It has been piled high with cold, flu conferences, a last minute, out of country speaking engagement and now a medical screening that needs a follow-up. Of course, there are also everyday things that pile on to the plate: bills, calls from my sons, the tennis league I belong to, dinner to cook and bathrooms to clean. I’m not complaining. This is all just life and good stuff if you take the cold and medical appointments out of the equation. Still, filling out my calendar and trying to figure out how I’m going to fit quality writing time in the schedule made me think about the craft of writing a novel. The question on my mind was how much is too much before a reader throws up her hands and pushes the literary plate away?
As a thriller writer, I love to go over the top. Unfortunately, I can get a bit too energetic and take the technique to crazy extremes. It’s a fault. No, it’s worse than a fault. It’s a sin to be so involved with own words that I forget my job is to entertain not challenge someone to wade through my excesses. When I do go overboard, I am giving my readers a reason to push away the literary plate I have served them.
Luckily, there are remedies for ‘too much’ writers like me. In real life we say no to many things, so let’s start saying it in our fiction. Here are three ways to figure out if you just served your reader a plate that is too full.
Echo: A particularly inspired turn of phrase, description or character quirk is a thing of beauty. Constant use of the same phrase or description or a continual reminder of the quirk is an annoyance. Readers are smart and imaginative. They will get it.
Blow-by-Blow : No pun intended, but sex scenes are more effective and dramatic if they are evocative rather than clinical. The same rule of thumb applies to shootouts, character travel or any scene that stops the reader and forces them to linger without a point. Move the story forward using varied sentence structure and only critical physical descriptions.
Cast of Thousands: Have you ever tried to find a friend in a crowd? It’s impossible because all you can see is a blur of humanity. The same thing happens to a reader if there are too many characters populating your book. Think of your book as a play. Characters may come and go but the ones we care about should always be center stage.
While you edit look for the echo, the blow-by-blow and the cast of characters and adjust the emphasis, streamline the structure and your literary plate will go from too full to too fabulous.
When I think of my favorite authors at work, I think of them toiling away in a darkened room banging out pages on an antique typewriter in total isolation. There may or may not be a cigarette on a long and a bottle of scotch involved, or a fine bottle of wine… It depends on the author. And, the truth is that writing is often a solitary process. But that is changing.
The internet and projects like NaNoWriMo, organizations like Romance Writer’s of America, and changes in the publishing industry itself are bringing writers together in new ways. Writers are reaching out to each other having write ins, offering support, sharing their experiences with traditional and indie publishing, even sharing financial information, things that were unheard of less than ten years ago.
In October, I was part of a panel of women writers at the InD’Scribe Conference in Burbank California. First of all, it was incredible to get to sit on this panel with legal thriller author, Rebecca Forster, Navy Seal Romance author, Caitlyn O’Leary, and paranormal author, Jenna Barwin, after all, my debut novella will not be released until February. But the panel was about mentoring, and both Rebecca Forster and Caitlyn O’Leary have been mentors on my fiction writing journey. And this is what I’m talking about, writers no longer hide in their writing caves darkened and solitary penning pages. They reach out to other authors and offer support, and share their experience. They come together in coffee shops to have write ins and bounce ideas off of each other. Writing has become a social event as well as an individual creative process.
As the Pro Liaison for the Orange County Chapter of Romance Writers of America I had the ability to reach out to successful published authors, editors and agents to ask them to talk to our group online, and almost every one of them said yes, volunteering to share their experience and let us pick their brains.
When I stepped down from that position I took the idea to another level and started a little online group called #Charmed Writers where we write together and have mini conferences with authors and industry experts as well as other experts who volunteer to join the group and share their knowledge.
So, the image of a writer has changed. We no longer hide in the dark like vampires, we come out to write in coffee shops and restaurants. We form groups, friendships and working relationships. Some of the mystery may have gone out of the life of a writer, but the magic is still there and maybe stronger than before. If you’re a writer, find your tribe, seek out support, share your journey with other writers and readers.
Where do I write? Usually in my brightly lit family room at my desk, with the curtains open and a view of my orange tree, but sometimes friends join me at my dining room table, or I meet them at a local coffee shop, usually no whiskey, but occasionally there is wine involved. Where do you write? And how do you imagine your favorite authors at work?
In the 1950s the emergence of suburban America led to the boom in automobile travel. This was a time of cheap fuel, before air quality regulations and seat belts. Cars were nowhere as fuel efficient or reliable as the vehicles of today. More than 230,000 service stations dotted the nation. All four corners of many major intersections were occupied by service stations. “Service stations?” The gas station of the 50s was truly a full-service station and puts today’s modern fill & go places to shame. Customer service was a key factor in the success of any service station, and competition was stiff for the 1950s customer.
When you pulled into a service station, your car would usually run over a tiny rubber hose laid across the entrance driveways. A bell would “ding” and as many as four uniformed attendants not only filled your tank, but opened the hood and checked the oil and coolant while others checked tire pressure and washed your car’s windows. At one station, they wiped down the radio antenna.
A trip to the service station was an experience even the kids enjoyed. Some service stations let the young boys “help” fill the tank or check the tires. One chain had trampolines for them to jump on while the parents filled up the family car.
Not only that, but these businesses often provided incentives to get your return business. Some gave out promotional items with a fill-up like drinking glasses imprinted with the company logo. China dishware or cutlery was another incentive. Each time you’d go to the station, you would receive a free bowl, plate or other piece. If you returned often enough, you could amass an entire set of china or flatware. Mostly, the free giveaways were toys, key chains, calendars, Blue Chip stamps or Green trading stamps. (If you are too young to remember trading stamps, it worked like this… with each purchase you made at a participating business you’d receive stamps that were pasted into a book. When you accumulated enough stamps, you could trade them for items in a catalog. This very similar to credit card or frequent flyer points today.)
Free road maps were another giveaway you don’t see anymore, but they were given out as a courtesy in the 1950s. One company in New York even provided an “upside down” map from New York to Florida where south was at the top of the map for easier use by southbound drivers. To keep the customer coming back, some held contests for free fill-ups or offered the chance to win a prize. Some went so far as to give away a new car to a lucky customer!
My own father would drive twenty miles from Orange County, California to buy gas at one of the Parks Texaco stations in Long Beach— all for a chance to win a new Cadillac. Eventually, the Parks stations closed and he has since passed away. He never won the Caddy.
JONATHAN MABERRY is a New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning suspense author, editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator and writing teacher/lecturer. He was named one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers. His books have been sold to more than two-dozen countries. Not only is he an exemplary author, he’s also part of a group known as the Philadelphia Liars Club. An organization known for helping writers become authors through workshops and meetings.
Long ago in one such workshop, I met Jonathan and he’s been one of my mentor ever since. I’m pleased to introduce Jonathan to my readers.
Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to answer a few questions. The Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable has a Paranormal Short Story Contest starting on January 1st, 2018 and I would like to give my readers and the participants a scope of what to expect from the genre.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Paranormal is often confused or conflated with supernatural, but they’re significantly different things. The supernatural refers to things like vampires and werewolves, demons and those kinds of monsters. Paranormal refers to things that may appear to be magical but are likely to be aspects of science as yet unquantifiable, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, and other kinds of ESP.
The word ‘paranormal’ is frequently misused in fiction, as seen in –say—paranormal romance, in which angels, demons, vampires, and so on are romantic figures. That’s actually supernatural, but try and get a publishing marketing exec to change the wording! Not a chance.
Supernatural elements fit very well with all kinds of fantasy storytelling, because fantasy has always been concerned with monsters, dragons, sorcery, gods, and so on.
Horror is a much broader category and there are no limits to what can fall under that umbrella. Horror can as easily be used to accurately describe a serial killer novel (Silence of the Lambs comes to mind) as a werewolf thriller or a Gothic ghost story.
JM: The paranormal fiction market was created when romance became heavily associated with typically monstrous elements of fiction. Books like Interview with the Vampire helped give birth to what we now call ‘paranormal romance’. TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Forever Knight, Charmed, True Blood, Vampire Academy, and so on, really propped this genre up; and novels by Laurell K. Hamilton, L.A. Banks, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Rachel Caine and many others have established it as a huge moneymaker.
All trends wax and wane, and one of the ways to keep them fresh is to spice them up with elements of other genres. Buffy is an example, because it is ostensibly a story about teenage angst and social anxiety wrapped up in a heroic battle against monsters. It’s also a coming of age story, an urban fantasy, a dark fantasy, a family drama, an action series, a comedy series, romance, and –well, I could go on and on. Every time they wanted to make it fresh they threw in some other genre elements –even a space alien (no joke). And…it worked.
The fanbase is easily jaded and wants more, which is why those writers who can bring in those other genre elements are the one who most often manage to surprise and intrigue their fans.
One show (and subsequent series of comics, games, anthologies and novels) that has very successfully combined paranormal, supernatural, horror, science fiction and fantasy genres is The X-Files. Week-to-week you never quite knew from which direction the punches would be coming. Which made the original series so much fun; and now it’s back.
JM: I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a story in which Nikolai Tesla and Dr. Moriarty team up to conquer the world. That would be a whole lot of fun to write. It would also combine science, science fiction, mystery, thriller, Steampunk, and action into one wild ride.
JM: Actually the Rot & Ruin novels are straight science fiction. There are no paranormal or supernatural elements to them because the cause of the zombie plague is an old Cold War bioweapon based on actual parasites found in nature. I just finished a new novel in that series, which is the first of a spinoff storyline with a Latina bisexual teenage main character, Gabriella ‘Gutsy’ Gomez, who is a hell of a lot of fun to write.
But my all-time favorite character to write is Joe Ledger. His novels are predominately science fiction with some paranormal elements, and (in some books in the series) a taste of the supernatural. Ledger is a character I can throw into any series or any story. Between the ten novels in the series, two collections of short stories, a guest appearance in a comic book (V-Wars) and an upcoming anthology with original Ledger stories by my writer colleagues, Ledger has faced corrupt scientists, terrorists with cutting-edge bioweapons, secret societies, genetically-engineered vampires, werewolf super soldiers, changelings, ghosts, alien space spiders, and even H.P. Lovecraft’s elder god, Cthulhu. And he guest-stars in the Rot & Ruin novels.
JM: Short fiction is often similar to the third act of a novel. We typically hit the ground with events already in motion and don’t always pause to explain everything. Much is implied. There are fewer character and the character relationship arcs are less deeply explore, though again, much can be implied to suggest greater depth of that relationship. In a novel, for example, you might explore how a couple falls in love, some highs and lows of that budding relationship, interactions with other people, and view the whole process through the filters of different scenes that put different kinds of stress on those two characters. In a short story we might step in when one of them is lying in an empty bed; or driving away from a burning house; or trying not to sign the divorce papers; or at a funeral; or in the delivery room. We join their lives in progress.
My personal style for writing short stories is episodic. I break my short fiction into several mini-chapters. Micro-chapters, really. These allow me to build scenes and then jump to the next important story moment without having to write the transitional material between scenes. I also use those mini-scenes to allow me to establish dramatic beats even within a larger overall scene. In that way I’m using a condensed version of the same style I use for my novels.
JM: It’s never a good idea to rewrite anything before a first draft is done. It packs on time, frequently derails the whole project; shifts focus from one skill set (storytelling) to another (revision), often to the detriment of mental focus and overall momentum; and often results in an uneven story, with the early sections more overwritten then the later.
I advise my writing students to draft the story out into a logical plot outline. However I remind them that it’s illogical to assume that you’re going to have all of your best story ideas the day you write out that plot. So, be flexible. Allow for organic growth in both plot and character evolution. Having the plot roughed out, though, is smart. Plots are the mathematical equation of cause and effect that establishes the internal logic. Without knowing how a story ends you can properly foreshadow, built tension that supports the conclusion, and so on; and you often waste time writing scenes that don’t serve the story and will likely need to be cut.
JM: I have the great good fortune as a young teen to meet, get to know, and be mentored by Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. They were very kind and generous with their support and advice. They taught me to make serious studies of both the craft elements of writing as well as the policies and practices of the business of publishing. They also advised me to be generous and compassionate –both to other writers and in general. That was key advice for a troubled teen who need a gentle nudge in the right direction.
JM: I’m in the middle of one of the busiest years of my career. I’m about to start writing my third novel this year (#33 overall). I have a standalone novel, GLIMPSE, coming out in March that is getting a lot of advance buzz from folks like Clive Barker, Scott Smith, James Rollins, Charlaine Harris and others. And it’s being considered for TV. A couple of my other projects are also heading to film or TV. So that’s exciting. I just finished writing Broken Lands, the first of a new spinoff of my Rot & Ruin series of post-apocalyptic novels for teens. Next up is the 10th Joe Ledger thriller, and then I jump in to writing the first in a new teen series of mystery thrillers. I’ve also got an anthology, JOE LEDGER: UNSTOPPABLE, debuting Halloween day, with original stories using my characters written by a slew of other authors. And just after that my dark fantasy/urban fantasy/mystery genre-mashup anthology, HARDBOILED HORROR debuts. Really looking forward to seeing that launch. And I’m editing KINGDOMS FALL, an anthology of epic fantasy. So…I’m driving in the fast lane and having a hell of a lot of fun.
Readers will find a selection of Jonathan Maberry’s titles below:
Jonathan Maberry was interviewed by Diane Sismour. Diane has written poetry and fiction for over 35 years in multiple genres. She lives with her husband in eastern Pennsylvania at the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Diane is a member of Romance Writers of America, Bethlehem Writer’s Group LLC, Horror Writers Association, and Liberty States Fiction Writers. She enjoys interviewing other authors and leading writer’s workshops. Diane’s shorts stories are available on A Slice of Orange.
Her website is www.dianesismour.com, and her blog is www.dianesismour.blogspot.com. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter at: http://facebook.com/dianesismour, http://facebook.com/networkforthearts, https://twitter.com/dianesismour
We would like to thank both Jonathan and Diane for contributing to A Slice of Orange.