Suspension of Disbelief

Some level of suspension of disbelief is necessary for any fiction. Larger or lesser, but always necessary.

“Unbelievable” is hardly criteria for failure. In fact, it’s entirely immaterial, as long as the writer observes the only rule that matters about making sense: never pull the reader out of the vicarious experience.

Internal logic and consistency is important in helping readers stay in the vicarious experience.

I lean strongly toward the belief that readers want to believe, or at least suspend disbelief, and most will gloss over even glaring issues. I remember Michael Crichton’s translating earbuds in Timeline and after a moment of “Really?” I moved on and enjoyed the book immensely. (The movie, not so much.)

As writers we need to be as careful as we can, especially when the contrivance is core to the story’s spine and resolution. Coincidences and contrivances that make the story possible, on the other hand (like magic translating earbuds) are places where readers will go to great lengths to dive into a story they want to love.

It’s easy to go down the path my mom takes in stories, where she’ll spend 12 minutes talking to herself about whether Margaret’s middle name was Elisabeth with an ess or Elizabeth with a zee and in the end, accuracy had no bearing on the emotional impact of the story; in fact, the search for accuracy destroyed it.

I’ll take Crichton’s magic earbud over Melville’s endless treatise on whaling any day.

As writers, we tend to seek out readers who read like us. Your own experiences and dislikes are probably a good rule of thumb for what you can pull off with your own readers.

How Evil Can You Get?

In Story Robert McKee talks about “the negation of the negation” (NotN). It’s not mathematical, the multiplication of two negatives leading to a positive. It is the end of the line in the emotional or moral value of the internal story.

Take the normal “worst case” scenario, and find the thing that’s so much worse it’s unthinkable.

In “living dead” stories, that’s often the fate worse than death: damnation, or living death.

McKee talks about four stages, from The Big Win through Not So Much to Real Bad and finally, the NotN. For instance, in a love story you can have true love, indifference, active dislike/hate, and the worst thing in a normal romance, hate masquerading as love.

Scifi adventure: success might be beating the aliens. The other end of the spectrum might be seeing your whole race enslaved by the aliens, in a manner which prevents mass suicide. Nope. You’re slaves, maybe even eternally because they gave you live-forever-juice.

For many stories, the NotN is going to be, if not unique, at east customized.

The lighter the story the less devastating the NotN. For instance, in my book A Long, Hard Look

  1. Success: Phil solves the case and gets the girl.
  2. The likely case is he doesn’t solve the case, but at least he gets the girl.
  3. Worst case, you’d think, is he doesn’t solve the case, doesn’t get the girl.
  4. What happens is he stands in a room full of his girl’s family and is helpless to prevent one from killing another, and in the end, his girl leaves because he reminds her of his failure and her family’s brokenness.

Not only does the case get solved too late to prevent another death, the girl despises him and runs away.

Figure out what your readers will assume equals “success” and if you choose a happy ending, deliver that and more.

Know, or define, what they’ll expect as the “less than success” the hero is worried will be his fate.

Know what your readers expect as a worst case scenario. That’s failure.

Make your protagonist suffer that failure, then give him a way out.

Then, come up with something so unimaginable your readers never saw it coming, couldn’t foresee it, won’t believe their eyes.

And aim it straight at your hero.

Writing: First It’s Muck

It’s a writer’s nature to assume that what pours from our fingertips will be the brilliant story in our heads. When we read a book, we see the polished outcome, not the deadly trudge it took to create it, and when it’s our turn we forget.

Instead of polished prose streaming from our minds, it’s more akin to the green soup steaming in the concrete waste canal in a springtime milking barn back home in Wisconsin. Not even usable as fertilizer.

At least, that’s what we think.

Truth is, it’s probably 80% excellent, and all we see is the 20% green soup.

The 20% is 80% easy to fix. That is, once we dig in (to the words, not the mucky green soup) we find that most of what’s less than stellar in that last fifth is easy to fix.

Before you start thinking about another kind of fifth, do the math: 80% + (80% of 20%) = 96% done.

Now you’re down to the 4% that’s excruciating.

That’s where writing happens: the choices you make, and the fervor and grit to slog through that 4%.

No, you never get to 100%. If you can cure another 80% you’ll be at 99.2% which is closer than any of us have a right to expect.

Bad Writing: When Your Scene Is About What It Seems to Be About

I recently shut down a writing forum I was involved with. I gathered up some of my longer posts (usually responses to questions) and I’ll be sharing them here. They may not be precisely on topic (Resistance) but they have value. Or, you can skip them.

Subtext is the most important part of storytelling.

When we let the listener or reader finish the story, it’s their story now, and everyone wins.

For instance, take a simple joke, like “What’s the difference between a surgeon and God? God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.”

The initial microsecond response is “What? Of course not. So what? Do surgeons think they’re—” Boom.

As Robert McKee, said “If your scene is about what it appears to be about, you’re in trouble.”

Bill and Sara Coming Apart

Subtext requires setup. If you go into the following scene knowing that Bill and Sara have an unhappy marriage, we’ve seen Sara eyeing another man, and we’ve seen Bill stocking up on sleeping pills, it’s not about the words at all:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m tired.”

She didn’t look up. “Then go to bed.”

He flicked a glance her way, then stood.

“I just didn’t want you to be alone.”

Now she looked up.

“Being alone doesn’t make me lonely. I’m fine. You look tired. You should rest.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at the slippers she’d bought him on their honeymoon.

“I think I will.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, and slowly climbed the stairs to the spare room where he slept these days.

Pressing the last few pieces into place, Sara looked at the puzzle, then shoved it off the table into the box, put the lid on, and turned to look out the window into the darkness.

If this were about a happy couple, it’d be banal to the point of nausea. Build some setup, and it’s a different scene, which is not in any way about the words but about the subtext.

Off the top of my head again, that scene, written as a beginning hack would have written it:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m really depressed and it feels like you don’t care.”

As usual, Sara ignored him. Her attention was elsewhere.

He watched her, hoping she’d try to stop him.

“I need you to love me, Sara.”

Now she looked up.

“You’ve had what you needed all along. Now I’m going for what I need.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at his slippers. She’d bought them on their honeymoon, when she used to love him.

“I can’t do this anymore. And I’m not going to.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, then slowly climbed the stairs. He hadn’t shared a bed with Sara in a long time, so he’d been sleeping in the spare room.

Sara thought, I’m through with him, just like I’m through with this puzzle.

Besides for being even worse writing, there’s almost nothing here but a bit of shoe leather or staging that’s worth keeping.

Yes, just as a pure pantser can find story structure, foreshadowing, etc. by rewriting their entire book 14 times, one could do it this way. It would require rethinking every single word of dialog, finding ways to not say the vital stuff, the way Coltrane or Parker might play every note except the melody.

I think knowing in advance where I plan to go makes for a more efficient trip, without taking the spontaneous fun out of it.

9 Ways Your Fans Can Support You

My wife Sue provides social media marketing services for authors. I am, of course, her most important client. I’ve asked her to share some of her checklists and tools with you. We’d both love to hear if this type of information is helpful.—Joel

Sue L Canfield
When your fans share your writing with others it carries more social proof than your own marketing efforts because it comes from a third party. Make it easy for them. Real fans are glad to help.

Do you have all the following in place so your fans are connected with you and sharing your posts with their friends?

  1. Connect with your fans on the following social media platforms.
  2. Ask your fans to share your social media posts by doing the following.
    • Retweet something you shared on Twitter.
    • Share a post from your Facebook Author page on their own Facebook timeline.
    • Repin something from one of your Pinterest boards.
    • Share one of your status updates on LinkedIn.
    • Comment on one of your Instagram posts.
    • On Goodreads, recommend one of your books to your friends.
  3. Ask fans to sign up for your newsletter.
  4. Ask fans to share the link to sign up for your newsletter.
  5. Ask fans to subscribe to your blog and to comment at the blog. Write a blog post about how they can support you. (See Joel’s at his author website)
  6. Directly ask them to buy your books.
  7. Encourage fans to buy a copy of one of your books for a friend who they think will enjoy it.
  8. Ask fans to review your books on Amazon.
  9. Let fans know you’d love to hear from them and to send you an email.

Let your fans know that supportive things like reviews at Amazon, comments at the blog, enthusiastic shares on social media and even personal emails help make you enthusiastic about continuing to write.

Author Bio:
Sue L Canfield has been working with social media since 2005. She blogs regularly about how to use social media and consults on best social media practices at Chief Virtual Officer. She specializes in helping authors create and maintain their online presence. She currently manages a team of four social media account managers and over a dozen social media clients.

How Long Does It Take to Write 1,000 Words?

stopwatchThat search shows up here more frequently than any other except searches for my name.

Here are a few answers:

  1. At a typing speed of 25WPM, about average for a nonprofessional,
    1,000 ÷ 25 = 40 minutes
    At a more professional speed of 50WPM, it’s 20 minutes. If you’re my wife and type 80WPM it’s less than 13 minutes. This is the least meaningful answer I have.
  2. My scenes tend to run about 1,000 words. Most writers manage 2,000 per scene, but I’ve tried adjusting my stance and leaning toward the plate, and I’m still not hitting it, so I do what I do. One scene, about 1,000 words, takes me about an hour, because although I type 50WPM I also pause sometimes to ruminate on the next bit. Sometimes I can blaze away for 90 minutes nonstop, but that’s the exception. The rule is, about an hour for a 1,000-word scene.
  3. The writer who pauses to fix every typo, polish every sentence, adjust the punctuation, and carefully balance sentence lengths, paragraph lengths, and whatever else they balance, all the while keeping one eye on the word count meter, will take a week. Or a day. Or a month. Or forever. I don’t know. At this point, it’s the wrong question.
  4. How long does it take to write 1,000 good words? Still the wrong question.
  5. How long does it take to write a 1,000-word story? Good question. I write what I call 1-Page Classics. I shoot for 1,000 words. They take me about 3 hours, start to finish, idea to polished prose.
  6. Now we’re talking about storytelling, real writing, and not word count. How long does it take to write 1,000 words of good story, in addition to all the words you already have? It depends on whether you’re in the flow, brain dumping a scene you envisioned en tableau, and spend half an hour, or grinding your way through a vital slice that weighs heavily on your emotions, dredging up doubt and anguish from past pains and future fears. That might take all day, all week, even.
  7. What if you haven’t even started yet? Your first 1,000 words might flow like mad, at nearly typing speed (20 to 40 minutes.) If you spent some time planning, or if an idea gripped you and won’t let go till you spill, that’s feasible. Otherwise, if something doesn’t feel right, either because you didn’t stop to celebrate finishing a novel yesterday, don’t have an idea what this one is about, or need to get paid so it doesn’t matter, you just need to get the blasted thing written, we’re back to hours, maybe days.
  8. One last answer: sit down at your computer, start a timer, and write until the word count meter says 1,000. Check the timer. There’s your answer. Not the dumbest answer, but perhaps the least satisfying.

How long does it take you to write 1,000 words?

Some Really Bad Writing Advice

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve read this sentence:

Swimming lesson. Not.The best way to learn writing is to write.

It comes mostly from pantsers who don’t want to learn story structure, who think it’s a straightjacket for producing formulaic pablum and they want no part of it.

When my middle daughter graduated from high school she wanted to write songs. We got her a small keyboard and I offered to give her lessons.

“No, that’s okay. I know what I’m doing.”

She was echoing what I’ve heard dozens of songwriters say: “Learning music theory will destroy my spontaneous creativity.”

Really? So you’re saying that me and Mozart and Dylan and Donald Fagen are drudges? I’m not the genius those three are, but I write better songs because I learned music theory, not in spite of it. Listen to Donald Fagen talk about composing the Steely Dan song Peg:

… more … “Some Really Bad Writing Advice”

Create the Villain Your Hero Needs: Superb Infographic from David “Villain” Villalva

3 Ways to Create a Villain Who Audiences Want & Heroes Need [Infographic]David Villalva is a story nerd like me. Smart, friendly, smart, generous, and smart.

He created this superb infographic to explain how to create your story’s villain, and why doing it like this matters. Click to make it big.

How My Writing Process Saved the Day, and How it Can Save Yours

More about planning and process: a guest post over at Bane of Your Resistance. Drop by and say hello, and watch for details about the process (new and improved over my previous version, I might add) in next week’s guest post.

You’re Not Getting Your Writing Done Because You’re Building the Wrong Habit

Tom’s cat. No, it’s not a tomcat.
Editor Tom asks how we manage to start writing projects without bedeviling ourselves.

Short version: make it a habit.

Slightly longer version: make it the right habit.

Full version:

After 18 months of experimentation (following 18 years of dabbling) I’ve made writing my habit. It’s part of my daily routine.

Every morning, Best Beloved and I have our tea and a chat. Then, I go downstairs and write one scene (+/- 1,000 words is where mine seem to fall.)

… more … “You’re Not Getting Your Writing Done Because You’re Building the Wrong Habit”