior Women’s champion (back in the Pleistocene Era). I’m going to return to my favorite surf spots and interview surfers there and at the local surf shops. Nonetheless, I’m not going to set the novel in my real hometown. There are thousands of people living there now and some readers will balk at any detail I change or simply get wrong. But no one ever gets upset and slings a book across the room just because she suspects that such-and-such a town can’t be found on any map; so I’ll set my story in “Satellite Shores”—population zero, because the place does not exist.

The beauty of this research-and-switch method of creating fiction is that you can convey the genuine ambience of a real setting—Florida’s east coast, or an economically depressed logging town in Oregon—without trapping your plot in specifics. Remember the motto of tabloid journalists: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!”

Friday, June 13, 2014

Making Full Use of Setting

If a detective snooped through your residence while you were away, chances are he or she could construct a fairly detailed and reliable profile of your personality, based on your environment (your setting). That’s because your character is revealed not only by what you say and do, but also by the food in your pantry, the clothes in your closet, the artwork on your walls, the knick-knacks lining your mantle, your movie and music collection, the titles filling your bookshelves, and so forth.

As writers we can use the specific setting in which we place a scene to show the inner workings of our fictional characters. An effective way to do this is to describe setting subjectively through the character’s senses, emotions and memories, rather than neutrally, through a “camera lens” of objective narration. This technique accomplishes a few things:

1.       It keeps the writer invisible. The information arrives through the character’s perceptions, not from a disembodied narrator.
2.       It saves time and thus moves the story faster. Readers get necessary descriptions of your character’s surroundings while simultaneously learning about their personalities.
3.       It’s a handy way to weave in backstory, without resorting to flashbacks elsewhere that can break up the immediacy of the action and dialog.

You can show contrasting personalities and reveal backstories by having more than one character react to the same environment, or to the same object within it. For example, a time-worn baseball glove might evoke nostalgia in an old man, who as a gifted pitcher once made it as far as the minor leagues; while the same glove elicits anger in his adult son, who resents that his father forced him to endlessly practice pitching in the hope the boy would fulfill the father’s dreams and one day pitch for a major league team.

A further use of setting is to establish the mood or tone of your overall story or of a particular scene. Notice how movie directors often open a scene with an “establishing shot” to set up the context and mood for the action that is about to occur. Films must accomplish this while relying on only two senses, vision and sound. The beauty of a written story is that you can convey the setting and mood of a scene through all five senses. Make it a habit to exploit this advantage by including more than just seeing and hearing in your scenes. Give your reader plenty of smells, textures, and flavors. (Also, notice that verbs can perform double-duty as sounds: the bullet chunked into the wall… the arrow thwacked the target.)

Pay special attention to the sense of smell. Neuroscience confirms what you may have discovered in your own experience: aromas trigger memories and emotions more strongly than any of the other senses. It’s easy to imagine a character going through the personal belongings of her late grandfather, feeling a mix of happiness and sorrow when looking at photos of the grizzled man in his wide-brimmed fishing hat. But when she actually smells his faithful hat—its familiar mix of cigarette smoke, hair oil, and a hint of fishing bait—that’s when the tears finally flow.

The more vividly you convey the setting of each scene, the better chance you have of accomplishing the writer’s goal of implanting your readers inside your story. On the other hand, some settings are so familiar (for example, the interior of a MacDonald’s restaurant) that description should be kept to a minimum. Set the stage with just a couple details that readers will instantly recognize.

Even if you’re writing historical fiction or placing a scene in an exotic locale, it’s best not to slow down the story with pages of description. Instead, interweave bits of description into the forward-moving action. Think of particulars (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, flavors, and textures) that exactly define the setting. These are called “telling details”.

Forty years ago I stood in freezing air-conditioning under banks of surgical lamps in the cadaver dissection room of a medical school. A dozen aluminum exam tables held male and female corpses draped to their chests in blue plastic sheets, the right sides of their necks and faces cut down to the white bones. The sharp reek of formaldehyde filled my nostrils and mouth.

If I used the above setting in a fictional scene, I would insert these telling details into the dialog and action a piece at a time to paint a clear picture without slowing the story’s momentum.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Well, What Do You Know?

Beginning writers repeatedly encounter the advice, “Write what you know.” Of course, if writers heeded this counsel narrowly and reported only what they have directly experienced, historical fiction and fantasy tales would vanish along with the best of the world’s literature.

After all, Jamie McGuire is not an alpha male and should not be privy to the secret emotions of her tattooed bad boy (Beautiful Disaster); Arthur Golden is not a Japanese woman and should not have given us his intimate portrait of “the floating world” (Memoirs of a Geisha); and Stephen Crane, who never fought on a Civil War battlefield, should not have penned his tale of cowardice and heroism—acclaimed for its realism (The Red Badge of Courage).

Furthermore, “Write what you know” might even be bad advice. Fiction by students in MFA writing programs is notoriously autobiographical or even narcissistic, starring penniless grad students awkwardly exploring their sexuality and the meaning of adult life.
So let’s take a closer look at the truism, “Write what you know.”

To begin, what do you know? Well, you know yourself. And you are already a complex of selves. You play plenty of roles in the daily theater of your life, such as daughter, sister, friend, lover, worker, soccer mom. But are you not also the 8-year-old who wanted to be a cowgirl, the high school bookworm who hung out with the misfits, the college sophomore who read Sylva Plath, the woman who fantasizes what it would be like to spend a weekend in Paris with that hunky guy in line for a latte? Without being overtly nuts, you manage to include all these characters, like the population of a small town. A Jungian psychologist would say you contain everyone you have ever been, as well as everyone you have tried to be. You are, in this sense, even the person you avoided becoming or the one you are scared of being. All of these characters are “you”—and you know them intimately.

Secondly, the idea “to know” takes on broader meaning when you consider that you “know” in wide-ranging ways. You know in your head, through education; you know in your body, through living; you know in your heart, through empathy. You know how people walk and talk and laugh and interact because you are a seasoned people watcher and eavesdropper (and, if not, please take up those vices).

To know is a matter of paying attention. Being the kind of observer who misses nothing is an essential habit for writers. A person might sleepwalk through life, and having lived for ten years in Istanbul, be unable to offer a vivid description of the unique sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the ancient Turkish city, while a more perceptive person could visit the city for a week and then write a scene that makes you feel as if you are standing under the car-sized stones of the Roman aqueduct.

Research is another valid way of knowing. You can convincingly place a scene within a detailed setting that you have never even visited—let’s again say Istanbul—but you must first familiarize yourself with Istanbul through its history and culture, economics, statistics, street maps, photos, travel and restaurant and night life guides, and nature guides.

Of course, research has its limits. I once began writing a novel about a woman who flew a Mustang in the Reno Air Races. I did my research, including studying a mechanical manual and building a large-scale model of the Mustang. But it finally came down to this: I am not a pilot. A few chapters into the story, I realized it was not going to feel authentic. The project is on hold (at least until I can get out to Reno and actually ride with a pilot in an air race).

What my story would have lacked is the sense of immediacy revealed by little details that only experts know. Every sport and occupation, from ice skating to brain surgery, has these bits of arcana, beginning with a peculiar jargon. If you conduct interviews as part of your research (always recommended), ask your sources to provide you with these revealing particulars: “Please take a moment to think of something special you know about [skydiving, bronco riding, performing a C-section] that the rest of us couldn’t even begin to guess.”

So “Write what you know” remains good advice when it is not interpreted narrowly. Mine the deep strata of what you already know and what you can learn. And if you are an expert in a particular field, consider how you might exploit your hard-won knowledge in your fiction.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What Is Science Fiction and What Is Fantasy?

First, what is STORY? 

A story tells of characters with a problem in search of a solution. Speculative fiction, in that sense, is like any other fiction. It must have a plot, which is motivated action: the hero is driven by a purpose.

Marion Zimmer Bradley explains motivated action as, “Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and tries like hell to get it out.” Dean Koontz provides a more detailed view of story structure: “The hero has a serious problem (or something he wants very badly). He tries to solve his problem (or attain his goal) but plunges deeper into difficulties and danger. His stumbling blocks arise logically from his efforts to find a solution. His troubles increase monumentally. Finally, forced by harsh circumstances to discover a truth about himself or the world, he is enabled to solve his problem or attain his goal (or fail dramatically).”

Without these elements, it’s not a story, but just a vignette—a “slice of life,” where nothing much happens. Or, it’s a case history, a story in which the issue—date rape, drug abuse, spousal battering, terrorism—is more important than the people it happens to. One avoids case histories by writing about particular people; real people, not stereotypes. The character must act for her own reasons, not the needs of the story or the author’s message.

The key to the definition of science fiction is that the problem would not happen at all except for the science context and content. That is, some aspect of technology, or a future or alien environment or society, challenges the characters. If you take these central aspects out of the story, you don’t have a science fiction story.
This is very close to the definition of a fantasy story, where characters face some aspect of the supernatural, or a magical society, or environment. Magic must be coped with.
 When a new technology or magic is developed, people have to deal with the unintended consequences. These unforeseen ramifications make science fiction and fantasy humorous or sobering.

The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Fantasy stories contain elements that are known to be impossible (for example, a magic watch that stops time, enabling the hero to walk through a “time-frozen” world). Science fiction contains elements that might be possible—the technologies don’t violate the known laws of physics.

If your hero gains the power to read minds through a magical incantation, or by allowing a female wizard to inhabit the left half of his body, that story is fantasy. But if the power to read minds comes from evolutionary mutation, or from genetic engineering, or computer-brain interfaces, then it’s not magic—it is perhaps possible—and the story is science fiction.

So science fiction is based on scientific rationalization and extrapolations of known science—and the story is believable within a rational worldview. (Admittedly, common SF story elements such as teleportation, faster-than-light travel, teleportation, or sub-space communication violate our current understanding of physics—so these are gray areas of science fiction.) Fantasy is built on the supernatural, on magic and gods and goddesses and ghosts and leprechauns and mermaids. It’s rich with the same powers that enliven mythology and religion—and the reader must take the story on faith.

Ursula LeGuinn on fantasy: “Its affinity is not with daydream, but with dream. It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic, but surrealistic, super-realistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction.”

Metaphors may be a theme in both fictions, but they will be differently explored. Take the metaphor, “edge of the world.”

Science fiction might tell of an immense world that rings a star, constructed of material from its demolished solar system. In Larry Niven’s Ringworld, the “edge of the world” is a thousand-mile high wall to hold in the atmosphere.

Fantasy might tell of a village perched on the edge of The Known, and at the end of the village lies a cottage named “Border House” that opens into The Unknown. You enter the front door of the cottage and take a few steps and you are in a realm of magic in which all the laws you have learned to trust—like gravity—no longer apply.

The best science fiction or fantasy is not fiction about science or magic, but stories about CHARACTERS who are affected by science or magic. The characters could be humans, elves, aliens, machines, pet rocks—whatever. But since we are human writers and readers, the problems that challenge the characters will necessarily be more-or-less human problems.

A typical flaw in science fiction or fantasy tales written by novices is the lack of a central, motivating human problem. In science fiction, we often encounter a bunch of techno-babble: The jumpship carrying medicine to combat the Vlorg Plague at New Tokyo Colony develops a phase uncoupling in the wave intolerator. Time ticks away as the hero rigs a Rothman wave-bridge out of garbage bags, a laser spectroscope, a rectal thermometer and an ancient Bic lighter. The colony is saved!

Big deal. The problem was imaginary and so was the solution.

On the other hand, one could imagine a story about a ship rushing medicine to a colony infected with a deadly virus, in which the crew must deal with the real problem of the damage to the human body caused by high acceleration and deceleration. (If you can only tolerate accelerating at a constant 2 Gs, you can’t “put on the brakes” at 40 Gs. But a more gradual deceleration will make the ship reach the colony too late.) The rescue ship lands on auto-pilot carrying crates of needed medicine and two dead crew members, crushed by the deceleration. The colonists are saved, not by techno-nonsense, but because of the tragic personal sacrifice of heroes.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Who Can Best Tell Your Tale?

You have two basic choices for narrating your tale: in the first-person or third-person. 

Writers have used both to tell great stories; which is best for your short story or novel? 

First-Person Narrator
In first-person narration, one character (usually the protagonist) tells the whole story in her own voice, “I.” The reader perceives and understands everything through this single storyteller’s personality, memories, attitudes, expectations and motives.

First-person narration is often the choice of novice writers, because it’s the everyday mode in which we talk about our lives. It has the advantage of immediacy and intensity, because the reader is always inside the storyteller’s head and heart, living each scene directly as that character.

If you choose to narrate your romance using the first-person, you must ask: Why is this particular character telling the story? Who is her audience? Is she talking to friends, a lover, a therapist, a judge, a diary?
The biggest snag with writing first-person narration is that the narrator must be physically present for every key plot event. If your storyteller merely reports hearsay about an important scene that she did not experience firsthand, the dramatic power is lost.

Another drawback is that your first-person narrator can only guess at another character’s inner life and can never directly know what’s going on in any other character’s experience—unless she’s telepathic! Also, because readers will deduce from the outset that the narrator does not die, any scene in which the narrator’s life is threatened will be less suspenseful. (To be sure, writers sometimes betray this presumption with a shocker ending.) Of course the fact that the narrator does not die doesn’t mean irrevocable things—sweet or painful—cannot happen to her. And some tales thrive on the inverted dramatic tension of knowing the end from the beginning (How did such fierce enemies become adoring newlyweds?).

Third-Person Narrator
Third-person storytelling comes in two types, “omniscient” and “limited.” In the omniscient third-person, the narrator is a disembodied witness who hovers over the characters and their actions, telling the reader exactly what’s going on externally and also inside each character’s head. Thoughts, memories, fantasies—any moment of the past or future—are all available to the narrator’s godlike view. The writer is free to jump to any character’s viewpoint within a scene; for example, if two couples are arguing, you can reveal the interior experience of each of the four people. As the all-knowing author you can write a scene in which none of your characters is aware of an important secret that you have disclosed to your readers.

By contrast, limited third-person narration tells the story through only one viewpoint character at a time; the reader experiences and knows only what the current viewpoint character experiences and knows. The writer can switch among viewpoint characters but must provide a clear transition—a scene or chapter break—and make it instantly clear which new viewpoint the reader is now inhabiting. Limited third-person narration gives the reader intimacy with multiple characters, and unlike omniscient third-person narration, it avoids the sense of a remote intelligence that is outside looking in.

How to make up your mind?
The most common choice in bestselling novels is the third-person limited narrator, followed by first person. Third-person omniscient narration is far less common. (There is also second-person narration, but it is rare. It addresses the reader like this: You are not the kind of girl who would normally be at a place like this at 3 a.m. yet here you are, talking to a woman with a tattooed head.)

If you feel confident that your story is compelling, but you’re less sure that your prose is original and dazzling, you may want to tell your story in limited-third person, the form in which the writer is least visible. But if you think your chief talent is a clever or lyrical way with words, you might prefer to tell your story in the omniscient third person, which offers the best showcase for the author’s own musings. And if your main character is such a dynamic, unique personality she absolutely must tell her own story, then let her have her voice in first person.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Test Your Talent for Writing Fiction

To build a career as a novelist you’ll need at least four pillars: life experience, craft, talent, and luck. The first two supports must be acquired; the final mainstay, luck, is beyond your control; while the third pillar, talent, is something you’re born with or not.
No amount of real life adventures or writer’s workshops can earn you more talent. By definition, talent means gift, and every aspiring writer must face the scary question: Do I have the knack—am I gifted?
One way to answer that question is to see how closely your personal muse matches a collection of traits that most successful novelists possess. As an obvious example, just as painters and photographers are engrossed by light in all of its moods, natural storytellers are fascinated by language in all of its voices. A person who is not easily enthralled by the power and grandeur of words probably lacks a true gift for writing.
What follows is a quick test for gauging your writing aptitude. Okay, it’s utterly unscientific—but a high score shows you’ve got a lot in common with the best storytellers.

The D.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. Quiz
(Do I Possess Sufficient Talent Independent of Craft or Knowledge?)

How to score: On a scale of 1 to 5, mark whether you strongly agree (5), or strongly disagree (1), with each statement as it relates to your own character traits.

1.      YOU MAKE UP STORIES ABOUT PERFECT STRANGERS. That silver-haired executive-type in the theater seat in front of you ditched his wife half a year ago for the trophy blonde now clinging to his arm. His new sex life is hotter in some ways, but lying awake tonight he’ll remember his first wife and ache for all he traded away.

2.      YOU OFTEN PLAY THE IMAGINATION GAME, “WHAT IF? What if you had the secret power to heal people by stripping off your clothes in churches? Would you be willing to use it?

3.      YOUR CURIOSITY HAS BIG MUSCLES FROM CONSTANT EXERCISE. Curiosity could get you killed, as it did the cat, but perhaps you’ll die as a bestselling novelist. A jetliner passes above—Who are the travelers? Where are they going? What are they doing right now?—that’s the way your mind works.

4.      YOU’RE NOSY ABOUT THE WRITING PROCESS. If you receive a letter with some words crossed out, you’ve got to snoop and see what it said before revision.

5.      YOU’RE NOSY ABOUT BOOKS. You’ve got to see what that tough-looking teen-age girl in the leather jacket and spiky hair is reading.

6.      YOU STUDY PHOTOS OF CROWDS, FACE BY FACE. A crowd in Grand Central Station surrounds a busker playing cello. Inserting yourself behind each set of eyes, you try to imagine the experience from the viewpoint of the old man, the little girl, the custodian—every person in the scene.

7.      YOU SPY INSIDE OTHER PEOPLE’S MINDS. You can’t keep yourself from wondering about the psyche of others; not only the horror of a murder victim, but what the hell was going on in the killer’s head.

8.      YOU’VE GOT A “WEAK EGO BOUNDARY.” This term, coined by Freud, describes people who have a hard time telling where they end and another person—or the whole planet—begins. At its worse, this kind of fuzzy self-border makes you loony. At its best, it gives you the intuitions and sympathies of a damn fine novelist.

9.      YOU HAVE AN ARTIST’S EYE FOR DETAILS. Most will notice that the shed roof is rusty; but you see that the orange rust on the steel roof branches as it runs to the porch eaves like a river fanning into a delta.

10.  HEARING = BELIEVING. Listening to a radio drama or a story read aloud can move you as much as watching a dramatic movie; often it sways you more. 

11.  YOU WRITE FOR THE EAR. You’ve got to like the sound of the words, not just their meaning, so you often read your writing aloud to yourself.

12.  THE DICTIONARY IS YOUR READING COMPANION. You never let an unfamiliar word pass by and remain a stranger. Word origins are especially revelatory. (You do have a good etymological dictionary, don’t you?)

13.  YOU’RE A COMPULSIVE READER. Of billboards, cereal boxes, T-shirts—whatever. You tailgate so that you can read the bumper sticker up ahead. (It says, “Don’t tailgate me, or I’ll flick a booger on your windshield.”)

14.  SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME. Since childhood, you’ve devoured books of all kinds. Walking into a superb library or bookstore is like entering a temple of earthly delights. For you, life without reading would be like procreation without pleasure: entirely possible, but what deprivation! 

15.  YOU CAN’T BEAR TO SPEED-READ. Try as you might to read faster, you automatically slow down with a good book—like a gourmet hovering over steaming Peking duck—to savor the rhythm, the nuance, the mouth-feel of the words. The more brilliant and satisfying the writing, the slower you read.

16.  YOU ENJOY WORD GAMES. Crossword puzzles, anagrams, Scrabble™, puns, acronyms, palindromes—you name it.

17.  YOU ACE VERBAL TESTS. On the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, you scored in the high 600s or better (a perfect score is 800). If you took the Graduate Record Exam, your reading comprehension/verbal skills score was in the top 20 percentile or higher.

18.  YOU WRITE WITH YOUR WHOLE BODY. Books on the craft of fiction advise you to include aromas, textures, flavors and sounds in each of your scenes—not just what the eyes perceive. If this has to be learned, it is mere technique. For a sensualist it comes naturally, and is, therefore, a gift.

19.  A GOOD STORY KIDNAPS YOU INTO ITS WORLD. According to genetics researchers, of all inheritable personality traits one of the strongest is called “absorption,” the ability to become lost in a book, a film, a creative project. This trait is thought to be about 75 percent based on your genes, not your upbringing. So, thank mom and dad if you can easily abandon yourself to fiction—reading it, or writing it.

20.  YOU EXTEND OTHER’S STORIES BEYOND THE FINAL SCENE. Fictional characters linger in your imagination and show you their further adventures. What does Scarlett O’Hara do after Rhett Butler delivers what the American Film Institute voted the top movie line of all time: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”?

21.  YOUR FICTIONAL CHARACTERS TAKE ON A LIFE OF THEIR OWN. You make up story people, plop them in the middle of an intriguing conflict, and they quickly become so real to you that you get the feeling you’re simply a reporter, observing and describing what they say and do and what happens as a result.

22.  YOU’VE GOT TERRIFIC PERIPHERAL VISION. You aren’t just interested in the football game down on the field. What about the teen-ager selling popcorn? That grandmother over there who’s sipping from a hip-pocket flask? You hear a cat mewing somewhere under the bleachers. You risk boring your readers into a coma if you include too many details, but it helps your characters come alive when you notice surprising little things in your fictional world.

23.  YOU SHRINK FROM CLICHES LIKE A SLUG SHRINKS FROM SALT. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” That’s wonderfully vivid language, or at least it must have been when it was first used back in Chaucer’s day. Now it’s weaker than three-time tea.

24.  GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT IS SATISFACTION ITSELF. Maybe you’re not as obsessive as Ernest Hemmingway, who rewrote the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms 119 times. But in your own writing you strive for something very close to perfection.

25.  PEOPLE OFTEN TELL YOU, “YOU OUGHTA WRITE A NOVEL.” Hear this enough and it means there’s something special in the way you sling words together. At the least, it means you’ve got the storyteller’s knack. At best, it means you not only tell stories well, but you’ve got your own voice. The crucial advice: write the same way you talk.

26.  YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO WRITE FICTION. Maybe it’s because you are a novelist; it’s your fate to write fiction, and in your heart you know it.


Add the score and give yourself bonus points for being brave enough to take this silly test.

·        101 to 130 points: Spectacular. You may be the next Nora Roberts. A worldwide readership awaits you; topnotch literary agents cry, “Me! Pick me!”

·        86 to 100 points: Excellent. You’ve definitely got what it takes. Begin that novel now. Never give up until you see your byline in the bookstores.

·        51 to 85 points: Good. You’ve got some pizazz. But read everything you can on the craft of fiction to bolster your talent.

·        25 to 50 points: Average. What you need here is a life so large it would read like pulp fiction. For example, it would help to be Col. Jeannie Flynn Leavitt, the first female commander of an Air Force combat wing, with thousands of male fighter pilots under her leadership. Just be sure to hire a talented ghostwriter.

USAF Col. Jeannie Flynn Leavitt