I’m starting today not wanting to write at all, but I’m pushing myself and sticking to my schedule just as I tell you to do! It’s not always easy.
I got a lot of positive feedback from my last post, “Grammarly, Stepford Wives, and Mediocrity.” I still owe some of you replies to your wonderful emails. Don’t despair; you’ll get them soon.
Let me know what other subjects you’d like me to cover in future posts; this blog is for you!
Too much trash
I’ve been reading a mix of modern classics, novels, and trash this past month, but I’m getting tired of the trash. What a waste of time. I was given a set of six ebooks (cozy mystery series) in order to write a review, but they’re so bad that the only way to describe them is inedible. I mean, I’ll usually read anything, but this is just too painful. Here are the books’ main sins:
- Shallow, undeveloped, and inconsistent characters
- Canned dialogue and situations
- Poor, confusing, unrealistic plots lacking essential information
- Embarrassing spelling, grammar, and editing mistakes
These issues seem to be rampant in self-published ebooks. Granted, quality is uneven, so it’s best to get a free sample from Kindle before purchasing. (Sometimes, the first book in a series is free, so there’s no monetary investment if you end up hating it.)
I suspect that many of these books are the fruit of members of book clubs and writers’ groups. I think both book clubs and writers’ groups are great, but I wish people would take more time to “sharpen the ax” before they start cutting down the tree.
This month’s good novels
I’ve also read some really great books this past month. The first was The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. She won a Pulitzer for this one. I’ve read other books of hers, and she is an outstanding writer. It is a total pleasure to read her. I generally don’t care for short story collections, but The Interpreter of Maladies is a happy exception. I strongly encourage you to get your hands on any of Lahiri’s books.
The biggest surprise this month was Anybody Out There, by Marian Keyes. Apparently, it’s the 4th book in a series, but the author does such a good job of weaving things together that I had no idea. I wasn’t confused for a minute, and none of the background information felt like a non sequitur. Some series can be confusing if you haven’t read them in order.
I was convinced the book would be just a fun romp, but I was happily mistaken. It’s very well-written, and it had me both on-the-floor laughing and tearing up. It’s both a sad and a hopeful book, and well worth your time if you are in the mood for a novel. I was blown away by how Keyes crafted each character and kept them consistent. The plot was realistic, and Keyes added just the right amount of caricature to some of the personalities to keep things hopping.
I don’t think men would enjoy this book.
I also finally read my first Ken Follett novel, Eye of the Needle. I’m a fan of spy thrillers, and enjoyed it on this level. The historical aspect of the novel (World War II, and the allied attempt to fool the Germans with regard to the D-Day landings) was fascinating, but I didn’t like many of the main characters.
Valuable writing advice from Ken Follett
As I was tooling around the internet for information on Ken Follett, I found a fascinating Masterclass on his website. It’s full of information about writing and publishing a novel. I don’t agree with everything he says about how to write a book, but there were some gems, which I will enumerate below.
One must keep in mind that even though Follett is a bestselling author, he’s no Jane Austen (who is, surprisingly, his favorite dead author; his favorite living authors are Stephen King, Richard North Patterson, and Lee Child, which has to tell you something). Nevertheless, here’s some great advice, especially for novelists:
- The basic challenge for the writer can be very simply explained – it is to create an imaginary world and then draw the reader into that imaginary world.
- I want to entertain you. I want you to be thrilled or moved to tears or scared and I definitely want you to be on the edge of your seat all the time, wondering what is going to happen next.
- I’ve failed dreadfully if you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I meant.
- You can almost always find a way to improve just about every sentence that you’ve written.
Sharpening the ax
- As an aspiring writer, you should certainly start by writing an outline…. The outline says chapter by chapter what happens in the book and it contains potted biographies of each of the characters.
- It is far easier to correct your mistakes if you write an outline than if you sat down and wrote, ‘Chapter One’ at the top of a piece of paper and started writing.
- Writing an outline also concentrates your mind. It is good to carry on reading a lot at this stage…. When you are reading other books, you will see how other writers have handled [your topic] and you’ll see the problem from different angles.
- You should also show your outline to other people…it will be bruising if it’s going to be any use to you.
Writing the outline
- A basic idea [i.e., what the book is about] is something that can be said in one sentence.
- I write down my one sentence on a piece of paper and I try and make it two. I elaborate more and more…before too long I’ve got three paragraphs, a page, two pages and so on as I constantly rewrite and tease out the story.
- I begin to imagine the people in the story, where they came from and what their motivations are. I think about how they will approach [a] problem.
- [C]reate interesting characters and show how their lives are devastated by a series of events, how they fight against adversity and how they triumph.
- [A]sk yourself questions all the time about these people that you have created and the problems they are confronted with…you must always ask…what are they afraid of?
- [A]lways be aware of raising the stakes.
- I finish up at the end of the [outline] process with between 25-40 typed pages [because he keeps elaborating on it]…. Typically there will be a first draft outline, a second draft outline and a final outline, so it would twice go through the process of being shown to a number of people.
The first draft
- The toughest part of the whole process is going from the outline to the first draft…. Putting flesh on the bones is the hardest imaginative work in the whole process.
- There is a rule which says that the story should turn about every four to six pages. A story turn is anything that changes the basic dramatic situation. It can change it in a little way or change it in a big way.
- If you’ve got two story turns in four pages, you are going too fast and are not drawing the full drama and emotion out of each scene.
The second draft
- When the first draft is complete, I show it once again to [other people]. I get them all to make notes.
- I don’t edit my first draft. I don’t put the first draft on the screen at all…. I key every word in again because that forces me to reconsider every sentence.
Notice how the section entitled Writing the outline has the most nuggets, with The basics and Sharpening the ax tying for second. This is not a coincidence, and should tell you something about where you should be putting your energies before you type “Chapter One.”
In my next blog I’m going to revisit brackets. I’m currently working on a project that is bracket-challenged, and thought the issue begged reviewing.
And remember to let me know what else you’d like me to cover in future posts!