Monday, April 24, 2017

The critical fictional element

Whenever I talk to a writers’ group I always ask, “What one element MUST all good fiction, and even most nonfiction, possess?”

Usually I have to give a series of hints before getting the right answer from somebody.

The correct answer is CONFLICT.  And it follows that the more intense the conflict—the more that’s at stake for the protagonist—the more interesting the fiction (or nonfiction) will be.

Why is this true?  It’s because each of our lives is a series of conflicts.  We want to attend two conflicting events on the same evening but we must choose only one.  Or we have the choice of two job offers, or two or more potential homes or vehicles to buy.  We need to get to a distant city fast, but we fear flying, posing a possibly intense conflict.  We have a hard time getting along with a person at work, a common stressful conflict.  We want to live as long as possible, but we know we must die one daythe ultimate conflict we all face.  Each of us is constantly confronted with conflicts ranging from minor to major, and how we resolve those conflicts is largely the measure of us.

Thus it’s understandable why we’re endlessly fascinated by conflicts others must face and resolve.  It’s why we follow the news each day, why we root for sports teams, and why we can’t ever get enough of good conflict-based fiction in books, movies, and TV shows.  It’s why we love to see our heroes and heroines overcome long odds to prevail.

There are only three broad categories of conflict.  1.  Person against person.  (A sporting match, a political contest, a love triangle, a protagonist against a villain, an activist against The System, any war ever fought.)  2.  Person against nature.  (An attempt to scale Everest, an epidemic, a farm family contending with drought, a trek through a desert or jungle, a dangerous voyage.)  3.  Person against self.  (Someone fighting addiction or mental illness or doubt or fear or despair.)

If you want to write a riveting short story or a novel, choose one of these categories and pack it with as much conflict as you can conjure up.  It’s the surest way to build wide readership.  The only constraint is believability.  The conflict must always be plausible within the story context. And of course the conflict must, in the end, be resolved.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Three tips for writing well

1.  Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  Though slender, it’s the finest book I’ve ever seen on using the language accurately and effectively.  The book will give you most of the basic mechanics you’ll need as a solid foundation to succeed.  If you’re already producing publishable work, go back and re-read this book anyway.

2.  Read 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias.  It’s one of the better books I’ve come across about structuring fiction (and even good non-fiction).  On Writing by Stephen King is another worthwhile book.

3.  Shun adverbs (those words ending in ly) and don’t use too many adjectives.  An adverb is a lazy “tell” word, and you should always be showing the story to the reader.  Show a character to be excited, for example (instead of saying “she exclaimed excitedly”), maybe by her nervous mannerisms or by her flushed complexion.  On a related note I never use the lazy exclamation point, and many top writers don’t, either.  It’s nothing more than a punctuational adverb.  If your words are not powerful enough in themselves to convey your meaning, an exclamation point isn’t going to save the situation.



Monday, April 10, 2017

A dozen things you probably never knew

1.  The Eisenhower Interstate system required that a mile in every five be straight for emergency runway use.  (When flying a light plane I always liked to have an Interstate nearby.)

2.  All but one percent of the public roads in the USA are paved, while in Canada only 25% are paved.

3.  Nobody owns Antarctica, and although it’s covered in ancient ice up to three miles thick, locking up 90 percent of the world’s fresh water supply, it’s the driest continent on the planet.  It’s also the coldest, windiest, and highest.

4.  The flow of the Amazon is greater than the next eight largest rivers on our planet combined, and is three times the total flow of all United States rivers.

5.  Canada has more lakes than all the rest of the world combined.

6.  Ohio has NO natural lakes.  Those they do have are man-made.

7.  Damascus, Syria, is the oldest existing continuously inhabited city on Earth.

8.  Istanbul, Turkey, is located on two continents, Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosporus Straits.

9.  Pitcairn is the smallest island country at just 1.75 square miles.  (Not a lot to do there.)

10.  Siberia has more than a quarter of the world’s forests.

11.  In New York City there are more Irish than in Dublin, more Jews than in Tel Aviv, and more Italians than in Rome.

12.  No matter where you are on our planet, no matter how clear and dark the night sky, every star you see with the naked eye lies only within our own Milky Way Galaxy.  The nearest of those, Alpha Centauri (actually a triple star), is some 24 trillion miles away.  And there are billions of other galaxies--other swirling star cities--out there flung across the universe.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Bookstore names

We writers have lamented the demise of several top bookstore chains across the country, but thank goodness independent bookstores are still alive and thriving everywhere.  I was scanning a list of those in the southeast and was struck by their many creative names.  A few:

Hooked on Books (FL)  Tomes for anglers?
Over the Moon Bookstore (VA)  They must sell only those high-dollar hardbacks.
Square Books (MS)  No rectangular volumes allowed.
Between the Lines (LA)  For those who like to figure it out for themselves.
My Sister’s Books (SC)  Apparently she sold off her parents’ library and now she’s working on
   her siblings’ collections.
Writer’s Block Bookstore (FL)  Not a lot of content here.
Fiction Addiction (SC)  That’s pretty much me.  Maybe they offer a twelve-step program?

I found several candidates for just plain cool names, like A Novel Experience (GA), Little Shop of Stories (GA), and Tall Tales (GA again).

But one of my favorites is simply Joe’s Place (SC)

I wish I could visit them all.