What Doesn’t Kill You… Makes a Great Plot Twist

Writers have noisy minds. They have to. Everything they see, touch, overhear (sometimes by accident), and experience is fodder for the story mill. It goes in, swirls around the sense of possibility and probability like berries in a blender and matches up or rejects a million other experiences. When it comes out, it’s unrecognizable from the original event in form, but not in substance.

A snippet of conversation in a restaurant can give rise to an entire short story. A beat-up shoe spotted in the breakdown lane of a highway tells a tale of heartbreak. A woman in a formal dress on the bandstand at Alabama Jack’s on the Card Sound Road in Florida sparks a million stories. What was that woman doing in a biker restaurant/bar? You can read my version of her story in an old True Romance magazine. A plastic bag floating out of the window of a sunken ship became the inciting incident of one of my books. The bag morphed into a hand. A cold, dead, hand.brainstormer

Some ideas arrive full blown and ready to write. Others take a lot more work. Writer’s these days are lucky. There’s an app for that! A writer friend of mine shared her addiction to two that she uses. Brainstormer and Story Cube. Both are available for iPhone and who knows what all else. Brainstormer looks like a slot machine and sounds like a roulette wheel. There’s a wheel mode too that looks steampunk. Spin the wheels (or shake your phone—more fun) and see what turns up. The categories are combinations of plot/conflict, style/setting, and subject/location. I’ve got vengeance for a crime, animal kingdom, hotel lobby. I think I’ll take another spin. Or write a noir about the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.story-cubes

Story Cube has nine dice that roll with the press of an icon. Each die face shows a random character and voila, a story is created, the one I’m looking at now has a turtle, skydiver, lock (closed), clock, open book, airplane, letter, and a lightning bolt. All I’m saying is so much for that skydiver, his time has run out.

If none of those work, there’s always self-help books. One of my favorites is the Write About series. It’s a book of prompts with space to write. To be honest, the prompts have never sparked much for me in terms of story writing, but the act of writing has served to uncork the genie from the bottle.

Now that we’re hip deep in the holiday season, you might want to check out some of these ideas.

What do you do when you’re running on creative empty?

Author photos 009Kait Carson lives in an airpark in south central Florida with a pilot husband, eight tropical birds, and six rescue cats. By day, she’s a practicing probate and litigation paralegal, in the evening, legal pads give way to a keyboard, and she spins tales of murder and mayhem set in the tropical heat. Kait writes two series, the Catherine Swope series, set in Miami, and the Hayden Kent series set in the Fabulous Florida Keys.

Kait loves to hear from readers, check out her website at www.kaitcarson.com; follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kaitcarsonauthor, on Twitter at @kaitcarson, or e-mail her at kait.carson@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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Papa Was Wrong: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Challenges Hemingway’s ‘White Bull’ Metaphor

max picOn Hemingway’s metaphor for writing: But Papa’s whole bit about the blank page being akin to a writer facing down a “white bull” is just bull—-. Worse, it’s macho bull—-.  Sure, the “white bull” is a useful metaphor, and it certainly jibes with the Tough Guy/Big Game Hunter/Hard-Drinking persona Hemingway cultivated. And yes, Hemingway did win a Nobel Prize in literature, so who am I to argue with the man?

By Max Everhart

Aside from leaving behind at least two literary masterpieces (The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea), as well as the only perfect short story in existence (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”), Ernest Hemingway was extremely quotable, and in today’s sound bite-driven culture where attention span’s are measured in nanoseconds, and celebrities become famous for their sex tapes and being witty on twitter, and. . .

Apologies.

Forgot where I was going with that.

Right. Hemingway.  Yeah, the man made for good copy, my favorite among his quotes being this gem: “Always do drunk what you said you’d do sober.” That has heft to it. Speaks to a person’s character. I like that.

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But Papa’s whole bit about the blank page being akin to a writer facing down a “white bull” is just bull—-. Worse, it’s macho bull—-.  Sure, the “white bull” is a useful metaphor, and it certainly jibes with the Tough Guy/Big Game Hunter/Hard-Drinking persona Hemingway cultivated. And yes, Hemingway did win a Nobel Prize in literature, so who am I to argue with the man?

Well, I’ll tell you who I am: a guy who took 3rd place in the Reflections Writing Contest when he was eight; a guy whose written countless short stories, mostly for now defunct publications; a guy whose novels have sold in excess of 100 copies. That’s who I am.

So, now that we’ve established my impeccable credentials, I can explain, in eloquent, yet pity detail, exactly why Hemingway’s metaphor is bull—-.

It annoys me.

Hemingway took himself (and his work) too seriously, and we all know how that turned out. Too, and pardon me while I trample on the man’s grave, the “white bull” metaphor just adds fuel to the fire of Papa’s legend as a writer/adventurer who valued (overvalued?) “grace under pressure.” (Sidenote: the whole Camelot-JFK myth rubs me the wrong way, too, as that pretty boy was NOT a good president; he was just a guy with a silver spoon in his mouth whose father bought him a Pulitzer Prize and a presidential election).

JFK

Which leads me back to my point (if I had one to begin with): don’t over-complicate things; don’t be pretentious and insecure, man.  When it comes to writing, forget about Hemingway’s white bull nonsense.  Instead, remember Max’s Dog Rule: Sit at your computer, and stay.

Okay, maybe bang your head against the desk if things aren’t flowing the way you’d like.

 

 

E. Michael Helms: Me, Myself, and I

helms

Me, Myself, and I—or why I favor First Person Point of View

Why do I favor writing (and reading) in First Person POV? “I’m glad I asked that question,” I said. Okay, all kidding aside, here are a few reasons why:

Realism: We all experience life in first person. Think about it. When is the last time you heard anyone referring to him or herself as anything other than “I” “me” “mine” “my” “myself”? If your wife, husband, best friend, lover, or worst enemy dines out at a fabulous restaurant in your absence, how do you learn about their dining experience? It must be relayed to you through the spoken word from the individual’s own mouth. Think second-hand information. In real life, there is no “omniscient” being that can fill in the particulars about what your friend or cousin saw, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted during the meal.

Imagine you’re at a crowded stadium for your team’s most important game of the season. If they win, they play for the national championship. Lose—they go home—game over, season over. You are there, experiencing first hand (first person) the scent of hot dogs, popcorn, roasted peanuts, and draft beer wafting on the breeze. Not to mention the lovely young college lass wearing the low-cut blouse sitting in front of you. The air is electric. The crowd roars as you watch the quarterback scramble and hurl a sixty-yard TD strike to the open wide receiver. The roar is deafening, the stadium literally shakes, and you are there!

But what if you’re stuck at home with no ticket? Worse yet, your new sixty-six inch, flat-screen TV is on the blink. The game is about to begin as you frantically dial your radio to the station broadcasting the game, hoping to catch the opening kickoff. Ah, there it is, and the reception is decent—not great—but you can pick out what’s going on from the announcer’s running commentary. “Shotgun formation, empty backfield. Bronson studies the defense. He takes the snap, avoids a tackle and rolls out of the pocket to the right. Deshaun Carter has a step on the cornerback down the right sideline! Bronson sidesteps another rusher. He’s got Carter wide open . . . there’s the throw . . . it’s . . . Carter juggles the ball . . . he’s got it! Touchdown, Tigers!”

Which scenario do you prefer? (Assuming you are a rabid football fan; if not, insert your own favorite pastime.) For me, experiencing the game first hand wins, hands-down.

Walk a mile in my shoes: Another strong point for First Person POV is the intimate connection between the reader and protagonist. From the beginning the reader is “inside the hero’s head” and immediately privy to his thoughts and emotions. Nothing is “watered down” by the distance of a third person narrator. Reader and protagonist are bonded “in the moment.”

Strong characterization: Because the reader is inside the hero’s head, he/she quickly learns what makes the protagonist “tick.” The reader becomes a mind reader, knowing minute details about the protag that might not be revealed to anyone in the story, even our hero’s closest friend or love interest. Nothing is hidden from the reader. He/she sees all, knows all, even the protagonist’s deepest, darkest secrets. Quite an advantage, is it not?

Did someone say “pitfalls?”: Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there are—or can be—obstacles to First Person POV. If handled correctly, I believe first person is an effective and highly entertaining way to construct a story or novel. There are, however, a few things to be aware of:

Scenes where our narrator is absent. If our hero is missing from the scene, he can’t know firsthand what happened. This is where strong secondary characters can shine. The protag’s good friend was a witness, and through snappy and informative dialogue events are transferred to our hero. Or, our hero reads about it in the newspaper, or hears it as breaking news on the radio or TV. The point is, important information can be passed to the protagonist effectively in a variety of ways. Skillfully done, it works fine. Poorly done, it can kill your story and cause readers to abandon ship.

Sentence structure. I did this, I did that, I said, ad nauseam. Too many “I”s can quickly become irritating, especially used at the beginning of sentences. I crept to the window. I listened for any sign that he was inside. I pulled the revolver from my back pocket just in case he showed. You get the picture, and it’s not a pretty one. If you plan to use First Person POV be prepared to find innovative ways to break up the nasty habit of beginning too many sentences in the same paragraph (or page) with “I.”

The sounds of silence. There is always the danger of too much inner monologue, or thought, or reflection. If you find your protagonist slogging through a page or two filled with the above, hit the brakes. Break up those lengthy, silent soliloquies or risk losing the reader. Too much “silence” amounts to telling the reader, not showing. So, when your hero begins to wax eloquently to himself, have him receive a phone call with pertinent information that propels the plot forward, or a knock on the door from the cops warning him against crossing the line, or have him unexpectedly spot a suspect and decide to tail him. Remember, B-R-E-A-K it up!

Scarecrows won’t cut it. To pull off First Person POV for the long haul of a novel-length work, your protagonist must be stuffed with more than straw. He or she must be well-rounded, with a strong voice and a vibrant personality. A healthy dose of attitude always helps. Our hero can bend, but not break. Our hero has morals, lives by a code of honor that can’t be broken, but always has a flaw or three to balance things out. No Superman or Superwoman allowed here, unless you’re writing a superhero book. Above all, the reader must be drawn to the protagonist by that certain “something” all heroes possess to one degree or another.

Okay, there you have my perspective on First Person POV. I take full responsibility for my humble offering. I would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts, agree or disagree. Or, the author of this brief article would enjoy hearing reader’s opinions, whether they agree, disagree, or wish to remain neutral in this matter.

“Oh, good grief!” –Charlie Brown

 

 

Crash Course: E. Michael Helms on Improving Dialogue in Your Writing

helmsOn writing dialogue:Dialogue is an invented language (not a reproduction of how people actually speak; it’s the writer’s job to create effective, believable dialogue for the reader).

By E. Michael Helms

He said, She said: Tagverbs, Adverbs, and other Miscreant Uses of Dialogue
 
It’s ’fess up time. All writers are guilty of it. No matter how experienced a writer one may be, it’s a pitfall we must always be vigilant to avoid. So, at the risk of offending writers everywhere, I present a brief refresher course on dialogue.  
 
Overusing colorful verbs (or “tagverbs,” as I like to call them) as dialogue tags
 
In dialogue, the overuse of strong verbs used as tags tends to draw attention to the words themselves and become distracting to the reader. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Here’s what The New York Times Book Review had to say about best-selling author Robert Ludlum’s, The Bourne Ultimatum (yes, that Robert Ludlum):
 
bourne“Mr. Ludlum has other peculiarities.  For example, he hates . . . “he said” . . . and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom “say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper . . . intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable (one): ‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.”
 
Another common fault is using adverbs to describe how a character speaks. It’s so much easier to “tell” the reader how the character said something than “show” how it was said. Here are a few examples from McNally’s Secret, by Lawrence Sanders (yes, that Lawrence Sanders):
 
I said resignedly; father asked idly; I said heartily; I said hastily; he inquired anxiously; she said darkly; she said lightly; she said cheerily; I said cheerfully; he cried with unexpected fury; she said fondly; I said politely; he said proudly; he said with unnecessary vehemence; he said coldly; he said hotly; she said faintly; she said bitterly; she said crisply; I asked eagerly; she said doubtfully; he said grudgingly; he said mournfully; I added earnestly; she said hesitantly; I said gratefully; she said in a doleful voice; and my two personal favorites: someone remarked sententiously; I caroled as melodiously as I could.
                                
*Examples for Your Perusal—which sounds better to your ear?*
           
“You’re fired!” Fred blurted hotly. (Tagverb and adverb)
“You’re fired,” Fred said, slamming the folder on the desk. (“said” is hardly noticed)
Fred slammed the folder on his desk. “You’re fired.” (action denotes speaker’s temperament)
 
            “You always manage to spoil the evening,” Mary sobbed pitifully.
            “You always manage to spoil the evening,” Mary said, bursting into tears.
            Mary turned away to hide her tears. “You always manage to spoil the evening.”
 
A good rule: When a tag is needed, “he said/she said” works just fine in most situations. Use more colorful tags occasionally if you must. Always try to “show” how something was said rather than “telling” how it was said. 
 
 
Loaded dialogue (or, lazily packing dialogue with information)
           
*Do people really talk like this?*
 
“I suppose we could ask our son, Joe, to handle the lawsuit,” Mr. Jones suggested. “After all, he is one of the best attorneys in town, and we did put him through law school.”
 
“I know, dear,” Mrs. Jones replied, “but he is already representing his sister, the Harvard professor, with her slander case against the university newspaper.”
 
*Well no, but they might reasonably say something like this:*
           
“Let’s ask Joe to handle the lawsuit,” Mr. Jones said. “There’s no conflict of interest for an attorney to represent his parents.  Besides, it’s about time he did something for us. If he can afford to drive a Ferrari, he can afford to pay us back something for five years of law school.”    
           
“I know, dear,” Mrs. Jones said, “but I’m afraid it will conflict with his handling of Susan’s case.  If she doesn’t get tenure because of those lies the Harvard Herald printed, she’ll be devastated.  Joe won’t let that happen. You know what a protective big brother he’s always been.”  
 
The lesson?  If needed, you can impart information to the reader if you word the dialogue carefully.
 
word countDispensable dialogue (or, empty, wordcount-building dialogue)
           
“Good morning, Joe,” Sharon said, seeing her friend approaching down the hallway. “How are you today?”
“Fine, Sharon, and you?”
Sharon smiled warmly. “I couldn’t be better. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”
“Sure is. Couldn’t ask for better. Makes you want to skip work and go on a picnic.”
“It sure does,” she said, glancing at her watch. “Oh, well, back to the grindstone. Nice seeing you, Joe.”
“Nice seeing you, too, Sharon. Tell Steve ‘hello’ for me, would you?”
“I sure will, and please give Tammy my best.”
“I will. Well, have a nice day.”
“You, too. Bye-bye.”
 
(While the above exchange is technically okay, it’s boring and does absolutely nothing to reveal character, show conflict, or propel the plot.)
writing image 
 
 
A Reminder
 
Dialogue is an invented language (not a reproduction of how people actually speak; it’s the writer’s job to create effective, believable dialogue for the reader).
 
Dialogue is action and conflict (characters interacting with one another).        
           
Dialogue is drama (the story is unfolding, or moving forward by what the characters say).
           
Dialogue is immediate scene (characters are on-stage, acting out scenes before the reader’s eyes).
 
Closing Words from author P.G. Wodehouse
 
“[A]lways get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”