Tag: Fiction

The Robin Lee Hatcher Interview

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A conversation with romance novelist Robin Lee Hatcher

by Jim Denney

Robin Lee Hatcher is the best-selling author of more than seventy-five novels and novellas featuring emotionally charged stories of love, faith, and courage. She has won a shelf full of awards, including the prestigious Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award for excellence in romance fiction. She has been an eleven-time RITA finalist and has won the award twice. She has also won the RWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Lifetime Achievement Award, the Christy Award, and ACFW’s Carol Award.

A mother and grandmother, Robin and her husband reside in the Boise, Idaho, area. Her most recent books include Who I Am with You (Legacy of Faith, Book 1), You’ll Think of Me (Thunder Creek, Book 1), You’re Gonna Love Me (Thunder Creek, Book 2), and An Idaho Christmas: Past and Present (two heart-warming Christmas novellas). Visit Robin at her Facebook Author Page at http://www.facebook.com/robinleehatcher, and her website at https://www.robinleehatcher.com.

RobinLeeHatcher-WhoIAmWithYouI’ve known Robin for a number of years, and when I learned how she approached the writing process, I asked if she would let me share her creative approach with my readers at Writing in Overdrive. I always like to find out how writers are drawn to a life of storytelling.

Some people divide writers into two camps — (1) those who plot out an outline of their story before they begin writing (usually called “outliners” or “plotters”), and (2) those who “write by the seat of their pants.” Non-outliners are often referred to as “pantsers” — an inelegant term, in my view. I prefer the term “cliff-jumper,” derived from Ray Bradbury’s advice to writers, “You’ve got to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” In other words, don’t outline — just leap off the cliff and into your story and you’ll discover your characters and your plot along the way.

Now, I’m not saying that cliff-jumping is the only way to write. Outlining (sometimes called “pre-writing”) is a perfectly legitimate approach the creative process. J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, John Grisham, Jennifer Egan, Norman Mailer, and James Scott Bell are some well-known outliners.

Everybody is wired differently, so do whatever works for you. The problem is that a lot of cliff-jumpers have been told they are “doing it wrong” if they don’t outline. If you’re a natural-born cliff-jumper, you’re in excellent company. Madeleine L’Engle, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Colleen Coble, Stephen King and Robin Lee Hatcher are all cliff-jumpers. Some writers — Piers Anthony, for example — are a hybrid, doing a lot of cliff-jumping within a loosely structured outline. So if you either can’t outline or you don’t want to outline, you’re in good company.

How did Robin Lee Hatcher become a writer? She didn’t always dream of becoming a writer, even though she was a avid reader. In fact, she says she went to her first day of first grade with a single goal: learn to read. She completed her first day of school and still didn’t know how to read, so she told her mother there was no point in going back the next day. But her mother sent her back to school, and she eventually learned to read — and write.

She loved drama and storytelling, and she dreamed of being a movie star. When she was in the fifth grade, she made up a story about her mother, claiming her mom had moved west in a covered wagon along the Oregon Trail. As a consequence, her mother instructed her in the difference between fiction and fibbing.

In her twenties, inspired by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Robin got an idea for an epic romance story. She talked about the story with friends, and finally realized that books only get written by writing them down, not by talking about them. She wrote her first novel in longhand on yellow legal pads, then typed it up during lunch breaks on an IBM Selectric typewriter at work. It took her nine months to write it, then another two-plus years to get it published.

More than seventy-five books later, Robin Lee Hatcher is still making up intriguing stories and selling them to an eager public. She recently told me about her creative process.

Q: As a writer, you are what some would call a “pantser” — or what I would call, borrowing Ray Bradbury’s term, a “cliff-jumper.”

RobinLeeHatcher-You'llThinkOfMeRobin Lee Hatcher: That’s right. I really like that term “cliff-jumper.” It’s a good description of my writing process. I do not outline. I do not use a storyboard or sticky notes or Scrivener’s cork board. Rarely do I go back and rework anything I’ve written while I’m in first draft. I keep writing forward. If I need to find an answer to a question, I stop and research, then keep going.

Q: How much planning goes into your characters before you begin? Do you know your characters well before you start writing, or do you get to know them as the story develops?

Robin Lee Hatcher: I write first-person autobiographies of my major characters from birth to when the novel opens. This enables me to understand their backgrounds and motivations. I know where they hurt. I know what they want. I have a good idea which characters will come into conflict with each other, and why. Then I write them in a stream-of-consciousness style. I just let my imagination take wing. My stories are totally character-driven, not plot-driven. The plot is simply what emerges from the interaction of the characters.

Q: Your approach is a great illustration of what Bradbury meant when he said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” What about your setting? Certainly you need to know where your story takes place before you begin to write.

Robin Lee Hatcher: To an extent. I usually have an idea of my setting, but it’s rarely very concrete. The setting tends to come to life as I write. Almost all of my settings are fictional towns. I know the reality of where they are set but the towns are laid out in ways that best serve my stories. When I begin a novel, I know my main characters, the opening scene, and I have a vague idea of where I am headed. That’s all I need to begin writing.


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Q: Have you ever tried outlining?

Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes. I learned that it just doesn’t work for me.

Q: Why not?

Robin Lee Hatcher: Writing for me is all about discovering the story. When I tried to outline the story in advance, I realized that I no longer wanted to write the book because I already knew how it was going to end. Why write it once I know that? Knowing everything about my story in advance only dampened my enthusiasm for writing it down. It made me anxious to set it aside and move on to a new idea.

Writing without an outline, I get up and go to my computer every morning so that I can discover what happens next. I’m just like my readers in that regard. They read my books to find out what happens next, and that’s why I write them. The deeper I write into the story, the better I understand the story, and the more I know what will happen next.

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Photo: Tony Webster, “Night Driving on the Gunflint Trail in Northern Minnesota”

Q: E. L. Doctorow said about writing, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Is that an apt description of how your creative process feels? And isn’t it a bit scary?

Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes, writing for me is a lot like driving at night on a deserted highway. My imagination serves as a set of headlights, providing enough light each day to keep me on the road. Are there twists and turns ahead? Is it scary not knowing what’s out there in the dark? Yes, a bit. But it’s also exciting. All the answers to my story are out there, beyond the range of the headlights.

Q: Have you ever wished you could be an outliner instead of a cliff-jumper?

Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes, there was a time when I thought it would make the writing process much easier if I could pre-write the novel, then breeze through the actual writing. One time, years ago, I was at a conference. As I talked to different writers about the workshops they were attending, it occurred to me that all the character-driven novelists were attending the plotting workshops and all of the plot-driven novelists were attending workshops on characterization. Why were they doing that? Were they trying to improve their craft and sharpen their writing skills? Yes. But more than that, I think that, whether they realized it or not, they were also looking for an easier way to write a novel.

RobinLeeHatcher-You'reGonnaLoveMeWhen I came to that realization, I quit feeling guilty about not being a plotter. I decided to embrace the way God made me to write. This how my brain works, and I’m good with that. I don’t need to change. Cliff-jumping works for me. There is such freedom in getting to the point where you accept that this is who you are as a writer. If you can only write a novel by driving in the dark without a roadmap, that’s fine. If you need to outline your plot before you begin, that’s fine, too.

The truth is, there’s no easy way to write a novel. It’s hard work, whether you’re a cliff-jumper or an outliner. With study and practice, some aspects of writing become easier and more natural, but it’s still hard work. In some ways it becomes even harder, because as we increase our confidence and our skill-level, we want to challenge ourselves more and stretch ourselves in new directions.

Of course, I had to try everything early on in my writing career. I tried the plot-motivation-whatever chart. I tried outlining a novel from start to finish. I’ve read tons of how-to books with all kinds of tips and tricks and I’ve tried most of the suggestions I came across. And in all of that reading and experimenting, I’ve discovered what works for me and what doesn’t.

Q: You said that you don’t use Scrivener—

Robin Lee Hatcher: Well, I don’t use Scrivener’s cork board feature, but Scrivener is a very powerful and useful tool for writers. I do use it. I love the character pages in Scrivener. I love the way you can add photos and details and insights about your characters as you go along. So I enjoy using Scrivener, but I don’t use it for outlining. I use it to make my creative process flow more freely.

Q: One thing I talk about a lot on the Writing in Overdrive website is the power of the unconscious mind to enable us to write faster and to be more creative and uninhibited. What role does the unconscious mind play in your creative process?

Robin Lee Hatcher: I’m convinced that much of my writing happens in my unconscious before I’m ever aware of it. Sometimes the writing even happens while I sleep. I don’t mean that I get plot ideas from dreams — although I have actually dreamt some scenes. I mean that, somewhere below the surface of my awareness, my brain is working on the story. So while it sounds like I just wing it, there’s an unconscious creative process going on that I’m not aware of. That process is working out interactions between characters, exploring plot possibilities, and making intuitive leaps that my conscious mind would never think of.

Q: This is a phenomenon many writers observe during the writing process. Ursula Le Guin said, “I allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.” And Anne Lamott talked about the need to align ourselves with “the river of the story, the river of the unconscious.”

RobinLeeHatcher_AnIdahoChristmas_PastandPresent_300dpiRobin Lee Hatcher: Exactly! During every writing session, there are probably two or three things that emerge — ideas, insights, connections, entire scenes — that I wasn’t consciously aware of at the start, but at some unconscious level my brain was working on the story. When I’m writing, these ideas come to the surface. We think it comes out of nowhere and we call it “inspiration,” but I think it often comes from our God-given unconscious self. And, of course, God works through us and inspires us when we are open to him and listening to him.

That’s why it’s so important to show up for work every day. We won’t receive our daily allotment of inspiration until we sit down, place our fingers on the keyboard, and discover what our unconscious creativity has been working on.

Q: Robin, the words rewriting and revising are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically they are not the same thing. Rewriting is more drastic, and usually involves major restructuring, such as adding or deleting an entire subplot or character arc, inserting new scenes, or removing scenes that detract from the storyline. Revising is essentially buffing and polishing and perfecting a novel that is structurally sound. Do you find that writing without an outline is an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to rewriting or revising your first draft?

Robin Lee Hatcher: I don’t think my creative process gives me an advantage or a disadvantage. Both outliners and cliff-jumpers need to revise. I don’t generally have to do major rewrites, but they have happened on occasion. Most of the time, however, when I finish a first draft, I do a proof and polish, then turn it in. I’ve been tweaking and polishing throughout the first draft, so it is usually in good shape.

Because most of my books are romances, I begin with a hero and heroine and I know their history, their lives leading up to the story. For instance, with my latest novel, I know that Jessica is a pregnant widow whose husband cheated on her and he died in a car wreck just after telling her he was leaving her for another woman. And I know that Ridley is a tech guy who got involved in a political scandal for which he was blamed. Both are trying to hide from life and keep people from knowing who they really are. Ridley goes to Jessica’s small town and becomes her neighbor. Their romance begins.

Now, because it’s a romance, we know that the two of them will get together at the end. So I just start writing toward that moment when they get their Happily Ever After. Sometimes I have a glimmer of an idea as to how they will get there, but I usually don’t. I’m driving in the dark.

My first drafts tend to be pithy and concise, so my revisions usually involve fleshing out the scenes I’ve written to make them longer, more emotionally involving. As a romance writer, revisions usually involve going deeper into my characters’ emotions.

Q: I think many outliners have a more adventurous, cliff-jumping spirit than they realize. I’ve known many writers, myself included, who started out with an outline, then wrote and wrote without even looking at the outline. By the time the book was written, it was a very different story than the one in the outline. Along the way, outliners generally discover depths to their story they never imagined at the outset. They discover new characters, new plot twists, and often come up with a completely new ending.

Robin Lee Hatcher: I agree. I don’t think plotters are slaves to their outlines. I’m sure they are constantly tweaking and refining their ideas as they write, whether in broad ways or subtle ways. The book they planned and the book they wrote are often very different from each other. An outline doesn’t have to be a straight-jacket. If you’re a plotter, then your outline is your roadmap. But if, along your journey, you stumble onto a road that isn’t on the map, you’re perfectly free to explore it.

No outlining writer should ever tell a cliff-jumping writer, “You’re doing it wrong.” Or vice versa. A plotter feels more freedom with an outline to follow. A cliff-jumper feels more freedom without an outline. That’s great! Whatever works for you, do that. Enjoy your freedom to create.

Q: That’s great advice for any writer. Thank you, Robin, for sharing your experiences and insights.


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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

 

 

Writing Without Rules

 

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Hemingway in 1939

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” 
—Ernest Hemingway

Many writers obsess about the so-called “rules” of writing. They ask: “What are the rules? What if I’m breaking the rules and don’t know it? What does ‘Show, don’t tell’ mean? What does ‘Write what you know’ mean? How can I get published if I don’t know the rules?”

In my humble opinion, there are only a few “rules of writing” that are so fundamental and universal they truly deserve to be called “rules.” These are the commonsense commandments you must obey or you’re not a writer: “Read every day.” “Maintain a consistent writing schedule.” “Write whether you feel ‘inspired’ or not.” “Finish what you start.” “Never give up.” “Never be boring.”

Any other so-called “rules” are not rules at all. They should be called “principles.” A principle is a general guide to behavior that has proven useful in most situations. There have probably been times when you’ve said, “That’s a good principle, but it doesn’t apply to this situation.” Many people feel anxious at the thought of “breaking” rules. But if we would think of the “general principles of writing” instead of the “rules of writing,” we could relax and be more creative and uninhibited.

Screenwriter Robert McKee put it this way: “Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works . . . and has through all remembered time.’ The difference is crucial. . . . Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”

Science fiction writer Will Shetterly (Dogland), agrees: “There are no rules in writing. There are useful principles. Throw them away when they’re not useful. But always know what you’re throwing away.”

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Leonard Bishop, in Dare to Be a Great Writer, suggests that, instead of feeling anxious or hesitant about breaking rules, we should sin boldly. He writes:

If you break a “writing rule,” make it noticeable. Exploit your infraction until your personal technique becomes another rule. . . .

A popular rule is “Don’t tell it, show it!” Yet, if you have a scene with ten people who are important and you cannot devise a way to bring them all into action, then tell [about] them — and keep on telling. . . . Offer them, one at a time, as though introducing the cast of a play. Narrate them, describe them, document them, use exposition to reveal their relationships to one another — until the information is down. Tell it all — interestingly. A writer should be bold, versatile, inventive, imaginative, rebellious.

Do not break any rules at the beginning of a novel. It is advisable to allow the reader to get used to your manner of writing before you astonish them with your daring attitudes. (This is not a rule: it is a suggestion.)

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E.B. White with his dog Minnie

E. B. White (The Elements of Style and Charlotte’s Web) observed, “There is . . . no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

Novelist Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) said, “Rules such as ‘Write what you know,’ and ‘Show, don’t tell,’ while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.”

Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write, makes the case that a writer’s success depends far more on passion and conviction than on following any set of writing “rules”:

The more I read and write, the more convinced I am that writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers’ attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, “You’ve got to listen to what I am about to tell you.” It’s hard to be passionate. It means you must put your whole poke on the table. Yet this very go-for-broke quality grabs and holds a reader far more surely than any mastery of technique.

Fantasy master Neil Gaiman offers his own eight rules of writing. His first rule is so basic he expressed it in a single word: “Write.” Most of his other rules are less concise but equally basic: “Finish what you’re writing” and “Fix it.” His eighth and final rule is my favorite, because it repeals all other so-called “rules”—

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

Forget “rules.” Master the principles and follow them when they help you, abandon them when they hold you back. Relax and enjoy the creative process. Write with joy!

For more insight into how to write freely, powerfully, confidently, without inhibition, read my books for writers. Learn to tap into the incredibly powerful source of creative inspiration, “the Muse” or unconscious mind.

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

Author Interview: Jacci Turner

Infusing Reality with Hope

jacci-turner-2I like to hear writers talk about how and why they write, and how their creative process works. So from time to time, I’ll feature interviews with highly creative, highly productive writers, beginning today with Jacci Turner.

As a novelist, Jacci has written mostly middle grade and young adult fiction (her book Bending Willow was selected by Nevada Librarians to represent Nevada at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C.). Her first novel for adult readers, The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening, will be published March 28, 2017, by Harper Legend, an imprint of HarperCollins. You may pre-order it here. Now, meet Jacci Turner:

Jim Denney: Jacci, is there a single thread or theme that runs through your books?

Jacci Turner: Yes, I’d say I’m a bit of an optimist so, even though the world can be a really difficult place, I think there’s good and hope in it. My tag line is “Infusing Reality with Hope.”

jacci-turner-the-retreatJim: You call your new novel The Retreat “a tale of spiritual awakening.” What inspired the story?

Jacci: This story is based on a real experience I had. I was sent to a monastery in Nebraska by a friend who raised the money for me to go to this retreat. The first night I was walking around, wondering what I was doing at a monastery in Nebraska and this book sort of downloaded into my brain. The exercises in the book are some that I did at the retreat, as well as some from other retreats. Of course, the characters are made up, but they’re a compilation of real people.

Jim: Do you write primarily to express what you already know, or to explore questions and find answers through the writing process?

Jacci: I think I write to clarify what I’ve gone through. I like finding words for my experience. Even if I’m writing fantasy, I’m trying to understand my world.

Jim: What have you learned about writing that no one ever told you, even in writer’s workshops or books on writing? In other words, what have you discovered about writing simply by writing?

Jacci: I’ve learned that your characters can take over a story. That was a surprise to me. And I’ve learned that a story can come to you and you can choose to ignore it until it goes away, but some are stubborn and insistent and nag at you until you break down and write them. It’s a more mystical experience than I ever knew.

Jim: It’s been said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation. Who are your literary heroes and heroines, the authors who inspired you?

Jacci: Ah, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. I love so many. . . . Lucy Maud Montgomery, Gail Carson Levine, Madeleine L’Engle, and of course J. K. Rowling, for a start.

Jim: What is the hardest part of writing for you? What’s the easiest?

Jacci: Writing is easy, editing is hard. I have a friend who loves to edit. I hate her.

Jim: Hah! I’ve got one of those friends, too. I hear you. I love the process of creating. I do not enjoy revising and editing. Speaking of the creative process, do you have any writing rituals or habits that help to prepare you for a writing session?

Jacci: I write on Tuesdays. It’s something I started when I began writing about eight years ago. Tuesday was my day off and it has worked for me. I’ve written thirteen books (two aren’t yet published) on Tuesdays. I get to the library about ten and write until two or three. That’s it. I think that authors telling other writers that they have to get up at four a.m. and write every day are doing us disservice. I mean what is four a.m. anyway? I’ve certainly never seen it.

Jim: That’s fascinating! I don’t think I’ve ever met a Tuesday writer before. I’m a “write every day” writer, but I’m also a “whatever works for you” writer, and everybody’s creative process is different and unique. I’m sure there are people reading this who can only write one day a week, or fifteen minutes a day, and they’re tired of hearing writing instructors telling them they’re doing it “wrong.” There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to writing, and you are proof, Jacci, that you can be amazingly productive writing one day a week — especially if you use that day to the fullest.

Now, some writers outline or “pre-write” their stories. Others — so-called “pantsers” who “write by the seat of their pants” — leap into their stories and write without an outline. Which type of writer are you? And why does that approach suit you?

Jacci: I’m a “pantser.” Maybe it’s just my personality, but I’ve never outlined a book. I do mull, though. I mull over a story line sometimes before I write, so maybe I’m just outlining in my head. Maybe I’m a closet outliner! Oh no!

Jim: How do you imagine scenes?

Jacci: I’m very visual. I see and hear it in my head, like a movie. Because of that, I have trouble writing in enough description. That’s what my editor always says: “I don’t know where we are. Where are we?” I mean, I see it. Why can’t she?

Jim: Do you experience writing “in flow”? How do you get into “flow”?

Jacci: There are only two places I’ve experienced losing time, one is while writing, the other in prayer. I love to get in the flow of a story, especially during my once or twice a year get-away-to-write weekends. I love to be alone and just have time to write and write and write. Those are the best. I have friends that let me house-sit in the summer on their little farm. It’s such a privilege to have time and just get lost in it.

Jim: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Jacci: Read. Write. Jump out of an airplane if you feel stuck. We need to live life if we are going to write about it. Join a critique group and a writing group. We need all the help and support we can get! Never stop learning.

Jim: Thanks, Jacci, for giving us a glimpse into your creative process. You’ve shown us that creativity is more than artistic expression. It’s deeply connected to our spirituality and to our uniqueness as individuals. I wonder how many other “Tuesday writers” (or some-other-day-of-the-week writers) are reading these words. You’ve given them excellent affirmation today. Keep infusing reality with hope!

Visit Jacci Turner’s website at JacciTurner.com, and pre-order her new novel The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening, here

Oh, and by the way, I have something FREE for my readers . . .

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Grab Your Readers by the Throat

“Always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second, and hold him against the wall until the tagline.” —Paul O’Neil

My friend James Scott Bell is the author of many best-selling thrillers, including Breach of Promise, Deadlock, and Try Dying. He’s also one of the best writing teachers around. In his book Plot & Structure, he talks about the importance of the beginning of your story or novel:


The first task of your beginning is to hook the reader. Period.

And remember, that first reader is going to be an agent or editor. Tough crowd. These are people who have too many manuscripts to go through each day. They are just itching for a reason to put yours down.

Don’t give them that reason.


Bell’s advice is seconded by science fiction writer William F. Nolan, who recalls his own stint as an editor:


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William F. Nolan

In 1963, when I was managing editor of the SF/fantasy magazine Gamma, I would reserve one morning each week for the “slush pile” — the stack of unagented manuscripts from new writers who hoped to crack the pages of our magazine. I had a sure-fire method for getting through the slush pile quickly; I’d pull a typed manuscript halfway out of its envelope and read the first paragraph. If I liked it, I’d remove the entire story and read it through. But if that opening paragraph didn’t grab me, I’d let the manuscript slide back into its mailing envelope and that would be the end of it. Another rejection.

Brutal, right? Unfair to those poor writers to judge their whole story from just the opening paragraph, right? Wrong. For me, the acid test of the story is its opening. A good story should leap off the page, grab you by the throat, and demand, “Read me!”

We’re talking about hooking your readers with mood or character or incident or with a unique situation. Getting them involved, from the start.


Every writer dreams of crafting an opening sentence that grabs the reader by the windpipe. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself. In fact, it’s often best to save the first for last, to leap headlong into your story without knowing what your first sentence will be. There are several good reasons for writing your first sentence after the rest of your story has been written.

First, by the time you finish your first draft, you may decide to cut your first paragraph, your first page, or even your first chapter. As Anton Chekhov observed, “Once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.” Why agonize over a sentence that may end up on the cutting room floor?

Second, if you chase too long and hard after that perfect opening line, you may end up with a sentence that sounds self-conscious, contrived, and forced. Great writing flows naturally and freely from the unconscious mind. A sentence that has been painstakingly cobbled together with the obvious intention to impress can be a huge turnoff to editors and readers alike.

Third, if you put too much pressure on yourself to produce a sparkling first sentence, you may tip yourself into a severe writer’s block on the first page. Pressure paralyzes creativity. It frightens the Muse. So go easy on yourself. Relax, have fun, and just write.

A book doesn’t have to be written in the same order it will be read. You can start writing in the middle of your story, or you can let it grow organically from a game of word association. There’s no right way or wrong way to create a story or novel.

One of my favorite opening lines is the first sentence of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” It’s brilliantly simple, yet it captures the mood and tension of the story. It sucks us in and rivets our eyes to the page.

But that sentence didn’t appear in the earliest version of Fahrenheit 451, his 1947 short story “Bright Phoenix.” And that sentence didn’t appear in the expanded version of that story, a 1950 novella called “The Fireman.” Only when Bradbury was writing the full and final version of the novel in 1953 did he stumble onto that brilliant opening line. The moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to save the first for last.

Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, advises, “If a good first sentence does not come, leave a space for it and write it in later. Write as rapidly as possible.” Larry McMurtry makes a similar case in a scene from his 1989 novel Some Can Whistle (the narrator is protagonist Danny Deck, and he’s talking to his friend Godwin, a British professor):


I had been trying to write a novel, and I was still hung up on the first sentence.

“The point I have been patiently trying to make,” Godwin said impatiently, “is that you expect far too much of a first sentence. Think of it as analogous to a good country breakfast: what we want is something simple, but nourishing to the imagination. Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and verb and perhaps a wholesome, non-fattening adverb or two.”


You need more than a clever opening line to grab a reader by the throat. Your entire first page must ensnare the reader and not let go. You do this by introducing a vivid character, by setting an emotionally intense mood, by drawing the reader into a dramatic and compelling situation — not with clever wordplay.

The opening line is a promise you make to the reader. Be sure you keep that promise. Never trick the reader with an opening line that is nothing but a bad dream, a bad joke, or a false alarm. Your story should honestly fulfill the promise you make in your opening. If not, the reader will feel cheated — and won’t be tempted by your next story. “Fool me once. . .!”

A great opening is not just about the first sentence. It’s about a bond of trust you establish with your reader on page one. You want that reader to trust you to entertain him or her again and again and again.

So grab your readers by the throat and squeeze hard. Show no mercy. The tighter your grip, the more they’ll love you for it.

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

And for a 90-day supply of inspirational, motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

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Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers. He’s the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

 

Fiction is a Different Kind of Truth

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“All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened.”
—Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big fan of Lawrence Block and Stephen King, but there’s something these two fine writers say that sets my teeth on edge: They call fiction a “lie.”

Block has written a number of excellent books for writers, including Telling Lies for Fun & Profit (1981) and The Liar’s Bible (2011). (Despite the titles, I highly recommend them.) In Danse Macabre, Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Clearly, King’s focus is on the truth, not the lie, because he goes on to say, “Morality is telling the truth as your heart knows it.”

Neil Gaiman once made a similar remark: “Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, said, “Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.” And Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Mother Night, said, “Lies told for the sake of artistic effect … can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.” And William Gibson (Neuromancer) writes, “The most common human act that writing a novel resembles is lying. The working novelist lies daily, very complexly, and at great length.”

Why would any practitioner of the art of fiction slander his art by calling it a “lie”? Granted, fiction is an account of events that didn’t actually happen — but does the nonfactual nature of fiction make it a “lie”?

The dictionary definition of a lie is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.” Fiction does not try to deceive anyone. The reader knows a novel or story is not a factual account, and approaches it in a state of (as Coleridge termed it) “willing suspension of disbelief.” Without intent to deceive, there is no lie.

Equating fiction to a lie is like equating surgery to a back-alley stabbing. After all, the surgeon cuts you open with a knife and takes your money. Isn’t that exactly what a mugger with a switchblade does? Well, no — the two acts are not even remotely similar.

The point is this: I have a high opinion of stories and the people who write them — and I have contempt for lies and the people who tell them. I’ve been lied to by people who tried to deceive me, manipulate me, or steal from me, and I bitterly resent it. But I love being entertained by a good story.

“The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode,” said Flannery O’Connor. “The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth.” Great fiction can’t lie. Fiction, in order to function as entertainment, must be true. Sure, the reader knows it isn’t factually true — but the reader expects it to be true in a deeper way. As novelist Emma Donoghue has said, “Stories are a different kind of true.”

Orson Scott Card’s short story “Lost Boys” first appeared in the October 1989 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Though the first-person protagonist of the story is named Step Fletcher, many aspects of Card’s own life are woven in the story. Card himself didn’t realize how much of his own personal truth, including his emotional pain, was woven into that work of fiction until some months after he had written it.

Much of the pain of that story centered on his son, Charlie Ben, who was severely afflicted with cerebral palsy (and who died more than a decade after the story was published). At the time he wrote the story, Card thought he was writing a simple ghost story featuring a fictional boy named Scotty. Instead, he had inadvertently told the truth about his repressed grief over his real-life son, Charlie Ben. In an afterword appended to the story for its initial publication, Card reflected:

In all the years of Charlie’s life … I had never shed a single tear for him, never allowed myself to grieve. I had worn a mask of calm and acceptance so convincing that I had believed it myself. But the lies we live will always be confessed in the stories that we tell, and I am no exception. The story that I had fancied was a mere lark, a dalliance in the quaint old ghost-story tradition, was the most personal, painful story of my career — and, unconsciously, I had confessed as much by making it by far the most autobiographical of all my works.

Great writers don’t lie — they reveal the truth through fiction (often, without realizing it). Their stories are morally, emotionally, humanly true. Great fiction is convincing. It touches a responsive chord of truth within our souls. Fiction must resonate with eternal and universal truths, or the reader will throw the book away in disgust.

When you write a story, do you think you’re lying? Do you think you’re deceiving anyone? If so, stop writing. But if you are writing your truth, write on!

Don’t lie to me. Tell me the truth. Tell me a story.

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

And for a 90-day supply of inspirational, motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers. He’s the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

 

Dip Up the Fire!

“The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels.”
— Simone de Beauvoir

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Why did you become a writer?

My own reasons for writing have evolved over the years. I knew I wanted to write stories from the time I was nine years old. A writer, it is said, is a reader moved to emulation. That was me. I wanted to write the kinds of stories I liked to read, and to entertain others the way those stories entertained me.

There’s nothing wrong with writing purely to entertain. But somewhere along the way to adulthood, I discovered that stories do so much more than merely entertain. As Harlan Ellison observed in Slippage:

“Entertain, yes! That goes without saying. But a good writer does that automatically, it’s built into the machine. Telling a thumpingly good, mesmerizing story is what one does without question. But beyond that, any writer worth his/her hire knows that all writing, one way or another, is subversive. It is guerrilla warfare against the status quo.”

Ellison expanded on the idea of writing as guerilla warfare in his story collection Shatterday,

“I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyeballs water. I spend my life and of miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake up with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier.”

When you write, do you inconvenience anyone? Is your writing an act of guerrilla warfare? I’m not saying you should intentionally preach sermons through your fiction. A story should be a story, not propaganda. If you pollute your fiction with heavy-handed preaching, you obliterate its artistic and moral integrity. “The theme must be deeply submerged in the story,” novelist Elizabeth Bowen warned. “If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.”

The unconscious mind does not lie. If you draw upon the power of your unconscious mind to write your story, if you dig deep within yourself and write about characters and situations that engage your emotions and passions, your story will be honest — and it will possess layers of meaning that you may not even realize. Your story will come alive as literature, verging on myth.

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The writer’s unconscious mind always reveals more truth than the writer suspects. As Madeleine L’Engle reflected in Walking on Water, “It is a humbling and exciting thing to know that my work knows more than I do. … Sometimes it is years after a book is published that I discover what some of it meant.”

When you write from the unconscious mind, you write stories that entertain — and that resonate deep within the reader. You write honestly. You write about things that matter. You write about universal truths — deep truths you share with your readers. Again, Harlan Ellison:

“I talk about the things people have always talked about in stories: pain, hate, truth, courage, destiny, friendship, responsibility, growing old, growing up, falling in love, all of these things. What I try to write about are the darkest things in the soul, the mortal dreads. I try to go into those places in me that contain the cauldrous. I want to dip up the fire, and I want to put it on paper. The closer I get to the burning core of my being, the things which are most painful to me, the better is my work.”

Write to entertain. Tell a story, don’t preach. But summon your stories from the volcanic core of your being. Reach down into the cauldrous unconscious, dip up the fire, and put it on paper. You’ll find that the truth within you burns brighter than the sun.

“It’s not worth doing something unless you are doing something that someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing.”
— Terry Pratchett

Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers including Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s Press, McGraw-Hill, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Baker Books, Humanix, and many more. He is the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). For more writing insight and inspiration, read:

Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney 

Copyright 2016 by Jim Denney.