How’s your story idea coming? Here’s an exercise that is difficult, rewarding, and necessary if you want to create an engaging novel. It’s called the logline.
Simply put, the logline is a bird’s-eye one sentence description of your story.
Why is this important? There are two main reasons. One is for your benefit. Experts say that if you cannot condense your novel into one sentence then you either don’t understand your story or you are trying to do too much (something I’m often guilty of). Your logline will keep you from chasing too many rabbits as you draft your story. In other words, it will keep you on the right track.
The second reason your logline is important is to trigger interest in a prospective reader. “Oh, that sounds interesting.” That’s what you want your audience to say. Hopefully, this, along with your book cover and blurb motivates potential readers to purchase and consume your story.
What should be addressed in your logline? H.R. D’Costa offers this helpful template in her Story Outlines book:
because of a compelling reason,
a protagonist must accomplish a goal
despite extraordinary resistance.
D’Costa also tweaks the above to include step-numbers from her detailed story outlining list.
because of the stakes [action step #6],
a protagonist [action steps #2 and #3b]
must accomplish a goal [action step #2]—
despite the antagonistic forces in his way [action #3a].
She offers several examples. I like these two the best (quotation marks omitted):
A Few Good Men: To prevent two marines from being convicted of murder, a US Navy lawyer—accustomed to easy victories—must elicit a confession from a powerful colonel desperate to suppress the truth.
Here, I’ve added the related attribute from D’Costa’s tweaked template: Because of the stakes (To prevent two marines from being convicted of murder) a protagonist (a US Navy lawyer—accustomed to easy victories) must accomplish a goal (must elicit a confession from a powerful colonel) despite the antagonistic forces in his way (desperate to suppress the truth).
Here’s the second example I like: One for the Money: Facing eviction and desperate for cash, a freshly minted female bounty hunter must apprehend a cop accused of murder…who also happens to be her ex-flame.
Here, I’ve added the related attribute from D’Costa’s tweaked template: Because of the stakes (Facing eviction and desperate for cash) a protagonist (a freshly minted female bounty hunter) must accomplish a goal (must apprehend a cop accused of murder…) despite the antagonistic forces in [her] way (who also happens to be her ex-flame).
Here’s the logline for my current work in progress, The Boaz Stranger: To get justice for the disappearance and presumed death of his high school friend half-a-century ago, a sixty-six year old Yale Law School professor must return to his North Alabama hometown to verify whether clues recently discovered inside his deceased wife’s diaries are true, and to reveal how the wealthiest man in town got away with murder.
I admit, it’s a little too long.
One thing to note before you try your hand. Your logline is not a plot by plot listing. You don’t have space and that’s not the goal. Obviously, subplots aren’t included.
Now, take out pencil and paper (or laptop) and start drafting your logline. I suggest using D’Costa’s tweaked template. Don’t worry, you don’t have to get it perfect the first time. Expect that you won’t.
Finally, and never forget this, if I can write a novel, you surely can.
Let’s talk about carryalls. There are many types. The carryall bag comes to mind. Search Google and you’ll find dozens and dozens. Golf-carts and John Deere Gators are also carryalls. Not to be outdone, Wikipedia includes horse-drawn carriages, automobiles, sleighs, and earthmoving equipment under its ‘Carryall’ title.
But, there’s more. Let me tell you about the one Jonathan spent weeks building while learning how to weld. Here it is, hot off the ‘press.’
Pretty amazing wouldn’t you say? Great job Jonathan.
The two of us plan on using his creation for hauling firewood from the woods. Although our carryall turned out bigger than many we’ve seen on YouTube, we believe it will be manageable in our particular forest. Hopefully, we can park it next to a fallen tree, cut it into eighteen inch chunks, and load without taking more than a few steps. The wood-splitting can wait until we return to the barn. Alternately, if by chance (and hard work) our inventory of fallen trees evaporates to zero, we can always cut down a tree that’s crying for euthanasia.
Speaking of death, or life, according to your perspective, the firewood, after burning, will become ashes. The gray and black powder is fantastic fertilizer for flowers, shrubs, and our vegetable garden. A tree dies, a bush or plant thrives. At least for a season or two.
There’s another angle here. We also use our firewood in our homemade smoker. There’s nothing better than slow-smoked meat. The heat and smoke (along with a spice rub) tantalize the pork, beef, or chicken, and titillate the palate. Today, we plan on smoking some drumsticks. It only takes three hours and they are fantastic. Not only are they tasty, but they are energy for the body. Thanks firewood.
You might be complaining right now because you thought you’d landed on a writing blog. Hold on. I’m getting to that. In fact, I’ll declare you and I have a built-in carryall. It’s also known as the mind. Let’s see if there’s an analogy lurking.
To repeat, our minds are carryalls. They carry all kinds of thoughts, ideas, and opinions. In other words, we, along with our minds, are surrounded by a forest of information. It is overwhelming and not all true.
We could say there are many points of light beaming their way to and inside our minds every second of every day (you might prefer calling them points of darkness). Whatever, we comprehend these ‘points’ about as well as the unknown beyond our headlights when we’re driving in a dense fog. In other words, we, at best, have only a foggy idea what’s in our heads. And, we have no clue where our thoughts come from. But, one thing is certain: there is a muddy puddle between our ears.
Good news. You don’t have to stress out or give up. There is a solution, partial though it might be, that’s a universe away from a magic pill. Although, on good days, it may feel like magic.
Mental thoughts, ideas, and opinions (including those verbally expressed) are like the new wood-hauling carryall sitting inside the hall of our barn. Alone, all it can do (allow me to give Jonathan’s creation some personal characteristics) is ponder and anticipate days and adventures in the woods.
Can’t you imagine the excitement ‘he’ feels when the old 2030 John Deere eases his way backwards for hookup and announces, “wake up, it’s time for some fun.” A newer, more modern tractor, educated no doubt, might say, “Buddy, it’s time for you to focus and do what you were made for.” New or old, it is the tractor, the engine, the power, that sets our carryall free. And gives our new friend a life worth living.
Like Buddy, disconnected from their power source, our thoughts, ideas, and opinions are alone in the muddy puddle between our ears, powerless to perform as intended. At a minimum, they are vague, unsatisfying, possibly debilitating. The solution? No, not a tractor per se. Actually, it’s something more powerful. It’s called a pencil.
The lowly pencil comes to our rescue. It enables us to walk into a forest of ideas and focus on the one that seems most pressing, most urgent for our survival. The pencil transports an idea to paper (you may substitute a laptop!), enabling you or me to start whittling away.
It’s like Jonathan and me walking into our forest and choosing one fallen tree to cut up into firewood. This tree, not that tree. This cut, not the one fifty-four inches away.
Writing is the solution. It is the clear water antidote to our muddy puddle.
I like what Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Read that again. It’s not that Joan’s thinking wasn’t happening as she looked outside her window at a forest of ideas. But, it wasn’t discernible. It was like her mind was thinking in a language she didn’t understand. It’s the same with us.
For Joan (and us) writing is a tool for thinking. It enables us (and her) to see through corrective lenses, to determine what we see and what it means. Writing is to thinking, what chainsawing is to firewood production.
As stated, it is an imperfect process. Sometimes, on our bad days, we don’t conjure up enough clear water to eliminate a fraction of our muddy puddle. Put another way, our best efforts burn up and create nothing but ashes. But, don’t forget, ashes become fertilizer for another day.
Other times are like magic, the clarity after even a few words, parts the clouds and lets the sunshine in. It’s as though a hidden pump removes the dirty water and fills us with the clear, sweet, and tasty water of a mountain stream.
Let’s talk a minute about other tools. I started this post yesterday. I wrote a few paragraphs and they were disjointed at best (not to say today’s finish is measurably better). However, there’s one thing I don’t want you to miss.
Just as a good chainsaw is a necessity for cutting trees into eighteen inch chunks for splitting, a good writing program can make your job so much easier. Yes, as for our forest work, I could use an axe and a cross-cut saw as my grandfather did when he was growing up in the early 1900s.
And, as for my mental work, I could use pencil and paper (as I sometimes do). But for production and publishing sake, I use Scrivener. It’s the best I’ve found and I’ve explored many a writing program.
One thing I love about Scrivener is that you can break your writing into manageable chunks (like those manageable eighteen inch tree chunks). You don’t have to look at the blank page and say, “this is too much. I don’t know where to start. I can’t see what I’m looking at.”
In Scrivener’s sidebar binder I can outline every chunk, whether it’s a main section, paragraph or sentence. I recommend you give it a go with a free trial. No, my recommendation doesn’t earn me a penny.
Finally, I encourage you to use your mind for more than a carryall. Choose a thought, idea, or opinion, grab a pencil, and start writing. Before long, if you stick with it, you’ll have a pile of words, stacked like oak and firewood, every one the right length and properly split.
Your muddy puddle will be a smidgen clearer. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll know what you see and what it means.
Quite a bold statement isn’t it? Yes. It’s meant to be. Frankly, it’s the type of statement that gives me pause. Why? It begs for opposing argument. This confession aside, let’s ‘play like’ my title represents life’s two-sided coin. Either you wither or you write.
We’ve all heard, and mostly understood, the word wither. In its non-plant context, it means, “cease to flourish; fall into decay or decline.” Its not a real life scenario any normal person would choose.
Let me regress a little. I almost chose as my title, “Life: Cotton Candy or Sweet Potatoes?” This certainly would have hooked you. Right? So, what was my intent?
Let’s talk slang. Cotton candy: “something that is attractive but inconsequential” (Google search). Do you, do I, want to be beautiful but lacking worth or importance? Again, I suspect most normal people would answer ‘no.’
Now to a better choice. And, to more slang. Sweet potatoes: “sweet potato in Korean is used to describe someone who is frustrating or slow to catch on with the conversation” (Google search). I lied didn’t I. This isn’t better. Actually, it’s worse. Here, I bet you and I both had rather be beautiful than this sweet potato dope.
It now seems my alternate title wasn’t anything like my two-side coin title. In fact, both cotton candy and sweet potatoes makes us wish for a better alternative.
Now, we’re almost back to where I was headed after defining ‘wither.’ But, let me first share a real live example. “I don’t use Walmart’s self-checkout because it cost too many jobs.” I heard this yesterday. It was said in a casual conversation, so casual I don’t remember the context.
Now, let me be clear. I don’t know if the claim is accurate. I do know it’s the type of statement I avoid like the plague. The reason(s) I suspect is that I’m a writer. And, a lawyer. So, it’s my background and training. Notice, I didn’t say “because I am so smart.” FYI, I’m just an average Joe.
You see, many (most?) folks aren’t great talkers. They spout out claims as though they’ve been scientifically proved.
I’m sorry to be so pedantic but the Walmart claim prompted me to pursue some cursory research.
At Quora (okay, okay, hold your taters) A.C. responds to the self-checkout system, “Initially, probably quite a few. But since self-checkout became prevalent, companies have opened many new stores, partly because they know they won’t have to employ as many checkers as before. This is similar to how the number of bank tellers and the amount they are paid has actually gone up due to ATMs. Banks have said specifically that they open many more branches because they don’t have to employ as many tellers, resulting in a net gain of tellers jobs.”
And to the same question, J.M. (yes, from Quora) says, “I get a lot of people telling me they don’t like self check outs because it takes away jobs. I still have my job as a cashier. From my experience it hasn’t affected any of the cashiers. None of us have had to move to different departments because of self check out. I have been saying this to many people. There’s enough people who don’t want to scan their own stuff to still keep the cashiers doing their jobs. So no they aren’t taking away jobs.”
Okay, sorry. Yes, I admit A.C. and J.M. could be wrong. My point is, at least what I want it to be, is that life and issues aren’t so simple. Most of us know so very little we have very little right to make such broad claims.
Then why do I do the opposite, “Wither or write, you decide?” Please don’t be such a sweet potato. The answer is, writing reveals life isn’t black and white. It lets you explore the possible, pealing back the masks we all wear.
Let’s see about that.
Free advice: You should be reading Brain Pickings, Maria Popova’s online journal. In her own words, “Brain Pickings [includes] a free Sunday digest of the week’s most interesting and inspiring articles across art, science, philosophy, creativity, children’s books, and other strands of our search for truth, beauty, and meaning.
Remember, reading is vitally important for many reasons, like being a good antidote for having a cotton candy or sweet potato mind. As Stephen King declares, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Mark Twain spoke to the value of reading: “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”
Returning to Brain Pickings. Yesterday, Maria posted, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Opaque to Ourselves: Milan Kundera on Writing and the Key to Great Storytelling.”
You and I can learn a lot about writing, particularly novel writing. And, Maria’s words (and quotes) seem to support my title, “Wither or write, your choice.”
Maria: ” … the novel, the story, the poem, the song are each a model, an imagistic impression of the world not as it is but as the maker pictures it to be, inviting us to step into this imaginary world in order to better understand the real, including ourselves.”
Our imaginations, in story form at least, helps us understand reality.
Maria quoting Kundera: “Every novel says to the reader, ‘Things are not as simple as they seem.’ That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.”
Does this remind you of, “I don’t use Walmart’s self-checkout because it cost too many jobs.” Things are not simple, even the statements that appear so. Things are far from black and white. If anything, the world, reality, life, is a landscape of gray. And, don’t miss Kundera’s later point. If we live on the surface we will constantly be bombarded with “easy, quick answers.” We’ll grow deaf. And dumb. Sorry for my embellishment but it seems reasonably implied.
Let’s look at another Kundera quote: “A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility. But… to exist means ‘being-in-the-world.’ Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities… [Novels] thereby make us see what we are, and what we are capable of.”
In four words, what is a novel? A work of fiction. It’s made up, wholly from the imagination. So, what good is it since it doesn’t explore reality?
It’s good because it explores existence, what could happen in the future. As Kundera says, “existence is the realm of human possibilities.” So, why is this important? Fiction writing, novel writing, offers solutions to future problems. How Billy Character mentally responded and physically reacted to the imagined scene presents value to us in the real world.
At a minimum, novel writing and novel reading makes you and me more empathetic (btw, that’s pretty much a proved fact; do your own research).
Let’s say you choose to write a novel. The protagonist is a doctor. He works for an organization that delivers needed medical care around the world, specifically inside those third world, war torn countries where poverty is widespread and spreading like a cancer.
Here’s a short snippet from your writing.
“Doctor, this way.” Claudia the head nurse led me inside a tent. I could hear what sounded like firecrackers or bombs bursting on the mountaintop beyond the river. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was with Susie in Hyde Park watching a Fourth of July fireworks celebration taking part over Lake Michigan. “How bad is it?” I said as the weary nurse walked faster toward the exam room. “Five kids die every minute.” “Uh? I responded in disbelief.” Claudia stopped, turned, and looked into my eyes, a tear rolling down her right cheek. “Not just here in Yemen, but around the world. Five innocent kids die every minute from malnourishment.” I made a mental note to explore her statistic and other opportunities to make a difference.
Let’s step back. Could Kundera be right? “[Novels] thereby make us see what we are, and what we are capable of.”
My hypothesis: I’ll never know the full extent of what I am or what I’m capable of until I see the possibilities, through the eyes of someone else, someone wholly the product of the writer’s imagination.
What first comes to mind? Fishing, no doubt. And now you broadly know why your story needs a hook. Without one, you won’t catch your prospective reader’s attention. Thus, she will never read your book.
H.R. D’Costa, in Sizzling Story Outlines, says story hooks come in a number of shapes and sizes, including: setting, character, origin of material, tone, title, book cover, reputation of the content creator, star power, word of mouth, and irony.
Here’s my first-thoughts about each of these eleven ‘shapes and sizes.’
Setting. The first permanent settlement on the other side of Mars.
Character. Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in the Bourne series. More about character below.
Origin of material. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, tells the true story of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. It obviously isn’t a novel in its purest form (fiction). Although it is based on a real life crime (non-fiction), it’s told in long-story form.
Tone. Per Google, tone “in literary terms, typically refers to the mood implied by an author’s word choice and the way that the text can make a reader feel. The tone an author uses in a piece of writing can evoke any number of emotions and perspectives.” How a novel handles bedroom doors, open or closed, may be the hook for some readers. Some prefer not to read about what happens, others want ever detail.
Title. The book’s title itself may hook the reader. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni, did it for me. Excellent story, and more details below when we look at character.
Book cover. D’Costa calls it, “candy for the eye.” You get the picture. You’ve been in a book store browsing around and been lured in by the photo, drawing, or other depiction on the front cover before touching the book. It might be the bold (or subtle) portrayal of sex. It might be a beautiful country scene, including a snow covered forest with cabin at the end of a long winding road with soft shafts of smoke rising from the chimney. You get the idea.
Reputation of the content creator. Seeing the author’s name can be all the hook a reader needs. Think John Grisham, Stephen King, or Nicolas Sparks. As for movies, the hook may be the producer. You ever heard of Steven Spielberg?
Star power. I’ve already mentioned Matt Damon. What about Julia Roberts? Tom Hanks? Meryl Streep? George Clooney? Of course, all of these are movie actors, but there are those we know from novels. Atticus Finch and Sherlock Holmes to name two (btw, if you’d like to try a great murder-mystery series, look no further than Hulu and Elementary. It’s about a modern day Sherlock Holmes and Watson, as in Joan Watson).
Word of mouth. You know all about it. The importance of a word of mouth recommendation. Hint, I just gave you one.
Irony. As D’Costa discloses, irony deserves a lot of ink. Succinctly, irony is the pairing of opposites, things we would never (or rarely at best) ever considering joining together. Here’s an example: a real estate mogul with a cloudy reputation (to put it mildly) and without any political experience, becomes President of the United States. Now, that would make a hell of a hook for a novel.
A hook is a lure. It’s like a magnet, drawing its prey closer and closer until there’s an inseparable connection.
Let me close with a brief look at the novel I finished reading yesterday: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni. I believe my experience illustrates an important point about hooks. As stated, it was the book’s title that lured me in. But, it’s not what kept me reading. Now, don’t get me wrong. The title, as a theme, no doubt was present throughout the book. However, there were a number of other reasons I kept turning the pages.
It should go without saying but, well, you know, I’m about to say it anyway. Dugoni is an excellent writer. One thing I liked was the minimal description and the short chapters. This doesn’t mean I couldn’t picture (or feel) what Sam was experiencing, but Dugoni doesn’t take a whole page detailing every chink in Our Lady of Mercy’s (the Catholic church just blocks from Sam’s boyhood home) front steps.
As an aside, if you think you like long and tedious descriptions (and explanations), I encourage you to read, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.
SPOILER ALERT. Let’s cut to the chase. It was Sam Hill, the protagonist, who served as the real lure for me. Sam (formally Samuel) was born to Maxwell and Madeline Hill in Burlingame, California (near San Francisco). He was born with red eyes, medically labeled, “ocular albinism.”
The story is told in two time frames: Sam’s youth and his adulthood (through, I think, his early to mid-forties). Of course, you’ve figured out that Sam’s red eyes (that’s where the ‘Hell’ comes from; he’s also called “Devil Boy”) are going to have an overwhelming affect upon his life. And, you’d be correct.
Sam’s story portrays a positive change arc. Thus, he starts one way and ends another. In between are scenes that move you from sadness and sympathy to uncontrollable laughter, with anger and more than a desire for vengence in between. They reveal what any school kid would experience if he’d been born with such a horrendous disability.
But, don’t tell Sam’s mother that her only child is disabled. She is a devout Catholic (recall, Our Lady of Mercy) who from Sam’s birth believed he is her gift from God and is destined for an extraordinary life. And, he is.
In a strong sense, I saw my own mother in Madeline Hill. She was Sam’s number one supporter throughout the story and her life, just like my dear, saintly mother. However, don’t believe Sam’s father wasn’t in his corner. He was, with his wisdom and tough love philosophy. And yes, like my own father.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two other folks who made Sam’s life worth living. His black friend, the athletic Ernie Cantwell, and the girl Sam loved from first site, the unorthodox Mickie Kennedy. Without them, the story would have been far poorer and Sam’s life would have been a bore.
Finally (sorry for such a long ‘snippet’), I encourage you to think about your own book. What type of hook will lure in your reader? Take some time to write down your thoughts.
In this post I digress to share a private experience that occurred this past week.
It was Tuesday night around 9:00. The family and I had just watched another episode of Elementary, stories of the brilliant, intriguing, and wholly fictional Sherlock Holmes. Shadow, our brilliant, intriguing, and wholly nonfictional Blue Healer, was in my lap enjoying my last caresses and soothing words before our nightly walk outside and onto her safe dog’s bed inside our newly renovated barn kitchen.
The moment the TV’s volume disappeared, as predictable as morning light, Shadow jumped from my lap onto the floor and pranced toward the front door. To wait. For me to rise and saunter to the foyer’s cabinet and remove collar and leash from an uncluttered drawer.
Obedient for now, Shadow sat on her rear haunches allowing my fumbling fingers to snap the two ends of the collar around her neck, worried that I might pinch an ear as I’ve done more than once. But not tonight. She looked up and back into my eyes, relaying an unspoken thank-you.
Now, with Shadow on all fours and me remaining on two, I open the storm door and we scurry onto the front porch. Shadow is already alert because she sees Kitty approaching in the grass from twenty feet away. I allow the retractable leash full freedom and quickly the two hairy friends cautiously greet each other, engaging in a semi-circular dance without touching, although I’d bet there was endless sniffing.
Kitty soon became distracted, and so did Shadow. She abruptly darted to the side yard, jerking the leash controller out of my hand. She was off, tracking a scent of some unseen animal, maybe a raccoon, rabbit, fox, coyote, or small bear. I know not. Whatever it was, the creature was clearly drunk, given the circuitous track Shadow was pursuing. I kept hollering, “Shadow, Shadow, come here.” At one point, I got within eight feet of the trailing controller that slide across the grass five feet behind my excited and distracted friend.
There was no catching the Blue Healer. I repeatedly hollered her name and warned she should come to me right now and retreat to safe quarters inside the barn. “Come here.” She didn’t listen. After racing with nose to the ground over every yard we have, including the north side of the barn, the most sweet and normally obedient Shadow pursued the intoxicating scent across the runway and into the pine thicket beyond. That’s when I realized this man and that dog had ventured into uncharted territory. The only other time Shadow had jerked the leash controller from my hand, all had ended well, she’d performed a few oddly shaped figure eights and surrendered to my loud but reasoned voice. But not tonight.
Clothed only in house-shoes, soft shorts, and a tee-shirt, I pursued, quickly losing Shadow and the front porch’s light. I eased my way into the undergrowth, quickly finding the nearest briers. Again, and repeatedly, I hollered, “Shadow, come here. This is dangerous. What are you doing?” There was no response.
I had no choice. I needed help, along with a flashlight. I walked back to the house and enlisted Donna and Jonathan’s help. They quickly responded and followed me with two flashlights, one weak, one strong. The two of us milled along the edge of the dense forest, poking light wherever we could, all the while staying on the runway (our 1,300 feet grass strip evidencing one of my former lives). We each kept verbalizing the common refrain: “Shadow, come here.” There was no response.
I finally told my two assistants they might as well go back inside. I knew what I had to do: go inside and equip myself. Less than five minutes later, I emerged from the mudroom clothed in long pants, tee-shirt, jacket, work-boots, a hat, and Jonathan’s flashlight.
I walked across the yard and runway, calling out for Shadow every other step. No response. I had no choice but to immerse myself in the undergrowth. My theory was (actually, I had two) Shadow’s zigzagging had been her undoing. As she sniffed the ground back and forth, left and right, circling and re-circling, the trailing leash and controller had become entangled around a bush or tree. She trapped herself somewhere, and I had to find her. My second hypothesis was that something had attacked and devoured her, or, at a minimum, injured Shadow enough to cause her current incapability of returning or even responding with a yelp or bark.
I set off walking and clawing westward along the hundred foot wide wilderness expanse parallel and to the north side of the runway. Again, the runway is 1,300 feet long, lying east to west. I exited the grass strip into the forest a hundred feet from the eastern end. The undergrowth was so thick I could barely move, but I kept shining my light into every crevice and calling out my dear Healer’s name. To my surprise and pleasure, the thick mass of briers, bushes, and new-growth pine trees thinned significantly the further west I walked.
After a thousand feet or more, without sight or sound of sweet Shadow, I circled back toward the east and my point of beginning. I moved northward to return by a second path, thinking and hoping I’d discover treasure around every bush and beyond every tree. I did not.
I once again thrust through the last two hundred feet of underbrush and exited to the runway. Quitting wasn’t yet on my horizon. I chose the much easier runway to walk and look, constantly peering my flashlight into the thicket. I first walked westward a thousand feet or more, continuing as always to call my sweet and loyal friend. I returned the same route and kept going past my usual thicket entrance point all the way to the eastern end of the runway. No sound, no yelp, no bark, nothing. “Shadow, where are you?”
Reluctantly and regrettably, I retired to the house. Sad, lonely, and sick. The thought, ‘I will never see my sweet Shadow again,’ rolled across my mind as I removed my boots and my sweat-drenched clothes. After a soaking sponge bath, I walked to my room, despondent over my loss. Finally, after a long attempt at reading, I had no choice but to go to bed. But, before I did, I set my alarm to 5:00 am, determined to return at dawn, invigorated to continue my search.
My plan, if it took it, was to start at the last place I’d seen my dear companion and work outward in a semi-circular pattern. I even considered using my chainsaw to remove every bush and tree I encountered. I clung to my first theory, but with one important alteration: Shadow’s leash had become entangled, effectively trapping her forever. And now that alteration: most likely, her inability to move would have occurred within 100 feet of where she entered the wilderness. I’m unsure where the number came from. I figured it was a high side distance. I knew (barring demise by the teeth of a ferocious animal) she, or her body, wasn’t far from the last place I’d last seen her.
Before I continue, I want to share a little back story about how Shadow came into our lives. It was 2014, and we were one year into our family barbecue business adventure. Jeremy, as usual, had put in an all-nighter slow-smoking Boston Butts and St. Louis Ribs. He’d left the restaurant and driven his 1986 Nissan Z to a car wash on the west side of town. After washing the exterior, he started vacuuming the interior. He was kneeling down, focused on the driver’s side floorboard, when he noticed that a cute little black dog had asserted herself (gender not yet determined!) through the opened passenger door.
With no owner in sight, Jeremy gave the sweet pup a ride home, to Jeremy’s home that is. His intent was to carry the stray or lost dog to a shelter. And, of course, you already know how that worked out. The young, sweet, and loving Blue Healer look-alike became Shadow and a wonderful addition to our country oasis in North Etowah County.
Now, let’s get back to this week’s adventure.
It was a long night. I didn’t sleep well at all. What sleep I got was thin and devastating. From the last fit of sleep, I’d awoken at 4:30, half an hour before my alarm setting. I didn’t ponder or dawdle.
After dressing in last night’s drenched clothing (except for a dry tee-shirt), I grabbed a thermos of coffee and headed out. Hope sprung as I opened and walked through the main and storm doors. My anticipation that someway, somehow Shadow would be on the front porch. She’d either chewed herself free or pulled the collar over her head, exited the thicket, and pranced herself across the runway and front yard. I could almost hear her say, “Paw Paw, where have you been? I’m hungry for my morning Oscar Mayer.” To my growing sadness and regret, there was no eagerly awaiting Shadow. No Shadow eager or not.
It was as dark as midnight. I walked across the dewy grass and retrieved a lawn chair from the barn. Although I held Jonathan’s flashlight, I wanted daylight to guide my search. I had to wait until sunrise. Across the runway and six feet from my normal thicket entranceway, I unfolded the chair and sat. My coffee was bitter, like I’d forgotten to add my usual two packs of Sweet-n-Low. The undesired taste triggered a thought, one that had raised its head during the night every time I’d awoken.
‘What if I never see Shadow again?’ I tried to repulse the emotions. Memories flooded my mind. Last thoughts, last night, sitting in our chair. I recalled sweet Shadow lying in my arms like a baby and me telling her I loved her. Sitting beside the thicket, I imagined that would be the memory that haunted me for the rest of my life. Oh, why hadn’t I grasped more firmly? Why had I let the leash controller fly out of my hand? It was all my fault.
Daylight came. Eventually. I stood and with one hand on the handle of my coffee thermos and one clutching Jonathan’s flashlight; I stepped into the thicket. Thoughts of hope, of determination, of full commitment: ‘I would search as long as it took. I would not give up. Shadow deserved every ounce of effort I could muster.’ I wrangled my way thirty feet due north, relieved that I could see a hundred times better than last night. Better still, using my bright light. “Shadow, where are you? I’m here, I’m coming.” Perplexity returned. Why doesn’t she respond? There was no suitable answer. The worst being, ‘she can’t, because she’s dead, or so incapacitated, it is impossible.’
I trudged forward a few more feet and encountered a steep embankment. I stopped and turned eastward, reminding myself I hadn’t hiked inside the thicket on this end of the runway. Once again, like in the other direction, the undergrowth subsided. I was alone in a forest of new-growth pines, needles carpeting my path. “Shadow.”
I stopped. I’d heard something. It was a sound, but indecipherable. It was faint. “What was that?” I said aloud to no one but myself. I lowered my head to slide between the low-slung limbs of two trees and walked southeasterly a few feet. Another sound, slightly louder than the last. A few more feet, this time due east.
‘Could it be?’ It was just a thought. It first emerged in my deep subconsciousness. Six more feet forward. The third odd and indistinguishable sound was a pant. My deeper self (whatever that is) knew before my head turned northward and down a slightly carpeted decline. There she was, ten feet to my left. I’ll never forget her look and she likely will not forget mine. Shadow had reappeared. She was, in fact, less than a hundred feet from the thicket entry point. She gave me her best smile and her most vigorous tail wag. “Paw Paw, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you a long scary night. Can’t you see I’m stuck?”
In way less than two seconds I was at her side, without coffee or flashlight, hauling her into my arms, squeezing too hard but not enough to stop her licking bombardment along my face and neck. It was a beautiful moment and a perfect time to express regrets over recent events and mutual neglects.
My eyes quickly traced her leash to a small sapling fifteen feet further north. It was secure around its base, just above the needle-carpeted ground. The Blue Healer could have easily untangled herself if only she had the sense and wherewithal to revisit her last steps of freedom.
With leash in hand and collar still secured, I slide the flashlight into my front left pocket and grabbed the thermos of coffee. The two of us exited the pine forest and crossed the dew-drenched runway toward home, each fully committed to a new life filled with firmer grasps and fewer sniffs.
Let’s think about genre. How do you pronounce it much less define it?
Say it like this: “zhaan·ruh.” Say it five times.
Define it like this (from Wordnet Dictionary): “a kind of literary or artistic work; a style of expressing yourself in writing; an expressive style of music; a class of art (or artistic endeavor) having a characteristic form or technique[.]”
For now let’s look at genre simply as a specific kind of story that leaves the reader with the sought after emotional experience. Said another way, genre is a way of categorizing stories. Think again of a reader. She wants to read a mystery. Book sellers want her to locate just the right one and literally or figuratively bring it to the checkout counter. Without categorization, she would have to hunt and hunt and hunt, plowing through massive stackes of disorganized books: sci-fi, horror, thriller, romance, suspense, erotica, and on and on, before she finds her mystery (I’m ignoring the fact a lot of books are hybrids. Can you imagine a mystery-romance genre?).
Of course, there is mystery and there is mystery. Uh? Let’s look at how Amazon breaks down this category, but first let’s define mystery. I found this on Google: “[t]he mystery genre is a genre of fiction that follows a crime (like a murder or a disappearance) from the moment it is committed to the moment it is solved. Mystery novels are often called ‘whodunnits’ because they turn the reader into a detective trying to figure out the who, what, when, and how of a particular crime.” Of course, this definition isn’t always rigidly applied. For example, the murder could have taken place long before the beginning of the book.
“As far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat a good whodunnit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn’t seen it from the start.”
Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders
Now, to Amazon. It further categorizes the mystery genre as follows: Amateur Sleuth Black & African American Collections & Anthologies Cozy Hard-Boiled Historical International Mystery & Crime LGBTQ+ Police Procedurals Private Investigators Series Traditional Detectives Women Sleuths
My favorite genre is mystery (although I do love a good legal thriller; BTW, John Grisham is still king of this genre). It’s a toss-up whether I like Amateur Sleuth or Private Investigator Series the most. But, considering that the majority of my novels fit in the Amateur slot I’d say that’s indicative of my preference.
Let’s look closer. So, what is an amateur sleuth mystery? Again, Google answers our question: “An amateur sleuth mystery features a protagonist who, having no professional direct ties to the police or other investigative agency, stumbles upon and sets out to solve or help solve various crimes, most notably murder. They are often seen in the sub-genre cozy mystery.”
To the end of not leaving you hanging, let’s look at another Google search result: “Cozy mysteries involve an amateur sleuth, usually in a small town, solving a murder. Unlike grittier mystery genres, cozies don’t have swearing, violence, or sex. With the exception of the fact that somebody has been bumped off, the cozy tends to be light in tone, and sometimes even humorous.”
Here’s an example of a book in the amateur sleuth category (note, it’s not a cozy): The Mighty Johns, by David Baldacci. Read the following and decide if the Amazon abstract makes it clear a reader would discover his desired emotional experience assuming he is seeking a good amateur sleuth story.
“From a #1 New York Times bestselling author comes a gripping thriller novella about a college football player’s investigation into the unsolved disappearance of a local legend who seemingly vanished into thin air.
Forty years ago, Herschel Ruggles, the most legendary player on the Mighty Johns football team at Draven University, disappeared after scoring a record-breaking touchdown.
Instead of tossing the ball to the referee after his near-mythical athletic feat or celebrating with the nearly 25,000 spectators in the stands, Ruggles continued running, ball in hand, into a passageway that led deep underneath the field to the Mighty Johns’ locker room—and was never seen again.
His disappearance has mystified the community for decades . . . until another player—Merlin North, a brilliant physics major—helps break Ruggles’s record for kickoff returns. After that, North turns detective and becomes fixated on discovering what happened to Herschel Ruggles.
Investigating Ruggles’s mysterious disappearance, however, will prove unexpectedly dangerous for North, as evidence of murder—and ghostly visions—reveal the truth to be far more stunning than he ever could have anticipated.”
Did you notice the word ‘thriller’ in the description’s first paragraph? Think hybrid. Here, we have a mystery, an amateur sleuth mystery, that is written at a thriller pace.
Don’t worry if all of this sounds complicated. It is. Take it from me (who, over my writing years), one who has not always given genre enough thought.
Although choosing a genre is complex, it is necessary. A genre-less book is like a piece of driftwood in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—probably alone for ever.
I encourage you to think about your story. What genre is it? Take out pencil and paper and record some thoughts. You might consider your sixty-six year old protagonist’s goal. Is he trying to win the heart of Jill the newest waitress at the corner cafe? Or, is he trying to find out who killed his best friend back in high school? Or, is your story about both, romance and mystery? That’s okay, it is up to you.
Here’s another exercise I’d encourage. Spend some time on Amazon looking at various genres. Find your favorite and read the summaries for at least half-a-dozen. Find one that sounds a lot like a story you want to write. Buy this book and read it carefully, noting the conventions the author used.
I’m trying something different. This week I started drafting a new novel. Using pen and paper (reminder: buy a box of #2 pencils). This comes close to literalizing my blog title, “The Pencil Driven Life.”
As an aside, I’m really not postured to start a new novel. I’m still editing my current work in progress, The Boaz Stranger. Over time, I’ve learned it’s better to complete an active project before attacking another. This is just the way I roll. There are many great writers who work on multiple projects at a time (not literally!). Two other things that make my pen and paper adventure so radical are my months-long craft study and near-full commitment to becoming a plotter. Instead, I had a vague idea about a guy seeking revenge and started pantsing. Come to think of it, I’ve pantsed every book I’ve written so far. Oh well.
Creating your drafts with pen (or pencil) and paper is not required. Since I started writing in 2015, I’ve always used a computer and the best software I’ve found, Scrivener. Now, after four days (I missed yesterday) I’m doubtful I’ll continue my different approach. But, that doesn’t mean it was fruitless.
Here are some things I learned. To start with, obviously, you can be anywhere and naked of all electronic devices and still write. Of course you need a pen or pencil and some paper; a pocket-sized notepad will do (as will a lump of charcoal and a tree limb stripped of its bark, but I digress into speculation). Secondly, there is real freedom by disconnecting from technology. I felt a needed distance between the creative side of my brain and that old demon who’s always saying shit like, “is that the best word here?” or “that is so lame and you’ve got it out of order. Move it before ‘Jack rolled down the hill.'”
It was refreshing to strike words and phrases. It was more refreshing drawing arrows, from here to there, and jotting down ideas in the margins–all things that’s more difficult with technology. And here’s another treat, a big one: I didn’t feel the need to be grammatically correct. Incomplete sentences were good enough to capture the jist of my thoughts.
However, one thing I didn’t like about my pen and paper adventure–transcribing my scribblings to Scrivener. There are three primary reasons. The quality of my penmanship made some words unclear. It seemed like I was wasting time by plowing similar ground twice. And, when I finished the task I felt like a slob. My usual writing method is to work slow and methodical, editing as I go (which always gives me a feeling of accomplishment). This merging of both sides of my brain is both good and bad, probably mostly bad but again, it’s the way I roll. So far.
Any way you look at it, writing is a messy business. No doubt I’m a slow learner but there’s one thing I’m chewing on as I conduct this little lookback. It’s okay to start anywhere. It’s okay to create rough drafts. Those so rough they will likely take many rewrites to start making sense, even more before the words start to flow into an enjoyable and intriguing story. Someone said (sorry, I don’t want to look it up), “writing is rewriting.” I’m saying that too. But, you have to start.
Which brings me to the real point I want to make. You are kidding yourself about the wonderfulness and greatness of your life if you are not writing. And reading. I know that’s bold and maybe not fully true for you or anyone else. But, it’s true for me and I should know given the tons of things I’ve tried over my sixty-six plus years.
Proof (kinda): even though my hand-written draft doesn’t yet include this thought, it’s in my head. What is it? James Aldridge (my protagonist) is going to connect with Micaden Tanner, my protagonist in my second novel. Sorry, you’ll have to read The Boaz Scorekeeper to learn about and understand one of my favorite characters. Btw, this book is free if you subscribe to my readers group.
Sign up for my Myths, Mysteries & Murders readers’ group for news, special offers, and to receive a FREE digital copy of The Boaz Scorekeeper: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/i9qbcspivt.
Here’s some of this week’s scribbling, and transcribing:
Finally, we are at the end of our series where I’ve attempted to provide a thumbnail description of each component of the Three-Act Structure. Let’s look at the Resolution, where everything is finally resolved in one or a handful of scenes.
Technically, our story ended with the climax, where the good guy gets the bad guy (or the opposite if that’s the way your story goes). However, this isn’t satisfying to most readers.
Why? They are like you and me. After we’ve spent ten or more hours with an enjoyable character, we don’t want to walk away cold turkey. That’s too psychologically shocking. It’s akin to losing a good friend to a deadly accident. At a minimum, we want a glimpse of what the future holds for this wonderfully interesting character.
This puts him in a similar mental location as your good friend from college who returned to Italy after graduation and joined his family’s wine-making business. You know life goes on for him in a quasi-certain manner, and that you will probably never see him again. But that’s okay. You have wonderful memories of your college days together.
There’s another important aspect to the Resolution. Readers want to recognize and contemplate how the hero changed over the life of your story. Say, at the beginning, he is strikingly judgmental, even bigoted. He often made fun of people of color, gays, trans, you get it. Then, something happened (might be a series of ‘somethings’) over the story that changed his mind. He recognized why he held his former beliefs and how damaging they were, not only to those who heard his remarks, but to his own well-being. By the Resolution, the hero could be a primary leader supporting a Black Lives Matter protest. Readers register this positive change arc and believe, at least subliminally, they themselves can change for the better even if they are not judgmental or bigoted.
The scene or scenes that comprise the Resolution are usually short, but that depends on the number of loose ends that need to be tied off. Most writers say shorter is better—I obviously didn’t think so in The Boaz Seeker. Let me admit, it wound up being way too long but, to my elementary mind, needed.
Speaking of The Boaz Seeker. SPOILER ALERT. Several months transpire between the Climax and the Resolution. This timeframe correlates with the remaining months of Cullie’s pregnancy. The Resolution begins with an acknowledgment that her and Josh are married and little Katherine Aella Miller entered the world just a few weeks earlier. Everything seems great, despite an overhanging sadness left by Kate’s (Cullie’s mom) death.
Cullie and Josh are flying to St. Lucia in the Caribbean for a long-delayed honeymoon, and to celebrate their recent high school graduation. During the long flight from Birmingham, Cullie has plenty of time to think (while Josh reads Nick Saban’s book). She relays the resolution to several issues that haven’t been tied off.
Finally, the plane lands and the couple arrives at their private romantic villa on St. Lucia’s northwestern shore. Again, all bodes well for the young couple: two weeks in this gorgeous hideaway, and, at the end of summer, on to the University of Alabama where Josh plans to walk on as a prospective quarterback and Cullie puts her educational plans on hold to care for baby Katherine (nickname Kas).
After an enjoyable romp in the villa’s waterbed, the couple sets out to the beach for a long swim in the ocean. Cullie answers a phone call from sister Alysa, fearing something might be wrong with Kas.
Thankfully, Kas is healthy and happy. Unfortunately, there is some troubling news. Alysa relays a discovery that could alter Cullie and Josh’s plans. Forever. A body has been discovered that could connect to actions our couple engaged in to help Kate avoid prison.
In tragedy, it’s hard to find a good resolution; it’s not black and white: it’s a big fog of gray.
Of course, you’ll have to read The Boaz Seeker for the full picture. My point here is that not all stories end with, “and they lived happily ever after.” This isn’t the Resolution’s aim (although it can be). What’s necessary is that our readers ‘walk away’ knowing that our hero’s life goes on long after the book has ended.
This brings up the final characteristic of a good Resolution. Sorry, I’ve indirectly already said this. It’s the tone we want our readers to take away from our story. Happy? Sad? Bittersweet? We as authors decide, but it needs to fit. As you now know, The Boaz Seeker leaves readers bittersweet, but with a twist.
Cullie is bitter over what happened to her mom (again, read the book to properly grasp), but the young mother is happy to have Josh (he was the envy of every girl in high school!) as her husband, and darling Kas as her daughter. Yet Alysa’s news is foreboding.
The story ends with Cullie happy but anxious of what might lie ahead, remembering especially what happened with her mom.
In sum, we want our readers to ‘walk away’ satisfied with their investment of time and money in our story.
The protagonist of our story must be someone our readers cheer on and support. One way novel writers can accomplish this is by giving the hero a worthy goal.
Creating authentic story stakes is an additional requirement if we want to create fans. Please note that I didn’t say story stakes was an alternative way. No, the hero’s goal and the story’s stakes are two sides of the same coin.
So, what are story stakes? They are the undesirable results (bad things) that result from our hero failing to accomplish his goal. Without a doubt, to create a great novel (or even a mediocre one), the hero’s goal must be entwined with the story’s stakes.
SPOILER ALERT: In my own novel, The Boaz Seeker, eleventh-grader Cullie Sims’ goal (initially) is to help Andrea, her classmate and friend, discover who killed Skylar Simmons, a rising ninth-grader who Andrea had befriended. However, Cullie’s goal becomes personal when she learns her mother was involved in the disappearance and death of Patrick Wilkins, the local high school’s assistant principal. The reason? Katie, Cullie’s mother, did so to avenge the brutal rape of her co-teacher and best friend Cindy Barker.
In a broad sense, Cullie’s two goals seem disjointed. If Cullie (and Andrea) fail to discover who killed Skylar, then her killer will go free (note: the local criminal justice system is disinterested or is looking in the wrong place). As to Cullie’s more personal goal, if she doesn’t protect her mother, she likely will spend the rest of her life in prison. In fact, the two goals are intertwined. I’ll leave it at that and let you read my novel to discover what’s at stake (regarding both Skylar and Katie) if Cullie fails.
Exercise: think about your story, your protagonist, and his external goal. What’s at stakes if he fails? Pencil a few snippets or a page or two.
Today, I’ll continue outlining and describing the three act story structure. Next up is the climax.
Naturally, this takes place in Act III, towards the very end. It’s what our entire story has been leading to. This culmination should be both predictable and surprising. That’s a mouthful.
All good stories use foreshadowing: dropping morsels along the way that provide clues of what could be coming. But, the great novels throw in a twist at the end.
Although it’s surprising, it’s anything but impossible. In fact, it fits hand in glove. The stories that stay with us the longest are those that make us think about the ending. We prompt ourselves to mentally review the entire novel, searching for those telltale signs that we recall now but thought fairly innocuous earlier as we were reading. The climax with a twist leaves readers asking, “why didn’t I see that coming?”
The climax is where the story’s tension reaches its peak, the main conflict is resolved, and the protagonist finally accomplishes his goal. Or, doesn’t. It’s the final battle between our hero and his chief antagonist. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a fistfight or a shootout. It could be a contest, whether a chess match, a football game, or a race to become the first private citizen in space. It could be the inmate escaping prison. Recall, not all antagonists are human. The criminal justice system could be one man’s antagonist, although it seems even here, there are one or more people who personify the system.
It’s not error to consider the entire third act as the climax. Throughout, the action is rising, our protagonist is battling the forces against him reaching his goal, some are mere skirmishes. But, eventually, there must be that final red-hot scene were the war is either won or lost.
One thing we need to cover before ending. Many literary professionals believe the best novels have a protagonist who has both an external and an internal goal. Externally, he may be toiling to win a NASCAR championship or become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Internally, his goal could be to win the heart of Maggie May, or learn to forgive himself for not doing more to save the life of his childhood friend fifty years ago.
In these two-goal stories, it’s standard that the protagonist experiences some type of revelation either before, during, or after the climax. This triggers something in our hero that causes him to take some other action which might be a quiet (or loud) declaration that he forgives himself. It could be a walk across the street for our hero to ask Maggie May if she likes horses or would like to go for coffee.
The climax is the place where the opposing forces in your story finally clash. This is true whether those opposing forces are two armies or two values inside a character’s soul.
Novels are wonderful things. They don’t have to be complicated but they do need to stir our emotions.
Hopefully, next week we’ll look at the resolution, the final component of the three act story structure.