Why every man must read a romance – and every woman a thriller

In college, wise men with Einstein hair stood in front of lecture halls to tell you literature isn’t really about verbs, adverbs and dangling modifiers. No. Beneath the surface, lit-rah-sure asks a fundamental question that some believe is just as important as religion or science.

That question is this: “What’s worth living for, and what’s worth dying for?”

Nine words.

But I’m not banging on the keyboard late at night, powered by industrial amounts of coffee, to channel those old men wearing corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows. My closet contains no corduroy whatsoever.

I’m here to talk about those nine words, and why it leads me to one inescapable conclusion: that I do, in fact, know how to spell “inescapable.” Bit surprising. Thought I’d muff that one.

Note: I know there are men who not only read romance novels, but write them. Same thing with thrillers: plenty of women read them and author great thrillers. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some of those authors. In this post, I’m trying to make the case that people shouldn’t stubbornly stick to their favorite genre. Venture forth. Surprise the good people at Barnes and Noble with the breadth of your bookish selections.

Why every man must read a romance

Not to pick up girls–and not, if you’re married, to improve your odds of staying out of the dog house.

Every man should read a romance for an entirely different reason. It’s the first part of the question, the bit about, “What’s worth living for?”

You could walk into (1) a cubicle farm, (2) factory break room or (3) sports bar and show ten random single men a photo from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and ask them, drunk or not, whether they would marry this swimsuit model. I’m only half kidding when I say some of those men would shrug and say, “Sure.” Because we men can be stupid that way.

HOWEVER: We need to get over it, and start thinking about these sorts of things. And yes, a fine first step would be reading a romance novel. Watching a rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey, who’s last name is impossible to spell, does not count. Neither does firing up Netflix for SEX AND THE CITY 3: SARA JESSICA PARKER SHOPS FOR PURSES IN PARIS.

You must read an actual romance novel, with words and sentences, though I’ll leave it up to you whether it involves Men in Kilts.

On the surface, sure, romances are about relationships. How two people meet, how they fall in love, all that.

Beneath that, romances are often about a massively important choice: Who should you commit to and love?

And that, my friends, is the biggest decision you make in life. 

Nothing else comes close. Not where you go to college, what career you chose, where you pick to live. No other decision comes close.

Classics like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE feature a lot of talking, thinking and scheming about who should get matched up with who. At first I thought this was a lot of gossipy gossip nonsense. But it’s not. These choices are hard, and they mirrored real life. Back then, who a woman married meant everything. It wasn’t like folks had a lot of career choices and birth control options. Could this man be a good provider not just for one or two children, like people might have today. Back then, it could be eight or ten kids. If I were a woman in those days, listen, I’d be insanely careful about this choice. So yeah, there’s a good reason stories back then often featured the archetype of a handsome prince. Tell me that story. Let me live that dream, not the one where I die in squalor giving birth to child No. 9.

High stakes back then. High stakes now, and a big deal for everyone involved.

Who should you marry and have kids with? Can’t think of a bigger decision, and it’s definitely worth thinking about, if not agonizing over. 

A lot of men tend to avoid talking about love and relationships. It makes them uncomfortable. 

I feel lucky. Also, my beautiful and brilliant wife devours novels like candy, including not just lit-rah-sure but romances of all shapes and sizes, and our house is full of books. So I know enough to be dangerous: that there are romances which really dive into the struggle to choose between two different partners and that it’s cheating to make one a villain and one a hero. That there are romances where the choice is binary: is this relationship going to happen at all, which is the A story in ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE.

All of these choices must have merits and demerits. BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY makes you think twice about the handsome bad boy and take a second look at Colin the Firth and his ugly Christmas sweater.

There’s a long list of stories diving into that decision. They’re worth reading, and watching, and talking about.

Because in the end, a lot of people figure out “What’s worth living for?” isn’t about money, fame or spending more time at the office.

Life’s about picking somebody you love and maybe starting a family with them.

Pick wisely, men. Get all the help you can get, and not from your buddies, because they’ll say things like “Dude, the choice is obvious: Kelly the waitress with the sweet Mustang, unless you want to cruise around town in Sarah the lawyer and her hand-me-down minivan.”

Why every woman MUST read a thriller

Thrillers answer the second half of the question: “What’s worth dying for?”

These days, men and women serve in the military, as firefighters and police officers. Which is as it should be. And if you answer the call to serve — as a firefighter or homicide detective, a Marine or a smokejumper, a coal miner or logger — there’s a chance you’ll die on the job.

The question is, how often do you roll the dice? When do you decide something is worth dying for?

Thrillers answer that question in a visceral way, with the stakes raised as high as they go.

  • Should you answer the call of your country and fight a war, taking the lives of other young men with families of their own, and possibly coming home in a body bag yourself — even if you suspect the war is wrong?
  • If a serial killer kidnaps your daughter, do you put your faith in the cops — or turn your CIA training loose and go after the whackjob yourself, despite the risk? Liam Neeson votes for hunting down whackjob kidnappers, which only happens to him every other month.
  • Should your family suffer under the oppressive fist of a planet-destroying dictatorship, or will you risk your freedom and life by joining the rebellion, which probably has the same chance of victory as the Seattle Mariner’s have of winning the World Series?
  • When the only hope to save the world is to get on an armored space shuttle with Bruce Willis, fly to an asteroid, drill deep inside and set off a nuclear explosion, will you go on that suicide mission, knowing that you probably won’t come back, or will you stay behind to enjoy one last week of picnics and bottles of Riesling with Liv Tyler before the world goes kaboom?

Just as betrayal is a common theme in romances, it’s also a huge element to thrillers. Because there’s nothing worse than doing dangerous, deadly work for a boss who is secretly an evil jerk. Not only did you get duped, but you did dangerous things, maybe violent and murderous things, for the wrong cause.

Even though it’s a cliche, there’s truth to the typical action movie nonsense about a lone wolf detective, Green Beret or assassin who’s weary and retired from the game. It takes a lot to convince him (or her) to return to work, having lost faith that all the suffering and sacrifice is worth it. Too many good people have died already. Often, the story proves this to be right. The weary warrior is a cog in the machine, a machine that sees everyone as disposable. And is that worth dying for? No. 

Action movies and thrillers are about the need to make that choice decisively and wisely. There’s no “I’ll go halfway with you on this assault the Death Star thing.” You only die once, except in Bond movies, though I’m not exactly sure why Bond gets to die twice. I do know this: Bond has terrible taste in women. Are they beautiful? Sure. But after they sleep with him, they all turn up dead. EVERY TIME.

Not your usual sitcom nonsense

All this is why romances and thrillers can be epic. The stakes are high and the emotions are visceral. It’s not the usual nonsense you see in a sitcom every night, where Bart Simpson shoplifts for the first time and in 30 minutes learns the important life lesson that stealing is wrong, wrong, wrong. Roll credits.

Harry Potter is really one big long thriller about whether Harry will get Voldemort — a serial killer who happens to be a wizard — before Voldemort gets him.

STAR WARS takes an unexpected twist, with a father sacrificing his life to save his son and free a galaxy from oppression. I expected the new Death Star to simply get blown up in an even fancier explosion than the first time. I did not expect Darth the Vader to toss Emperor Wrinkly Face of the Lightning Fingers down an endless shaft. A father’s love turned out to be the biggest deal in the end. Interesting, though having Darth Vader be a sad old man with a wussy voice was a let-down. J.J. Abrams, I have faith that you’ll do better.

There’s a reason why many thrillers start out with a family being slaughtered and the lone survivor setting out to avenge them. You’re taking away what’s worth living for, and that leads the hero to answer the question of what’s worth dying for. Your family and kids mattered. You can’t let that slide, and you won’t.

Thrillers aren’t as compelling when the hero is aloof and the mission has nothing to do with his emotions, family or country, when it’s just a job where the hero is busy looking cool while wearing sunglasses and shooting guns. There’s nothing behind it. It’s flat and empty. And yes, though I love the Bond movies, they suffer from this. Bond rarely suffers or grows as a person, unless it’s Daniel Craig, who turned out to be a great Bond because he plays up the damage the job does to a person.

Everybody wants something worth living for, to dedicate themselves wholly and completely to something, because otherwise, what’s the point of waking up, fighting traffic and slaving away in a cubicle for thirty years until you die, right? People get that. It’s why people become obsessive fans of the Green Bay Packers or STAR TREK, why people dedicate themselves to politics, religion or a cause. Some folks divert this urge into collecting every Beanie Baby every made. Don’t.

Great stories, whether movies or books, speak to this need to matter, to belong, to put a stamp on life, to give your all, even if it’s bonkers.

And truly great stories take us deeper.

Harry the Hedonist will argue that lovers leave you, husbands divorce you, kids randomly get leukemia, and in the end, we all die, so pass the wine and live it up.

Isaac the Idealist says you should dedicate yourself to great ideas and institutions, which are the only things that last.

Ned the Nihilist trumps that with, “Nothing truly lasts. Institutions don’t care about you and even a killer asteroid, nuclear war or homicidal robots from the future fail to destroy us, the sun will eventually turn into a red giant, doing a burnt-toast number on earth before ruining THE ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD by going supernova.”

Do I have video? Yes I do.

But if nothing truly lasts, there’s no point in sacrificing friends and family for an institution or an idea. Be good to others. Do the right thing. Love with all your heart. Or use two cows on a silly blog to explain all of politics and philosophy. (The world explained by TWO COWS)

These questions are tough, interesting and complicated. And every tough, complicated problem has an easy, simple-to-understand wrong answer.

You can get into these kinds of questions with romances and thrillers in a way that Philosophy 402 classes simply can’t touch. Because if you put human faces and names behind the ideas, and real emotions, the neat logic about the deontological notion of equal treatment versus the greatest good for the greatest number turns to dust.

Also, take it from Plato and every dictatorship on the planet: literature and stories are the most powerful, and dangerous, way to talk about ideas. That’s why evil governments burn books and censor movies.

So if you haven’t read a romance, pick something that won an award, or one with Fabio on the cover. But grab one. 

And if you haven’t read a thriller, grab one of those.  My personal favorite is the Reacher series by Lee Child, who should be sending me kickbacks by now.

Then start a literary knife fight in the comment section about Men in Kilts versus Haunted Homicide Detectives Who Are Allergic to Razors.

Plot Ninja – story structure made easy

My library contains Every Book on Writing Known to Man or Woman–journalism, speechwriting, fiction, rhetoric, grammar, speechy journalism, ficitonal rhetoric, whatever–and honestly, they’re mostly good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

I’m only half kidding. 

The secret to all writing is structure and editing, and the absolute best in the world at structure are these magical creatures called screenwriters.

This is why I hope readers of this silly blog watch the video above (yeah, you skipped it? watch the thing) and check out my sister’s new course, Plot Ninja.

Don’t do it because she’s my sister, or because she’s brilliant and funny.

Do it because writers of any sort need to steal everything they can from screenwriters.

Because all those different writing books in my library, and yours, are a lot like instruction manuals for plumbing, electrical wiring, drywall, cabinetry and painting. Yeah, that stuff is really important–but not at first.

Here’s the thing: writing anything is like building a house: sure, you can throw together a little shed made of two-by-fours and drywall, and it might hold up for bit, but try to build a house like that and it’ll fall down after the first rain.

None of it matters without a strong foundation and framing, and the only way to get that right is with strong blueprints.

Who actually knows the secrets of story blueprints?

Screenwriters.

Nobody is better. It’s not even close.

Not because they’re the most talented writers. Not because some of them get paid bazillions of dollars.

It’s because screenwriters focus, relentlessly, on the only thing you see in screenplays: the blueprints of a story.

Nobody else teaches the bones of storytelling like screenwriters.

Listen, I have a journalism degree and wrote thousands of newspaper stories. Have a background in rhetoric and have written thousands and thousands of speeches, then I write thrillers for fun. Somebody taught me the structures for journalism, speechwriting and fiction, right? Not in the way you think. A journalism degree with teach you the inverted pyramid and a lot about headlines and ethics and how to put together a newspaper or magazine. Structure and blueprints? Not really.

Same with speechwriting and fiction. You tend to get a lot more instruction about the fit and finish than the blueprints and foundation. 

I find that backward, so when I teach folks, I always start with blueprints and foundations. Tools you can use for whatever you write.

And all the best stuff I’ve learned about strong blueprints came from screenwriting and Pam.

Get the whole toolbox, not a single template

You’ll see a lot of people saying, “Here’s how to write X or Y” and yeah, it’s one way to do it. 

Screenwriters have the whole toolbox and use it.

They don’t say, “This is the only way” unless they’re hawking the hero’s journey, which is not the only story in town. There are all kinds of stories: comedies and tragedies, dramas and melodramas, tales of transformation and redemption. 

Screenwriters have picked up every tool in the box and know all the ways of putting together stories.

And you can build them in all kinds of different ways. In fact, you have to. Try to plot a comedy in the same way as a drama, or a horror story, and it’ll flop.

Those hammers and drills and blueprints are useful for anything you write, whether it’s stories in newspapers and magazines or 200,000-word epics about an evil talking cat and his buddy, the seeing eye dog who’s seen too much, and what happens when they decide to go on a crime spree.

So I’ll try to post more of Pam’s videos about screenwriting every Wednesday, because they’re funny and useful.

And I hope you get as much out of them as I have.

Note: No, I’m not writing about that evil talking cat, his seeing eye dog and their crime spree, though it does sound like fun. 

Back from the dead!

No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.

I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.

So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.

I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.

To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.

(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks

If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.

Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.

There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:

  • Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
  • Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
  • Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
  • Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
  • Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES). 
  • Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
  • Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.

(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can

I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car. 

And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning. 

For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.

Look in those unexpected places.

Ask questions.

Answer questions from folks starting out.

The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.

Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.

Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.

(3) Take things apart to see how they work

If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.

That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?

What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?

Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”

Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

It takes no talent to do those things.

Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.

The best part.

And I hope this blog helps you do that.

The Mighty MacGuffin

If you’re a writer, you’ll need to use a MacGuffin now and then–and a MacGuffin generator is particularly important now, with upwards of a million writers cranking away every year on NaNoWriMo.

This is not a plot device. We’re talking about an item–and it doesn’t even have to really exist, or be seen–the hero and villain are fighting to obtain. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for using MacGuffins in his films. If the hero is on a quest, he needs to be questing for something. Really, it doesn’t matter what. It’s the journey that matters. Hitchcock has a nice way of getting into the topic.

You can see how movies and novels often revolve around a MacGuffin.

Indiana Jones always needs an item to find and fight over: an ark or a cup and so forth.

Spy movies need a microfilm containing the real names and identities of every undercover agent employed by the CIA, GRU or MI-6, with the good guys and bad guys both willing to do whatever it takes to find and destroy that MacGuffin, which the hero happens to pick up by accident in the luggage carousel at O’Hare.

Sci-fi novels need some kind of techno-babble MacGuffin, like a repulsive helix inverter, which can tweak your DNA or whatever and create an army of alien super soldiers.

Fantasy movies need a magical ring that turns you invisible but does nothing about your big hairy feet or the fact you’re the size of a smurf, or maybe an Enchanted Vorpal Sword of Infinite Sharpness that can lop off the head of the invincible Dragon of Instant Fiery Death that killed your father, uncle, grandfather, second cousin, first wife, baby sister and favorite horse.

Generator Number 1

Here’s a spiffy MacGuffin generator by Jordan McCollum.

Use it. Then visit her blog and show her some love. That’s how this thing works. Pay it forward.

Generator Number 2

Technically, this isn’t a generator. You don’t hit refresh on the browser to come up with another MacGuffin.

It’s more accurate to call this the Mother Lode of MacGuffins, with the entire history of the idea–plus with a massive list of the different flavors of MacGuffins with links that dive into each one. This site is a thing of beauty. 

What is your favorite MacGuffin of all time? And which film, TV show or novel wins the prize for Silliest MacGuffin of All Time? (Note: It’s cheating to go with Star Trek, where every other movie or episode involves dilithium crystal nonsense and the warp core.)

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Oh, it kills me to say this: we are doing it backwards.

Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. Perhaps you’re that rare writer who figured this out 10 years ago.

But I doubt it. Most of the writers that I know — novelists or journalists, speechwriters or screenwriters — go about it roughly the same way:

Step 1) Research, whether it’s six months of intense study or six minutes of looking at Wikipedia and playing Angry Birds “to let it all percolate.”

Step 2) Boil down the research into useful nuggets of meaty goodness.

Step 3) Use their secret recipe of writing methods to cook up their piece (outlining first or winging it, 3 x 5 index cards or spiral notebook, Word 2016 or Scrivener, one draft or six drafts, coffee or bourbon).

Step 4) Hand the draft to our editor, writing partner, spouse, co-worker or cousin Joey to get all coffee stained and edited. 

Step 5) Spend five or fifty minutes thinking about how to present and sell the sucker for suitcases stuffed with twenties.

Those first four steps, they’re essential, right?

Here’s the thing: We writers are incredibly talented at screwing up Step 5.

Backward is bad

Step 5 is the monster lurking under our typewriters. (Yes, I know most of you use computers. Maybe I have a magic typewriter connected to the Series of Tubes.)

It’s the troll under the bridge, snarfing our lunch and saying, “Whatcha gonna do about it, tough guy?”

Now, boiling down a novel clocking in at 100,000 pages is rough. I have author friends who’d rather leap out of a perfectly good airplane, trusting in the bouncy power of their Nike Air Jordans, than write a three-page synopsis. Tagline? Logline? Forgetaboutit.

Doing Step 5 for anything, long or short, is tough.

Tough for screenwriters, who need to boil it down to an elevator pitch.

Tough for editors in newsrooms, who have to write headlines that fit into tiny nooks and corners of the newspaper layout.

Yet nothing else matters if we botch Step 5. Because nobody will see the fruits of our labors, the hard work that went into Steps 1 through 4, if we can’t condense the whole idea into a killer pitch and hook.

Reversing course

Instead of performing the labors of Hercules before even attempting the torture of Step 5, reverse course.

Start there.

Before you invest hours, days,  weeks or months into research. Before you sweat bullets to put words on page after page.

Begin with the shortest and most important words.

The  logline (or pitch, but in a sentence, not a paragraph) — “An alien monster stalks the trapped crew of a spaceship.”

The tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”

The headline – “Alien devours spaceship crew; heading for Earth?”

Test that out, not with friends and family, who are constrained by the need to live with you, and be liked by you.

Try that single sentence on people in line at Safeway or Starbucks, neighbors you barely know, visitors from out of town, tourists, people who won’t wound you forever if they make a face and tell you the idea is stupid.

And to get inspiration, use the series of tubes to check out “movie loglines” and “movie taglines” and “great headlines.” Or head to The Onion and read their headlines, which are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

Don’t do a thing until you have a logline, tagline and headline that sing.

Not one thing. Don’t spend six months writing a first draft or six minutes plotting the first chapter.

Go do it. Throw ideas around on a piece of paper or whatever — and not about whatever you’re working on. Dream up a few crazy ideas and write down loglines, taglines and headlines that are shorter than short. Then kill every word you can to make them shorter.

You’re going to notice a few things.

First, the hero doesn’t matter.

Second, the villain matters a whole bunch. If you remove the villain and threat, it kills the logline, tagline and headline. Because stories — even newspaper stories — are about conflict. No villain, no conflict. But if you take out the hero, it usually makes the logline a lot shorter and a lot better.

Here’s another example I’ve used before and will use again, because it is short and sweet and the logline for about six movies that have already been made: “Asteroid will destroy Earth.”

See? We don’t need Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (Matt Damon‘s buddy, the one who dates & marries Jennifers) in there at all. Heroes just clutter things up.

Third, shorter is better. If you can get it down to three or four words, you are golden.

A new way to write

Let’s get practical. Here’s a new way to write anything.

New Step 1) Nail the logline, tagline and headline.

One sentence apiece, as few words as possible, and yes, it is cheating to have sentences that go on and on forever, sentences with six different commas and possibly semi-colons, which are a sin against the English language in the first place and should be taken out and shot.

New Step 2) Make it work as a paragraph.

Expand it a little, but not too much. Half a page, maximum.

New Step 3) Nail it as an outline on ONE PAGE, treating each side fairly.

Whether you’re writing an oped or an opera, a novel or a speech, figure out the biggest possible difference between the beginning and the end — and do it from both POV’s. The villain and the hero.

So: if it’s a romance where the heroine ends up as a great cook who’s happy and in a great relationship, what’s the greatest possible distance she can travel? On page 1, make her  (a) the worst cook in the world, (b) unhappy and (c) alone. How can you take that up a notch? Make her a nun who loses her sense of smell (and therefore taste) in a car accident. I’m half kidding, but not really. You get the idea. 

If the ending is crazy happy, the beginning better be insanely sad.

If the ending is full of sad, the beginning should be Happyville.

If the hero is a tough guy in the end, the best story shows him start out weak. Only after he suffers and sacrifices does he prevail (THE KARATE KID), and not necessarily by wining (ROCKY).

And you’ve got to make it a fair fight. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. The other side — whether it’s an speech about taxes or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — has a point. If you don’t give it credence, your writing will be one-sided and weak. Cartoonish.

I used ALIEN before. What’s the story for the alien creatures? Maybe they’re a dying race. Maybe that crashed ship contains the last of their kind. The stakes just got a lot higher for the alien, right? You are our only hope, little facehugger. Get in that ship and lay some eggs.

Put yourself in the shoes of Darth Vader and the Emperor, who don’t see themselves as enslaving the galaxy. They’re helping people by establishing law and order. If nobody is in charge, it’s chaos and confusion. A strong empire means safety, security and economic growth. The rebels are violent terrorists who don’t appreciate what they have and will kill whoever it takes to gain power.

Now figure out your turning points. Put in your setups and payoffs. Make it work as an outline before you move on.

New Step 4) Research only what you need.

New Step 5) Write and have a professional editor bleed red ink on the pages until the draft is A SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS. 

You’ll notice that what used to be an afterthought — Step 5 in the original way of writing — becomes the first three steps.

I did that on purpose.

Say you write a beautiful oped, 700 magnificent words about why the death penalty should be abolished or whatever. Now you’ve got to pick up the phone and pitch an editor at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times.

The first five seconds (aside from the “hello!” nonsense) will determine if they even look at the piece. Maybe six or seven words, if you talk fast. Part of that will be confidence, tone of voice and other things you can’t learn via a blog post.

Your pitch, though, will matter. A lot. A great speaker with a muddled pitch will lose out to a mumbler with a tremendous idea they can convey in four words. That’s what a logline, headline and tagline are really about, three different ways of explaining something in the fewest possible words.

Hollywood calls this five-second kind of thing “the elevator pitch.” There are websites that devote many, many words to it. Use the powers of the google and check them out. They are useful.

Bottom line: those four words matter more than all 700 words of the oped, all 3,000 of the keynote speech, all 15,000 of the screenplay or all 100,000 of your epic novel about elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs.

Make those four words count.

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

reading, books, types of stories

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”

There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

You’ve been done wrong, bamboozled, hornswoggled 

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day. These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager fanboys there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story.

You can set a novel or movie a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add dragons, trolls or elves with lightsabers and it’s still the same story in a different setting and context.

Because in the end, story is about structure–how you put the pieces together. Is the ending up, down or mixed? What are the setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations?

They don’t really teach us structure or storytelling

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they all three classic movies are the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you.

Period. End of story.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which have silly titles and a cover with a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He’s not pompous, arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

If you write, and care about your craft, go buy his book. DO IT NOW. Then come back here to talk smack about structure, the real secret to writing of all sorts.

Romance novelists are a secret, epic army

Let it be known: we men must rethink our natural manly instinct that romance novels are something to ignore or avoid, like SEX AND THE CITY 2, which is indeed worthy of scorn, and woe unto any man whose girlfriend or wife coerced them into wasting two hours of their life to see that stupid thing. No bribe is sufficient.

Romance novelists are not only smart and funny, but many can write circles around most writers I know. These women are more talented than many folks writing about serial killers, elves or dinosaurs in spaceships (yes, this is a thing, try the googles) simply because there is so much freaking competition with romance novels.

Are there bad romance novels out there? Sure, just like any genre. But with so many books and writers, it’s like throwing 10,000 authors into the Thunderdome, tossing in a single chainsaw and refusing to unlock the door until there’s only one woman left. That woman is going to kick tail. She will be a writing goddess.

And the message is good. Romance novels don’t want men to be to be office drones, worried about TPS reports, or moody, over-educated basket cases like the men you read about in literary novels.

Romance novels want men of action and charm, packing swords if not guns, and sometimes guns and swords. Any man can learn this from hitting checking out romance novel covers. IT IS AN EDUCATION.

romance novels, fabio, romance novelists, rwa
Fabio and a sword is all you need. Shirts are optional.

Another bonus: romance is the largest part of the book business, which we need more than ever. If you care about books, literature and ideas instead of whatever is on the glowing tube today about the Kardashian idiots, you want to keep a healthy foundation of romance in the world’s fortress of books.

If we are truly men of action, we should band together, pool our resources and give romance novels serious tax subsidies. I’m not kidding here. Because romance authors and readers are a secret army doing a $16.5 billion public relations campaign for men everywhere. And, yes, the genre is bigger than that. It’s a big push for love of all stripes, which is a good thing, damn it. Life isn’t about having the biggest pile of dead presidents. It’s about family and who you love. As a husband and father, I get that.

So, romance novelists and readers, I am holding a mug of Belgium beer, which I raise your direction. Keep up the good work.

The Red Pen of Doom reluctantly nukes THE GREAT GATSBY

I take great pleasure in dissecting the first page of Popular Novels Which Actually Stink, or finding first pages that absolutely sing and figuring out why they’re so glorious.

The first page matters. A few examples:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

By request, today we’re taking on page one of a classic of lit-RAH-sure: THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Sidenote: There are 5,832 various editions and such, so you’re page one may end on a different sentence and such. I tried to stop at the end of a paragraph, though as this is an older book, back when paragraphs lasted longer than most CBS sitcoms, this is kinda hard.

THE GREAT GATSBY

In my younger and more vulnerable years, (missing a comma here) my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, (this feels like odd, unplanned repetition of the “any one” in the previous graf, so strike “any”) but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. (Listen, we’re on the third graf already, and I’m not inclined to reserve all judgment, seeing how you’re coming off like a veteran bore.) The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was became privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.; for the intimate revelations (“intimate relations” twice in this sentence, so close together, doesn’t work at all) of young men, or at least The terms in which they express them, (comma deleted) are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, (here we get repetition with a purpose for once and it does work) a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. (This is an awkward mouthful)

THOUGHTS: This is 100 percent interior monologue, which isn’t required by law to be boring. Though it sure leans that way.

Maybe it sets the mood.

However: If you’re basing a tragic hero’s entire motivation for making a ton of money to become a rich snob to impress a girl he loved and lost, and you’re hell-bent on starting page one with interior monologue about backstory, MAKE IT ABOUT THE GIRL.

Not the narrator. Not the narrator’s dad.

Not boring people who tell the narrator secrets while he pretends to sleep.

Make it all about the girl and Gatsby.

A huge part of the novel is throwing fancy parties to impress each other, right? I’m going off my memory from doing my own term papers on this thing. Never saw the movies. And when I do a first page, I try NOT to cheat by reading plot summaries and such, even if I’ve read the book.

Put a gun to my head and I’d delete this first page and start with the real inciting incident, which should be Gatsby and the narrator meeting the girl at a party way back when, so you can echo that later.

Or make it about about a small betrayal, from college or back during the war, to foreshadow the bigger betrayals and tragedies to come.

VERDICT: Doesn’t make me want to read more, which I wouldn’t unless the English 101 prof gave me no choice.

Sorry, F. Scott F.–can’t lie and say I liked this. Nuke the first page and go with a better hook.

Why writing is EXACTLY like running, except for the part about words

Most of the folks who follow this silly blog are creative types–novelists, editors, journalists, photographers and other brilliant, beautiful people.

So let’s talk about creativity.

Are the arts a habit? Or does the muse randomly descend upon your noggin, so long as you make the right sacrifices and entreaties?

Though my love for the muse is strong, I’m making the case for habit.

All the way.

Because writing–and other creative work–is a hell of a lot like running. Here’s why.

1) The more you do it, the easier it gets

You can take classes about writing (or running), read books, watch videos and listen to experts.

In the end, though, there’s no substitute to getting off your duff and doing it.

And the more you write, or run, the easier it gets.

The first time you run a mile, or write something Serious, it’s painful.

Sometimes so painful that you question why anyone would do this ever again.

But then the next time, you run two miles, or write something twice as long, and it only hurts half as much.

Creativity is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

2) You can’t save up and go wild

It’s far, far easier to write 500 words a day, or run 5 miles five days a week, then tell yourself, “Hey, I’m busy this week, but on the weekend, I’ll crank out 2,500 words of that novel or run 25 miles.”

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: trying to cram it all into a weekend, or a single day, is setting yourself up to fail.

A mile a day is easy. You can walk it.

Same thing with 100 words, which you can do with a stubby pencil and the back of an envelope while hanging upside down on a roller coaster.

Two miles a day is still easy, just as 200 words a day is a breeze.

The difficulty goes up exponentially.

Famous novelists in history like Hemingway used to count their words religiously, by hand. They didn’t have a button on Word that did the work for them. And they’d quit for the day after hitting a target like 500 words.

Doesn’t sound like much. Yet that 500 a day is huge.

If you write 500 words a day, every day, that’s 182,500 words a year.

Three novels, unless you’re doing sagas about elves and dragons and such, in which case congrats on finishing that prologue. (I say that out of love.)

Sure, on good days you’ll crank out 1,000 words, and on great days you’ll hit 2,000 and if you’re absolutely on fire, congrats and 4,000.

It’s just that you can’t count on 2,000 words a day, every day, week after week.

Same thing with running. I can do 5 miles maybe three days a week, and work up to four or five days a week after a month or two.

Might do ten miles once a week, if I’m feeling it.

Ten miles a day, every day, isn’t realistic.

Resting all week and running 25 miles on Sunday? Nopity nope nope. Ain’t happening.

3) Loud music and solitude

There are writers I know who can’t write unless the door is closed, to get rid of that feeling that somebody is behind them.

Unless you have a twin, or a great friend who’s in exactly the same shape as you, it’s tough finding a running partner who goes at the same pace and is available to run whenever you can cram it in.

Writing and running are both made for headphones and solitude.

This is one area where running and writing diverge, since I don’t write anything Serious without a fresh cup of joe, while running five or ten miles while carrying a coffee mug hasn’t worked out yet.

4) Coaching, advice and gear isn’t everything, but it sure helps

It’s possible to write only using a pen and legal pads.

Somebody could run barefoot, every day, and be faster than a sedentary person running once a week wearing $225 shoes.

HOWEVER: good coaching, tips and equipment help.

I type faster on an ergonomic keyboard and run faster with good shoes.

Scrivener is better than Word, which is better than a legal pad.

And in both things, there’s always something to learn. One of the wisest men I know says, “Whenever I meet somebody, I learn something.”

Never think asking for advice is a flashing neon sign telling the world you’re an amateur.

Coaching, advice and gear gets more important the better you get at writing or running.

Professional runners and writers don’t tell people, “Yeah, I do this for a living, which makes me an expert, so why would I ask people for help or advice?”

The opposite is true, with the best professionals in the world seeking out the MOST coaching and help, since even a 1 percent boost to their performance matters.

5) Mixing it up is essential

You don’t run the same route, distance and pace every time. You do a hill day, a sprint day, a distance day.

Same thing with writing. There’s great benefit to mixing up what you do and layering it all together.

Journalists should try fiction.

Novelists should give poetry a go.

Screenwriters can gain from checking out rhetoric and speechwriting.

And there’s an order to how you write or train.

Runners and other athletes do workouts in certain progressions: start slow and build up volume. Rest, stretch, massage, ice, heat. It’s not the same thing every day.

Writers have their own progressions. You can’t write and edit at the same time, just like you can’t run and stretch in the same minute. These things happen in series, not parallel.

6) Deadlines focus the mind

Without deadlines, it’s easy to meander along. There’s always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Deadlines make things happen.

I’m running more and more often, and for longer distances, due to a looming deadline: a half marathon in September.

Same thing is true with writing, where deadlines rules.

For the month of August, I did a little experiment. Could I write one post on this silly blog every day, put down at least 500 words a day on the new novel–plus train for the half marathon?

Running got easier, every time. Two miles turned into three miles, then five, six, seven, nine, ten–it flowed.

Without that half-marathon coming up, I would’ve been happy doing five miles forever, and never tested myself to see if nine or 10 would kill me.

Though I missed one Friday with the blog, I doubled up on a different day for 31 posts in 31 days. NOT TOO SHABBY. Pretty sure that’s the most I’ve posted in any month since the dawn of time.

And on the novel, I cranked out 15 chapters, which works out to half a chapter a day, every day.

For structure geeks, that’s 15 chapters out of 36 total in a four-act structure, with nine chapters per act.

Three chapters shy of half a novel is a beautiful, beautiful month.

You don’t complain about that, unless you want the Writing Gods to strike you down with lightning after opening a sinkhole beneath your feet.

I raise my glass to August, for it was Good.

Not good because the muse decided to bless me.

Good because habit, discipline and dedication beats inspiration. Every single time.

The Red Pen of Doom destroys A SHORE THING by Snooki

Listen: the first page of a book shares something in common with the first moments of a song, the first five minutes of a movie, the first date, the first dance, the first steps of your first-born child.

It should be magic.

Raw and beautiful. Powerful and pure.

So on this silly blog, I pay particular attention to the first page of novels. Because you can bet Grandpa’s farm and every cow in sight that a brilliant page one foreshadows a good book, while a terrible collection of clichés and drivel on the first page will not suddenly improve by page 302 to make us laugh, cry and change our life forever.

The first page matters. Behold:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

Today, we take on A SHORE THING, allegedly written by Snooki, though we all know she didn’t actually write it.

A professional ghostwriter did the boring “typing of words” part. Snooki did the hard work of cashing the check.

You will be shocked to learn her fellow castmates also got publishing deals, with Jwoww and The Situation also getting checks from publishers to put their infamous names on book-like substances.

Many trees gave their lives to give their words life.

I will pour one out for those trees tonight.

Here’s the text of page one, with edits and comments in red:

A SHORE THING

Life was hard. But a pouf? That should be easy. (Whoa, starting out a novel with a three-word cliché is a bold, bold move. Risky. And it doesn’t pay off here. Because anybody who says “life is hard” and follows that with an extended riff on the difficulties of Big Hair doesn’t actually have a hard life at all.)

Giovanna “Gia” Spumanti was a hair-raising pro. She’d been banging out poufs since age eleven, or as soon as her fingers were long enough to hold a bottle of Deluxe Aqua Net. (Maybe this is intentional, but the innuendo in the first two sentences of this graf is more juvenile than clever.) After ten years of trial and error to find the right combination of spray, twisting, and shine serum, Gia could add four inches to her overall height—which as five feet flat, she could use. Gia’s pouf defied the laws of gravity. It was her crowning glory. (“Crowning glory”–oh, how punny. Please riff on that more in the next sentence.) Although she’d love to wear an actual crown (here we go, as the prophecy foretold) of rhinestone tiara whenever she left the house, it just wasn’t practical. It could fly off on the dance floor and take out an eye. The pouf, however, wasn’t going anywhere (but up). (Wait: seriously? This is like one of those bad SNL skits with one joke they repeat for 10 minutes.)

Tonight, humidity was a bitch. Her thick black mane refused to cooperate. Gia brushed it out to start over—again—feeling discouraged. Her first night out in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, she wanted to present the best version of herself. Hundreds of guys would get a look at her, and she’d be searching among them for her near future fling(s). (I read a ton of fiction, and non-fiction, and this is the weirdest use of parantheticals I’ve seen in forever. Doesn’t work. Also, protags should be likable, and this graf of backstory just makes the reader see the protag as completely self-absorbed.) After the year she had back home in Brooklyn—landing and losing a couple of jobs and boyfriends—she deserved the sexiest summer ever.

Gia hoisted the front section of her hair, holding it high over her head with one hand.

COMMENTS

I binge-watched the first season of JERSEY SHORE while visiting my sister in H’wood, so I know enough to be dangerous about Snooki, The Situation and the entire sordid thing.

And no, this novel meant to be lit-RAH-sure.

However: Entertaining trash should still be entertaining, and well-done. This first page is neither.

In this sort of story, sure, you’re going to get a lot of interior monologue, including self-centered nonsense like this.

A full page about hair, though, is a bit much even if you put it in the middle of this kind of novel.

Dedicating the entire opening page to hair and backstory, plus backstory about the hair? My God. 

Here’s the lesson I take from this hot mess: life is hard, and what’s even harder is turning a reality show villain into a fictional hero.

Because that’s what the stars of JERSEY SHORE are: comic villains absolutely swimming in a sea of nasty hubris.

Every comedy targets an institution.

Your average sitcom pokes fun at families, marriage, kids and suburban life.

M*A*S*H* attacks the military and war.

FRIENDS put the bull’s eye on young singles.

The producers of JERSEY SHORE knew Snooki, The Situation and the rest of the gang were comic villains. They’re only fun to watch to see what kind of trouble happens, and every piece of trouble is far from random. Nobody gets hit by a bus while they’re using a crosswalk. Every episode is all about chaos and craziness that comes straight from the hubris of cast members.

Who will get drunk and start a bar fight?

Who’s so desperate tonight that they’ll hook up with anything and everything?

Which member of the cast is such a self-absorbed dipstick that they’ll get on the phone and try to order a pizza or a cab and give his last name as “Situation” and first name as “The”?

I haven’t read the rest of A SHORE THING and never will.

The feeling I get, though, is this is meant to be a comic romp, with the Snooki character, Gia, set up as the protag. That we’re supposed to laugh with her instead of laughing at her.

Sorry. Comedy doesn’t work like that.

VERDICT: Kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit.

Welcome to the age of the meta-story

There’s a disturbing trend in Hollywood where studio execs would rather greenlight movies based on board games and toys from the ’80s than original ideas.

Yet I’m not overly worried about getting swamped with a sea of sequels to BATTLESHIP or RAMPAGE.

The deeper, more enduring trend in books, movies and video games? Meta-stories.

STAR WARS, HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Batman Arkham games, WESTWORLD, GAME OF THRONES–they best series are true meta stories.

Notice I didn’t list some big franchises, like the STAR TREK reboot, the DC non-universe and the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: TOM CRUISE DOES ALL HIS OWN STUNTS movies. They don’t fall in the same category.

So what’s a meta-story?

A book or movie can have sequels with the same hero (or group of heroes and sidekicks) without being a meta-story. Think of 99 percent of most shows on HBO, Netflix or this thing I called “network television.” They’re episodic. Sure, it’s the same universe and same characters. The stories being told, though, are separate and distinct.

This is why you can binge-watch LAW AND ORDER: PICK A SERIES, ANY SERIES, WE HAVE LOTS and it doesn’t matter if they skip around seasons and whatnot.

This is also why you can take all 20-some of the Reacher novels by Lee Child (my fav) and read them in any order. Because yes, Reacher is in every one of them, but otherwise, they aren’t really that connected. Separate stories each time. Different villains, different themes, different locations.

Meta-story is the difference between Marvel owning a license to print money while DC, with better characters (they have Batman, for God’s sake) struggles and reshoots and just can’t get it going.

Building the beast

It’s simple, really. Forget about the hero.

Yes, the hero is what people focus on, typically. That’s the star of the show, right?

Meta-stories often don’t have a singular hero. Think about Marvel–there are dozens of heroes.

The acid test, the way to see whether a series of books and movies is episodic or a meta-story, is to look at the villain(s).

Is it Villain-of-the-Week or does the series feature One Big Baddie?

HARRY POTTER is all about Voldemort, who’s winning the whole time until Harry literally dies and comes back to beat him.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS has a fellowship of heroes–not a singular hero–facing off against One Big Baddie who happens to be a big glowing eye.

Marvel was brilliant in planting Infinity Stones in every movie and having Thanos lurking in the background the whole time as the One Big Baddie, a villain so good they’ve managed to do what, 20-some movies as part of this arc? Amazing.

 

You get the idea.

If you’re writing a series, just remember this: Villains rule, heroes drool.

The Red Pen of Doom takes on GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

go set a watchman

To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic novel that turned into an amazing film.

So when news broke that Harper Lee, who never published another novel, was coming out with a book-like object, and this book-like object would be a sequel to her big hit—well, that was huge.

It was also controversial, with sources saying Harper Lee never intended this to get published, that it was a draft, with the same characters later showing up in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

So here’s the first page, as printed on dead trees, and I allowed the last paragraph to actually finish instead of ending mid-sentence with “folding herself up” and such.

For previous posts bleeding red all over the first page of a novel, click away with your mousity mouse while enjoying some chocolate mousse:

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

The Red Pen of Doom harpoons MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

The Red Pen of Doom destroys FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

GO SET A WATCHMAN

Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched (We already know she’s looking and watching, so these words get slain.) The last of Georgia’s hills receded and the red earth appeared, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw (Looked, watched and saw all in the first paragraph, three shining beacons of bad writing, so let’s kill the last two.) her at the first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.

Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air, but she decided to go by train from New York to Maycomb Junction on her fifth annual trip home. (Now we go back in time for backstory, which is Boring and must die.) For one thing, she had the life scared out of her the last time she was on a plane: the pilot elected to fly through a tornado. (This would have been good in the present tense, as an exciting start to the novel: “So I’m flying through this tornado, wishing I’d taken the train.” Nope.) For another thing, flying home meant her father rising at three in the morning, driving a hundred miles to meet her in Mobile, and doing a full day’s work afterwards: he was seventy-two now and this was no longer fair. (More exposition and backstory without the barest hint of conflict.)

She was glad she had decided to go by train. Trains had changed since her childhood, and the novelty of the experience amused her: a fat genie of a porter materialized when she pressed a button on a wall; at her bidding a stainless steel washbasin popped out of another wall, and there was a john one could prop one’s feet on. (Nice imagery in the last line.) She resolved not to be intimidated by several messages stenciled around her compartment – a roomette, they called it – but when she went to bed the night before, she succeeded in folding herself up into the wall because she had ignored an injunction to PULL THIS LEVER DOWN OVER BRACKETS, a situation remedied by the porter to her embarrassment, as her habit was to sleep only in pajama tops.

End of Page 1

Notes from The Red Pen of Doom:

You don’t need Michael Bay explosions on every page, especially when we’re talking about lit-rah-sure.

But you do need problems. Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at them and let them find a way down. 

Jean Louise Finch (Scout) doesn’t get up a tree on this page one. There are no rocks aimed at her head, no suspense or trouble at all, unless you count the porter possibly walking in on Scout wearing only her pajama tops, though that sort of situation belongs more in a book with Fabio on the cover. 

This page one is all description, exposition and backstory.

Later in the book, we learn our heroine is traveling by train to meet the man she’s being pushed into marrying. That’s a real conflict. Why not foreshadow that?

Put her back on a plane instead of the comfortable train, and give us that tornado again, with a first line about Scout gripping the arms of her chair as the pilot headed insanely through the edge of a tornado and she headed insanely back home to a marriage she didn’t want.

Give us something. Anything. 

Because I’m feeling kind, I didn’t get into the brutal reviews of this novel, ones by people who pay the mortgage by reading and reviewing book-like objects of all sorts, or the whole controversial shebang about changing Atticus Finch from an iconic hero into a villain who’s sympathetic to the KKK.

I’m simply going after the first page, and the only job of a page one page is to make readers turn to page two, then page three and finally page 288 or even, if it’s a Stephen King doorstopper, page 1,104.

This first page fails at that job. I have no interest in hearing more about the interior décor of this train, no desire to see more of the scenery flashing by and no hope that this story will get any more interesting as it chugs along.

Verdict: Put it to rest, gently, far from the spot of honor on the library shelf for To Kill a Mockingbird.

Why MAKE ME by Lee Child gets graded on a curve

MAKE ME by Lee Child

I can’t count how many hardcover Reacher novels line the top shelf of my library. Lee Child is that good.

MAKE ME is his latest novel about Reacher, and it’s also good.

Not bad. Not great.

Acceptable.

Once again, our hero is (a) wandering the small towns of America only to (b) bump into a beautiful girl with a gun who (c) is investigating Some Crazy Problem Involving This Small Town.

This is also the plot of about 17 other Reacher novels.

The towns change. The nature of the evil plot changes. The women change.

Reacher never does

Lee Child is one of my favorite authors, the greatest living thriller writer, and Reacher is a great character. The brain of Sherlock Holmes shoved into the body of the Hulk, funny, smart and tough. A great hero.

HOWEVER: Child isn’t stretching a single writing muscle here. Don’t think he even had to warm up.

It’s as if the devil snuck into his bedroom late one night and said, “If I promise you riches and fame, the price being you have to write the same book every year—year after year, until you die—do we have a deal?”

If we’re grading Child against other thriller authors, he gets an A.

But we’re not. There’s a huge body of work, that top shelf full of Reacher novels already written. MAKE ME sits among them.

Not bad. Not great.

Acceptable.

There is proof that Lee Child can blow expectations out of the water, when he does feel like stretching those writing muscles.

One of the few first-person POV novels he did, THE ENEMY, slayed me with clever clues, revelations and twists. I’ve read it again and again. A great mystery, and the only novel featuring Reacher in the Army.

That’s not a coincidence.

No such thing.

I hope the next novel picks up the mold in Reacher’s big, strong hands and smashes it against the asphalt. That it doesn’t feature a beautiful girl with a gun and a badge who teams up with Reacher, sleeps with him, takes down the bad guys and disappears, like all the others.

I hope the villain is memorable and, for once, a match for the hero. I hope Reacher has to truly suffer, sacrifice and change to actually win.

I hope.

Verdict: MAKE ME gets four out of five folding toothbrushes.

Related posts:

  • Six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK by Lee Child
  • ONE SHOT by Lee Child
  • Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller

Put your writing to the Screen Time Test

writing meme spiderman dear diary

While we are all busy BLOGGING, instead of writing what we’re supposed to, I want to steal a concept from Hollywood (thanks, sis!) that all writers can use: Screen Time.

This works for any bit of writing, whether it’s an oped in a paper of news, a 30-minute keynote speech about saving the three-toed sloths of Costa Rica or an epic doorstop of a novel clocking in at 984 pages entitled ELVES WITH LIGHTSABERS RIDING DRAGONS AND THE VAMPIRE WITCHES WHO LOVE THEM. (Note: Don’t speak of this, because it tempts me, and I may write the first chapter of that book, then email it around until we actually hold in our evil little hands 984 pages that eviscerates Game of Thrones, Twilight, the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings.)

So, back to the point: Screen Time is an essential test for any piece of writing.

I could put a gun to your head and ask, “What’s this novel / screenplay / letter to the editor really about?” and you might answer, “a time-traveling World War II nurse and the men in kilts who love her / waiting for some dude who never shows up / why the federal government is building secret tunnels underneath Wal-Marts in Texas to stage an invasion in cahoots with ISIS cells hiding in Mexico.”

And you might INTEND that to be the point of what you wrote.

The Screen Time Test will say if you’re a lying liar or not.

Movies are the easiest, so let’s go with AVENGERS: JAMES SPADER IS A SHINY ROBOT WHO HATES HUMANS. You take the heroes, sidekicks, villains, minions and nameless civilians in the film and add up the the number of minutes (or seconds) they actually show up on film. If you’re feeling insanely generous, add up minutes where other characters talk about them, too, though we may call you Cheaty McCheatypants. Continue reading “Put your writing to the Screen Time Test”

The Red Pen of Doom harpoons MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Now, this classic book is so ingrained in our culture that movies can get all deep and interesting simply by alluding to a metaphor–which is like a simile, only different–that refers to this doorstop of a book.

Like this: “Maybe I’m Ahab and he’s my white whale” uttered by Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST could change that movie from just another 120-minute shootout in a nursing home into a penetrating examination of the purpose or life, or lack thereof.

Does that make editing the first page of this thing any harder?

Not really. Bring it, Melville.

MOBY DICK

by Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael. (People have been riffing off it for so many years that those three words are invincible. Can’t touch this.) Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (This second line is also good. It makes the narrator a smidge unreliable, which is always interesting, and gives him a motive that everybody can relate to: being poor and wanting to see the world.) It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. (On your third swing of the bat, Herman the Meville, you whiff. Nobody cares about other peoples’ spleens and such. Kiss those words goodbye.) Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Whenever I read a ginormous sentence with five zillion semi-colons and commas, I reach for the red pen and turn it into a nice, short sentence with one comma.) This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. (Another semi-colon, but this is the last one that gets to live.) There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Hate this sentence. It’s like our friend was talking to us about an interesting story, then started reciting beat poetry. Rewrite follows.) The city of Manhattoes is belted with docks and ships, like an Indian isle is encircled by coral reefs. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.

Verdict:

The fact this book is a classic doesn’t mean page one is perfect.

Herman the Melville is wordy on this page and he only gets wordier later on in this book, where he stops the action entirely to devote entire chapters to lectures about whale tails and such.

There’s a lot of fluff to kill, and I was pretty gentle with the word slaying. You could kill more.

Compared to most first pages, though, he does a good job of setting things up. Ishmael wants to see the world and that means sailing, because he’s not rich. So we’re in for an adventure.

How could we improve this? More foreshadowing. Maybe he mentions a friend who’s a sailor, the one who told him stories that got him interested in a life at sea, and this friend just served on a whaling ship that limped into port after getting attacked by a big whale. A ghostly white one. But his friend was drinking a lot of rum and tends to make up stories…

Six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK by Lee Child

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Let’s say it: Lee Child has a Superman problem.

His hero, Reacher, is beloved by fans for having the brains of Sherlock Holmes and the body of Conan the Barbarian. The man never gets outsmarted and is invincible in a fight. Here’s the last post about these books: Secret recipe for any Lee Child novel

The latest Reacher book, NEVER GO BACK, slams smack-dab into the Superman problem. Because an invincible hero puts the B in Boring.

Did I enjoy the book? Yeah, it’s always fun to read about Reacher. With every new novel, though, Reacher struggles less and less to overcome the bad guys.

If the hero doesn’t sweat, the reader doesn’t worry. Or care.

Because I do care about Reacher and Lee Child, here are six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK.

Lee Child's NEVER GO BACK is something you should read. Do it now.
Lee Child’s NEVER GO BACK. Buy two copies, one of each cover, because I say so.

1) Don’t simply remake THE ENEMY

The only other novel with Reacher in the Army was Child’s best book: THE ENEMY, a true mystery with all kinds of crazy twists and turns and a real sense of menace. Just like that book, the latest novel has big-shots in the Pentagon and such as the criminal masterminds, using other officers as their puppets.

That book was first-person and visceral. It put you in the head of Reacher and made you feel what he felt, see what he saw. I’ve happily read that book seven bazillion times.

NEVER GO BACK starts out feeling like that book, with the full force of the Pentagon and Homeland Security poised to squash Reacher … until he escapes them, easily and repeatedly.

THE ENEMY was amazing, and the ending isn’t a clear win. Reacher is demoted and leaves the service. This latest novel doesn’t hold a candle to that classic.  Which proves that yeah, you should never go back.

2) Give Reacher a real daughter, not a fake one

What are the odds that the bad guys randomly picked a fake daughter for Reacher who looks like him, thinks like him and even talks like him?

I’ll tell you the odds: zero.

The fake daughter is an achy breaky big mistakey. It feels like Child planned on making the daughter real up to the end of the book, then decided nope, Reacher can’t have a teenage daughter, because that would tie him down in future books. So he turned her into a ruse.

If you’re gonna do it, do it.

3) One-sided beatings aren’t really fights

Fight scenes are a Reacher staple. A novel without Reacher getting blood on his elbows would be like a Jean Claude Van Damme movie without him doing the side splits and kicking a single guy in the face.

However: there’s a big difference between a fight and a beating. Every fight in NEVER GO BACK is a cake walk for Reacher, who doesn’t even break a sweat when he takes out two angry rednecks with both hands behind his back.

Give us a real fight. Let’s be realistic and let the bad guys land a punch for once.

This leads to Number 4.

4) Tough guy villains better be tough

In this book, there’s one thug we keep getting told is a giant muscle-freak with weird ears. A monster who looks like a match for Reacher.

So for hundreds of pages, you keep expecting the final battle between these two men to be epic. I was getting the popcorn out.

The fight between Reacher and this incredible hulk was over in about two seconds. Boring, and a huge let-down. Come on. That’s like showing us Darth Vader on screen for 90 minutes and Luke training with Yoda for 20 minutes only to have the two meet for the Greatest Lightsaber Battle of All Time … and have Luke cut Darth Daddy in half within two seconds. No.

The badder the bad guy, the longer the fight should last. Redneck idiots can get dispatched in a paragraph. Medium baddies should take a chapter. The boss villain should take a couple of chapters.

When every villain, big or small, goes down without Reacher chipping a nail, or doing anything at all (see Number 6),  it’s not exciting.

5) The Girl with a Gun has to be some kind of Challenge

It’s totally fine for Reacher to swim in a sea of attractive women, just like 007.

What’s not fine is for the Girl with the Gun to fall in love with Reacher in about two micro-seconds and be like a loyal puppy dog for 300 pages. THE ENEMY had a good love interest, with a conflict: he was an officer, and her commanding officer, and she was a sergeant. There was risk, and you got a real feel for the sergeant with them doing the investigation a long time before falling in the sack. It was credible and interesting.

A perfect woman who falls in love with Reacher instantly and never really does anything, well, she’s cardboard and snooze city.

6) Finish with a bang

So the bad guys are two high-powered dudes with insane connections, the ability to track Reacher in real-time, a lust for power and a network of thugs. It’s suicide for Reacher to go after them, right? They have the full reach of the Pentagon and Homeland Security to smack him like a fly.

Yet the final confrontation … never happens. Because the bad guys shoot themselves in the head.

What?

Maybe I’m nuts, but I believe, deep in my Swedish soul, that the end of a novel or movie should be more exciting than the beginning. The beginning was exciting. This ending wasn’t even as suspenseful as six random rednecks surrounding Reacher in the motel.

If you set up Reacher as some kind of invincible Superman, the bad guys can’t be cream puffs who fold at the end. To make it interesting, you have to make the villains even tougher than Reacher.

That hasn’t happened yet. Not even close.

I hope someday it will. Because that would be an amazing book.

I threw it on the ground — why people stop reading books

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Like you, dear reader, I devour books. I eat them for breakfast, munch on them for lunch and blast through an endless buffet of books in bed, waiting for the Sandman — because books, they are THE BEST.

However: there are books, even famous best-sellers and literary masterpieces that eager graduate students dissect for their dissertations, that are simply unreadable. You start them, you want to be blown away by them and instead, you toss them through the air to test their aerodynamics.

Goodreads asked their peoples about books they started, and wanted to love, but simply couldn’t finish.

Some books at the top of their Couldn’t Finish List include:

  • FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, which is complete trash, and not in a good way. Here’s my take on the first page of that stinker: The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
  • THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, written by a fellow Swede, and I wanted to love this book, I really did, but couldn’t get past page 30-whatever. 
  • ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand, who couldn’t write her way out of a wet paper bag if you handed her a sharpened pencil. I took a red pen to the first page of her most famous book here: The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
  • CATCH-22, which I’ve read a zillion times and love. Maybe I’m crazy.
  • THE LORD OF THE RINGS, an immense and dense tome that I started to read and despite being (a) on a beach in Maui and (b) chock full of mai tai’s, I couldn’t (c) get past the 60-page introduction to the prologue or whatever because it was massive amounts of academic text lecturing me about the sociology of hobbits and elves, with no story whatsoever, and it put the B in Boring.

So I agree with Goodreads about throwing most of these books on the ground.

Here’s the story with all kinds of comments.

Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

The kitteh is surprised

Whether you write novellas about fierce mermaids, magazine stories for Cosmo (insert your own joke here) or speeches about the Austrian school of economics for the IMF — whatever sort of writer you are, two things matter most.

Not correct grammar and spelling. Those things are assumed.

Not pretty paragraphs and sentences that sing. That’s word gravy, while we’re talking about the main course.

What matters most: making your readers curious, then surprising them.

The kitteh is surprised
Surprise Kitteh is surprised.

This is why the inverted pyramid is a terrible structure for any writer. (Click with your mousity mouse to read Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE.)

The inverted pyramid grabs a heavy rock and smashes the skull of curiosity. Then it takes that same bloody rock and crushes all hope for any surprises.

How does it achieve this epic level of failure? By giving you the answers before you even know the questions. The payoffs have no setups.

Ways to make your audience curious

Create setups by raising interesting questions (a) about real people where there are (b) high public stakes or (c) high private stakes and (d) serious conflict.

WHAT happened? (mystery)

Debates about the past are about facts, and assigning blame.

  • Who really killed JFK?
  • Did aliens really land at Area 51?
  • What caused the Great Depression?

WHY did it happen? (whydunit)

This is often more interesting than the question of who did it.THE BUTLER ALWAYS DOES IT, so tell us why instead.

How do you CHOOSE between two goods or two evils?

Debates about the present are value choices.

Choosing between good and evil is simple and cartoonish. That’s why its for kids. Truly tough choices are between two good or two evils. Does believing in true justice mean setting a killer free? That sort of stuff. These things are deep. They’ll exercise your head.

What WILL happen? (thriller)

  • Can we stop these evil cats from taking over the earth BEFORE a giant comet destroys it?
  • What might happen if you brought dinosaurs back to life?
  • Will 5.93 gazillion pounds of TNT make a dead whale disappear from a beach — or will something else happen instead?

WHO will get together — or split up? (romance)

  • Will Matthew McConaughy get together with Kate Hudson already or do we have to suffer through all 120 minutes of this stinker?
  • Why is Tommy Lee Jones in some movie with Meryl Streep about lovey-dovey nonsense?
  • What specific drugs were involved when Hollywood executives decided that Sarah Jessica Parker was some kind of sex symbol? (I’m cheating here and inserting a mystery question about the past into a romance setup, and I should be punished by the Storytelling Gods but, to be completely honest, and to use more commas, which is usually against my religion, I JUST DON’T CARE)

What should you do about the FUTURE?

Debates about the future involve costs versus benefits.

  • As a promising high school athlete, should you let your studies suffer to chase the dream of playing in Major League Baseball, when there’s a greater chance of being hit by a logging truck than being drafted?
  • Should we try to go back to the gold standard, to make Ron Paul all happy as he shuffles off into retirement, or does destroying the global economy kinda put a damper on that whole idea?
  • Next year, should you sell all your possessions to build a zombie-proof bunker in Montana for a zombpocalypse that will never come but is fun to think about — or should you focus on that whole “driving to work and paying the bills” thing?

Ways to surprise your audience

It’s unfair to have things happen for no reason, like Anne Hathaway getting smooshed by a truck in ONE DAY.

Also cheating: letting people off the hook via deus ex machina, which is fancy Latin for “the sidekick shows up at the last minute to shoot the bad guy, right before the hero dies” (every action movie known to man) or “it was all a dream!” (an entire season of DALLAS) or “let’s bring in something we never told you about, then run away” (every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen on cable).

Surprises shatter expectations and stereotypes. Did you expect the scientist handling the landing of Curiosity on Mars to be a young man rocking a mohawk? No. You expected a stereotypical nerdy McNerd, and bam, that little surprise turned Mohawk NASA man into a national phenom.

A good surprise must reveal something:

  • a secret you hinted at before
  • how a person has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a subtle setup that they may have noticed, but will remember (PRESUMED INNOCENT does this better than Anything in the History of Stories)
  • how society has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a shocking decision (the hero gets what he wants but rejects it, an unhappy ending to a Hollywood movie OR a happy ending to a French existentialist movie, a romantic comedy that doesn’t feature an put-together and ambitious heroine with a loser man she fixes up)

Stretch your editing muscles

Proofing for boo-boos is easy. Line editing is tougher.

Structural editing is the toughest.

So let’s play around with a little flash fiction from Joey’s contest and see what we can do, first with a standard edit job, then with a different kind of big-picture spitballing.

Original flash fiction entry by Mayumi – 196 words

Stone stairs and the blood of Landstanders foolish enough to raise arms against him disappear beneath Fin’s boots, as every step takes him closer to the top of this tall, windowed tower, and to the girl trapped within.

“Wavewalker!” a guard warns, but he’s silenced by metal tines already streaked red; it’s the same for his partner beside. And up Fin runs, never stopping. His muscles ache, his lungs burn, but the door is just ahead, and suddenly he’s crying her name as his spear splinters the heavy wood:

“Cauda!”

He’s barely broken through when she rushes up, arms thrown around him. And though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifts to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim. “You came.”

Time is short – more Landstanders are surely already racing to reclaim their princess prize – but still he cups her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kisses her, for fear it will be the last thing he ever does.

He draws back at the taste of tears.

“There’s no way out,” she whispers.

The spear creaks in his fist. “There’s always a way.”

# # #

Comments:

Of all the entries, this one had the most action, which is probably why I liked it. Other stories mostly hinted at action to come, or actions in the past.

Edits: switched to past tense instead of present, fixed various things.

Edited version – 178 words

Blood on the stone stairs disappeared beneath Fin’s boots, every step taking him closer to the top of the tower and the girl trapped within.

A guard’s shout was cut off by a blade already streaked with red. And up Fin ran, never stopping. His muscles ached, his lungs burned, but the door was just ahead, and he cried her name as he spear splintered the heavy wood.

“Cauda!”

He’d barely broken through when she rushed to throw her arms around him. Though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifted to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim.

“You came,” she said.

Time was short – more soldiers were surely racing to reclaim their princess prize – but he cupped her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kissed her despite the fear it would be the last thing he ever did.

Fin drew back at the taste of her tears.

“There’s no way out,” she whispered.

The spear creaked in his fist.

“There is always a way.”

# # #

So, a typical editing job. Nothing fancy.

I’m more interested in the guts of a piece — short story or stump speech, HBO series or Hollywood blockbuster. What’s the structure, the setups and payoffs? How do things change?

So here’s another flash fiction entry. No line editing here. Let’s look at the bones and spitball some options.

# # #

I’ll never forgot that old, mossy stone porch. Johnny and I used to lie there after the dances, enjoying the smooth coldness of the stone against our sweaty skin, and talk about what we would do with a building like this if it were our home.

“First off,” he would say, “I’d kick all these damned people out!”

He used to love to make me laugh. I thought I couldn’t live without him. We were both 17, and it seemed like the perfect life lay before us. Everything in the world was perfect, if only for a moment.

That, was of course, before the booze took hold of him.

It’s hard to believe, only a few short years later, here I stand looking at that porch, with its glorious white columns, standing tall and proud, with the fadings of Johnny’s fists on my face. Oh how life changes so cruelly.

He will wake up soon, in the E.R., and wonder how he got there. He will yell and call out my name. The nurses will not know that “Jenny” means Jessica, because they will not know that in his drunken confusion he often mistakes his mistress for his wife.

# # #

Nice. I like it. There is a difference between the beginning (Love Story by Taylor Swift) and the end (Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks).

How can we pump up the story without adding Michael Bay explosions, robots fighting and Megan Fox randomly running around in short-shorts?

Most of this piece is either remembering the past or predicting the future. So my first crazy idea is to make it all present tense, because there’s instantly more tension if it’s all happening now.

Let’s strip away the pretty words and look at the bones. Boil it all the way down. Right now, the original gets down to something like, “Wife plans revenge on cheaty McCheater.”

How can we change the structure to something happening now, and make it so memorable that it gets down to a sentence that makes your jaw drop. So, let’s spitball here. (Note: theese are not the words, but story / structure / outline.)

# # #

Jessica loves Johnny SOOOO much that she wants to marry him. They’re on a picnic at this amazing stone tower. It’s romantic, and yeah, she actually bought him a gold band and might ask him tonight, if it feels right. It’s a modern world. She wants to be married, and to him. And he seems super polite and nervous today, like he maybe is thinking the same thing. Her entire life could change tonight. It’s beautiful and perfect.

She’s decided to ask him. Why not? But he beats her to the punch. “Jessica, can we talk about us?”

She says, sort of quietly, “I’d like us to be forever.” But he’s starts talking about some new job, in some other city, and some girl named Jenny who he sort of slept with.

So when he stands up to awkwardly hug her goodbye, she sort of pushes him off the tower.

# # #

Now that can boil down to “You would not BELIEVE what happened last night” headline: Woman pushes cheating lover to his doom — on night she hoped to get engaged

Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE

If you are a writer, you know all about the inverted pyramid. It’s one of the first blueprints we get taught: put the most important stuff on top and the least important on the bottom, like an upside-down pyramid.

As a reformed journalist, was I familiar with the inverted pyramid? Nah. I only wrote  5,931 bazillion stories using the damn thing. We were practically married.

Every day, millions of reporters use it to write stories for Papers of News and programs on the radios and the Glowing Tube, so if there was ever a sacred cow in writing and journalism, that cow would be named Inverted Pyramid, and the milk from its udders would contain perfect chocolate-flavored milk decorated with specks of gold.

The technique of journalism writing.

HOWEVER: I want you to know something. Come a little closer so I can whisper it in your ear: “The inverted pyramid MUST DIE.”

As a blueprint, it’s inherently flawed and bores readers. If you wrote novels, screenplays and TV shows using the inverted pyramid, they’d all fail, because all the good stuff would be in the beginning. The middle would be boring and the end would put the entire audience in a coma.

The inverted pyramid is useful for short news bulletins, and there were technical reasons why journalists use it. You want to get the maximum amount of information to the reader in a minimum amount of time, and if a story runs long, you can lop off the end without consequence. These days, however, the inverted pyramid is simply a flashing neon sign that says, “Reader, you can stop reading any time, because it only gets more boring from here on.”

Look at your local Sunday newspaper. I read The Seattle Times here, and they tend to do these big investigative stories that start on page one, jump to page 5, then jump to pages 7, 8, 9 and 12. I mean, these stories never end. Are they important? Sure. Can I finish them? No. Because they’re written using the inverted pyramid, and even a reformed journalist who loves papers — if you cut me, I still bleed newsprint — can’t get through that ocean of words.

However: a 10,000-word newspaper story is nothing compared to a 100,000-word novel, and I have no problem reading novels. Love ’em.

It’s the structure, the blueprint. The inverted pyramid sucks.

Here, I’ll give you proof.

Years ago, as a cub reporter right out of college, I’d write at least 10 to 20 stories a week. Let’s say  500 a year. And I’d win journalism awards every year. But hey, if I wrote 500 stories, some of those better be good and a few of them better be brilliant, right?

A few years ago, I freelanced a newspaper story, not simply because I still love papers, but because this story happened to a friend of mine.

One story instead of 500. And that story won some journalism award. I went one for one instead of five for 500 or whatever. Hmm.

I wrote this story about 7 years ago. Looking back at this piece, I’m a much better writer today. Parts seem quite clunky. But this piece didn’t win an award because each sentence was poetry. It got an award because I abandoned the inverted pyramid entirely and wrote this piece as narrative non-fiction, which is a fancy way of saying “storytelling.”

If I’d written it using the stupid inverted pyramid, I’d give away the ending in the damn headline, and the last line of the piece — instead of being something you remember — would be something like “The dog was yellow.”

Read this sucker. Look at the structure, the setups and payoffs, instead of the words. And tell me if you think it would be one-tenth as compelling written using the inverted pyramid. Then make a vow to never, never use that obsolete blueprint ever again.

Lost and trapped at 4,500 feet

Special to The Vidette

by Guy Bergstrom

 

MONTESANO – From the top of Colonel Bob Mountain– nearly 4,500 feet high – Adam Pratt and family friend Amy Smith could see the Pacific Ocean to the west, Mount Rainier to the southeast and everything in between.

The one thing they couldn’t see was Lucas, Adam’s golden retriever.

“Luke had been up Colonel Bob four or five times before,” said Adam, a carpentry instructor at Grays Harbor College who lives in Montesano with his wife, Sara.

“He was just there beside me a second ago, and he always stays right next to me on the trail,” Adam said. “So I figured that maybe he went back down toward a stream that we crossed 30 minutes down the mountain.”

Adam and Amy called for Lucas; they whistled and clapped.

“I expected his happy face and wagging tail to come running back, as he always does,” Adam said.

They went back down the trail to the stream and thought maybe Lucas would head back to the car, at the trailhead.

Adam put his sweaty T-shirt and a bowl of water where they’d parked, hoping the familiar smells and fresh water would serve as a homing beacon for Lucas.

The beacon failed; Lucas never showed up.

The search

To prepare for a search of the wilderness, Adam drove back to Montesano for clothes, food and camping gear.

He dropped off Amy, jumped in his wife’s Subaru – which she’d already packed with supplies – and they raced the setting sun back to the trailhead at Pete’s Creek, about 20 miles into the wilderness.

“I strapped on my headlamp and went up the trail by myself about a mile and a half,” he said. “It’s not wise to hike alone in the dark, especially in black bear and cougar country. I was drained and emotional, making bad decisions.”

He returned to the car. He couldn’t eat. He and Sara tried to sleep, but they lay awake most of the night in the Subaru, thinking the worst.

Where was Lucas? Was he wandering the forests? Injured and unable to move? Or a late-night snack for a mountain lion?

To the top again

Just before daybreak, Adam strapped on his backpack, kissed Sara goodbye and headed back up the mountain again.

He decided to reach the top of the Colonel and search. If he didn’t find Lucas, he’d continue down the trail on the other side of the mountain toward Lake Quinault.

Maybe the dog had headed toward the small town near the lake. Since it was Labor Day weekend, there’d be more people and activity.

Sara drove to Lake Quinault and started putting up lost dog posters. She asked people she met if they’d seen a yellow dog. She alerted the park ranger station, in case they’d heard any reports of a lost dog with a collar. No one had seen Lucas.

The cave

Adam clapped, whistled and called for Lucas as he reached the top of the mountain.

Near the top, he heard faint howling.

“I reached the lookout area and looked down,” Adam said. “About seventy-five feet below the summit, there he was, on this tiny ledge a hundred-twenty feet above the next flat spot.”

Lucas looked scared, but he didn’t seem hurt. But how could Adam reach him?

At the summit, Adam’s cell phone had some reception, so he called Sara and left the message that Lucas was alive, but stuck on a cliff.

He pushed through brush and trees on the steep sides of Colonel Bob, traveling through a twenty-foot cave he had to crouch and crawl through. Then he side-shuffled through open-topped crevice and popped out the other side of the mountain.

To reach the ledge, Adam climbed 60 feet up by hanging onto huckleberry roots and scrub brush.

After being alone on the cliff, Lucas was thrilled to see Adam, wagging his tail and licking his face. He checked Lucas for injuries and was amazed to find the dog didn’t have any broken bones from the fall.

Then the thrill of the reunion hit the Cold Wall of Reality.

“I hate heights,” Adam said, “and it was then and there I realized how stupid I had been. My emotions had got the best of me and now I was sitting on a six-foot by three-foot ledge with my buddy, wondering how we were getting of this mountain.”

No help

Adam offered Lucas a dog bone, but he wasn’t interested in eating. After letting Lucas lap some water out of his hands, he knew he had to go before they both were stuck up there another night.

“Without opposable thumbs, he wasn’t able to follow me off the ledge,” Adam said. “I King-Konged it down the cliff, using the shrubs and roots as handholds, like a monkey.”

After making it through the cave again and back to the summit, Adam went down the mountain yet again, his muscles shaking, his mind spinning. He heard voices coming up the trail but had to stop to rest and eat some trail bars.

At the same time, Sara was at the Forest Service headquarters, asking for help. They told her rescue teams were looking for a group of four lost teens, plus another couple of hikers about 150 miles away.

Stranded dogs? Not a priority.

Lost hope

Sara sobbed; they’d worked so hard to find Lucas, and now he’d starve or freeze to death on a cliff.

She left a voice mail with the only person she could think of back in Montesano: Leo Nixon, a 71-year-old retired dentist and they’d met at Friday wine tastings at Savory Faire, a man who shared their love of hiking local mountains.

Adam headed back down the trail toward the voices. He met a father and daughter hiking up Colonel Bob with their chocolate lab. He asked if they had any rope or a cell phone, since his battery was now dead.

“They helped calm me down,” said Adam, “and they actually landed some of their lunch on Luke’s ledge. To them, I must have seemed like a crazy person. It’s good they didn’t have a rope. I wasn’t qualified to use it to climb. Even if I had training, I was in no condition to do it.”

A daring plan

Heading down the trail, Adam saw another couple heading up the hill, and then a face he knew: Leo, who hadn’t gotten Sara’s message.

“He just happened to take that hike, that day,” Adam said.

Leo climbed to the summit to take a look. He said he had all the necessary climbing gear at home in Montesano and that they could rescue Lucas themselves.

They wouldn’t try it from the top of Colonel Bob, but from below, where Adam had reached the ledge in his earlier, impulsive attempt without equipment or backup.

Since it would soon be dark, they needed to wait until Saturday morning, meaning Lucas would spend his second night alone on the freezing ledge.

On the drive back to Montesano, Leo tried to calm the fears of Adam and Sara, to assure them that it wouldn’t rain, that Lucas wouldn’t try to jump, that no bears or cougars roamed the area.

“Lies, but comforting lies,” Adam said.

Leo stopped at Savory Faire, where Adam and Sara would have been that Friday night for wine tasting if they weren’t spending their time climbing and re-climbing the mountain.

Leo walked inside and casually asked the restaurant owner, Randi Bachtel, if he could borrow his climbing equipment. He refused offers of help, saying he’d called two friends of his who were mountaineers.

Randi, a veteran of Vietnam and local high school teacher, said Leo knew what he was doing. If he had to choose anybody to do a rescue, it’d be Leo, 71 years old or not.

The Silver Panther Rescue Team

At 4:30 Saturday morning, Adam and Sara arrived at Leo’s house, where two of his mountain-climbing friends joined them: Mike Riley of Olympia and Rich Irwin of Raymond.

This would be the third climb up to the summit in 36 hours for Adam, who was exhausted and questioning himself. Could he do it again?

On the way to the mountain, they picked up Amy and her husband, Nate, who’d agreed to make the climb with what they’d nicknamed “The Silver Panthers Rescue Team.”

Adam and Sara couldn’t stop thinking about whether Lucas had survived the night, about the cold, the bears, the cougars.

Driving through the rain and the dark, a dark shape – a cougar – leapt in front of the Subaru and Adam jammed both feet on the brakes.

“It was the first time that any of us had ever seen a mountain lion,” Adam said. “Truly an amazing creature. Truly terrible timing. We said nothing to each other, but we all entertained the same thoughts.”

The cougar spun around and sprinted the opposite direction.

They kept driving.

All seven climbed the trail to Colonel Bob’s summit while it was still dark. The Silver Panthers didn’t lose one step to the younger hikers.

As they reached the top, the sun showed up.

Leo led the way as they bushwhacked through the brush and trees on the side of the mountain. On a semi-flat spot, they gathered their gear and prepared for the rescue attempt.

Leo, Mike, Rich and Adam put on climbing harnesses and helmets.

They walked a narrow ledge to the start of the route Leo had picked out.

And then they started climbing.

Do or die

There’s no half-way in mountain climbing. You make it safely or fail spectacularly.

Rich and Leo set a bottom anchor in the cliff to belay Mike as he climbed toward Lucas.

Mike set a second anchor at twenty feet up, then another at forty feet before making the final climb to the tiny ledge and Lucas.

After taking a minute to calm the dog, Mike set up a rope to top-belay Adam up sixty feet to the ledge.

“I have very little climbing experience,” Adam said, “but I had the best chance to calm down Lucas and bring him down.”

Adam made it up. They attached a harness to Lucas, then hooked that harness to Adam, who pulled the dog tight against his chest.

They would make it down – the slow way or a much speedier one – together.

Home

“I stepped off the cliff,” Adam said, “and the guys lowered us down. Then Mike rappelled down and we all made our way to flat ground and safety.”

After giving Lucas some water and food, the seven-member team celebrated and decompressed. They still had four miles to hike out, downhill, but Adam barely felt it.

“We couldn’t feel anything,” he said, “but relief.”

Leo, Rich and Mike peeled away to climb a nearby peak.

Lucas rode home with his friends. And his family.

Epilogue

Sunday afternoon: Lucas is sprinting around the playground at Crait Field, playing with a three-year-old boy who can’t stop laughing. Lucas leaps off the retaining walls as if he’s weightless and happily picks up his leash to get Adam to play tug-of-war with him.

Adam and Sara talk about their ordeal being unreal, a waking nightmare with a fairy tale ending.

“Retired dentist extracts canine from Colonel Bob,” Adam jokes.

Behind the kidding around, there’s a deep sense of gratitude and community. The couple moved here from Michigan and have only lived in Montesano since last November, so they’re amazed and grateful at how people stepped forward to offer their help.

“We couldn’t have possibly rescued him without the help of our friends,” Adam said, “and the kindness of strangers.”

But there’s also an undercurrent of resolve. Of loyalty.

“We couldn’t just leave our little buddy,” said Adam, “on a mountain cliff to die.”

The Red Pen of Doom destroys FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

FREEDOM

By Jonathan Franzen

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – (add spaces here to match dash format in 2nd graf) he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill did were not so loyal to their city as not to (if we can replace 10 words with one word, those 10 words are deader than Charlie Sheen’s acting career) read The New York Times, which ran According to a long, and very unflattering story in the Times, on how Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty trouble reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle (maybe bicycle geeks know or care, but humans do not get into bike vs. commuter bike, and I’m entirely unclear whether Walter was a U.S. Senator or a staffer or a lobbyist, and how he made the transition from bigshot in Congress or whatever to 3M employee on a bicycle, or whether he started as a nothing at 3M on a bike and went to D.C. or is now pedaling to work after screwing up big enough to be in the Times yet not go to federal prison) up Summit Avenue in February snow;. (let’s use a period, because semi-colons at the end of endless sentences are for professors and pretentious chowderheads) It seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen fell on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. (contradicts last sentence of the first graf, since buying a beater house and working crazy hard to fix it says there’s something very right about the Berglunds) Early on, Some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to guzzle drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in (Drunken bikers would be afraid of some housewife? Um, no.)

(end of page 1)

Time Magazine - Jonathan Franzen - Great American Novelist

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

Yes, I know that critics went gaga over this book, and they loved THE CORRECTIONS, too.

I hate this first page. It rubs me wrong, and makes me feel like I’m about to read a 895-page doorstop of a book, something my sadistic Contemporary English Literature professor assigned me to read as punishment for my literary sins.

Here’s the deal: Franzen writes about families in the suburbs. Basically, the same topic that every sitcom has tackled for the last 50 years. Instead of making it funny, he makes it deep and depressing.

Is what Franzen writes – when he closes his eyes and composes after receiving inspiration directly from a muse that circles his head and descends, like a butterfly, or a silken bat, to kiss his unshaven cheeks with the kiss of creative genius – is it fun to read? No.

Don’t care about Walter and Patty as characters. I’d rather read about that biker gang guzzling Schlitz and grilling knockwurst while the talk smack and plan crimes that go epically wrong.

As with all literature – as Camryn Rhys or Elisa Logan would say, LIT-rah-SURE – the beginning is deep and mundane and depressing. It only gets worse from there. While the writing may be beautiful and amazing (though it is not beautiful or amazing on this first page yet) that’s not going to make me want to read more of the story. If I want to be depressed, I’d watch daytime TV.

The first page is all over the place. Also, he adores adjectives and adverbs, while I believe, deep in my dark heart, that all those modifiers simply mean Franzen should’ve picked stronger nouns and verbs in the first place.

It pains me that Franzen is half-Swedish and spent time in Germany as a student, because I am Swedish and lived in Germany as a child. But we are nothing alike, and I care nothing for this first page.

Which is too bad. Franzen has talent to burn. I bet if he wrote about the biker gang instead, it would be seven separate flavors of awesomesauce, and the Coen brothers would make a movie out of it.

Verdict: From this first page, you’d have to hand me stacks of purple euros to convince me that reading FREEDOM would be a good use of my limited time on this planet.

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

THE FOUNTAINHEAD

Cover of The Fountainhead
Cover of The Fountainhead

by Ayn Rand

Howard Roark laughed. (I approve of this. It asks a narrative question – who is this guy, and why did he laugh? – and I like short sentences anyway.)

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. (Whoah, whoah, hold up. So far, it was all tight and Hemingway-esque. “The pants fit him. They felt good.” Now you suddenly switch to purple prose, with granite bursting in flight? I didn’t know that granite rocks flew, or exploded when they did decide to take wing. No.) The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays. (More purple prose. Hate it. Though I do smile at all the double-entendre action. Let’s try again.)

The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half.  The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff. (What? I think Ayn Rand was smoking a bowl here.)

His body leaned back against the sky. It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes. (Things are either curved, straight or angled. That pretty much covers it. Maybe the only other people in this book are Flat Stanley and the Blob.) He stood, rigid, his hands hanging at his sides, palms out. He felt his shoulder blades drawn tight together, the curve of his neck, and the weight of the blood in his hands. He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine. The wind waved his hair against the sky. His hair was neither blond nor red, but the exact color of ripe orange rind. (No man would ever describe his hair as “ripe orange rind.” He’d say, “I’m a red-head” or “I’m blond” or “I don’t know.”)

He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning (Oh, right. So funny!) and at the things which now lay ahead. (Yes — also hilarious. I laugh at that all the time. Maybe let’s use different ways to hint at backstory and do foreshadowing.)

He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew that he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything was clear to him already, because the plan had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh. (Enough with the laughing about things that may or may not have happened, and difficult plans, and thinking about not thinking. We can go to this well once or twice, but not every sentence.)

He tried to consider it. But he forgot. (Or maybe we can jump into that well and stay there forever.) He was looking at the granite.

He did not laugh (Oh, we’re NOT laughing now?) as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him. His face was like a law of nature— (You have got to be kidding me.)

End of Page 1

Notes from The Red Pen of Doom

I believe the readers of today – like me – don’t want (a) tons of purple prose, (b) paragraph after paragraph of character description or (c) 3.4 metric tons of purple prose that’s all character description and internal dialogue.

But there are bigger fish to fry here, both in the literary sense of Is This A Good Page One? and in the story sense.

Ayn Rand is a deity among conservatives, because her novels underpin what she calls the “philosophy” of objectivism, which says it’s quite unselfish to be selfish. This is obviously counter-intuitive and quite appealing in a juvenile kind of way, because hey, it’s now my moral duty to do whatever I want. The best way to take care of others is to only care about yourself. The surest path to aid the poor is to cut taxes for the rich. And so forth.

This philosophy intrudes upon the story. Roark, the hero of this novel, roughly has his way with Dominique, the heroine, when they first meet. She later describes it as rape. Dominique makes Sylvia Plath look mentally stable. To show her undying love for Roark, she marries … some rich man. Then she tries to destroy Roark, divorces that rich man to marry another rich dude, keeps on trying to destroy Roark, then finally divorces that other rich schmuck to marry Roark in the end, but only after Roark TRIES TO BLOW UP A BUILDING that he designed.

If you said “This is a book that makes a hero out of a selfish architect who’s a strong-willed, good-looking rapist and terrorist,” you’d kinda sorta be accurate. And yes, I read the entire book. Twice. I WROTE A PAPER ON IT.

So the first page does foreshadow a lot of things. Ayn Rand has “a frozen explosion of granite” in the second graf. She has a whole bunch of imagery and descriptions of Roark’s perfect body.

HOWEVER: If I hadn’t already read this book, I’d see this first page and think it was some kind of historical romance, with Roark’s kilt and dirk sitting over on that rock, his trusty horse waiting for him after he took a swim and rode off to rescue his favorite maiden, a red-haired beauty held captive by the twisted and disfigured Baron of Whateverthehell.

Otherwise, I don’t hate her writing per se. I merely despise it.

Usually, I can fix a line or a paragraph. Big chunks of this first page simply need to die. The best thing is to cut them out.

Does that whack about half of this first page? Yes.

Would that make it better? Yes.

There’s a weird mix of styles going on here. You get short, clipped sentences, tight and hard, with zero fatty modifiers. But then Ayn the Rand switches to long stretches of not only purple prose, but outright wackiness I expect from college sophomores writing flash fiction at three in the morning on the deadline day after hitting the bong FAR TOO HARD.

The Verdict:

There’s a reason 12 publishers rejected this novel before it found a home. Hate the first page. Hate the hero, and the heroine who tries to destroy Roark because she loves him so much. Hate the story. Hate the “philosophy.” It’s a tough call, whether THE FOUNTAINHEAD or OUTLANDER are more deserving of being thrown across the room. But I’m going with THE FOUNTAINHEAD.

Writers: social media is a tool — not a magic bullet

Every novelist, journalist and aspiring writer I know is all over social media. They’ve got a blog and a Twitter account, or a Tumblr and a Facebook page.

Or they have all four, plus three things that are so bleeding edge, I haven’t heard of them yet.

HOWEVER: you could spend all day banging out blog posts and tweets and Facebook updates. It could suck up all your free time. And you might not get that much out of it.

I see people doing it wrong all the time, and it kills me.

So let’s get some things straight:

  • It’s not about how many friends you have on Facebook.
  • It’s not about how many hits you get on your blog.
  • It’s not about how many people follow you on Twitter.

If you want to make more money writing for a living — or quit your day job to write full-time — then you need to look inside the media toolbox and see each type of social media for what it is: a tool.

Not a magic bullet. Not a sure-fire path to fame and fortune.

You also need to realize that social media can’t be your entire media plan. And no, you are not the exception, Internet Boy.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty look at each tool:

Twitter

This whole Twitter thing is for meeting people.

The social barrier is incredibly low, because tweets are by definition super-short.

Nobody is going to send you a rambling five-page email about their feelings. There’s a lot of freedom in 140 characters.

Want to BS with other writers? Look up the right hashtag for the kind of writing you do. I bet #poems will get you in touch with poets around the world.

Movies, romance, thrillers, journalism, whatever you’re into, you can find people with the same interests on Twitter, and it’s non-threatening.

It’s like a big bar that’s always open where the drinks are always free and the people are friendly, because they’re drunk. I said THE DRINKS ARE FREE.

Facebook

The Book of Face is nothing like Twitter, nothing at all. It’s a closed system.

If Twitter is a big bar where anybody can talk to anybody, then Facebook is a giant hotel with 500 million rooms where you’ve got to know the right hotel room number, knock on the door and have the person behind the peephole look at you and say OK before they open the door and let you in the private party.

Facebook is for friends and family.

It’s for people you’ve had dinner with, or would have dinner with, and want to share baby photos and wedding photos and private things you don’t want to share with the world.

Maybe you think a Facebook fan page is the best thing ever, and you swear by it, and it’s the reason why you went from reporter at The Willapa Valley Shopper to editor of Vanity Fair.

I don’t recommend it. Facebook’s niche is friends and family. There are better tools.

Also: don’t play Farmville, or Bejeweled, or whatever on Facebook, for doing so a Sin, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster DOES NOT FORGET.

He doesn’t forgive, either. Not his thing.

Blogs

Blogs are a bit like Twitter, in that everybody can see them. It’s not a private party like Facebook.

With a blog, you can write a helluva lot longer than 140 characters and put in silly photos of zombies and movie clips about hair bands from the 1980s. IT IS GLORIOUS.

Blogs are where the people you meet on Twitter can come to hang out. You can have literary flame wars in the comment sections about whether the Spork should be sent along with Snooki and the Situation on a one-way mission to Mars.

Different tools for different jobs

Think about those three tools — Twitter, Facebook and blogs — compared to a face-to-face meeting, a phone call and an e-mail.

  • Asking for a face-to-face meeting with an important and powerful stranger is the highest possible hurdle, right? A six-foot brick wall to climb over.
  • A cold call is chain-link fence. A little easier.
  • E-mailing that same VIP is three-foot wall.
  • Posting a comment on their blog is a little hop over decorative plants.
  • Tweeting is like hopping over a crack in the sidewalk. It’s nothing. Go give Yoko Ono a tweet. DO IT NOW.

It’s not about getting hits

Social media is not a games of Tetris, where you’re trying to get the high score.

Having 500,000 hits to your blog or 20,000 followers on Twitter doesn’t do anything, by itself.

Social media is about meeting people and learning things. It’s about a dialogue, not a monologue.

Fame and fortune still comes from old-fashioned mass media.

Do people like Charlie Sheen start Twitter accounts and instantly get 6.8 bazillion followers? Yes.

And there is a reason for that. That reason is simple: he was already a famous movie and TV star.

Also, he is an infamously insane train wreck, which is hard not to watch.

Want to reach a mass audience? Use the mass media

If you want national success, you need to reach a national audience.

To sell a million movie tickets, or novels, you’ve got to reach tens of millions of people with the mass media — and if you’re lucky, advertising. National success means trying to reach 330 million people. International success means reaching out to all 7 billion on this rock.

You can’t do that with Facebook and Twitter and a blog. Not everybody uses it. The only real way to reach a mass audiences is by using the mass media. TV. Newspapers. Radio.

A big chunk of the population only gets their news and entertainment from the idiot box. A different chunk only listens to the radio. A smaller bit rely on newspapers and magazines.

If you’re not on all of those channels, you don’t exist to those different audiences.

Social media isn’t a magic bullet

Old-fashioned mass media still has the biggest bullets and the biggest guns.

Is this heresy to the fanatics of the web? Yes. Too bad, so sad, tell your dad. Journalists and public relations pros will tell you this is the truth. Suck it up, internet boy. Sometimes, you have to get up from behind the keyboard and talk to real reporters, live and in person.

Someday, you have to go on a radio show. Eventually, you need to get on TV shows — not once, repeatedly — to reach all those people who only watch TV, even if you’re just trying to reach a local or statewide audience.

Say you’re a playwright in Seattle trying to make your debut play a success. Are you gonna sell out the season by having a blog and a Facebook fan page and tweeting twice a day? No.

Don’t waste your time dreaming that lightning will strike via the internets.

Get on the local TV stations, on radio, in the newspapers, on local blogs that are already popular. Your own blog and whatnot is gravy. It’s not a serious media plan.

Take solace from the fact that with 5.84 bazillion people trying to do via the series of tubes, there’s less competition for serious, hard-working people who know how to work the mass media. By “work” I don’t mean “annoy.” You need to do it right.

It isn’t easy. It isn’t simple. But it’s a lot more effective for reaching a mass audience than hoping hits on your blog will turn into magic, like lead into gold.

There are gold mines out there. That’s where you should take your pick and your axe and your mighty pen to look for the shiny yellow stuff. Because that’s where it lives.

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

THE NOTEBOOK

(The title makes sense, since the story turns on an actual notebook.)

by Nicholas Sparks

Chapter One: Miracles

Who am I? And how,I wonder, will this story end?

The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. (Melodramatic and clunky.) I’m a sight this morning: two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me, clicking and groaning and spewing hot air like a fairytale dragon — and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been eighty years in the making. Eighty years. , I think sometimes, and dDespite my own acceptance of my age, it still amazes me that I haven’t been warm since George Bush was president. I wonder if this iIs this how it is for everyone my age?

My life? It isn’t easy to explain. It has Not been the rip-roaring spectacular I fancied it would be, but neither have I burrowed around with the gophers. I suppose it has most resembled a blue-chip stock:

(end of page 1)

the notebook by nicholas sparks
THE NOTEBOOK by Nicholas Sparks. A book that belongs next to Hemingway. A movie that should have won many, many more Oscars, yes? Nicholas Sparks was ROBBED.

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

The biggest problem isn’t the line editing, though it’s clunky. While clearly first-person P.O.V., he keeps inserting needless attributions like “I wonder” and “I think.” Here’s the monster problem: 90 percent of page one is spent telling the reader — repeatedly — that the first-person narrator is (a) 80 years old and (b) seriously obsessed with talking about how cold it is.

Space on page one is precious. It’s for raising narrative questions that won’t be answered for 400 pages. Compelling questions.

Life or death. Together or alone. Freedom or slavery.

I can imagine a story where being 80 years old and cold is the problem. Maybe a doctor is headed to a remote Alaskan village when his snowmobile breaks down. He’s  the only doctor within 200 miles, the only hope for a mother who’s in the middle of a labor gone wrong. Now you’ve got public stakes and private stakes. If he doesn’t strap on snowshoes and get past hungry wolves and polar bears, he’ll die, and the mom in labor might die, and her baby might die — and they’ll be no doctor out in the bush for a lot of people.

So: a cold old man becoming warm can matter a lot in a story.

Not in this story. On this page one, it’s boring.

Having an 80-year-old hero can make this hard. Go back to the first line: “And, I wonder, how will this story end?” Not a lot of suspense there. It’s hard having high stakes when the protag is already looking back on his life, as if it’s already over.

This is why most novels and movies feature younger protags. The more you have to lose, the higher the stakes.

It’s why you have movies like INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, not INDIANA JONES AND THE CONTENTIOUS BINGO GAME.

You certainly can have great stories with older heroes. They just have to DO something.

Anthony Hopkins did a great job with Hannibal Lecter, an active and charming killer. Old, yes, but he didn’t act like Sparks’ old man. There is no book called HANNIBAL LECTER AND THE SPACE HEATER.

So, back to THE NOTEBOOK: the beginning should set up the ending. Does the climax hinge on whether our 80-year-old hero puts on another ugly Christmas sweater and finally stops kvetching about being cold? No.

It’s about whether or not he’s alone or together. Whether his wife remembers him or not.

So the first line is on track. Almost. Not “Who am I?” but “Who are you?” And that question should come out of the mouth of the wife.

Or, if Sparks wanted some misdirection, have that question come from somebody else. But since the end is about togetherness, about love and romance and faithfulness, the first chapter should be full of loneliness. Not cold. Not sweaters and scarves and space heaters.

Talk about how friends move, how coworkers get different jobs, kids grow up and stop calling.  Spend the first page on loneliness, if you want the ending to be about togetherness.

Had I not read the back cover, and didn’t know the climax of this story, reading page one would not motivate me to read more.

If the narrator complains a lot, and doesn’t think his own life is exciting, why the hell would I keep reading about him? I will now praise the One Known as the Spork: the ending of this book, as a plot, isn’t bad. Page one doesn’t do it justice.

Verdict: Take out the Nine and shoot it full of holes, then burn whatever’s left and start over with a fresh sheet of paper.

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

Those nine words are magic.

And those words help sell 5.842 gazillion miles of barbed wire back in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild and there weren’t handy trees or stones to make fences.

Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt – I’ll remember that for days. Forever, maybe.

It’s honed down to perfection. Nine words, and not a one is wasted.

barbed wire
A little strand of steel with a twist and BOOM, you are golden. Photo by Guy Bergstrom.

In the five seconds it takes to hear those words, or read them, you’re sold.

Writers struggle with those first five seconds.

  • What’s the best way for a reporter to convince the city editor put a story on A1 instead of buried next to the obituaries on B15?
  • How can you sum up a 100,000 novel in a single page – or a single sentence?
  • When a magazine editor is buried with pitches, how does yours stand out from the slush pile?
  • What should a screenwriter say about his script while riding in an elevator for 30 seconds with Steven Spielberg?

Science shows us secrets

Here comes the science: people make up their mind about you – or your writing – in the first five seconds.

Viscerally. Unconsciously.

Their little reptile brains see your face or your words and make a split decision.

Later on, our oversized frontal lobes justify that snap judgment.

It’s not a rational thing. I’ve seen the science. Go read BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell. (Go on, read it. I’ll be over here, drinking Belgian ale.)

Different researchers testing for different things found the same result.

  • The first five seconds of a job interview determines whether you get it
  • The first five ticks of the clock during a professor’s first lecture of the semester, with the sound turned off, can be used to predict exactly how students will rate that professor.
  • A quick glance – less than – at two candidate mug shots will predict who will win the race. This works with adults or five-year-olds. Mug shots. No names. No parties. The shape of the face.

This last result fascinated me. Researchers had people glance at those mugs, then rate the candidates on attractiveness, intelligence, competence and whatnot.

They thought attractiveness would matter.Nope. They thought race and sex and age would matter. Nope.

Competence was the only thing related to the eventual winner.

This makes sense. If somebody’s attacking your village, you don’t pick Nerdy McNerdy as the leader of the defense. Brains without brawn won’t work.

You don’t pick Miss America to lead the troops into battle, either, because she’ll simply be nice to look at while you all get slaughterd.

And you don’t pick Mr. Neanderthal, tough but stupid.

Who do you want? Somebody who looks competent – tough but smart. A Clint Eastwood, somebody who looked like he knew what the hell he was doing.

Hold it out and squint

Alright, you’re already thinking of the Greatest Squinty Eyed Tough Guy in Movies, so remember this rule: Hold it out and squint.

Hold out your first page of your text and squint.

Is it a sea of gray?

Is there a photo or graphic? Are all the paragraphs the same length? Do you have any subheads or anything to break up the text?

Now, this doesn’t work for certain things. You can’t have photos and whatnot in screenplays or manuscripts.

Later on, though, it will make or break you.

When you go to rent a movie (yes, I know Blockbuster is dead to you and it’s all Netflix now, so pretend you’re clicking away with Mr. Mouse), you make decisions in far less than five seconds. You glance at the front cover and move on.

Same thing with books. Glance and move. Glance and move.

Maybe you pick a book up and read the text. What makes you pick it up? Images first. Maybe a good title. Glance and move.

That’s why the Squint Test is so important.

Think about movie posters with too much going on. When you squint, you don’t know what’s what.They’ve got the star and the co-star and seven different sidekicks in there, plus the villain and two random thugs. It’s a mess.

Less is more. Simple works best.

The poster for JAWS is perfect: a pretty young woman swimming along and a giant invincible shark roaring out of the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t get any more primal than that. We need the shark and a pretty girl. That’s it.

jaws movie poster
The JAWS movie poster is classic, and will always be classic, because it is simple and brutal and seven separate types of awesome. Steven the Spielberg, stick with this movie thing — you have talent.

Putting this knowledge to evil use

Our conscious brains aren’t really running the show. We’re like a mouse riding on top of an elephant, sometimes biting the elephants ear to go left or right.

How can we writers use that knowledge?

Tap into the reptile part of our brains. Go for the gut.

Blake Snyder hit this idea with his Hammer of Truth in SAVE THE CAT when he demolished the conventional wisdom of genres.

JAWS isn’t a horror movie. ALIEN isn’t a sci-fi movie. FATAL ATTRACTION isn’t a domestic drama. All three are the same story, the same primal threat: there’s a monster in the house. You can’t get away. Either you fight it and kill it, or it eats you.

Hollywood screenwriters are masters of the first five seconds. Fire up the google and check out “loglines” to see how they sum up a movie in a sentence. They make writers of novels look like silly chatterboxes. Think you’re being hip with a one-page synopsis instead of five pages? Hollywood laughs at a full page of text. One sentence, buddy.

Can you do it in a sentence?

How about nine words?

Copywriters are also world-class at those first five seconds. Visit copyblogger and soak up their wisdom. DO IT NOW.

The best five-second pitches — whether it’s a headline for a newspaper story, a poster for a movie or a pitch for a novel — tap into those primal needs and instincts that Blake Snyder talks about.

Survival vs. death. Love vs. loss.

You know what the stakes are. Instantly. Not 30 seconds into it. Not 15 seconds after learning about the when and where and who. You see what’s at stake, right away.

Here are four words: COMET WILL DESTROY EARTH.

That’s a newspaper story everybody will read. Everybody. It’s a movie people saw twice (ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT).

Part of the secret seems to what’s missing: the hero. You don’t hear a damn thing about the hero after you’ve boiled it all down, do you? Screw the hero. Heroes are plain vanilla and boring. The best ones, the ones that hook us, talk about the bad guy: the alien, the shark, the comet. Hmm. Maybe there’s a reason for that. But that’s a post for another day.