Category Archives: writing skills

Two good blogs I’ve read.

Melissa Donovan has a very good article on whether or not writers should “write what they know” here.

Kate George drew my attention to this article on the six-stage Hollywood plot structure. Hollywood movies go in distinct stages, with a specific percentage of the story time devoted to each stage. The details are here. Her blog is here.

Best wishes from Down Under.

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Should novels have a “Moral”?

I recently posted this a facebook page to do with fiction writing, in response to a thread, “Do you think a fictional story should teach (or attempt to teach) a moral lesson?”

Should novels ” teach a moral lesson?” Well it depends on what you want. If I want to learn something theological, I’ll buy a theology book. If I want to know why an author claims that evolutionary biology supports atheism, I’ll buy something by Richard Dawkins. If I want to earn about a certain political view, I’ll buy a book from someone in that political movement. If I read Aayan Hirsi Ali about her experiences growing up Muslim, I know what I’m in for: but she writes as a polemicist, not a novelist.

But if I buy a thriller – and pay money -and THEN discover that I’m getting someone’s political or theological view  I’m likely to get a little irritated and think that my $10 (or whatever) has obtained under false pretenses.

An example is Michael Chrichton’s State of Fear. I know it got to #1, and  I do like Michael Crichton – I have several books of his on my shelf. But in State of Fear, one of his characters gave long lectures about how climate change modeling doesn’t prove anything. Well of course it doesn’t. Modelling never does. A model consistes largely of beliefs put into eqautions and then distured in some way: If we assume, or believe, that the world includes like A, B and C which between them produce X, and we change C by this much, the result is  X changes this much. Of course the model doesnt proove that climate change is real: that’s not a model’s job. They illustrate.

Chrighton’s points would be appropriate (or not) in a scientific work if it had come from a reputable scientist. Crichton stuck in numerous footnotes and graphs to plug his views: I thought footnotes in a thriller??)  For me they became, a boring and tedious diversion from the plot . Chrichton is entitled to his view, and he’s entitled to give lectures and write a straightforward polemical book about this. And he IS entitled to write the novel he did if that’s what he wants. We all have our rights. But doing this  comes at a cost. The cost is detracting from the quality of the novel by making his characters clumsy mouthpieces for his own views.

If you want the novel to have a ‘moral’ it requires great subtlety. “The Other Boleyn Girl” might  be read as a story with a moral about getting too involved in high stakes conniving and double dealing when you can’t control the one thing your life will ultimately depend upon (the ability to produce a live baby boy.) But it doesn’t have a character who constantly preaches that Ann will end up dead. We can see the risks she’s running for ourselves. The readers have brains. (And some readers know their history.) If you want to have a moral in your story, a bit of subtlety and ambiguity go a long way: try My Sister’s Keeper by Jody Picoult.

But Michael Crighton obviously disagrees. and his not here to defend himself. He died just after the book was published. It’s a pity. I would have liked to read more of him – but without the footnotes and graphs.

Donald Mass Writing Prompts

 A fiend from San Diego kindly collated the writing tips that Donal Maass (Well Known Literary agent) has been sending out as tweets. Here they are collated:

01 What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more. #Maass

 02 What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in. #Maass

 03 Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.#Maass

 Today’s Breakout prompt may be tougher than it looks. Let me know. Ready? Here we go…

 04 Choose a middle scene: What does POV character feel most strongly? Evoke that feeling without naming it, through actions alone. #Maass 

A tragedy really puts things in perspective, yes? Help others, live strong, write. Today’s Breakout prompt for whenever you’re ready…

 05 What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways. #Maass

 We grow and change day by day. Characters can too, scene by scene. Today’s Breakout prompt coming up…

06 How does your POV character change in your current scene? Work backwards. Make that change unlikely, a surprise or impossible. #Maass

 It’s Sunday, but no rest for fiction writers! Today’s Breakout prompt coming up in just a minute…

 07 What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it. #Maass

 Our friends sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. Today’s Breakout prompt coming up…

08 What does a sidekick character know about your MC that your MC refuses to see? Force a showdown over it. #Maass

 08 Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right? #Maass

 Ever been in a place you just can’t seem to get away from? Today’s Breakout prompt coming at ya…

 09 What’s a place in your story where something significant happens? Switch two other story events to that location too.#Maass

 It’s characters inner lives that make fiction involving. Adding to that is not subtracting from story. Today’s Breakout prompt coming up…

 10 In your current scene, what’s a setting detail that delights or disgusts your POV character? Why? Elaborate & add. #Maass

 Sometimes it’s the small things in life that overwhelm us with their beauty. Today’s Breakout prompt sneaking up on you…

 11 Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that. #Maass

 How do we know that big events are truly big? Because of the details that stick with us. Today’s Breakout prompt coming up…

 12 During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again? Add. #Maass

 Weekends are a good time for reflection–by your MC. Today’s Breakout prompt is coming up…

 13 For your MC, what are the best things about these times? The worst? Create a passage of his/her take on this era. #Maass

 The world of the story is mostly the world as your MC sees it. Today’s Breakout prompt is on the way…

 14 In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.

 Reversals big and small are one of the most dynamic effects in fiction. Today’s breakout prompt in a moment…

 15 What’s one thing your MC hates as the story opens? By the end have your MC love that same thing. (Or vice versa.) #Maass

 To provoke a noticeable change, create a sharp provocation. Today’s Breakout prompt zeroes in on your current scene…

 16 What’s the precise turning point in your current scene? Make its trigger more dramatic—or less obvious. #Maass

 Characters’ convictions anchor them. Pulling up those anchors is deeply dramatic. Today’s Breakout prompt is sailing your way…

 17 Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end. #Maass

 Engaging characters are passionately engaged in life. Their feelings tell us so. Today’s Breakout prompt coming up…

 18 Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.#Maass

 It doesn’t advance the story, it deepens character. @suelder How does a trivial rant advance the story?

 What do you stand for? What about your MC? Today’s Breakout prompt matters…

 19 What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times. #Maass

 Saturdays are good for cleaning up clutter. Here comes today’s Breakout prompt…

 20 Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words. #Maass

 Dialogue is an opportunity not to be missed—an opportunity for tension. No relaxing on Sunday, guys! Today’s Breakout prompt is…

 21 In the last dialogue passage you wrote double the friction, disagreement, overt hostility or hidden agenda. #Maass

 Exposition, inner monologue, stream of consciousness…whatever you term it, use it to create tension. Today’s Breakout prompt is…

 22 In the last inner monologue you wrote insert one insight, question or worry that hasn’t hit you (or your MC) before now. #Maass

 People’s observations—especially of other people—make them interesting. Same is true of characters. Today’s Breakout prompt is…

 23 What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others. #Maass

 In fiction, obvious emotions rarely need stating. The reader’s already felt them. Go deeper with today’s Breakout prompt…

 24 Find a strong emotion and replace it with a secondary one; find a throw-away moment and infuse it with rich feelings. #Maass

 Secondary characters can come and go, making little impression—a shame. Today’s Breakout prompt is about to make a grand entrance…

 25 Before a new character debuts, give your MC an expectation or fear. Make the reality three times better or worse. #Maass

 MC’s make mistakes but often it doesn’t cost much. Today’s Breakout prompt is designed to hurt. Here it comes…

 26 Whom is your MC afraid to let down? What is the sacred trust between them? What would cause your MC to break it? Break it.#Maass

 What you don’t know can’t hurt you? Heck, why *wouldn’t* you want to hurt your MC? Here comes today’s Breakout prompt…

 27 What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time. #Maass

 Why have your characters merely talk when they can snipe, attack, burn or lay waste—verbally, I mean? Here’s today’s Breakout prompt…

 28 Set off fireworks between two characters. What’s the biggest skyrocket you can explode for the finale? Go ahead…kaboom!#Maass

 Down to the last three Breakout prompts! Hope you’ve found them useful. Here’s today’s…

 29 What’s the emotion or experience you’re most afraid to put your MC through? Go there. Do it. Now. #Maass

 Emotional research: ask others who have @DeniseBruce22 but what if you honestly haven’t lived that emotion yet..don’t know how to write it?

 Only two Breakout prompts left! How many have you worked into your ms? Be honest. Here’s today’s…

 30 What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding. #Maass

 This is it! The final day in this month of daily Breakout prompts. Which has helped you most?

 For this final Breakout prompt, an adaptation of a classic Breakout stakes raising technique. Ready? Here it comes…

 31 What’s the very worst aspect of the main problem your MC faces? Find one way to make it still worse. #Maass

 And some nice news for Breakout prompt users: I’ll be posting weekly prompts for the rest of the year. Stay tuned. #Maass

— April 2011 —

Ever get an eerie chill, an empty feeling inside, and know–just know–you are somewhere unsafe? Here’s this week’s Breakout prompt…

32 Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.#Maass

It’s Breakout Tuesday. Today’s prompt is inspired by Anne Perry, noted for the moral power of her novels. But there’s a trick to that.

Does the message in your story drop like a rock on the reader’s head? Better is to make your MC sensitive to the morality of small moments.

33 Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it. #Maass

Breakout Tuesday! This week begins a series of prompts focusing on plumbing emotional depths in your WIP. Here it comes…

33 In your current scene, what’s the strongest emotion? Why is it welcome? Why not? What’s good about it? What’s utterly wrong?#Maass