Thinking Theme, The Final Chapter

After a few diversions, I’m back to the topic of theme. This is the subject of my next Red Sneaker book, so if there are any aspects I haven’t covered, or anything you’d like me to address, please let me know. And I’m still interesting in hearing title possibilities…

Here’s what I’ve covered so far, in brief. Theme isn’t about thumping people over the head with your political, religious, or spiritual beliefs. At best, it’s putting a topic up for discussion–basically saying, here’s something important we ought to think about.

Some writers handle theme more subtly than others. People like Brad Thor and the late Vince Flynn have found success in thrillers with a hardline conservative bent, typically portraying the Middle East as a dire threat to truth, justice, and the American Way. There’s no doubt but that much of John Grisham’s early success was due to his anti-lawyer, anti-lawyering stance. Most of his early characters become disillusioned with the law and quit, in some cases before they’ve actually begun. This clearly captured the zeitgeist of lawyer-bashing popular at the time. (To be fair, Grisham, a fine writer, has since moved on to more profound themes.)

Many contemporary novels have found great success by encapsulating, or perhaps galvanizing, the sentiment of their times. Catch-22 rode to success with an antiwar theme that held great appeal during the Vietnam era (even though the story concerned a different war). The same could be said of M*A*S*H. The Bonfire of the Vanities was perceived as a summation of the “Me Generation” of the 80s. The film Tootsie addressed gender roles and stereotypes long before that became commonplace.

Some themes recur frequently because they are universal, or close to it. Prejudice. The dehumanization of industrial society. Revenge. Corruption. Obsession. Relationships. And then there are all those dichotomies your English teacher used to talk about. Man vs. nature. Hope vs. despair. Good vs. evil. These will always be of interest and import to readers. The only question is whether you can bring anything fresh to the table.

I mean no disrespect to any of the previously mentioned authors when I suggest that the books that continue to be read through successive generations, that stand the test of time, usually speak on a quieter but more profound level. I always advise writers to ask themselves: What matters most to you? Get past the obvious answers. I know you love your spouse, kids, family, pets. Beyond that. What matters most? What has made the biggest difference in your life? If you could cause your readers to see one thing, what would it be?

Theme should add depth to your story, should transform it from an amusing way to pass time into a meaningful reading experience. The repetition of thematic elements will lend the tale resonance. The story will still be strong, and that’s good, because it you practice any degree of subtlety, some readers will miss it. But the others will appreciate you much more because you lent an added dimension to your tale. And it should be useful to you during the writing process, too, because knowing your theme will help you make decisions about what to write, what characters to use, and what should happen to them. In the editing stage, it guides what to keep and what to cut. It sharpens the entire story.

In the Red Sneaker book, I’ll talk more about how to integrate that theme into your work. In the meantime, my Kindle Scout campaign has two more weeks to go, so please tell your friends to meander over and “nominate” my book. Costs nothing and might get you a free book. And please also spread the word about the Patreon campaign I’m hoping will keep the Red Sneaker Center, all the blogs and newsletters and publishing and seminars, running for the foreseeable future.

Kindle Scout: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/KY5IRZ0DD3YU

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

 

 

Theme, Part 2

Thanks to everyone who suggested a title for my forthcoming Red Sneaker book. “Thinking Theme” is my current favorite (possibly “Thinking About Theme?”) but I’m still open to any suggestions you might have.

Last time I talked about what theme isn’t–basically, it isn’t clubbing people over the head with a moral or a political viewpoint (though Aesop and Ayn Rand might feel differently). Let’s get more positive this time. Let’s talk about what theme is.

I will admit that I am still influenced by a seminal book I read early in my writing career, John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. Here, the brilliant critic, theoretician, and author of novels like Grendel talked about theme, and more specifically, how to make fiction moral. His idea was that all stories convey society’s underlying values (some better than others). This is represented in authors’ choices, how they lay out the plot, what creates a story that seems to “make sense.” If you accept that notion, then one reason to read old books is to gain insight into the values of the people of the time when it was written. I have often said that one of the great pleasures of reading classic literature is that you realize that people may have believed different stuff back then–but people themselves haven’t changed at all.

Stories are the glue that hold together our fragile experience. They validate our values. This is revealed not only when you choose what to read, but when you choose what to write. That’s just common sense. Techno-thrillers appeal to those who favor strong shows of military force, not pacifists. SF appeals to people who, at the very least, believe in science. Romances appeal to those who believe in love. Religious fiction…well, this is getting obvious, isn’t it? You get the point.

To be fair, some people read to have their values challenged…but not many. We tend to be a closed-minded bunch, even those of us who read voraciously. But if you can produce a book that seriously challenges the way people think, you may be headed to greatness. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be a good example. On Civil Disobedience is another. Many spiritual or inspirational books have traded on vagueness, that is, they aren’t really saying anything new, but give readers the feeling that they’ve read something terribly profound–when in reality they’re just reinforcing what the reader already believes. In the opinion of some, this might include Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or The Celestine Prophecy, or even Tuesdays with Morrie–all of them huge bestsellers.

Gardner said, “By theme here we mean not a message—a word no good writer likes applied to his work—but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be Worldwide Inflation.”  So it’s presenting a subject worthy of contemplation, rather than telling people what to think. Posing a question, but not forcing an answer. Similarly, Chekov said a writer does not solve a problem so much as state the problem correctly.

One of the most challenging examples of this for me was my novel Capitol Conspiracy, which tackled the then-new Patriot Act. The fundamental question was, Should we uphold the civil rights upon which this nation was founded, or relinquish them in favor of enhanced security? I tried not to take sides. I knew everyone would expect bleeding-heart Ben Kincaid to take the liberal viewpoint, so I created a dramatic event that turned the poor boy in just the opposite direction. If Ben could rethink his predispositions, should we? Ultimately I wasn’t trying to tell people what to think. I was saying, This is an important topic we should all think about, and give reasoned, not panicked or reactionary, consideration.

More next week. Btw, registrations for my California and Massachusetts retreats will close at the end of the month. Don’t miss this opportunity to workshop your words and ideas. Click here: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

 

Thinking About Theme, Part 1

Let me lead with a secret: The next book in the Red Sneaker book series will be on Theme (then Description and Setting, Conflict, and unless you think of something else, I’m done). Perhaps you’re questioning whether this sounds like the most exciting writing topic. I think it is–in fact, sometimes I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process. Or perhaps you’re imagining you already know everything there is to know about Theme. Maybe you do–but I can tell you that I didn’t, which became abundantly clear as I started gathering my thoughts for this book, and I’ve written over thirty novels now.

Depending upon who your English teacher was, you may have the idea that theme is some deep, profound, secret meaning cryptically buried somewhere in a fictional or poetic text. I don’t think so, and I think Theme is rarely as simple or as didactic as what we are sometimes taught. I mean, maybe in Aesop’s fables, or in a parable (Pilgrim’s Progress, Animal Farm), but most novelists want to be somewhat subtler. Rightly so. Morals hammering readers over the head rarely have much impact. To me the best themes do not pound. Theme is best when it’s more like the brush of a feather, something that tickles readers’ brains just enough to get them thinking–but not enough to take them out of the story.

One of the best analogies I’ve read is this: theme is the container for your story.  Sort of like a cup, or a goblet.  It’s what holds all the other elements together and makes them even better than they might otherwise be.  And here’s the truth: the goblet may be completely unnoticed by some readers, but the drink is still better because the goblet is there.

Don’t think of Theme as some ponderous shroud only decoded by academics and critics, diehard dissertation writers who strap the story to a chair and beat the theme out, leaving it lifeless afterward. It’s not a game of Hide and Seek. It’s more like Sardines (if you don’t know the diff, Google it). You have the joy of discovery without the pain struggling for it. Because reading is not supposed to be a hair-shirt experience. The story itself should be a delight, and the theme is the lagniappe, the added bonus that gives it additional pleasure and makes the book linger in the reader’s memory long after the last page is turned. Like Harry Chapin said, “It’s got to be the going not the getting there that’s good.”

 

Have you ever finished a book and thought, That was nice, but so what? And a week later, you can’t even recall what it was about? That’s not the ticket to the bestseller list, much less the classics list. The best way to give your book added resonance is to underlie the conflict with a well-conceived theme. This is why War and Peace is more than just another war story, why A Tale of Two Cities is more than just another thriller.

Okay, so now that I’ve explained what Theme isn’t, you may be wondering what it is. Next week.

By the way, if I’m going to write a book on theme, I need a snazzy alliterative two-word title. And frankly, I got nothing. Can you suggest a title? I’ll give you credit and everything. Everything except royalties. Email your ideas to me: willbern@gmail.com. Any other suggestions for the book will be equally welcome.

The summer is fact approaching and I’ll be closing registrations for at least two of my writing retreats at the end of the month. Register before it’s too late: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Viewpoint–The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I’ve been editing quite a few manuscripts lately (see below for info on editing and critique services) and I’ve found that I’m commenting on viewpoint problems more frequently than anything else. I discussed viewpoint in a chapter in Creating Character, but I nonetheless continue to receive requests that I devote an entire book to the subject. This reinforces my feeling that this is something that’s causing headaches for some aspiring writers.

It’s really not that complicated. Look, you just need to pick a viewpoint and stick with it throughout a scene. If you change viewpoint characters, don’t do it in the middle of the scene. No “head-hopping,” that is, drifting from one character to another’s thoughts and observations. That leaves the reader feeling dislocated. They don’t want to hear from an omniscient narrator who knows everything about everyone (meaning you, the author). They want to forget about the author and be immersed in the story. Readers will care more about your characters and what happens to them if you can get them inside the characters’ heads.

This does restrict what you can write about, or at least how you go about it. You cannot reveal information your viewpoint character does not or could not know. You may say something like, “She thought his smirk suggested he didn’t believe her,” but you cannot say, “He didn’t believe her” when you’re in her viewpoint, because she doesn’t know. Internal monologue is a good tool for keeping your reader inside a character’s viewpoint. When characters are thinking to themselves, the reader feels securely within that viewpoint. That doesn’t mean you should do it to excess, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should use internal monologue to tell rather than show (see the discussion below). And fyi, you don’t have to use italics every time your characters think to themselves.

Ideally, each new scene should identify the viewpoint character in the first sentence. “Mary walked into the room” or something like that. Then unless there is a scene break, you cannot portray any other viewpoint. You can’t take us inside another character’s head, or tell us what he or she thinks or experiences, unless and until you break the scene. Ideally, after identifying the viewpoint character by name in the first sentence, you refer to them by “he” or “she” for the rest of the scene. This tight psychic distance keeps the reader firmly inside that viewpoint. Using their name again tends to take readers outside their head, to distance them. Of course, this also means none of the other characters in the scene can be “he” or “she.” Refer to them by name or a nickname.

Head-hopping, or stream-of-consciousness writing, is not as immersive, and omniscient narration has fallen out of common use–for a good reason. Readers don’t like it as much. What they like is to experience a story through the eyes and ears of one of the characters involved. Even when there are multiple viewpoints, readers should have a sense of who the main character is and should spend most of the time inside that head, experiencing the story as the protagonist does.

The usual reason for introducing additional viewpoints is to increase suspense. The narrative flips to an antagonist’s viewpoint and the reader learns something the protagonist doesn’t know yet. This creates suspense, because the reader knows something bad is in the works but the lead character doesn’t.

One last thought: many beginning readers try to avoid these viewpoint problems by writing in first-person narration. I do not receommend this. If you think first person is easier than third person–you’re wrong. It is far more challenging to do well, because it means staying in the voice of a character–who should not be a sassier, braver verison of the author–for an entire book. While it can be done, I think it’s best reserved for writers with experience and a clear view of their character’s unique identity.

Click here to learn more about the Red Sneaker Editing & Critique Service (I do the editing myself).

Show, Don’t Tell–What Does That Mean, Anyway?

I was sitting onstage taking questions one year at our annual fall writing conference, and a woman I knew asked me to explain the opt-quoted concept of Show, Don’t Tell. “That sounds great,” she said, “but this is a novel and sometimes you just have to tell people what’s going on. Don’t you?” I didn’t have a ready answer, but that’s always good, because when I actually have to think about something hard enough to explain it, I usually end up understanding it much better than I did before.

I eventually suggested that my questioner distinguish character from plot. Yes, to move the story forward, you will eventually have to tell the reader what’s going on, perhaps fill in a little background, and not all of it can always be shown. When writers talk about Show, Don’t Tell, though, they are usually referring to revealing what’s going on inside the viewpoint character’s head, what they’re thinking, or even more importantly, what they’re feeling. The idea is that, instead of saying, “Sally was mad,” you say, “Sally raced up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, flung herself down on the bed, and pounded the pillow.”

Not a subtle example, but you get the idea, right? There are legitimate reasons for writing this way. For one thing, words expressing emotional states tend to be flat and to have little impact on the reader. If you portray the emotion, however, it will come to life and have far more impact on the reader. This is closely related to the all-important concept of viewpoint. You want to keep the reader inside your characters’ heads, experiencing the story through their eyes and ears. Few readers get wrapped up in a story that is narrated to them, but if they feel as if they’re inside the story, as if it’s happening right before their (inner) eyes, they are much more likely to be engaged. When you just tell the reader about a character’s emotional state, it feels as if the story is being narrated. After all, no one really stands around thinking, “Grr. I’m mad.” On the other hand, if you show their emotional state by describing their actions, you’ve kept the reader inside the character’s head.

This so-called rule is usually attributed to the playwright Anton Chekhov, who wrote in a letter to his brother, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” He was writing about description rather than emotional states, but the core idea is just the same.

Hemingway is renowned for what he left out, not just adverbs and adjectives but anything he thought the reader could figure out for themselves (the theory of omission). One of his most famous stories is “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is simply a few pages of two characters not talking about what is uppermost in their minds. The clues are sufficient to allow an attentive reader to figure out what it is, though, and it strikes with much more impact because the reader is led there rather then being hit over the head with it. For the same reason, Chuck Palahniuk has recommended a ban on what he calls “thought verbs,” such as “thinks,” “knows,” “understands,” “realizes,” “wants,” etc.

By the way, there’s still room in some of my summer writing retreats. More than two dozen of my students have been published, and three of them are up for awards this coming weekend. Is this the year you should join us? For more info: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Myth #8: The Good Writers Always Get Published

Since this is the season to be jolly, I wish I could tell you that this myth is true. Many people believe this to be true. I’ve heard it whispered on many occasions (even in bookstores), usually in the context of, “Why do you waste so much of your time trying to help writers? If they’re good, they’ll make it.”

And my answer is: Because I know that’s not necessarily true.

If you’ve read the classics, and I’ll bet most of you have, you know that many if not most of the greatest writers of all time were not popular and may not have even been published in their own lifetimes. Sometimes it takes a while for readers to catch up with the writer. And sometimes the writers just don’t know anybody, don’t have connections, don’t know how to structure or dramatize their work to make it publishable. I’ve always speculated that Emily Dickinson might’ve had a happier life if she’d just been lived in Boston rather than Amherst. Surely someone there would’ve appreciated her talent and known someone in the business. If you’ve read A Confederacy of Dunces–and I hope you have–then you’ve read a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by a man who could not get published, and eventually, in utter despondency, took his own life. I bet the posthumous awards did not make his family feel any better.

Sure, talent is important–though hard work and perseverance are more important. But they are no guarantee of anything. I know how fortunate I was to find a publisher early in life–and I know that not everyone in the world is so fortunate. So I’m doing what I can to give back a smidgeon of what I’ve been given.

This myth is not exactly the same but is certainly in the same ballpark as another myth I wrote about earlier in this series–the one about writers being born, not made. That’s silly–as if there’s a special writer DNA strand or something. There’s not. And there’s similarly no guarantee that the universe will serendipitously lead all great writers to their publishers.

I don’t say this to depress anyone. Just the opposite. I do it to encourage you, first, not to be discouraged when success doesn’t come overnight, and second, to not give up. Write every day. Revise and revise and revise. Seek outside input. Even if there are no guarantees, you can give yourself your best shot by doing everything possible to achieve your dreams. I don’t believe in the magic writer gene, but I do believe that if you keep learning and writing and persevering, eventually you will have the right book in the right place at the right time–and that’s when you get published. It’s not predestined by your talent. It’s made more likely by your determination.

On the subject of learning, my previous offer still stands. Register for one of the 2017 summer writing retreats before the end of the year and we’ll knock $100 off the price. I’ve seen a lot of talented people come out of these programs and publish. I sincerely hope you’re the next one.

Enjoy your Christmas–

Bill

2017 Summer Writing Retreats: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

For more info or to claim the discount: 405 203 8641.

Should My Novel Have Multiple Viewpoints?

During a visit to Thrillerfest a few years ago, I heard the same question posed to two different writers (during two different sessions). Each was asked, “How many viewpoint characters can you have?” The first author, who is successful and well-respected, answered, “Three is good. Five is the max.” When my friend Phillip Margolin received the same query, his answer was, “How many do you need?”

I’m with Phil, but I do think we need to establish some guidelines. You should have a central protagonist. Though there are exceptions to every rule, readers generally are happier when they know whose story they are following and who they are rooting for. Books with co-protagonists rarely work. So regardless of the number of viewpoints, the protagonist should have more scenes than anyone else and those should recur most frequently. I think it’s usually a bad idea to be away from the protagonist for more than a chapter.

Multiple viewpoint is more common today than it has been in previous eras. Arguably, the epistolary novel was a form of multiple viewpoint, but subsequently, single-viewpoint novels were more common. In time, though, writers realized that multiple viewpoint was a great way to drum up suspense. In mysteries and thrillers, a departure into the viewpoint of a competitor or villain allows the reader to know something the hero doesn’t–ratcheting up the tension (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). This might also give you an opportunity to make the antagonist more empathetic and less of a cardboard bad guy. In romances, multiple viewpoint–switching between hero and heroine, is more common today (A Run for Love by Callie Hutton). And you will also find it in SF/fantasy and literary fiction (The Hours by Michael Cunningham or The Help by Kathryn Stockett). Ultimately, you have to decide what is the best approach for telling your story.

I recall one of the best writers I know, David Morrill, railing against writers who introduce a viewpoint character for one chapter only (usually because the character dies at the end). For David, this is lazy writing. There’s always a better way to convey that scene than by asking the reader to become invested in a character who will never appear again. It’s not only a cheat but an unwelcome bit of misdirection. When you put your reader in a character’s viewpoint, you suggest that this character is important. They will not be pleased to learn the character is simply a victim. And it’s always a bad idea to introduce a new viewpoint just to drag in some exposition or infodump.

And now, having established the rules, let me explain how and when I broke them. When I wrote the last Ben Kincaid courtroom drama, Capitol Offense, one of the topics I wanted to address was the common law enforcement policy of not pursuing lost-person reports from a spouse until someone has been gone a long time, often as long as a week. Their excuse is that, in most cases, there’s been a squabble and the spouse has simply run off. But this policy has led to many tragic results. In my novel, Ben’s client was devastated by the loss of his wife–because the police waited too long to look for her. I wanted the reader to feel his pain, and to me, that meant they needed to know his wife personally. So I introduced the wife in the first scene, her work as an oncologist for children, her sense of humor, her great love for her husband. Obviously, she did not survive far into the story. But I still felt the excursion into her viewpoint was justified.

Capitol Offensehttps://smile.amazon.com/Capitol-Offense-Novel-Kincaid-Book-ebook/dp/B002PXFYJC/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479663628&sr=8-1

Myth #6: Real Writers Are Compelled to Write…Always

Here I am, posting a blog the day before Election Day, trying to come up with some jazzy way to tie this into the election–and I already used “Fear” last time. Darn! This is what comes from not thinking ahead.

Today the myth I’m addressing, one you have likely heard many times, is “Writing is a compulsion,” or perhaps “I can’t not write.” Some aspiring or amateur writers love to say this stuff because it sounds so writerly. But is writing a compulsion? Since I always advise people to commit to a regular writing schedule and to write every day, you may be thinking I will buy off on this one.

Wrong. (See, I just quoted a candidate. I’m making this work.) I can’t not write? Give me a break. I love writing, especially when the words are flowing and I can tell it’s good. But I can’t not write? There’s a new episode of Black Mirror on tv, I haven’t worked the NYT crossword yet, I’m still trying to learn that Death Cab for Cutie song on the piano, I’m halfway through Anne Tyler’s new book…you get the drift? There are a lot of marvelous things I could be doing other than writing. So don’t kid a kidder. I could not write. But I will anyway. I will make myself write, because I know that’s the only way a book gets finished. It’s not that I can’t. It’s that I force myself to do it anyway.

This doesn’t mean I dislike writing. It means writing is hard work, which is why you commit to a schedule, basically telling yourself that even thought there are other things I could be doing, I’m going to force myself to get words down on paper anyway.

This leads directly into another great writer myth: writer’s block. This is another topic not-yet writers like to talk about because it sounds so romantic and tortured and deep. But truth is, this is a complete hoax. You never hear anyone complaining that they have plumber’s block. What makes writers so special? Why do we get a ready-made excuse for not working? Isn’t this just self-indulgence? Isn’t this just coming up with an excuse for not working that doesn’t require you to admit that writing isn’t a compulsion? “I can’t not write…but today the words aren’t flowing. I’m blocked.”

Roz Morris said, “If you’re the kind of person who believes that block will stop you, you’re the type to get it.”

To me, writer’s block means: 1) you don’t know what happens next because you didn’t think it through before you started, 2) you can’t think of anything to write about, or 3) you don’t know why you’re writing. If it’s   the first problem, sit down and make an outline. This will not only help you see the big picture, it will be so painful that tomorrow you’ll be anxious to write. If it’s the second problem, go to the library (or bookstore, if you can find one). Walk through the stalls. Read some dust jackets. Not to copy–to be inspired. Ideas will fly at you. And if it’s the third problem, insufficient motivation, honestly, this may not be the right profession for you. Perhaps you like the idea of working with books but not writing itself. There are other occupations in the book industry you could consider.

Or you could (shameless plug) read my book Powerful Premise. Because if you do want to be a writer, I think that book will get your neurons firing and put you on the path to starting a book that you will work on every day, not because you’re compelled to do so, but because you’ve got a terrific story to tell and you want other to read it.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow. Unless you’re planning to vote for the wrong person. Then you should stay home.

Powerful Premise: https://www.amazon.com/Powerful-Premise-Writing-Irresistible-Sneaker/dp/0692425101

Myth #5: I Fear I Can’t Write Because…

Since I’m posting this on Halloween, I thought it appropriate to continue the series on writing myths by specifically addressing the single factor that has prematurely ended more promising writing careers than anything else: Fear.

What are you afraid of? There must be something. Comes with the DNA. We have different fears, but there’s always something at the core creating insecurity or concern. And that’s a problem for a writer. Because a writer by definition has to, first, create something that never existed before and, second, put it out there for others to read. That requires a bit of ego–the assumption that you’ve written something worthy of another’s attention. Fear will prevent you from mustering the necessary ego to push forward.

Let me address a fear I’ve seen repeatedly in my writing retreats: fear about writing skills. Note I used the word “skills,” not “ability.” You can learn to write better–that’s the whole point of the retreats. But some people are better spellers, or better with grammar. Personally, I’ve never been a particularly brilliant speller. I’ve learned to check when unsure. And not to rely on SpellCheck, which at best tells me whether the letters I’ve typed make a word, not whether they make the word I intend. SpellCheck is useful, but there is no StupidCheck. When in doubt, look it up. Which you can do on that phone in your pocket in about five seconds.

Similarly, I’ve had students worry about their grammar or punctuation. “Do all writers have to be grammar Nazis?” No, I say, pointing out that the Nazis actually lost the war, and you want to win the battle to be published. You will have to acquire those grammar skills, though. GrammarCheck is better than it used to be, but far from perfect, and it will probably never understand that fiction writers sometimes deliberately use fragments, or write dialogue in colloquial language or slang.

Fortunately, there are many free tools online for improving your grammar, and if you take advantage of them on a daily basis, you will soon see your skills improve. There are many grammar blogs (Grammar Girl is the most popular), grammar email service (Word-of-the-Day), and even grammar games and apps. At the end of this blog I’ll post a list of excellent grammar-related websites. If need be, hire a tutor, which you can also find online or perhaps at the local community college. But do not let this readily fixable problem deter you from achieving your dreams.

The last fear I often hear is someone worrying that they haven’t read enough to be a writer. Look, it is not necessary to have an advanced degree in English Literature to write a book. It is not even necessary that you be “well read.” What is essential is that you be extremely familiar with the kind of lit you want to write. You can’t write romances if you don’t know how they go. You can’t write SF if you don’t know what’s already been done.

But reading the Great Books, while beneficial, is not essential. I have a good friend who is an extremely successful thriller writer who often laments that he hasn’t read the classics. So he can’t recite poetry or drop Shakespearean quotations or other pompous stuff I’m more likely to do at dinner. But he knows the world of thrillers inside out (much better than I do). It’s all he reads, all he’s ever read. And that gave him the background he needed to build the writing career he wanted.

Mark Twain said “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” So this year, celebrate Halloween by banishing fear and committing to the writing career you want. If necessary, start reading in your area or playing online grammar games. But the most important step is to start writing, regularly, every day. Commit to the future you want.

Grammar Websites: https://prowritingaid.com/art/111/10-Websites-to-Help-Improve-Your-Grammar.aspx

What Should I Write Next?

Many times throughout my life (including this weekend at my writing conference), I’ve heard people ask what book they should write next. What genre should they pursue? Should they chase the latest trend? Should they write this idea or another? My reply is always the same: Which idea do you care about most?

If you don’t care about a book, if it doesn’t mean anything to you, there is no point in writing it. This past weekend, I heard the wonderful Katherine Center advising people to write a book they would want to read. Excellent. Why write an idea or genre you don’t care about? Don’t tell me you’re doing it for money. That book will not turn out well, so you’re not going to get rich off it. Of my forty-three published books, only one was based on someone else’s idea–and it’s by far the worst book I ever wrote. (No, I will not tell you which one that was.)

Chasing the latest trend is even stupider–because by the time you get a book written, the trend will probably be over. Fads come and go (legal thrillers, chick lit, dystopian YA, you name it). How long they last is impossible to predict, but imagine your poor agent being stuck with a book that he or she can’t sell because the fad has passed. Worse if you spent a year writing it, never liked it, didn’t care about it–and now no one will ever read it. A year gone for no good reason.

The marvelous David Morrell always advises people to write the book that matters to them most. (That’s the one that will likely turn out best, too). David’s theory is that even if the market turns against you and you can’t sell it, it was still worth doing, because it was important to you. David only rarely has written a non-thriller, but when he did, you can be assured it was for a good personal reason.

Which brings me to my most recent novel, Challengers of the Dust. I am aware that some of my readers would much rather have another Ben Kincaid novel, or at least a thriller. But the truth is, I’ve written eighteen Ben books and they no longer represent a challenge. I hit a round-number birthday and started to envision a tombstone that only said: HE WROTE A BUNCH OF BEN BOOKS. I wanted to do more, so I left the series behind and focused on other characters and other forms. I don’t regret this decision in the least.

I love my two poetry books and the reviews they have received are the best I’ve seen in my entire life. These books will not put my children through college, but I am very glad I wrote them. This most recent novel was a shot from the heart, a chance to bring some Oklahoma history to life with two eccentric characters unburdened by thriller elements. It’s not boring, but don’t ask me what genre it fits into, because I don’t think it does.

I also think it’s the best book I’ve ever written. Thank goodness I took time to write it while I could.  I wouldn’t trade the praise I’ve received for these last three books for all the royalty checks on earth.

Are you planning a book? Heed my words. Write from the heart.

Link to Challengers of the Dust