Thursday, May 17, 2012

Novel Writing 101: Stop Cutting Corners 
and Do Your Homework

Inspired Writing

The very first thing to remember about 
cutting corners is….don’t do it.

Now, this may be from a movie, but it still illustrates a writer being lazy. 

Years and years ago, a rather clever prop guy put a Glock handgun (new to the U.S. back then) on the set of Die Hard 2 to be used in a scene. 

The writers on set quickly improvised a line for Bruce Willis.

“That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me.” Willis growls. “You know what that is? It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany. Doesn’t show up on your airport X-Ray machines, and it costs more than you make in a month.”

Everything in that statement is false.

There is no Glock 7. Gaston Glock handguns are plastic, but still mostly metal. They show up on X-Ray machines quite nicely, as well as on airport magnetometers. Finally, although a Glock is no cheapie, they are still a very affordable gun made in Austria.

This is just a silly example of a writer cutting corners, and in the grand scheme of things, really makes no difference at all. Die Hard 2 was still thoroughly enjoyable.

What happens, though, if you cut corners researching historical events or a piece of hardware important to the plot of your novel? At best, nobody notices. 

At worst, reviewers pan your book and readers ignore it.

“Oh, come on! Nobody pays attention to little things like that.”

Whatever helps you sleep at night.

“I have to take historical liberties or my vampire novel doesn’t work.”

Interesting. Michelle Bachman took historical liberties, too. See how far that got her? Oh, wait…it didn’t.

Sure, you can take shortcuts with your novel. I mean, if you aren’t committed to producing work that stands a head above the others in your genre, or you simply don’t care…that’s fine.
Personally, I’d rather not take the chance.
I have a feeling though that isn’t the case with you, as well. You wouldn’t be reading this if that were true. So let’s keep moving, shall we?

I perform tons of research for every aspect of my novels. My hero uses a sword only available in 1251? I take the time to find out what types of swords were on hand at the time. My hero travels on an 85-year-old sailboat? I study up on old boats so the description sounds accurate. My hero lived in Gotland in the age of Vikings? I research all aspects early Swedish culture, even the clothing they wore and the food they ate. I may not use it…but it’s there if I need it.

Here's an example. Seriously, what’s better here?

Today, though, I wore a blue dress.


Today, though, I wore a pretty blue silk dirndl embroidered with real gold thread.

I think the second one is better, and it’s historically accurate. By the way….I’m a guy. A straight guy….so fellow male writers out there…if I can do it, you can do it. And quit giggling, chicks will dig the fact that you can describe their clothing properly. They’ll mistake you for being sensitive, and that’s a good thing.

The hero in my book is this long-dead girl

When I started writing seriously, I was….oh, what’s the word? Hmmm…give me a minute…almost got it…oh, yeah, poor. I was poor.
I lived in a motorhome with no internet and worked on a secondhand piece-of-crap laptop. But I owned an encyclopedia set and the latest Roget’s Thesaurus. And that’s enough when the writing bug bites you. To this day I still use a well-worn Second Edition (1998) Thesaurus.

There really is no substitute.

Not only will a handheld Thesaurus help you find the proper uses of words, it will also help you find alternate words when you feel you’ve overused something. Used the word rotation too much? Your Thesaurus will help you find several replacements, whether it be verb or noun. Buy one today if you don’t already own one.

In this day and age, there is absolutely no excuse for shoddy research. Everything you need to know is right at your fingertips.

Actually, I feel dumb even telling you this stuff, because the friggin’ internet is everywhere now. When I started writing Google was still a pipedream, iPhones hadn’t even been thought of yet and YouTube’s inventor was still sitting in front of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, gnawing on his fudgesicle.

You guys are making me feel old. Thanks a lot.

Enough of That Crap

In 2009 I was working on Tip of the Spear and ran into a brick wall. Not your normal brick wall, mind you. One of those ‘what am I going to next?’ brick walls that keeps you up at night wondering if you should just scrap it all and work in the food service industry.

This isn’t so much about cutting corners as it’s about discovering fun new plots and characters in adverse circumstances. Circumstances don’t need a hurricane, car crash or tsunami to be adverse, you know. Love writing in your very soul, then threaten to shut it down because of a block of some type. That definitely qualifies as adverse, trust me.

The interesting thing here is the fact that I only found a new direction for my work after writing myself into a corner.

My hero? 

A 15-year-old angel assigned to protect a human teenager living in England. 

And, of course, the first direction I thought to take was the ‘angel that doesn’t fit in at the private school’ angle and the ‘angel and teen bonding at the mall during a shopping spree’ story. Would have been hilarious, right? Pure gold, can’t miss….or so I thought.
In reality, it felt flat, not to mention that it had been done before - a lot. So, I decided to go off in an entirely new direction, scrapping about 35,000 words.
Best decision I ever made.
I was forced to come up with a new character - Wallis Kocepk - who turned out to be a wonderful foil to the demented Lizzie Borden. Yeah, that Lizzie Borden.

The new material I needed to come up with eventually yielded a total of four new set pieces. A set piece is a location where a major scene takes place. At least, that’s how I look at it.
If you ever read Tip of the Spear, you now know that Tolpits Lane (restaurant), the destruction of Piccadilly Circus, the blown-up parking garage and a brief, desolate look at Hell are the result of difficult rewrites. Plus, the added bonus of Wallis, who gives the story so much more heart.

I’m telling you this for a simple reason. Sometimes you need to follow your gut instincts, even if it involves giving up on a certain storyline.

Was scrapping most of Tip of the Spear easy? Hell, no.

But - wow - the end result is so much better than the original. Mind you, there was a six month lull where I had absolutely no idea what to do. I was lost, depressed even.

I am forced to admit now that I had been cutting corners in the original draft. I was taking the easy way out, even though I’d promised myself that whatever the reader expected from Tip of the Spear, they were going to get something new and different instead. 

My first draft broke that promise, and I learned that some of the most important promises are the ones you keep to yourself.

A 1,000-year-old angel in a modern high school? That could have been fun, but it’s been done to death. And in case you haven’t caught on yet, this is about much more than cutting a few small corners, such as proper research.
This is about giving your audience all that you have. Buckling down and giving them something brand new, exciting and fresh. Taking all of those old, tired story lines and chucking them out the window. They’ve been done…over and over and over.

Take a good, hard look at your novel’s plot or storyline right now. Sit down somewhere quiet and ask yourself…could this be better? Is this fresh? Has it been done?

Actually, I kind of wish Hollywood would take this advice to heart, because they’ve been giving us the same old dreck for years.

What bad writing habits do you have?

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