How To Use Thanksgiving Dinner To Improve Your Novel

Many of you are not going to be working on your writing today, either because relatives have descended on your house, or because you are in the process of visiting someone else.

But, if you are on a mobile device, and browsing WordPress, I shall now give you a tidbit of writing advice that will make your upcoming feast a potential goldmine of character studies.

People want things from each other on holidays; Thanksgiving in particular is a field day for abusers, who are either holding their relatives hostage at the table in the name of “family” and “tradition,” or are torturing their hosting relatives by being aggravating and dissatisfied houseguests.

Here is how you will improve your novel today:

Every time tensions rise between people in the gathering you are present at, study the players. Identify the aggressor, and the victim; abusers always choose the most vulnerable person to start their drama. Find the aggressor, and then study the people closest to that aggressor. Somewhere near the aggressor, you will find another person who is being very quiet, and/or attempting, ineffectually, to keep the peace.

This quiet person is the enabler.

I want you to watch the enabler very closely all day, and identify the almost-untraceable ways in which he/she is managing and directing the anger and disruption of the abuser.

At the end of today, you will have a deeper understand of human nature, of corruption in relationships, and of power.

When you go back to your novel, study your characters. Find your aggressive character; this can be the antagonist, or a minor character who continually makes problems.

Now look around that aggressor, until you have located a very quiet person, and write down that aggressor’s enabler.

If you do this, your fiction will be head and shoulders above every single thing in the market today.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Two Gendered Character Types That Run Satisfyingly Deep

Every human character you write in your novel will fulfill some manner of gender stereotype. Some gender types pay off in the long run, while others do not. Here are two character gender types that are guaranteed to bring a satisfying arc to your characters, and an enjoyable reading experience to your readers.

The emotionally damaged but physically healthy animal. The male type tends to be rough on the surface, but tender and steady once his trust is gained. The female type is generally angry and obtuse, until she is shamed into showing her true and sensitive nature. Both of these types seem to care little about love, until they create an authentic bond with an emotionally healthy human. Both the male and female type in this category blossom into adorable lovers, and satisfactory parents. The end trajectory of this type is marriage, in an affordable house, with children and steady employment. Neither the male or female of this type is prone to cheating or lying. You have to have circumstances bring stress upon this gender type, because the character will not go looking for trouble by themselves. (Princess Leia from Star Wars is this type, as is Harry from the Harry Potter books.)

The destructive but fascinating charmer. The male type in this category is restless, and struggles to put down roots anywhere. You don’t need to compel this character into chaos; they will go looking for a hot mess on their own, and insert themselves into the center of it. The character’s internal world is in such disarray that they seek out maximum outer chaos to match their inner lack of control. Most male action heroes fit this gender type. (James Bond is this type, as is Han Solo of Star Wars) The female type thrives on gossip, and interrelational drama, rather than in physical conflict, and will surround herself with high-conflict family members. (Matriarchs from any kind of court drama are this type; think of the epicenter of conflict in Mean Girls.)

You can use these two broad gender types to create endless conflict and plot tension in your novel. A destructive and charming female type will often gain temporary control over an emotionally damaged but otherwise healthy male or female type; as each type draws nearer to the full manifestation of their nature, the conflict rises exponentially, and inevitably ends in permanent separation. Emotionally damaged but healthy men and women eventually separate themselves from destructive and charming types, and destructive and charming types nearly always create an eventual symbiotic relationship to another destructive type, almost always of the opposite gender.

Explore the natural consequences of these true-to-life types, and your readers will find your characters satisfying, relatable, and dynamic.

A Writing Shtick That Will Rain Golden Prose Upon Your Novel And Cause Your Readers To Weep With Tremulous Joy

When you are writing, it is wise to employ a meta-relationship to your readers; if something absurd or magnificent happens in the scene, and if your characters do not respond to the ridiculousness, or to the awe-inspiring elements of your writing, they (the characters) will begin to feel just a little bit wooden to the reader.

Example: I was doing a play outdoors once, and a very low and loud airplane went over our heads. The sound of the airplane was so loud that everyone in the audience turned and looked up. The actors could not be heard over the roar of the engines.

Now, the actor who was speaking could have “stayed in the scene,” and pressed on with her dialogue. If she had done this, the audience would have lost several lines of dialogue.

The actor could have paused, and then pressed on dutifully with the scene as soon as the sound had faded. The audience would have felt jolted out of the scene, but all would have been reasonably well after the interruption.

Instead, the actor employed a bit of meta-story; as soon as the plane’s roar had faded, she turned to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and informed them that she (as her character) had returned from her long travels (the character was in the midst of a homecoming) on just such a plane as that.

The audience laughed; they were delighted. The actor was flush with victory; the scene proceeded smoothly. Magic had just occurred.

The audience had, in real time, experienced a disturbing interruption. The actor, seizing on the moment, had enhanced the play, and grounded the scene in the interruption that had occurred.

The audience was left with the sense that the actors (storytellers) were reliable, because they could and would respond to the reality that the audience was experiencing.

When your reader is reading your book, they are experiencing, on a semi-visceral level, the reality within the scene. If, for example, a key character begins to act out of sorts, because you know he’s going to reveal an important secret soon, at least one, and preferably several of the other characters need to notice and acknowledge the same reality that the reader is experiencing. If a well-established character starts to sulk in corners, and make dark and meaningful glances at the heroine, the heroine, the chambermaid, and the court jester had all better notice this behavior just as much as the reader is meant to.

Acknowledging,and participating in the reality that you are constructing for the reader, and allowing your characters to participate in “the real story,” or “what is REALLY going on,” lends authenticity and emotional vibrancy to your book.

Embrace meta-story. Your readers will think your writing is realistic and eerily deep.

A Few Things Great Authors Never Do

So I went to the movies last week. And I like both Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams, so hooray, alien movie, right?

Yeah, no.

First of all, if you want to drive away a substantial amount of your audience, lying to the audience through the entire story is a great idea. Wait, actually no, that’s a terrible idea. Don’t lie to your audience. Don’t lie to the reader. My God, people, why is this so hard? Don’t lie to the reader!

I was watching the story unfold, and it was pretty all right until we hit Problem #1: The Great Info Dump.

The aliens arrive. The government is flustered. We MEET THE ALIENS! OH BOY!

All is great, good music, tension is great. yadda yadda.

But then.

IF YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO CARRY A STORY THROUGH THE INTERESTING PARTS, DON’T WRITE THE STORY!

*

The entire crux of the film is “How can we communicate with these aliens?”

That is the whole point of the film. Right when we get to the cusp of HOW WILL THEY DO IT? They gave us . . . an info dump. They slipped right over the conundrum into a magical future land, where by the miracle of ENDLESS, AROUND THE CLOCK WORK that lasted maybe what? two weeks? three weeks? the humans have assembled a working vocabulary for apparently hundreds of alien words. Now communication is possible, and even easy! Ha ha! Because MATH, and COMPUTERS.

Yes, I’m annoyed.

This brings us to Problem #2: Modern Humans Can’t Sex.

(Insert cry of inarticulate rage.)

Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams start to bond over Hard Work, and Symbolic Nakedness (sorry people, but that’s what it was when they both stripped their hazmat suits off). They go sit on a truck in front of the big alien ship, and Jeremy Renner (who, I’m sure, is not actually this awkward in real life) AWKWARDLY FLIRTS. And Amy Adams, in the manner of an old and world-weary sage, gently smiles at his clumsy boy-flirts.

= TRU LUV 4EVER

I’m sorry, but this is just . . . I just . . .

*

BIGGEST PROBLEM OF ALL, #3: The Big Fat Lie, also known as the Shady Plot Device.

So we’ve been rooting all through the film for Amy Adams to find happiness with Jeremy Renner, right? Because she’s all broken in pieces by the asshole who abandoned her and the cute baby who grew up and then died.

We all hate the asshole, right?

The bond that the story has built with the audience is predicated on our mutual ire against The Abandoning Dude.

Fully one third of the script is given over to building up and reinforcing our dislike of this extremely absent dud of a man, who has apparently left Amy Adams for shallow and immature reasons. We all hate the dude.

Cue the last five minutes of the film.

Oh, wait!

The dude wasn’t absent! He was . . . only partially absent! (Because the filmmakers lied to us, by eliding the apparently very involved and present father figure.) And actually, the filmmakers would now like us to please like the abandoning asshole, because SURPRISE! That asshole is Jeremy Renner!

But life is hard! And people get divorced! And we made you feel sorry for the kid with cancer! And anyway, now that Amy Adams knows how upset Jeremy Renner is about their baby dying, she will tell him anyway, because— *crickets*

*

When the last few minutes of the film rolled out, and the screen went dark, a person in the theatre audibly said, “That’s stupid.”

*

Your readers are people. If you lie to people, they will avoid you.

Some Effortless Cheats That Offer Amazing Payoff In Your Novel

Every idea can be expressed through an image, and every image has a natural and organic connection to several other images.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. As a seed image, you think of that neighbor kid who lived around the block when you were nine years old; you take the kid, and you turn him into an alien ranger who rides solo through the galaxy in his tired blue space jalopy.

Let’s say, for the sake of experiment, that you’ve made an outline that shows the alien ranger discovering a hidden moon full of treasure, and then using it to buy a brand new model ZZ spaceship and a pair of venomous tiger beasts.

Now, you sit down and try to decide how you will describe the old blue jalopy. You may stare at the screen, and feel overwhelmed.

But here is what you will do:

Start with that neighbor kid that you’re basing your alien ranger on. Picture to yourself his messy hair, and the stinky way that he had of wrinkling up his nose when he talked to you.

Imagining the picture of this kid will bring one or two additional images into your mind, by the power of association. Let us say that you think of old pieces of orange peel, and the smell of fertilizer. It does not matter if these associations make sense to you; what matters is that they are a prime connection to the first image.

Now you have the image of the neighbor kid, the hardened wrinkle of shrunken orange peels, and the nagging odor of earthy fertilizer.

You start with the first image:

Argon was sitting in the deep bucket seat of his rusted-out blue spaceship; (so far we have used the image of the neighbor kid) the interior of Argon’s ship was dusty, and had that particular flavor of age and neglect that comes to a vehicle when it is no longer worth the trouble of repairing. (Now we have drawn on the image of the dried orange peel.) Argon had thought, occasionally, of stripping the blue ship down, and of repairing it, and polishing it into respectability, but the metal panels on the outside were so eaten away with rust, and fitted so poorly against the body of the ship, that he told himself it was not worth the trouble. He had thought, also, of taking the ship to one of the sleazy dealers that dotted the outer rims of the known galaxy, and of trading in his jalopy and a few years of his life to put a down payment on a better ship, but, Argon had reminded himself, he only had one life, and the blue jalopy still ran, kind of. Argon had remembered then what that man in the Waroo quadrant had said to him, about the life-draining machines in these dealerships being fixed against the customer.

“You think you’ll be trading a few years of your life for a square deal,” the man, Ixxus, had said to Argon over a pat of steaming worm gatz. “But you don’t know what is really going on in those life-sucking pods. I heard they’re set up to put tracers in your blood, and when you leave the dealer’s lot, the dealer sells the code for the trace to the marauders from the Blood Spiral. Those marauders will hunt you down, and sell you piecemeal, to the cannibal systems. It happened to my brother-in-law. He went to one of those lots, and put down five years for a new Y Chantz cruiser, and do you know where my brother-in-law is now?”

Argon had stared with expressionless eyes at Ixxus, who dipped his fingers into the worm gatz, and paused with the steaming mash held up in the air.

“He’s vanished,” Ixxus had said wisely, and then sucked the earthy, fermented gatz of worms from his fingers.

There; we have now used the neighbor child, an old orange peel, and the smell of fertilizer to build a coherent chain of events and images. Following the links from the boy to the peel, and from the peel to the fertilizer, has given us a secondary character, a set of dangerous marauding villains, a system of cannibal species, and a technology that apparently allows people to make large purchases by giving up years of time in exchange for material goods.

The story feels authentic, and unstudied. The reader is drawn into the organic sensations caused by the linked images. I, as the writer, did very little work, and you, as the reader, now have firmly planted in your heads a set of concrete and memorable images.

Start with one image. Plant that image in your novel, and follow the natural links from that first image towards the next image, and the next. Doing this will make your writing taste good and feel real to the reader.

Some Tricks For A Pantser With A Plot Roadblock

Sometimes we build up novels into these frightening bastions of culture and intellectual rigor.

It is better, I think, to remember that novels are, at bottom, fireside stories that we tell to pass the time.

It is just a story.

You can enjoy telling your story. The more fun you have telling a fireside yarn, the more fun your audience generally has hearing it.

Here is an example of the pantser’s typical roadblock, and what to do about it.

The Roadblock. Your characters refuse to do as they’re told. Sometimes, as you write, the words that present themselves to the tips of your fingers are NOT THE WORDS YOU PLANNED TO WRITE! This is genuinely alarming, but take comfort, storytellers. When your characters fight your intended words, it shows that you have got a live fish at the end of your storytelling hook, and live fish are what you are looking for.

What to do about it: If you have a character fighting for control of the story, you are coming up against a Real Topic.

Real Topics are submerged beliefs that you hold about the world around you; they are conclusions you have drawn about Reality, based on your automatic absorption of life.

When you have a character who is pushing you towards the exploration of a Real Topic, kneel down and offer up your first-born manuscript to the Gods of Writing.

But seriously, Real Topics are what writing stories is all about. Real Topics are how you write novels that connect deeply to the human heart.

When you are writing about a Real Topic, you are taking your lived experience, and putting it into concrete language.

This creates a potent cocktail of emotional storytelling that hooks your reader.

You really, really want to be writing about Real Topics.

Unfortunately, when you set out on purpose to write about a Real Topic, you often end up moralizing or making StorySermons, which are not fun to read.

Let your headstrong character reveal your Real Topics to your readers. Go along for the ride. Let your fingers tap out the words, one by one, that your character presents to you.

When you have a live fish on your hook, believe me, the words will present themselves to you. You just have to choose whether or not to write down the words that are presented to your fingers.

Be a smart yarn-spinner. Take the proffered gift. Write down the words that are given to you, and enjoy the ride that your subconscious has formulated for your readers.

It is possible, and even relatively common, to have an entire set of books lying, undisturbed and undiscovered, in the back corner of your brain. When you find a character who fights your control, such a completed story will bleed, word by word, out of your fingertips, if you embrace the process.

Let it happen. Your readers will thank you for it. Also, money, etc.

A Couple Of Techniques For Writers That Are So Easy, It Feels Like Cheating

Pretend that your emotions and energy are money.

Now pretend that you have “bills” that you have to pay, such as going to work, spending the time to buy groceries, cleaning your house, and sleeping.

Make a budget for your emotion/energy matrix.

Like, for example, I clean my bathroom every week. So cleaning the bathroom is something that is on my radar near the end of the week, and I save enough energy/life to get that done.

Now, a lot of us go through life spraying out energy and emotion willy nilly, like one of those strange money-blowing boxes that banks put outside to get new customers to sign up. Anyone and anything that passes you by can snatch up all of your money (in this case, your time and energy).

If you make a budget of your emotions and energy, and set aside of piece of yourself to work on your writing, you will not feel so spent and angry.

So here you are:

1.How much time do you already spend thinking about your novel? Write down a number. Now take half of that number, and spend that many minutes typing your novel every day. Note: do not spend this time staring at the screen; spend this time with your fingers tapping usefully on the keyboard.

2. Imagine yourself making a wonderful red box of glowing hot metal. The box is made of metal, and the metal is so hot that anything touching against the metal burns up in acrid smoke almost instantly. Now, every time through the day that you hear yourself thinking to yourself, “Gee, if I was not such a wastrel, I would have finished my novel by now,” put that thought, like a twist of old newspaper, into your hot box, and watch it burst into satisfying flame. See how many negative thoughts you can burn by the end of the day.

There you go. Two pro-tips. Bonus points if you save enough energy for a five minute nap after your typing time.