The key to writing good dialogue is putting yourself into the character’s shoes and becoming them when they’re talking. The secret to writing better dialogue is to be a ruthless editor who uses common sense rather than some set of arbitrary rules developed for academic or journalistic writing.
As an example, people often repeat the same word when they’re talking. Listen to any conversation. They also say things like um, and uh, and you know, and kind of, and like, all the rest of the “sloppy” catalog of things you’re advised to excise from your writing. The problem is that if you follow that counsel you’ll wind up with dialogue that sounds nothing like the way people talk. So you need to own your characters and pay attention to how people actually speak in the real world, which is easier than it sounds.
Stephen King is a master of dialogue, in that his characters immediately sound genuine when we meet them. They’re fully formed and consistent. There’s no pretension. They sound like people do. That should be your benchmark.
When you’re done with a dialogue-heavy scene, read it aloud. Act it out. Be the characters. How do they sound? Like some bad version of a Mamet play, or like real people? If they sound anything but genuine and natural get out your red pen, because your job ain’t over. You gave birth to these people. You’re responsible for them being believable.
And of course, when you write dialogue, you should apply the same question you do with everything else: What’s the point? If you know the reason you have dialogue in a scene, whether to move the plot along or to offer the reader insights into some aspect of the characters’ inner workings via that verbal window, understand the objective before you write the dialogue. It’ll go way better for you and the reader if you do.
There are countless books available on how to write decent dialogue. I’d advise you to read some of them, but if you don’t, I just basically told you what’s in them.
The only other thing I’ll add is that less is more in dialogue. If you can communicate things non-verbally, such as state of mind or attitude, do so. If a guy walks onto a crowded bus and seems like he’s about ready to explode with rage, how would we know it in real life? There would be nonverbal tells. Clues. We’d see things. Maybe his coloring. Maybe the way he looks at people. Maybe his expression. Maybe he sighs, barely controlling his anger. Maybe he’s breathing differently, or grinding his teeth, or his eyes are narrowed, his nostrils flaring, jaw muscle pulsing, lips thinning, whatever. There are dozens of ways to convey his state of mind so that when he does say something, we instantly know this man’s pissed, and his words are only a small part of the powder keg that is his temperament at the moment.
Dialogue is as much about what’s said as what isn’t. If you view every bit of it as an important opportunity to inform the reader of important clues about the characters, you’ll wind up with far more interesting scenes. And if you pare the dialogue down to what’s essential to getting the point across, you’ll be ahead of the game.
Just a quick note to say I got tons of email from folks congratulating me on being featured in the newest KDP newsletter.
Pretty cool. If you’d told me couple of years ago I’d be featured by Amazon as an example of indie success, I’d have said you were insane.
Now, you’re the smartest guy in the room.
Hopefully sales will go through the roof. My gut says probably not, but hey, can’t complain about an Amazon feature, especially when it didn’t cost anything. I mean, I could, because God knows I could complain about anything, but I won’t. For which we are all grateful.
I’ve also gotten a spate of questions asking what my secret is. To that end, here is everything I know about self-publishing and writing, collected as a few blogs that lay it all out. I have no additional info to share – this represents everything I’ve learned and done, and represents my current and past approach:
Good luck with your writing. It’s an interesting and difficult road, but one I’m glad to have traveled.
So, hurricane, looting, civil unrest. Quite a month for me, September was.
Now here we are in mid-October, and I’m watching the headlines about the U.S. Ebola spread and shaking my head.
Why? Well, let’s see. First, out of pure self-interest. The area of Mexico I live in sees a ton of American tourists. There are direct flights from places like Dallas every day. Which means that an outbreak of a contagious pathogen in the U.S. is only a few hours flying time from me. And because Mexico is dependent on tourist dollars it won’t do what it should, which is stop all travel from the U.S., where, in spite of the double-speak of the media, there is now an active Ebola outbreak whose scope and severity is a big question mark.
And the way the U.S. has handled the outbreak so far is beyond criminal. It is so bad it borders on evil.
The administration knew in September that there was a 25% chance of Ebola showing up in the U.S. within 3 to 6 weeks. And yet everyone from the President to the CDC lied and said the odds were “extremely low.” If you have a loaded gun being held to your head, and one of the four chambers has a bullet in it? Those odds aren’t extremely low. They’re unacceptably high. I quote from Reuters: “First and foremost, I want the American people to know that our experts, here at the CDC and across our government, agree that the chances of an Ebola outbreak here in the United States are extremely low,” Obama said.
Except that’s not in any way true. It’s false, misleading…a bald faced lie. Just as is his statement this morning that the U.S. is not facing an Ebola outbreak and thus we shouldn’t give in to hysteria. Really? See, where I come from, if you have cases of Ebola popping up and you aren’t sure how many people are affected or how far it’s spread, that’s an outbreak. That’s certainly an outbreak in Africa. It’s actually the textbook definition. Only in the U.S., it’s not an outbreak – it’s, what, a little Ebola soiree? Only in the modern U.S. could a one-in-four chance of a deadly plague surfacing in weeks be described as “extremely low” and an obvious outbreak somehow be “not an outbreak.” Doesn’t everyone start to get really nervous when we are assured that a dog isn’t a dog, by the guy who just got finished telling us a cat’s really not a cat?
Of course, the CDC has been mishandling public health threats for some time, so that’s nothing new, nor have instances of American presidents lying through their teeth proved particularly rare – it’s almost the national pastime to tally the falsehoods these days. But during this little adventure we’ve seen literally countless examples of ineptitude bordering on treasonous. Let’s take allowing a feverish, symptomatic health care worker who was on a watch list as exposed to Ebola, to get on an airliner. Flying from a busy Ohio airport into one of the larger hubs – Dallas. When the worker called the CDC and asked if it was acceptable to fly commercial even though she was presenting with a fever, and after one of her colleagues was already diagnosed as the first case of Ebola transmission in the U.S., the geniuses at the CDC said, “sure.”
The same liars who knew there was a 25% chance of it arriving within 3 to 6 weeks are assuring us that the safeguards in place – which consist of taking temperatures and asking questions (the same safeguards that have a 100% fail rate the only time they were tested so far – by the Dallas patient who subsequently died after infecting nobody knows how many yet) – will protect us all. No, sweetheart, they didn’t, and they won’t. They are no more going to stop the spread of Ebola in the U.S. than having high school dropouts searching 80 year old grandmothers at airports will serve as a meaningful deterrent to organized terrorists. It’s all bullshit. It’s doing things that are ludicrous so you can appear to be taking action. And it doesn’t. Work. At. All.
The CDC recommendations for dealing with the disease for hospital workers is basically what you’d use for BSL-2 level diseases (Biological Safety Level 2) – but Ebola is a BSL-4 disease. So folks? It’s probably not a “breach in protocol” that resulted in these nurses getting sick, and it’s not going to be further breaches – it’s that the precautions the CDC recommends aren’t adequate to protect people from BSL 4 diseases. Here’s an excellent link that explains why.
Anyone with even cursory understanding of epidemiology will take one look at a nation with proven outbreaks, that has no travel restrictions, no effective quarantines in place, inadequate protocols that fail on their face, and whose borders have a welcome mat out for the afflicted from hard hit Ebola epicenters, and cringe, because there is absolutely not a chance in hell of this ending well.
And what did the U.S. just do as its response to a plague that could spell the end of days for the U.S., as well as most of the planet if it runs unchecked? Why, appoint an “Ebola czar.” You’d probably think that given the stakes this would be a seasoned public health expert, a doctor with decades of epidemic containment experience, right? Well, what you actually got is a party hack attorney with no more experience in public health and plague containment than my dog.
I just can’t make this crap up. If I wrote it in a novel it would get laughed off the page. “Nobody’s that stupid. The real world doesn’t work that way. There’s no way that the government would do everything possible to seemingly ensure the spread of the virus. One star for realism. Blake’s a moron.”
Last year I wrote a novel that scared the living bejesus out of me, so much so I almost didn’t publish it. That novel, Upon A Pale Horse, chronicles the fictional spread of a deadly virus for which there’s no publicized cure (those determined to spread it of course developed a vaccine in secret, but only for their elite circle), and which has a very high mortality rate – the perfect mechanism to reduce the population of the world by two thirds or more, especially in the “undesirable” areas, while eliminating what remains of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In that novel, rich, privileged zealots, whose bought and paid for politicians kowtow to their whims, engage in social engineering using bio-weapon-developed retroviruses. It scared the crap out of me because as I researched it I realized that even though it was presented as fiction the science behind it was frightening, and the historical basis for the story was far too plausible, if not eerily factual (don’t even get me started on the chimps used for bio-weapons development in Liberia that were later used in vaccine development, and the history of simian contamination of vaccines, like the polio vaccine).
And here we are, about 15 months after I published that cheery little tome, and a virulent virus is spreading in Africa, and now, in the U.S., while the public health apparatus takes steps that are about as effective as prayer in stopping its spread. Nobody seems to be going, “Um, your society is highly mobile and travels constantly – isn’t confined to its rural village or one metro area – increasing the odds of it spreading to pandemic levels in no time, because you won’t be able to quarantine a hundred outbreaks as they occur – the direct result of failing to close your borders and pretending to take effective quarantine steps while just posturing.”
I also keep hearing these insane claims that we’re not to worry because there will soon be an antidote or a vaccine. You know, because we have the power of 10 scientists with our superpowers. But of course that ignores that after 34 years of working on one for HIV, there isn’t one. Same bright minds that have been unable to develop one for AIDS are suddenly going to have one within a year or so for Ebola. Just cause. About the only positives I’ve seen are announcements by companies in China, Canada, and Japan that they have possible “promising” treatments – which haven’t been tested on humans, and which, like the promising treatments for HIV in the early days (like AZT, which turned out to be poison), are so speculative as to be happy dreams at this point. Maybe one of these treatments will do something other than enrich the shareholders of the publicly traded companies touting their “progress.” I hope so, but have learned not to hold my breath. Looking at the first ten years of HIV, and the last 35 of Ebola, promising isn’t a word I’d toss around lightly.
Folks, I am trying very, very hard not to be alarmist. But when I read the lawyerlike parsing of language that the CDC uses I pucker.
For instance, not only per Obama is the outbreak of Ebola in Dallas not an outbreak, but Ebola isn’t “airborne” per the CDC’s definition – if someone sneezes and a cone of mist sprays five or six feet, that’s not “airborne,” because technically that mist isn’t air, it’s droplets – so when you hear pundits saying, “but it’s not airborne” they’re technically correct in the same way Clinton was correct that oral sex wasn’t “sexual relations” – in a way that would be laughed out of any reasonable discussion, but which liars hide behind.
When someone from the CDC, or some well-intentioned talking head, says, “Well, at least it’s not airborne,” they are saying that the virus doesn’t literally float in air and thus can’t be caught through inhalation. But it does exist in saliva and sweat. So when they’re saying that, to assure you it’s okay to get on a plane or not worry about the guy coughing in the hall, you have to understand who’s doing the saying, and why they’re using very narrow definitions that don’t mean what you think they do. The fact is that depending upon the viral concentration levels in the victim’s saliva and mucous, of course them sneezing on you, or on a surface you later touch, is going to carry an infectious risk. To say it doesn’t is as misleading as telling you that the risk of Ebola coming to the U.S. is “extremely low” when they knew it was about one in four.
I’ll end this rant with one key takeaway: Just about every Ebola expert in Africa is now dead, of Ebola, after underestimating its virulence. That’s not a particularly stellar track record for the experts. As an example, Doctors Without Borders, whose protocols are held out as noteworthy examples of success with the virus? 16 of their people in South Africa alone had contracted Ebola as of four days ago. So much for bulletproof protocols and having it all under control.
I sincerely hope my read on all this is overly pessimistic, and that the party functionary lawyer with zero related experience in anything approaching medicine, or science, or being more than a party hack, directs the efforts of the public health emergency with an adroit hand. I hope that this outbreak proves to be completely different than every other one seen to date and the spread isn’t scary bad. I hope that the same geniuses that allowed an infected victim into the country, and another infected victim to fly while symptomatic, develop some modicum of logic and reason and do something besides take temperatures (which we know doesn’t work) and ask questions (because people tend to lie, especially if they think not doing so is a death sentence) all the while misstating to us the true risks.
I will be watching this unfold from 1000 miles away, but even that’s too damned close for comfort. I’ll be looking for a small hill town nobody has ever heard of, or a fishing hamlet at the end of a dirt road where they haven’t seen a Gringo for twenty years, because my gut says that in about three weeks we’ll be seeing more ugliness as the inexorable progress we’ve seen in all the other outbreaks continues, and I have no interest in waiting until the crowd understands it’s been lied to, because panicked crowds can do strange things – I just lived through that, and I’d rather pass on a repeat at a much, much, much larger scale. If I’m wrong, which I dearly hope I am, I’ll have gotten a few months of well-deserved relaxation while writing my novels and maybe gotten even more sunburned. If I’m right, I don’t want to consider the lay of the land moving forward.
As always, be well, be good to each other, and try to make a difference, even if it’s only petting a dog or playing with a baby. It may not matter in the scheme of things, but it will to the dog or baby, and perhaps that’s all that really matters in the end.
And of course, buy my crap.
I love my German publisher. I mean, I frigging love those big lugs. But I especially love their cover artist, who just sent me JET – Ops Files, and is working on JET – Betrayal, next.
I mean, talk about portraying action, adventure, etc. in a glance.
As I dig out from hurricane related issues and follow the ebola debacle with open mouth, it’s nice to see something positive.
Here it is. If you haven’t downloaded it, JET – Ops Files is free for a limited time, so what’s your excuse?
You know those dystopian novels where there’s this scruffy stranger moving along a bleak deserted highway, usually with an adorable mutt trailing him? And there’s either smoking ruins in the distance, or a barren landscape, or some sort of radioactive looking swamp?
I have two adorable mutts.
NEWS: JET wins finalist in the annual Kindle Book Review Awards, Upon A Pale Horse wins semi-finalist. I should have bribed some judges or something.
Living out of a rucksack might have been appealing to me when I was in my teens or twenties, but it kind of sucks in 2014. Not that I’m complaining – still got all my fingers and toes, as do the pooches. But recovery time is longer, and being displaced like I currently am, blown to the far horizon by Hurricane Odile, has put a definite crimp in my production schedule – and if I can’t produce more crap, how can I demand that you continue buying it? See the problem?
Reports from my buddies in Baja are conflicting – some say there’s little dependable power and the place looks like something out of Book of Eli, others are saying the lights are on in some neighborhoods and there’s reliable delivery of food to the few grocery stores that are open. Either way, I’m going back, the only question being when. No point in returning to a smoking crater, but by the same token I’ve got deadlines to meet and plans to make, repairs to organize, enemies and critics to mock and vilify.
My hope is to make it back within ten days. We’ll see how that goes.
Not that I dislike mainland. In earlier days I spent a lot of time in Mazatlan, which is all good, but that was before I had a workload like I do. And not to be overly dramatic, but I just heard the reports of four gunshots – when you get good enough to make distinctions like handgun or rifle, you know you’ve spent too much time here. I wish I was kidding. Fortunately, they sounded like they weren’t immediately outside, so that’s something, I suppose.
Thanks for the outpouring of support and well wishes. I’ll put the bite on those who want to help me out by directing you to REBlake.com on Oct. 6th to assist with the launch of the first two NA/YA romances going live on the 7th. Not to guilt trip anyone into pimping me or anything. Although hoping you’ll do exactly that. Hint, hint.
That’s all I have for an update. I’m trying to reintroduce a sense of normalcy into all this, but it ain’t easy. Then again, nobody ever said it would be. And it could be worse. I mean, at least there’s no ebola, right? Right…?
It’s no surprise to my blog followers that a little weather disturbance threw me for a loop on Sept. 15th.
Specifically, the largest hurricane on record to make landfall in Baja, California, scored a direct hit where I live.
For those that wonder what being in a category 3 or 4 hurricane is like, consider a jet on takeoff in the rain. If you’ve ever flown in a storm, you know how the water appears to be moving sideways at such speed it could strip paint.
That’s what it’s like. Only worse. Because it keeps going for hour after relentless hour.
The real irony is that when the eye of the storm hovers overhead, and you’ve just spent three or four hours of damage control on all the east-facing doors and windows, and for a half hour of exhausted relief you think you’ve made it…then everything reverses, and the winds hit from the opposite direction, adding insult to injury for another three or so hours and bringing the hurt from the other side, so all your damage control does nothing and you have to start all over again.
The main storm really started to batter at eight pm. Power went out at eight-twenty. Fortunately I’d prepared, and had flashlights, batteries, candles, etc. ready. I also had hurricane protection across my large glass areas. Canned food. Tons of bottled water. Tequila. Dog food.
When you live in a home that’s built out of steel and concrete, not much should worry you. Not fire – concrete doesn’t burn. Not rain – it’s not like it melts. Not wind – doesn’t blow away.
That’s how I was thinking. By around ten o’clock, as water poured beneath my front door (and through it, where the wood joints connect) and the windows were flexing in their aluminum frames, I revised my opinion. By eleven, as my hands cramped from wringing towels into a bucket to dump down the shower drain, I revised my thinking again. Even with hurricane protection in place, every window became a river – there’s no way to 100% seal a window under 130-140 mph pressure. I discovered that rolling up garbage bags and stuffing them into the tracks slowed the flow by maybe 50%, so rushing rivers become more manageable streams. But we’re talking every room quickly becoming a lake, no matter what you do.
By the time the storm had blown past, around four a.m., I was beat, and beaten.
The next day was a landscape straight out of hell.
My house experienced some damage – roof tiles that blew off with such force they took chunks of the cement slab beneath with them, exterior wrought iron lamps that blew away, an iron door that tore off its hinges and flew who knows where, uprooted palms, debris everywhere. But as I walked the alien landscape that was my neighborhood, I realized I’d been extremely fortunate. My next door neighbor’s front doors had blown in, his windows had broken, a tree had torn part of his roof off, and the storm had basically roared through his home for six hours. No need to exaggerate the effects of high-pressure water on plaster, paint, carpentry, or furniture. Suffice it to say it’s not pretty.
Another house up the street was missing all its windows. Its garage door was crumpled in the middle of the street about fifty yards away like discarded tissue. The place on the other side of me had steel storm shutters across most of its windows – a great idea. The problem is the several that didn’t (because they were considered structurally sound enough to withstand 150 mph winds) blew out, as did the double front doors, exposing the new home to the full wrath of the storm. As I walked past it, I noted that the garage door had also blown in, probably from the pressure change when the windows went, the resulting debris totaling the two cars inside.
All of these places are built out of cinderblock and rebar. Otherwise there would be nothing left. I got to the security area near the entrance, where an administration trailer had been – a big one, maybe forty feet – and it was gone. There were a few desks scattered around the area, but no trailer. Trees had blown down, and through doors and windows, and the entire entrance was clogged with debris and broken glass and bits of peoples’ homes. Of thirty houses I looked at, half were devastated. As in, wrath of God, biblical end times, devastated. Most residents had left before the storm hit, or use their places as winter homes and so weren’t there. So thankfully there weren’t too many people around to be injured in my subdivision.
An exception was my neighbor, who suffered deep lacerations from broken glass that claimed most of his hand. The doctor was apologetic about lacking any morphine or local anesthetic while she dug shards out before stitching the gashes up – everything had been destroyed by the storm, the hospital flooded, the windows broken, supplies blown to the far horizon. Another victim was brought in by a weeping woman as we left – a pane of glass had sliced his entire left side, from his ribcage, all the way down his back, wide open. He didn’t look like he was going to make it. The doctors were doing what they could for him when we pulled away. There were more cars limping toward the hospital, through two feet of water, the effects of broken glass and flying debris lethal.
Anyone who wants a feel for what the aftermath was like should google Hurricane Odile, Cabo, and look at the pictures. I can assure you they are the tame version.
The looters appeared the night after the storm. I won’t belabor this, but let me say, on the record, that the looting destroyed almost as much of the area as the hurricane. My heart was heavy as I watched the poor, those from the barrios who had just lost their homes, looting every retail store they could get to. Desperation does strange things. 95% of the population behaved honorably. The 5% that didn’t were those in true need…and those who viewed it as a chance to prey on others without consequences.
It took the Mexican government almost six days to get sufficient troops in to stop the looting. I stayed for five of those days, doing what I could to help my neighbors, absent power, water, food, gasoline. I decided to pull out when the flashlights of looters swarmed over the community one over from mine, like glowbugs after dark, the only sound that of glass shattering as they broke into homes. When my maintenance guy appeared the next day to check in with me, he advised against being on the road. There were rumors of truckloads of armed thugs going neighborhood to neighborhood, robbing and shooting anyone who resisted. Apparently a lack of accountability emboldens the criminally inclined, and after five days, there was nothing that was off-limits.
When I left I followed a police truck out of town. My last recollection is of driving past two men in the process of robbing a small, family-owned tire store located on the far edge of town, stuffing the bed of their late-model Dodge truck full of free tires. This for me typified what had gone on – those preying on their neighbors because they could, rather than out of desperation or necessity. It was a tiny minority, but numbered in the thousands – when I drove by the looting of Costco on night number two or three, there were hundreds of vehicles there. Would that this was mass hysteria over getting sufficient food to feed the baby. Maybe some of it was, but mostly it was guys loading refrigerators and big screen TVs into SUVs.
To put it into perspective, Wal Mart, Sams Club, City Club, Costco…none were damaged by the storm. They made it through fine. As I drove by them, all were gutted and looked like battles had been fought on their grounds.
I plan to return as soon as there’s dependable power and food. Right now that looks like a week or two away. Hopefully. There’s some power to some areas, and then it goes off as the 110 transformers that were initially shipped in error instead of the 220s that should have been, blow up, adding weeks to the mess.
I’m fine. I got off light. My bruises, scrapes, etc. are healing or healed. I’m on mainland, the dogs are safe, all is well.
But on the list of things I never want to do again this is one of them. Been there, done that, got the shirt.
I have sketchy internet where I am, so won’t be online a lot. Sorry about that. Moving around with a couple of big dogs is challenging. The sparrow is doing well – my maintenance guy’s cousin is at my house, daily, doing essential repairs, feeding and watering her.
Hopefully things will get back to normal soon. But it will be a long time until I can drive by Wal Mart and not see it by bonfire as looters run amok, frenzied grins at getting something for nothing on their faces, or see Vinoteca (a large specialty wine store) being looted by guys in Mercedes SUVs, breaking the glass of the rare cognac section with a fire extinguisher so they can get to the really good stuff. Because, hey, someone’s going to get it if they don’t, and right now it’s free, right?
The problem being, of course, that there’s always a price. Nothing’s ever free. For the Los Cabos area, I fear that the price will be paid for years to come. Paradise lost for a TV or a washing machine or a fridge.
To say I’m saddened by my fellow man is a serious understatement. But I’m not surprised. If anything, I’m surprised not by the number of predatory and opportunistic, but by the number of honorable, good people who did the right thing and didn’t join in. Alas, it doesn’t take many of the bad, who dress and behave like the good and smile with false friendliness until a disaster hits, to ruin it for everyone.
Human nature. You see it in all disaster areas. New Orleans. The Ukraine. The Middle East. The list is endless.
I suppose to hope that we as a species are better than we actually are is foolish. We are, at our core, our own worst enemies.
The Mexican government is being commended for its rapid action. For five days after the disaster, it did nothing and allowed criminals to run amok. The media spin is BS. It took six days for them to stop looting and impose a curfew, and the road to La Paz, down which the trucks that carried the soldiers rolled, had been open the entire time. They could have been here within 12 hours. Instead it took almost a week. The day the serious troops showed up the looting stopped. Being lawless suddenly carried repercussions and lost its appeal.
I hear everything’s now back to normal, being cleaned up, rebuilt as well as is possible to do without dependable power. I’ll be heading back once I hear from my neighbor that the electricity’s been on for more than a few hours, and there’s food in the stores. Until then, I’ll continue my refugee existence – hopefully not for too much longer.
Oh, and before I forget, if you want to do something worthwhile, want to help, go to the website for the Los Cabos Humane Society and donate. The animals got the worst of it. If misery has a face, it’s an animal after a hurricane. They’ll need all the help they can get. I plan to donate time and money upon my return. If you feel stirred to do so yourself, there’s no better cause.
That’s the update. Now go buy my crap – someone’s got to replace the lost tequila, and it ain’t buying itself.
My co-authored novel with Clive Cussler, The Eye Of Heaven, broke out in its first week at #2 on the New York Times ebook bestseller list, and #5 on the hardcover print list.
So I can scratch that off my bucket list.
Here are the pages of the September 21st bestseller lists. It charted on one of the combined charts, too. So an auspicious beginning, one could say.
It’s all a dizzy whirlwind on my end as I write away every day. Hitting the lists is fun and a neat way of earning bragging rights, but the truth is that it’s readers I care most about, so my interest in the lists is only to the extent that they represent reader habits. I’ve charted on the USA Today list, and now the Times, so from this point on I won’t be paying much attention to them.
What is kind of cool is that people have been sending me photos from airports around the country, where the book is on the shelves, so that part of my evil plan is playing out nicely. It’s a charge to see one’s book next to John Green and Nora Roberts. Whodda thunk?
Still, it’s not every day you hit the NY Times bestseller lists, so I’ll have a happy memory of Sept. 11, 2014, for the rest of my life. Now back to writing. Because the damn books don’t write themselves…
It’s no secret to readers of my blog that one of the keys to having a sustainable career as an indie is to regularly release new work. The market is a hungry monkey with a short memory, and if you won’t feed it, someone else will.
NEWS: R.E. Blake’s debut YA/NA romance, Less Than Nothing, gets a mega review from MBR.
BREAKING NEWS: I just hit the NY Times bestseller list at #5 with Eye of Heaven on hardcover print edition, and #2 on the ebook list, to be published Sept. 21. So I’ll be totally insufferable from here on out. As if I wasn’t already…
So here are some tips for writing more efficiently, which is to say, producing more, higher quality work in less time.
1) Turn off the internet. Do it. Your productivity will increase 30-40%. “But I need it for research.” No you don’t. Why? See tip 2.
2) Do your research before you write the frigging book. Don’t research as you go or you’ll never get any momentum. If you must, make notes of items that need research and do them after you’ve hit your daily word goal.
3) Have a daily word goal. Hit it no matter what. I wrote JET – Ops Files with three broken metacarpal bones in my hand. And I hit my word count, every stinking day, even working at a third of the speed I could two-handed. If I can do it one-handed, what’s your excuse? Oh, and “life happened” or “but I have too many other obligations” are not reasons. They’re excuses. Put simply, you either want to make this happen or you don’t. If you have a bunch of excuses for why it’s too hard, take up some other hobby that’s less demanding, because this ain’t for you. People who have excuses when they’re drowning wind up dead. People who will do anything to stay afloat usually make it. Decide which you are and then be it.
4) Don’t edit and revise until you’re done with first draft. If you insist on going back and editing the previous paragraph while in process, you’re wasting your time and breaking your momentum. If you feel you must edit as you go, set aside time AFTER YOU HAVE WRITTEN YOUR DAY’S WORD GOAL to then edit it. Otherwise you’re trying to run a marathon carrying an anvil. You won’t win.
5) Insert placeholders for shit you don’t know. Don’t agonize over the perfect character name, use XXX or YYY or ZZZ and come back to it after you’ve hit your word count for the day. Same with locations, same with models of cars or equipment or anything you’re unsure of. Come back to it. Just write the story. Hit the details later.
6) Outline the book with single sentence chapter headings that clue you on what the point of each chapter is. Stuff like “Chpt 1 – Martin discovers he’s actually dead. Chpt 2 – Martin goes to hospital to find out why.” And so on. If you know in advance what you want to accomplish with the chapter you’re a lot further along than staring at the page hoping something comes to you. You’ll cut your production time by 50% if you do this sort of rudimentary outline. To those who don’t outline, I’ve done it both ways, and I speak from experience, and with love: if you’re anything like me, if you don’t outline you’re just being lazy, because you don’t want to have to think the whole thing through in advance. Don’t be lazy. It’ll cost you more in the long run in lost productivity.
7) Sit down at the top of the year and pencil out a production schedule, and stick to it. When I mean stick to it, I mean stick to it like someone will blow your head off if you miss it. Like you’ll be fired from your job as a writer if you miss it. Just like real writers with real writing jobs in Hollywood are fired if they don’t have their work done on time. If you want to do this as a career, develop discipline. Hollywood writers deliver every day, every week, regardless of whether their rugrats are crying or they have a booboo or they just aren’t feeling it today. Because they have to or their asses get canned. View yourself the same way and hold yourself to the same standards. Put your big girl or boy pants on and step up. If you look at your WIP and go, “but I just don’t feel like it,” understand you’re saying, “I just don’t feel like doing this for a living, so I’ll go back to working at Pet Boys or whatever, because I don’t have what it takes to do this.”
8) Demand more out of yourself than anyone else expects. Push the bar every day. Find greatness within yourself and force it to become your norm. If you don’t, nobody else will. Understand that most people will never do this. They’ll never be great at anything. That’s not you. If you’re going to add to the millions of books clogging Amazon, do it because you’re producing top level product, not because you want to be one of the other million mediocre screeds that nobody will ever buy or read. Aspire to more than that, even if the odds say you won’t succeed. At the end of all this you’re dead, and what you do between now and then is what will give your life meaning. Make sure it’s something you will go “That was awesome” about when you’re taking your last breaths.
9) Don’t tell crappy stories. Demand that your stories set a new bar for yourself every time. Every. Single. Time. Go big or go home.
10) The power of questions: Ask yourself, “How can I make this the best chapter I have ever written, and be excited and have fun doing it?” before you sit down to write. Asking yourself questions that empower you determines your perception of what you do, and will affect how you do it. Ask good questions. “How can I turn out the best book I’ve ever written and do it in less time than I dreamed possible while enjoying the process” gets you a different answer than “Why can’t I keep up with those other authors” or “What am I thinking, even trying this?” If you believe you can, you’re right. If you believe you can’t, you’re right. If you believe, “I’ll find a way,” you’ll have a different career than “This will never work.”
11) Up your game every time you write. It’s like any other craft. You are either stagnating or you’re improving. View every chance to write as a chance to improve and grow. Thousands of incremental forward steps will land you in a far different place at the end of a few years than sitting down and churning out the same ol’ each time.
12) Set reasonable goals. If you only have an hour a day to write, figure out how to generate 700-1000 decent words a day, and do it, every single day, no exceptions. If you do, you will generate 300+K per year. That’s three-four novels a year. If you can’t even manage an hour a day, stop reading my blog and watch some TV instead, because this isn’t your calling, and you’re not even close to serious enough to do anything but waste everyone’s time. Sorry. But it’s true. Don’t try to compete with people who are serious about it and expect anything but heartbreak. Just accept that this is an occasional hobby and do it as such. For the record, hobbies don’t pay. You pay to have them.
These dozen tips will help you create quality work faster. If you pick and choose which tips resonate with you and leave the rest, your effectiveness will drop with each tip left by the wayside. It’s a cumulative thing. Like getting ready for a road trip, you can skip putting gas in the car or ensuring you have air in your tires or packing food and water or bothering to look at a map or ensuring you have money in your pocket, but each step you skip will ultimately reduce your odds of successful travel. This blog is for those who want to be successful travelers.
Now go forth and multiply, and never forget to buy my crap.
My goal when telling a story is to immerse my reader into whatever is going on so they feel they’re right in the middle of it. This means that they need to experience at a number of different levels. Ideally, I’ll engage all of their senses rather than focusing exclusively on the story.
You could call that approach to writing experiential. I find that asking myself a number of questions before starting a scene really helps. Those questions are, after asking, “what’s the point?” as outlined in my prior post: What’s the environment like? Hot? Cold? Humid? Dry? What does it smell like? What sounds can be heard? How does it feel (if in a jungle, the ground will feel different than a desert, as will the plants or whatnot, and so on)? What do the surroundings look like? How much light? What kind? And on and on. A good checklist before each chapter might be: Time of day? Weather? Surroundings? Sounds? Tactile sensations? Smells? Tastes (I’ll usually try to impart some character state-of-mind using taste or something associated – a dry swallow, a lump in the throat, the flavor of metal or sour bile or acid, etc.)? Once you understand these elements in the scene, you can integrate the information seamlessly into your story. If you haven’t thought about them, you can’t.
If you can impart this information to the reader in a way that isn’t an info dump, it will help you put the reader in the thick of it. Even writing something like romance I try to do this. Especially in sex scenes, where the whole experiential thing really carries the mood, employing all the senses to immerse the reader is essential.
That’s not to say you want to write page after page of description. Often a well placed word here and there will get it across. Just as you don’t need to belabor how a character is feeling, which we’ll get to in the next bit (you can convey that they’re nervous by putting a quaver in their voice, or a stammer, or a hesitation, have their eyes dart to something, have them shift or fidget – just about anything besides “he said nervously” or “he was nervous”).
Viewing the senses as elements you drop hints about or leave clues about for the reader to catch is a good way of doing it, and requires a delicate touch. Too often for my tastes, novice authors either employ prose that’s overly sparse (like the journalistic style praised by ex-journalists like Mark Twain and Hemingway) and leave far too much out for my liking, or go florid in an attempt to get across a sense of the environment. If you want to read brilliant examples of how to write atmospherics well, read anything by James Lee Burke. To my ear, his descriptions beat the snot out of any other living writer, although there are a few that come close.
So aside from “what’s the point?” which is the question you should begin every writing session with (not, what’s the point of writing, rather, what point does this next bit serve – what’s its objective?), ask yourself how the scene is set – what it looks like, what it smells like, how it feels, what it sounds like, etc. Because if you don’t know and haven’t provided the clues, your reader sure as hell doesn’t know, and their experience will suffer accordingly.
I had a discussion with an author the other day that I thought the writers who follow my blog might find interesting. We were talking about his latest WIP, and what I believed could be improved.
About a third of the way through the discussion, I gave him one of my secrets for writing a compelling novel. The secret is asking a simple question: What’s the point?
If you do that before outlining, or writing each chapter, you’ll wind up with a much more interesting book. Alternatively, for you pansters, when you go back on your first editing run, you should view each chapter with skepticism, asking, “what’s the point?”
If there’s no compelling reason for a chapter to be there, if it’s just blah blah, it should be cut. Period. Doesn’t matter that you wrote it, that it’s filled with your precious prose. There has to be a point to every chapter (we can actually take that to each paragraph, as well as to the overall book theme, but you get the idea).
Now, lest you misread me, I’m not saying that every chapter has to advance a major plot element forward. It’s that you need to understand why you’re writing it. Is it to tell the reader more about a character? To put the character in jeopardy? To foreshadow something that will be relevant later? To have something happen that’s essential to the story? Do you need an action beat?
If you find yourself looking at a chapter and the answer is, to increase the word count, or because I need something between this last bit and the next, don’t write it. Figure out the reason that this next chapter cries out to be in your book, and ensure you achieved your objective by the last word of it.
If you take this approach seriously, you might find your books getting shorter. That’s okay. It’s better to have a shorter, punchier book than a fat, bloated screed filled with meaningless meandering. Think as a reader. You really want to read ten pages describing the woods next to the house the protag’s just arrived at? No. There’s no point to it. So axe it.
Don’t get me wrong. You can have an objective like, “I want a rhythmic beat here so the reader can catch his breath.” But it would be better to combine that with, “and I want to show the reader something important about the character while I do it.”
So that’s my quick craft tip for the day. Ask yourself what’s the point. That will ensure that your chapters are mission driven by a clear objective.
Believe me, your reader and your editor will be glad you did.