The Vision Thing

I like a fresh challenge. I like learning new stuff. So the idea of self-publishing my series of fantasy novels (and some other fiction too, before long) is kind of fun, at least if we define “fun” loosely. In between sessions of editing on the story, I’m delving into the minutiae of document formatting and trying to wrap my brains around book cover design.

I’m not a professional graphic artist. I need to hire a cover designer. That much is obvious. But in looking at hundreds of book covers on designer websites, I’m just not seeing anything that floats my boat. Not only that — as I look at the bold and exciting work of a dozen different cover designers, a certain sameness starts to creep in. I’m reminded of the column that Kris Rusch wrote about “serious writer voice,” a phenomenon in which writers all start to sound alike because they’re all striving for the same sort of professional polish.

The covers I’m seeing look generic — and that’s because they are generic. A book is in, or at least is marketed as belonging to, a genre. Same root word: genre = generic.

It’s clear that a book cover needs to be simple. Too many elements will clutter it up. It needs to be eye-catching. Contrasting colors are good. I get all that. But also, most designers of fiction covers today seem to be using stock photos, which probably limits their design choices in ways that are not obvious to the uninitiated. A cover done by an illustrator is going to be either very darn expensive or painfully cheesy. But generic photos do not lend themselves to distinctive originality. Pundits among the design crowd will even tell you that being distinctive is bad. You want to be generic. You want to make the potential book buyer a promise that you will satisfy his or her desires for reading pleasure. If your cover is too weird, you’re promising the wrong thing. You’ll lose sales.

Here’s what one pundit says on his site: “It’s simple: You need a cover that instantly grabs one’s attention and describes what the book is about in a single glance.” Gee, that seems both evident and wise. But as I think about it, I start getting angry. What that sentence is telling me is, my book needs to be about one single thing. The idea that a book might be about several things is — well, I’ve already committed marketing suicide, that’s what it looks like.

Plus, this is a four-book series. (What do you call that, a quadrology?) Am I supposed to envision four related yet distinct cover images all of which convey the same thing?

Further down the page, this self-styled authority (the author of a how-to-write book) says this: “Describe your entire book in one, single, solitary, sentence. … Pick the best possible image to present your book. Consider your perfect readers and ask yourself what would make them ‘FEEL’ something when they see your cover. They don’t need to feel good or happy (or pleased), and they don’t even need to ‘like’ your cover per se, but it’s imperative that they ‘feel’ something. If you have your single sentence and single image figured out that will save you time and money.” [Quotation marks and caps in original.]

I’m in big trouble, folks. My single solitary sentence (okay, it’s two sentences, but the second one is only a fragment) is probably going to be, “Lord of the Rings meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Except, no vampires — sorry.” Try shoehorning that into a single image.

The essence of this story, it seems to me, is that it’s multifaceted. In the first volume alone there are ten viewpoint characters (two of them minor). At least another ten are scattered across the remaining three volumes. The story has action, suspense, romance, a little humor, a tiny pinch of philosophy, and plenty of people’s feelings. It has dragons, wizards, elves, horseless carriages, flying machines, imps, firearms, murder, music, texting (magical), a ghost, a not entirely bloodless revolution, prophecies, an invasion, healing, special effects, body-snatching, madness, and a triple wedding. Just about everything except vampires and zombies.

Contemplate that idea of the single image that makes you feel something in the context of this passage (a little teaser here) from Book I of my 4-volume series. By way of explanation, Kyura is the chief heroine of the story (though Meery does some pretty heroic things too). The “it” referred to in the sentence, “Get rid of it!” is the Leafstone Shield, which Kyura has accidentally inherited. That’s the title of the novel — The Leafstone Shield.

Meery Caitledore felt all muddled up. She felt about five different things, all at once. When your best friend, who you’d known practically your whole life, suddenly wasn’t just an ordinary person anymore, when all of a sudden it turned out she was someone amazingly special and important and had been all along, you were supposed to be happy for her! Maybe throw a party. Give her a big hug, for sure. Meery felt happy for Kyura, she really did. It just bubbled over. She felt proud to know Kyura, too, and she admired Kyura (well, she had always admired her) and knew Kyura would be a wonderful High Priest someday — if she lived long enough. And that was the scary part. The amazingly special thing that had happened was also really, really dangerous. Meery still shuddered when she thought about the air dragon, and about how she, Meery Caitledore, had started hitting it with a broom handle without even thinking. Before long there would be something worse, if you could believe the old wizard. It looked like Kyura was probably going to wind up dead before very long on account of it, and Meery was scared for her. She wanted to say, “No! Get rid of it! Put things back the way they were!” But she didn’t feel she could tell Kyura what to do, unless Kyura asked for advice. And even then, she’d probably give bad advice. Or maybe Kyura was so overwhelmed by everything that had happened that she felt too mixed up to ask for advice, even though she would like some if Meery offered it. The old wizard had given her some advice, so maybe it would be all right. But Meery couldn’t begin to guess what was the right thing for Kyura to do, and she was smart enough to know she didn’t know. A little jealousy was mixed in with the happiness and the fear, too. Nothing amazing or special ever happened to Meery. The happiness and the scared part kind of canceled out, and that left her feeling sorry for herself, which wasn’t very admirable and she wasn’t about to admit it to anybody, especially not Kyura, and who else could she talk to? So she was moping a little while she wiped the tables in the common room after lunch.

Okay, so I’m supposed to pick one single feeling for the novel — or worse, for the entire four-volume series — when the opening of Chapter 25 of Book I by itself (a chapter that is mainly concerned with why Meery’s new boyfriend always wears a hat) has happy, proud, admiring, scary, confused, jealous, and sorry for herself all mixed in together.

Maybe I should put a Venn diagram on the cover. (Hint: That’s the worst cover idea EVER.)

Welcome to the Meat Grinder

I should probably just stay away from self-published fiction altogether. Don’t download any, even when it’s free on Kindle Unlimited. Don’t read any. And above all, don’t comment on any.

It’s not that I think the Big Five publishers are publishing all of the good, worthwhile books that are being written — nor, for that matter, that all of the books they’re publishing are good! I’m sure some good books fall through the cracks, and I have bailed out on a number of mainstream-published novels after only a few dyspepsia-inducing pages. Somebody in the publishing house certainly liked these books enough to spend money having them printed up, but maybe the books were the best of a bad crop.

The problem is not bad books, per se — it’s that the realm of self-publishing is so very, very glutted with garbage. I have looked. I have downloaded and attempted to read novels, surely several dozen of them by now. I have yet to find even one that I could be grateful to have found. As a venerable TV commercial put it, “Where’s the beef?” Where is the good stuff?

Today, on a Facebook authors’ group, I stumbled into an awkward encounter with a self-published novelist. He posted a link to his novel, together with a brief, glowing quote from a 5-star review. (I think the brief quote was the whole review, actually.) The quote was entirely generic: It made no mention at all of any specifics of his book. So I went and looked at his book page on Amazon, and sure enough, ten of the twelve reviews (all of them 5-star) were entirely generic. The remaining two mentioned, in passing, one detail each from the novel.

I’m aware that some authors pay money for generic reviews. I suggested to this author that the reviews seemed to be generic, and that the potential customer was bound to suspect that they weren’t genuine. He thereupon took umbrage. He called me a jackass. (Actually, he called me a jack ass. Two words. His grasp of English spelling remains open to question.)

At no time did I state that I was certain they were paid-for generic reviews. I merely raised the possibility. Inasmuch as the purpose of this particular Facebook group is to discuss effective promotional strategies, I felt the topic was within the purview of the group, and should probably be broached. Generic reviews tell a tale that the careful author should not want told.

But no — this fellow insisted that all of the reviews were genuine, and that I was being very unprofessional and a jackass (or jack ass) for suggesting otherwise. In a public forum, he added. I pointed out to him that that’s the nature of a public forum: Some of the comments are valid and some are questionable. I suggested that if he couldn’t take the heat, he might want to stay out of the kitchen.

What I meant by this is that any author who expects to receive nothing but enthusiastic approval in public forums is living in a fool’s paradise. I didn’t put it to him that way, however.

Another commenter in the group suggested that one reason why short, non-specific reviews show up on Amazon is that some of them are surely typed (or entered, or poked at) on tablet devices. Putting details in a review, when the user interface is so constricted, is likely to seem more trouble than it’s worth. So quite possibly I was wrong. Quite possibly all of the reviews were genuine. I’m also a professional reviewer; my standards for reviews can indeed become a source of trouble.

Another author, who will likewise remain nameless, proved some months ago to be just as thin-skinned. That other author has the distinction of having created one of the worst self-published novels I have ever come across. Whether today’s jack ass caller is a fine writer or utterly inadequate, I can’t judge. I have no intention of reading his book to find out. But I do think it’s worth suggesting that from time to time the most thin-skinned among the self-publishing community may be ultra-sensitive owing to their perception, however dim and fleeting, that their published work is not all that they might wish it to be.

Conversely, they may be utterly convinced of the shining worth of their fiction, convinced as well that the world is conspiring against them, and in a pugnacious frame of mind because that’s how they deal with imaginary conspiracies. I’m not in a position to do in-depth psychoanalysis on people I’ve never met. I can only guess.

The take-away here is not complicated. First, I need to give up on self-published fiction. It is gruesomely bad, apparently without exception, and my encounters with it disturb my serenity to no good purpose. Second, if you’re a writer who expects to encounter nothing but praise and approval in public forums, you need to get over yourself.

What It Takes

The world is full of aspiring writers of fiction. Most of them, sad to say, cheerfully crank out work that’s very, very bad. A few of them will improve over time, but most of them won’t.

I’ve puzzled over this phenomenon for many years. Why don’t bad writers see that they’re doing it badly? Why don’t they buckle down and get better? An explanation came to me recently in the form of a comment from a friend. In a different context entirely, he mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect. I had never heard of it, so I had to look it up. (Thank you, wikipedia!)

Dunning and Kruger, working at Cornell University, did some nice statistical research to document the fact that stupid people routinely overestimate their own competence. When they do badly at a task, they think they’re doing it pretty well. Bright people, meanwhile, routinely overestimate others’ competence. We tend to assume that others are just as well equipped to tackle intellectual challenges as we are.

When it comes to bad writing, bad writers literally do not see that their writing is bad. To them, it looks just fine. To them, their own work looks very much like the work of their favorite professional writers — perhaps in need of a little polish, which an editor can easily supply, but certainly not bad.

How can you tell whether you have what it takes? You can’t. None of us can! You have to go with your gut, and your gut may be lying to you. I certainly think I have what it takes as a fiction writer (and my agent seems to agree), but both my agent and I may be wrong.

One difference between a good writer and an inadequate writer, I think, is that an inadequate writer trusts her gut almost to the exclusion of any other source of information. More than once I’ve suggested to aspiring writers that they needed to devote some attention to aspect X or Y of their work, only to have my criticisms angrily dismissed as irrelevant.

Aren’t all writers entitled to write however they want to, they cry? Yes — certainly. I write exactly what I personally want to, too! Couldn’t do it any other way. The difference is, I’ve studied the craft. I have an educated gut. The principles of effective fiction writing that I picked up along the way from an assortment of books on how to write have sunk into my gut. Today my gut will inform me (I hope!) when something isn’t up to a professional standard.

Art Barnes used to be the conductor of the Livermore Symphony. He was an irascible old guy, and probably still is, but he said one thing whose wisdom has stuck with me. One of the wind players would make a mistake in rehearsal. Art would point out the mistake — and then, from the podium, he could see that the player hadn’t picked up a pencil. Art would say, “Write it in the part. Write it in the part! Do you know the difference between a professional musician and an amateur? A professional worries that he might make that mistake again, so he writes a reminder in the part. The amateur thinks he’ll remember, so he doesn’t write it in the part, and then he forgets and makes the same mistake again.”

The details differ, but I’d say a professional writer is one who understands that there are many, many ways to make a mistake, and takes the trouble to learn how to avoid the mistakes. The inadequate writer either doesn’t know that a particular type of mistake exists — a viewpoint shift, say, or the failure to have a character act in a natural, sensible way — or knows vaguely that such a mistake exists and senses dimly that this particular paragraph might not have entirely avoided the mistake, but thinks his or her writing is just so naturally brilliant that the brilliance will overshadow any niggling little slips of the pen.

In the end, you have to trust your gut. But you also need to understand that your gut may be lying to you.

When Is a Hook Not a Hook?

For anyone who aspires to write genre fiction today, it need hardly be pointed out that a novel — or even a short story — ought to start in a way that hooks the reader. The general feeling, among editors and publishers at least, seems to be that readers are so fickle, so impatient, so easily distracted that unless raw meat is dangled under their noses in the very first paragraph, they will fail to salivate. They will drop the book and go on to something that promises thicker slabs of protein.

This is probably less true in the case of literary fiction; I wouldn’t know. It was also less true a hundred years ago, before audiences’ expectations were electrified by film and television. But good writers have always tried to create a strong lead. More than 2,000 years ago, Publius Vergilius Maro (better known as Virgil) began the Aeneid with the words, “Arma virumque cano” — “I sing of arms and a hero.” Dickens begins some of his novels with tongue firmly in cheek, plainly with the hope that the casual reader will be enticed to go on reading: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life,” David Copperfield begins, “or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Some thought may be required to create an effective opening hook, and even some well-respected writers occasionally fail. Recently I picked up one of a longish series of fantasy novels written by a fairly well-known and probably successful author. I’m not going to tell you the name of the author or the name of the book, because I don’t like to go out of my way to insult my colleagues. But here’s a thumbnail sketch:

On page 1, the viewpoint character (one suspects he’s a warrior hero) is “lying naked, bound, and bruised on the cold ground.” That’s not just the first page; it’s the very first sentence. A smallish group of nasty guys, we quickly learn, is planning to torture and kill him. There is mention of “tools … heating in the coals.”

Exciting, right? Is your pulse pounding yet? Sure it is.

Nonetheless, I maintain that this is a terrible way to start a novel.

Why do I say that? First, because it’s glaringly obvious that the hero is going to escape from this gruesome death-trap. (And indeed, on page 3 the nasty guys have gone into their shack because it’s raining and sleeting, and then he finds a sharp rock and starts sawing at the ropes, and bingo, he’s free.) There is no actual suspense in the opening: It’s a hoax. If the hero were actually tortured and killed on page 3, there would be no book! So the fact that he is going to escape is never in doubt.

Second, if you start a book with such an intense situation, what’s your follow-up? The writer can’t possibly sustain that level of danger for 450 pages. (And that’s just Book I; apparently there are three books in this particular segment of the saga.) The story is almost certain to sag rather than building.

To be sure, the writer can try to sustain the tension. Flipping through the book at random, I quickly find a page with a mention of assassination, another where the body of a murdered man is carried into a castle, and another where some character’s “wound was hugely swollen and leaking stinking pus.” Such a surfeit of grinding grimness may appeal to a few readers — those who are so numb to start with that only a steady diet of tooth and claw can give them, for an hour or two, the illusion that they’re still alive. But if you aren’t numb to start with, you soon will be.

Personally, I don’t feel that the highest purpose a novel can aspire to is to stun the reader into passive acceptance of extreme violence. But maybe that’s just me. In any event, I didn’t start this little essay with the intention of complaining about violence in popular fiction. I only wanted to point out that the first page of a story should be honest, not a con game — that is, that the problem facing the lead character should last for more than two pages — and that the opening should leave room for the story to develop in some direction or other. If the opening is too forceful, too extreme, there’s nowhere to go but down.

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t YA?

I’ve read a lot of genre fiction over the years, mysteries and science fiction/fantasy mostly. When I go to the bookstore, I’m looking for a book that dovetails with my reading expectations. If I buy a mystery and find that it’s mostly a romance or an episode in a soap opera, I’m peeved.

As a writer, however, I’m not comfortable being pigeonholed. I want to write the story in the way that the story needs to be written. I don’t want to be hemmed in by marketing considerations.

This month, if all goes well, I’ll be putting the finishing touches on the most ambitious creative project I’ve ever undertaken — a four-volume fantasy series. Really, it’s one long story spread across four separate books. And is it or isn’t it YA (young adult)?

I first conceived of the story twelve years ago. The version I wrote then was really pretty bad, and never even came close to being published. Somewhere along the way, though, someone read it (a PDF was briefly available on my website, and if you have a copy, please drag it to the trash right now). This reader emailed me to say, “Have you ever considered recasting the story as YA? You have three strong female characters here. How about if they were all teenagers instead of being in their early 20s?”

The proverbial lightbulb went off in my head. I pulled out the hacksaw and the pliers and started tearing the original version apart. In the version that is now nearing completion, possibly eight or ten pages (out of 600) of the original version remain. The rest is an entirely new story that happens to have the same plot premise and many of the same characters as the previous version.

The young ladies in the story are now 17. They face grave challenges. The dragons that like to eat people are not the worst of it. Somehow, eventually, they emerge triumphant, though not unscathed.

My literary agent is attempting to sell the series to a publisher. We’ve agreed that if it doesn’t fly as YA, she’ll try again with the adult fantasy market.

And that’s the nub of the problem. Is it YA, or isn’t it? Basically it’s an adventure story in which the lead characters happen to be teenagers. But because I’ve been thinking of it as YA, and because I have some rudimentary idea of how that market works, the three girls who are my lead characters all have boyfriends. The plot includes boy-loses-girl (or, in this case, girl-loses-boy). Things are not always rosy in the romance department. But it was clear from the start that I would need romance sub-plots, so I made sure to include them.

Let’s face it: I’m over 65, and I was never a teenage girl. I have very little idea how girls think or feel about boys. I did the best I could with the romance angle, and I think maybe it came out all right — but I was personally more involved in the adventure, intrigue, danger, and magic in the story.

So today I’m writing the big scene in the very final chapter of the final book, and it’s a wedding. Not just a wedding — a triple wedding. Not only do I have to write about gowns and shoes and flower girls, because it would be unforgivable to skip any of that — no, that’s not bad enough. As I’m writing it, I am personally getting all weepy-eyed.

I’ve never cried at a wedding in my life, and here I am, crying over a wedding I made up. So maybe in the end it’s YA after all.

The wedding scene is not exactly boilerplate, though. (Nothing I write seems to come out as boilerplate.) Kyura is being given away by her gruff old Uncle Dulan. Her friend Meery, who is an orphan, is being given away by a volunteer stand-in, the wizard Otano. And Alixia?

Alixia had decided to walk to the altar by herself. “I killed my father,” she reminded them when the topic first came up. “I don’t think I should ask anyone to stand in for him.”

Her father was a profoundly evil wizard, and she killed him in self-defense. Also, she’s kind of flighty at times — yet at this key moment in her life, she’s taking responsibility and standing up for herself.

If you kill your father but then you take responsibility for it, is that YA? I have no idea. All I know for sure is, this is what has to happen in the story.

The wonderful thing about being a writer is, I didn’t have the least idea how the scene would unfold until I sat down to write it. I didn’t know Alixia would look at it that way.

Would I change it in order to fit in with a publisher’s idea of what the YA market wants? Never say “never” — but the editor would have a damn steep hill to climb to convince me I needed to reconsider. When it’s right, you know it’s right.

Almost Perfect

Every author cherishes (or tries to) the fond illusion that his or her work is very nearly perfect. An experienced editor might perhaps suggest a few minor tweaks, but surely not much more work will be needed before the book is rocketing toward the best-seller list.

Even the very weakest, most inept authors tend to think that. If anything, they’re more enamored of the illusion than a seasoned professional would be.

As I roll down the hill toward the final thrilling climax of my four-volume YA fantasy series, drafting 2,000 words a day and wrestling various vexing plot problems to the ground, I find myself clinging to this very illusion. Granted, I have a lot more experience than a first-time author, including two novels that were published by reputable New York publishing houses back in the dark ages before the dawn of the internet. (For the seekers after trivia, those would be Walk the Moons Road, Del Rey, 1985, and The Wall at the Edge of the World, Ace, 1991.) But humility requires that I take a deep breath and not make too many comforting assumptions about the quality of my work.

Naturally I think my series is magnificent — but I’m in no position to be objective. It might be inept, or self-indulgent, or both.

One reason for thinking about the sorts of slimy critters an editor might discover by turning over the rocks (those would be the rocks in my head) is because I’m still waiting, with gradually diminishing patience, to hear any good news from my agent. Okay, I actually have a literary agent. A lot of authors never break through that barrier. She’s trying to sell the series to one of the mainstream publishing houses. But, well, the market is very competitive.

If she’s unable to find a publisher, I’m going to have to self-publish. Or maybe I should put a positive spin on it and say, “I’m going to have the opportunity to discover the joys of self-publishing.”

This is the disconcertingly narrow place at the mouth of the bottle. If I’m self-publishing, should I hire a freelance editor, or should I just say, “Nah, it’s pretty darn good already, and I know what I’m doing”? To edit a 100,000 word novel, a freelance editor may charge $1,500. That’s one quote I saw this week, and it seems reasonable; other editors might be higher or lower. But because I have some solid experience as an author, it would be foolish to waste money on a cut-rate editor. I need someone good.

Multiply that figure by four books, and ouch! That’s $6,000 just for editing. Given the vast sea of tripe through which one is compelled to swim as a self-published author in order to attract the attention of even a modest readership, do I stand to recoup that investment by selling books?

I think I need a business plan. Dropping $6,000 on what turns out to be strictly a vanity project would not be a smart move. And of course that’s not the only cash outlay. An author needs a decent website ($2,000). The books will need cover art (another $2,000). If I earn — let’s pick a number — $3 on average per book sold, I’ll need to sell more than 3,000 books just to break even. And you don’t see sales figures like that if all you do is toss the e-book up on Amazon and cross your fingers. Some heavy lifting will be needed in the promotional area.

There are online companies that offer promotional services to self-publishing authors. Some of them may be quite effective. Others are surely scams.

Oh, dear. Do I really need to spend all that money on an editor? Or is my work pretty darn good already, except for maybe a few minor tweaks?

The Xacto Knife

So you’d like to write a good novel? As arrogant as it may seem, I’m confident I can tell you exactly how to do that.

First of all, the writing part is easy. Any idiot can do it. Write a thousand words a day for 90 days and you’ll have a 90,000 word novel.

The “good” part is where it gets interesting. Here, in a nutshell, is how to make sure your novel is good:

Ask yourself the hard questions about your story, and don’t be satisfied with easy answers.

That’s really all there is to it. Of course, the actual content of the hard questions will depend on the nature of the particular story you’re hoping to tell. You may find some fibrous and chewy questions to ask in your collection of how-to-write books. (You do have a shelf bursting with how-to-write books, I trust.) But ultimately, it’s up to you to challenge yourself with as many questions as you can think of.

How does Janet feel when Bruce doesn’t phone her? Does Herman think to bring his pistol to the meeting with the mobster, or is he too sure of himself? What is the phase of the moon in this night-time scene, and what time does a moon rise when it’s at that phase? Does the word “escarpment” mean what I think it means? (Yes, I did actually open the dictionary the other day and look up “escarpment.”) The list of questions is never-ending.

There may be several reasons why aspiring writers (or even experienced writers) fail to engage in this process, or start asking questions but bail out too soon.

It may never occur to them that a given question needs to be asked. We all have blind spots! Writers who haven’t read widely are in the greatest danger of not knowing what questions to ask.

Or they may ask the question but let themselves off the hook by being satisfied with a too-easy answer. Some questions (such as the meaning of “escarpment”) are simple. Others are not nearly so simple. Failure to look for the obscure but satisfying answer can happen due to laziness. Maybe you think finding a good answer doesn’t matter because your readers won’t notice, or maybe you know you’re slipping in a too-easy answer, but you’re tired or in a hurry.

Being satisfied with a too-easy answer can also be due to creeping insecurity — the fear that if you look that hard question straight in the eye, it will defeat you.

Or maybe you just want to have fun writing. Finding good answers to difficult questions is not always fun. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s just a long slog.

As I tell my cello students (with respect to playing the cello), “If it was easy, everybody would do it!” Of course, in the age of the Internet and self-publishing, pretty nearly everybody is writing novels. Fortunately for grinds like me, most of those charming and passionate self-published writers try to tiptoe or tapdance around the tough questions.

Do you really think nobody will notice?

Cutting Corners

I can’t remember where I read this anecdote. It was in one of the how-to-write books on my shelf, and illustrates how not to create suspense. This was back in the days of magazine serials. At the end of one episode, an author had trapped his hero at the bottom of a pit. (In the jungle, one must assume.) The pit was carefully described as having walls that were too steep and too high for the hero ever to be able to climb. That was the cliffhanger.

For a week, readers were chewing on their fingernails. How on earth was the hero ever going to escape? The author had finally done it. After numerous episodes and hair-raising dangers, he had finally trapped his hero in an absolutely impossible predicament. The pit had been carefully described: There was no possible way for him to escape.

When the new issue of the magazine arrived, the next episode began as follows: “With a mighty effort, he leaped out of the pit.”

Arrggh! This is cheating. No matter how dire a predicament you put your hero or heroine in, the method by which he or she escapes must be planted somewhere earlier in the story. You don’t get to just wave your magic pen and have the problem go away. Cutting corners is not allowed.

This anecdote came to mind today as I drafted what I hope will be a terrifyingly suspenseful episode in my soon-to-be-finished fantasy epic. I’m now 3/4 of the way through Book IV, and yes, the thrills and chills are mounting to an ever higher level.

My heroine has just fallen off of a cliff. Certain death, right? At the end of the scene, she is tumbling toward the sharp rocks below. And now I’m going to leave that scene for a few pages while I update you on the troubles some of the other characters are having.

Of course, readers will know she isn’t actually going to die. That’s a given. (Although, to be fair, two other good guys have died in the preceding scene. Bad things are happening.) There seems, as far as the reader can discern, to be no possible way for her to survive the fall. And yet, she will survive.

How? Do I want to spoil the suspense for you? You might read the book someday, so I’ll be a little coy. Let’s just say she has a super-power, but it’s a super-power she doesn’t even know she has. I’m going to pull a rabbit out of my hat. The origin of the super-power is clear back in Book II, and a few paragraphs before she tumbles off of the cliff she recalls the scene in which something unexplained happened. Specifically, there’s a scene in which several people were magically transformed, each in a different way, but it appears nothing happened to my heroine in that scene. Except, something did happen.

I’m hoping I can get away with it. But it makes me nervous. It smells a little bit like, “With a mighty effort, he leaped out of the pit.”

Making the Scene

Most fiction is made up of scenes. A scene can be a few lines long, or a long chapter can all be a single scene. Almost by definition, a scene involves at least one human (or non-human actor) doing something — a description of a landscape or a page of historical background is not a scene.

This morning I was reading a blog post by one of my fellow self-appointed authorities on creative writing, in which she discussed how to make scenes interesting for the reader, as opposed to dull and boring. Unfortunately, she seemed not really to have a firm grasp of her subject-matter. She talked about how a scene should move the plot forward — and it should! — but as she acknowledged, that’s not the same thing at all. Her advice with respect to her nominal subject was this:

“As a writer, creating the bones of your scene structure is just the beginning. After the bones are there, you must then find the heart. Look at every scene in your story. What’s special about this scene? What makes it interesting? What emotion do you want to elicit — whether it’s excitement, amusement, horror, or warm fuzzies?”

Looking at the emotional tone of a scene is certainly a good idea, but it’s not really very concrete advice. She also says, “Start by looking for the elements that delight and interest you as you’re writing them. Do that, and not only will your scene be awesome–but today’s writing session will be one of the most fun you’ve had in ages.” Again, a bit more focus on the nuts and bolts would not be amiss.

Maybe we can do better.

My rule of thumb for scenes is that if there are two people in the scene (as there will quite often be), the scene will be more interesting if they disagree with one another than if they agree. Disagreement creates tension. Without tension, your scene will be flabby. In order for there to be disagreement, you have to understand your characters’ underlying motivations. Arguing for the sake of arguing is not disagreement. Disagreement arises from your characters’ genuine desires and fears. Also, the fears and desires should concern things that are important to them.

If there’s only one person in the scene, the tension must come from a dissonance between the person and the environment. If that’s not present — if you’re writing a long, detailed narrative about your character leaving the house, driving to to the airport, getting on a plane, and flying off to Barcelona, all uneventfully — then get rid of it. Instead, write, “The next day, Janet drove to their airport, bought a ticket, and flew to Barcelona. When she arrived….”

This is what Elmore Leonard meant when he said, “I try to leave out the parts that readers skip.” If a scene that you’ve written seems dull, possibly punching it up with more emotion or better description isn’t the solution. Possibly you ought to delete the scene entirely. If your characters are not exhibiting (or trying to hide) desires and fears, why is the scene needed at all?

Please remember to anchor the physical aspects of the scene. Describe the room. Tell us about your characters’ gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. If you don’t do this, all you have are disembodied talking heads — and disembodied talking heads are boring.

Most scenes involve conversation. That is, dialogue. If your dialogue is dull and wooden, the scene will be dull and wooden, no matter how much physical description you put in or how passionately your characters disagree. Writing dialogue that reads smoothly and seems realistic (even though it’s a condensation or refinement of how people really talk) is a skill that any aspiring writer must acquire.

That’s a lot to keep tabs on while writing a scene. But as I tell my young cello students, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.”

Those Pesky Details

Writing a decent murder mystery has to be a huge challenge. There are so many details you have to get right! The other day I picked up Breakdown by Jonathan Kellerman at the library. My first impression was that it’s a good mystery. But toward the end, a key detail was just plain wrong — and as I thought more carefully about the plot, it unraveled before my eyes.

Spoiler alert: In the discussion below, I’ll have to reveal who done it.

At the start of the book, psychologist Alex Delaware (the amateur sleuth) is trying to help a homeless, mentally ill former sitcom star named Zelda. Shortly the cops get a 911 call from a rich old lady named Enid, who has found Zelda’s body lying in her back yard. The cause of death is not immediately obvious; it turns out to have been an exotic poison.

Eventually Alex discovers that not one but two Hispanic domestic servants in Enid’s exclusive neighborhood disappeared within a day or two of Zelda’s death. One of them is Enid’s maid. Alex and his sidekick, police detective Milo Sturgis, then poke around fruitlessly for a hundred pages or so, trying out various theories of the maids’ disappearance and gathering the hard-to-find details of Zelda’s past life.

And then Alex has a brainstorm. On Google Earth, he finds aerial photos of the woods along the back of Enid’s estate. “In seconds I had full-color, one-year-old, 3-D satellite photos of the property at a variety of angles, the forest-like area at the rear of the property revealed in high definition.” That’s on page 286. On the very next page, “The soil of the … pocket garden [was] pale and dry and littered with leaves and pine needles. But just off center, in line with the door, the ground was clear. … At the end of the clear area, two oblong depressions in the ground.” Oblong depressions — yes! Alex has just discovered the graves of the two missing maids. They’re buried at the rear of Enid’s estate.

The trouble is, the maids have only been missing for three weeks, and Kellerman specifically told us the Google Earth views are a year old. Oops.

This could have been a rewrite error that wasn’t caught. However it happened, it’s sloppy, and at the worst possible moment in the story for sloppiness. The story could have been drafted in such a way that there was no room for error. Alex could have spotted an undisclosed part of the estate and then figured out some other way to check for fresh graves in that area.

We shortly learn that Enid, the nice old rich lady, poisoned Zelda and also shot the two maids in the back of the head because they knew too much. Enid and her elderly boyfriend then wheelbarrowed the maids’ bodies out to the woods and buried them. We also learn that Zelda was Enid’s niece. Enid had killed Zelda’s mother years before, and buried the mother in the same spot. Zelda, in her state of total mental breakdown, had gone to Enid’s house and demanded to know about her mother. So naturally Enid had to kill her, lest her rambling accusations lead somebody to suspect foul play.

But why, given all that, did Enid leave Zelda’s body lying in the back yard and call 911? Why not bury Zelda where she buried (shortly before or shortly afterward) the two maids? The answer, sadly, is that if she had done that, there would have been no mystery novel, because Alex and Milo would never have been able to figure out what happened to Zelda. Letting the cops find Zelda’s body was an insane and unnecessary risk for Enid. Why? Because Enid was Zelda’s aunt. That fact was very hard for the police to put together, but Enid couldn’t have known that. For all Enid knew, during a lucid moment Zelda had told somebody about it. A homeless vagrant found dead in the back yard of a mansion — eh, these things happen. But if somebody already knew that Zelda was Enid’s niece, explaining the niece’s body would be a tough row for Enid to hoe. Whereas, if nobody knew what had happened to Zelda, Enid’s secrets were much more likely to be safe forever.

Okay, murderers sometimes do stupid stuff. I get that. But if a murderer does something stupid, it’s incumbent upon the author to give the reader some sort of plausible explanation for the murderer’s bizarre lapse of judgment. Kellerman didn’t bother to do that. By the time the truth is dug up from the shallow graves, Kellerman trusts that the reader won’t rewind the newsreel and ask why Enid, who had gotten away with several murders, suddenly blew it at the moment when it mattered most.

Writing a decent mystery novel is not easy at all.