Category: Writing (page 2 of 3)

#BestsellerCode100 Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island from a Writer’s Perspective

Today I’m going to review Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island from a writer’s perspective,

Note:  This post contains spoilers.

Shutter Island: A Novel by Dennis Lehane.

When you’re reading a book as a writer rather than as a reader you tend to focus on the craft. For example, you may notice how the author handles dialogue, how he handles the scenes, or how he develops characters. This perspective can be like studying how magicians do their tricks, so be prepared for a glimpse at what goes on behind the curtain.

In the book we are using for our reading challenge, The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers discuss theme, plot, style, and character. To add more depth, for my analysis I chose to apply the categories from the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling from Writer’s Digest instead.

1. Characters

(Note:  If you are unfamiliar with the vocabulary I’m using below, the Helping Writers Become Authors website has a clear, concise summary of the character archetypes.)

On the surface the characters seem to follow the standard archetypes. The protagonist (main character) is U. S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, a likeable, but flawed man. He is filled with angst over the death of his wife Dolores, whom he loved deeply. Dolores could be best defined as the impact character, although ironically the woman the marshals are looking for, Rachel Solando, also fills that role.  His new partner, U.S. Marshal Chuck Aule, is the affable sidekick. The antagonist is played by Dr. Joseph Cawley, who is in charge of the facility for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. At the end of the book, however, the characters get thrown into a blender and it becomes less clear who is serving which role. For example, is Chuck Teddy’s sidekick or Dr. Cawley’s sidekick?

Dialogue
One way for a writer to establish character is through dialogue. Dennis Lehane is a master of dialogue. He excels at making each character sound unique. (Note:  at times he uses some pretty raw profanity to achieve this. Do you think this helped or hindered character development?)

Some ways to make dialogue authentic — more like real speech — include using contractions, sentence fragments, vocalized pauses (like “um”), and mixing up the length of the lines. Lehane does it all, plus he’s such a pro that he flies through dialogue without using a single “he said.”

(Teddy:) “You guys do that a lot?”
(Cawley:) “What’s that, Marshal?
“Sit around over drinks, and, um, probe people?”
“Occupational hazard, I guess. How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“I don’t know. How many?”
“Eight.”
“Why?”
“Oh, stop overanalyzing it.”

2. Setting (Scene Execution)

Because the title of the novel is a place, it’s reasonable to expect the setting to be important. In fact, the first paragraph of the prologue sets the stage. It is all about the island.

I haven’t laid eyes on the island in several years. The last time was from a friend’s boat that ventured into the outer harbor, and I could see it off in the distance, past the inner ring, shrouded in the summer haze, a careless smudge of paint against the sky.

Lehane’s descriptions of the setting are visceral.

3. Theme

The theme of a novel is the part that applies to the real world or what the novel means. You can describe the theme as the questions asked or lessons learned.

In Shutter Island, one of the chief themes is mental health. How fragile is the human psyche? Parallel to that theme is how love/marriage can be a minefield.

Another strong theme in the novel is that water is a dangerous force of nature. In one scene early in the book, young Teddy gets motion sickness when he’s out in his father’s boat, but all isn’t as it seems.

“…Teddy unable to tell his father that it wasn’t motion that had turned his stomach.
It was all that water. Stretched out around them until it was all that was left of the world. How Teddy believed that it could swallow the sky. “

Soon afterwards his father dies at sea. Water turns up again and again at crisis points in the story.

Topic
The Bestseller Code examines novels using topics rather than themes, probably because it is easier to define using a computer model. What is the difference between a theme and topic? A topic might be “dogs,” whereas the theme of a novel might be “dogs are loyal friends.”

The authors found that a writer who devotes up to a third of his or her book to only one or two topics is the most successful. It does make sense that too many topics might confuse and misdirect a reader. Lehane did a good job because he stuck to a few intense topics developed as themes.

4. Structure

Structure is the order of storytelling. In this case, the prologue starts in 1993. The first chapter bounces back to 1954 and the main story progresses more or less chronologically through a period of a few days, with short flashbacks to Teddy’s relationship with his wife Dolores.

In a famous essay by Elmore Leonard in the New York Times, he states a writer should avoid having prologues because they are annoying. In Shutter Island, the prologue is critical to understanding what comes after, but it’s so different in tone from the rest of the book that readers might be tempted to skip it.

Did you read the prologue? What is your opinion of prologues?

Conclusions:

Whether or not you enjoyed the book as a reader, from a writer’s perspective Dennis Lehane did an excellent job crafting Shutter Island. A beginning writer could learn a lot from critically studying his work.

 

bestseller-code-100-first

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Currently we are hosting a challenge to read through the list of 100 best of the bestsellers recommended in The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. Shutter Island is number 100 on the list, and we started discussing it on November 7, 2016. Please feel free to join the conversation.

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#Amwriting: Three Writing Prompts from Writer’s Studio

Yesterday afternoon I led our local writing group. The members of the group, called Writer’s Studio, free write for about twelve minutes in response to a writing prompt. When we’re finished, those who choose to read what they wrote. Once everyone has shared, we write again. I thought I’d share the writing prompts I used.

3-great-writing-prompts

Our writing prompts:

1. Write about Halloween

We celebrated both Halloween and Dia de los Muertes this week.  Either write about a memory associated with the holiday of your choice, or concoct a scary story. Be sure to include dialogue.

If you are stumped, try writing about Halloween from the point of view of a costume, or — here’s a “sweet” idea — from the point of view of a piece of candy.

2. Use a physical object to inspire a story.

After putting out some random objects on a table (a small teddy bear, rocks, paintbrush, glove, toy cars, etc.), I talked about how an author used real objects to get a story idea.

In a webcast few years ago, Kate DiCamillo discussed writing her award-winning children’s book, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures.

She revealed two of the main elements in the book came from real objects, each of which had deep emotional impacts on her.

The squirrel in the book was based on a real squirrel who had showed up on Kate’s front porch. She said it was sick, so she called a neighbor for advice about what to do. The neighbor suggested a method for dispatching it (which I will not repeat here.) Fortunately, the squirrel left the porch on its own. Sympathy for the squirrel’s plight made her remember the event.

The second item was a vacuum cleaner that Kate saw whenever she entered her garage. The vacuum cleaner had been her mother’s and her mother had recently passed away. Again, it was an object that elicited strong emotions.

Stories are always best with some underlying conflict. In the book, the two real life objects came together as a vacuum cleaner sucked up a squirrel, leading to some unexpected consequences. Be sure to incorporate conflict into your story.

3. Writing Lists as Poems

The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon and Meredith McKinney (Translator, Introduction) inspired our final writing exercise.

Sei Shonogan was a Japanese writer/poet who lived around the year 1000. People still read a collection of her writings called The Pillow Book.

In the book, many of Shonogan’s poems take the form of lists.

Things that Pass by Rapidly

A boat with its sail up.
People’s age.
Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter.
~ Sei Shonogan

My own examples:

Things my cat George likes:
Rubbing faces when he gets up in the morning
A dropped Cheerio
The top of the cat-scratching post
Chasing ping-pong balls down the stairs
Things I like:
My cat George

Things that I smell on my morning walk:
Wet dogs
New grass
Car exhaust
Dryer sheets from someone’s laundry
Breakfast cooking on Sunday mornings

Things I hear on my morning walk:
Dogs barking
Leaf blowers
Cars and trucks on the main street
Birds singing
Ducks quacking
The sound of my two feet on pavement

Write a list-inspired poem.

Let us know if you use any of these writing prompts.

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Related:  See our previous post about writing prompts

 

#BestsellerCode100: Challenge To Read 100 Novels From The Bestseller Code

We are launching an exciting new challenge.  Let’s read through the list of 100 bestsellers picked by the computer model described in The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers (Review in a previous post).

After sorting through 20,000 novels from the last few decades, Archer and Jockers used their computer model to pick 100 books that are the best of the potential bestsellers. The list contains novels from a mix of genres. Many you will recognize, some you may not. Currently you can see book numbers 100 through 90 at the 100 Book List link in the navigation bar.

Why participate?

Readers:
  • Challenge yourself to read books of different genres
  • Discover new favorites from a list of seasoned authors, many of whom have series or multiple published titles (more books for your TBR pile)
  • Find out how your tastes compare with the computer model
Writers:
  • Explore the novels that are the best of the bestsellers (according to the computer model)
  • Learn what it takes to write a bestseller in a variety of genres by reading them critically
  • Share writing tips and insights

How to participate:

Check with the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog for our reading list and links to all the discussions.

We’re starting with number 100 on the list, which is Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. Pick up a copy and read it over the next two weeks. If you have a blog and want to do so, post your thoughts. On November 7 we’ll publish a post to start the conversation and to gather links (now published). No blog? No worries. We’ll have plenty of ways for you to join in. Also, during the week your host Karen will discuss the featured title from the reader’s perspective and host Roberta will take on the writer’s perspective.

Don’t worry if you’re doing NaNoWriMo or can’t get to the book in two weeks. Pour a cup of your favorite beverage and stop by any time.

Find the conversation on social media:  We’ll be using #BestsellerCode100 on Twitter, discussing at The Bestseller Code 100 Facebook Group and posting to The Bestseller Code 100 Pinterest Page.

bestseller-code-pinterest-pin

Join us every other Monday for a new book from The Bestseller Code 100.

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer

A few weeks ago Jodie Archer signed her new book written with Matthew L. Jockers, The Bestseller Code:  Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore. It was a rainy day and I went on a whim, but it turned out to be worthwhile, perhaps even life changing. A book signing that was life changing? It’s that kind of book.

 

What the authors did:

What makes a novel a bestseller? Can you predict which books will become bestsellers? To answer those questions, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers used computer models to examine the digital manuscripts of 20,000 novels written over the last few decades. First they “trained” the model using 28,000 features to figure out how a bestseller is different from a non-bestselling novel. Using a reduced set of features (the 2,799 that seemed to have best predictive value), they tested whether they could establish if a novel would become a hit. Averaging over the three different methods they used, they were able to predict whether a given manuscript would become a blockbuster with 80% accuracy.

Writing tips:

Right up front, this book is not a how-to for writing bestselling novels. Some of what the authors found, however, can be translated into useful writing tips. The factors they identified in bestsellers are not top secret, but reflect writing techniques used by experienced and well-trained authors.

For example, they found bestselling novels rarely contain the word “very,” whereas “very” can show up frequently in non-bestsellers. The difference is because experienced authors know to avoid the word. To follow their example, you can find numerous tutorials online about more active and concrete substitutes, such as 45 Ways to Avoid Using the Word ‘Very.’

The book also offers insights into titles, themes, characters, and  plotting. For plots, the authors graphed the emotional turns or “beats,” forming curves.  Using E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey as a case in point, they show how the places where the beats occur in the novel are important factors in determining whether the novel will be a bestseller or not.

Not clear what we mean by emotional curves? Kurt Vonnegut explains more about it in this video:

The bottom line is if you want to improve your chances of writing a bestselling novel, this book will reinforce what you already may have learned with supportive data.

At this time the authors are  not using their model to predict bestsellers as a service. To find out more and sign up for a mailing list, see their website.

Dear Reader:

The Bestseller Code also has much to offer to novel readers. In the final chapter, Archer and Jockers have created a list of 100 books their computer model picked as best reads. How did the computer do? On Monday October 24, 2016 we are going to launched a challenge to read through the list and share our thoughts. For now you can see some of the books on the 100 Book List in the navigation bar. We hope you will join us.

Conclusions:

The Bestseller Code offers an understanding of how computers can mathematically predict bestselling novels.  At her book signing, Jodie Archer encapsulated how this may change our future when she compared how a book can be considered a work of art versus how publishers treat books as products. Perhaps computers will be able to pick the most likely products to become bestsellers, but humans are still needed to appreciate a novel’s value as art.

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (September 20, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1250088275
ISBN-13: 978-1250088277

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Join Us For Two Writing/Reading Projects: First is #NaNoWriMo

Fall is so energizing.  Maybe that’s why we are launching not one, but two writing/reading projects around here. We’ll be announcing the big one next week. We hope you will join us for both.

nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_participant

First up, is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. Basically, the goal is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. You can read more about it here. Are you going to sign up? The NaNoWriMo theme for 2016 is “Blast Off.” Let’s do it!

Everyone has different reasons to take part in NaNoWriMo. Mine has been to try to improve my writing skills. Believe it or not, it is actually working. This year I have been preparing by taking an October Prep Challenge, too.  It has been helping not only to develop an extensive background for the novel, but also to develop the habitat of focusing on writing every day.

Writing Project for 2016:  A Thriller

the-hidinggame

 

Premise:  J.R. operates in the shadows, doing jobs for clandestine government agencies they want kept off the record. After he rescues a young woman with a violent past, he and his team find themselves battling a hidden adversary bent on destroying them. J.R. must figure out who is orchestrating the attacks before he loses his life, or far worse, his enemy uncovers J.R.’s secrets.

Frankly, there’s much more to it than that, but I’m keeping some of the juicier details under wraps for the time being.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo in November? What is your project going to be?

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#amwriting: Three Great Writing Prompts

Have you ever tried writing prompts? They can be helpful in all sorts of ways, from writing your way out of writer’s block to keeping your writing sharp when you are between projects. If you like to have everything planned out when you write, using prompts might help you loosen up and become more spontaneous. Plus, you never know where an idea might take you.

3-great-writing-prompts

Today I’d like to share the writing prompts I used with a writing group at our local library.

Prompt 1. “I Am From…”

The first writing prompt came from Writing to Change the World: An Inspiring Guide for Transforming the World with Words by Mary Pipher (around page 33, depending on the edition).

 

Mary Pipher describes a project to write a poem by starting each new phrase with “I am from…” Although designed to be a project to reveal things about yourself, it would also be equally useful to write from one of your character’s point of view, for a character study.

Example:

I am from New England stock, hardworking and stoic,
All about ideas and problem solving
Emotions hidden, feelings invisible.

I am from Lois and Kent,
Sheldon and Beulah,
James and Mabel.

I am from pancakes and eggs,
Fried chicken and mashed potatoes,
Garden fresh tomatoes and green peas.

I am from trees, forests, deer, and lakes,
Winding two lane roads,
Weather and seasons,
Dairy farms and vineyards.

I am from New England Stock,
Deep roots, cut free.

Prompt 2. Found Words

For the second writing exercise I read a bit of Elizabeth Berg’s section about plotting from Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.

Elizabeth Berg is a “pantser,” that is she doesn’t plan out her books in detail beforehand. As part of the process, she collects objects, photographs, and sayings to spark her work. She keeps these “found objects” in a special project folder.

Inspired by her system, I collected one word from each participant and the challenge was to incorporate all the words in a story. Our “found words” included: open, ecstatic, confused, cat, amazement. We had 12 minutes to write. Much to my “amazement,” some of the participants were able to incorporate the words into nonfiction stories.

Prompt 3. Fall

Since it was the first day of fall yesterday, I suggested we write about fall and try to use as many senses as possible.

Some results:

  • The smell of burning leaves, Halloween candy, and pumpkin pie.
  • The taste of cider donuts.
  • The sound of children laughing as they jumped into piles of leaves.
  • The feel of the cold water while bobbing for apples.
  • Descriptions of the colors of leaves.

If you use one the prompts and post your work, feel free to tell us about it and leave a link in the comments.

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#amwriting: Editing Your Manuscript (from an Editor’s Perspective)

Over the weekend, editor/author Ann Videan presented a workshop at Tempe Library. Ann calls herself a “book shepherd” and she gave 15 tips for editing based on her extensive experience preparing manuscripts for publication. Rather than simply repeating all her tips, I thought I would share some of the resources she mentioned, plus add a few of my own.

editing-tips

 

Active versus Passive

Her first tip was to use the active voice and active verbs, rather than passive ones. She has a post about passive versus active voice on her blog. By the way,  Ann Videan’s website is a treasure trove, especially if you are looking for local writing events in the Phoenix, AZ area.

Deep POV

Writing from a deep point of view (POV) is very popular right now. Writing in deep POV simply means writing as if you are inside the character’s body. She suggests reading Michelle Massaro’s deep POV tips and the her deep POV example.

Punctuation and Grammar

Puzzled by punctuation? Ann explained that most traditional book publishers use the The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition by University of Chicago Press Staff as the standard. It pays to take a look at the copy to find out, for example, whether you should use the Oxford comma in your manuscript (yes.)

 

Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 16 edition (August 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0226104206
ISBN-13: 978-0226104201

Take Out Words Lacking Impact

In a previous post about revisions, I mentioned using the “Find” feature in your word processing software to locate words such as “saw” and “thought” and reword the sentences you find them in. Ann has a whole list of what she calls “useless words” you should also search for and remove when possible:

  • Then
  • Got
  • Felt – only for touching, not for emotions
  • As if
  • Seemed to
  • Like (unless used in a metaphor or as a verb)

Find an Editor

Ann Videan’s best advice about editing, however, was to find fresh eyes to edit your work. Your brain has its own autocorrect when it comes to what you have written and it’s inevitable you will miss some obvious mistakes. Book Shepherd Ann Videan might just be the editor you need.

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#Suspense Author J.A. Jance: How A Brush With A Killer Launched Her Career

New York Times Bestselling suspense author J.A. Jance was in town this week signing her most recent book, Downfall: A Brady Novel of Suspense.

Judy Jance is an incredible storyteller. During her presentation she told some remarkable and emotionally-charged stories about events from her own life. She admits one particularly intense event was pivotal because it launched her career as a mystery/suspense writer.

One day in 1970, Jance’s husband was hitchhiking and accepted a ride from a man in a green car. She and her husband lived well outside of town in an isolated area, so her husband wasn’t suspicious when the man asked if his wife was often home alone. Her husband explained that they had dogs.

Within the next few days, Jance learned that there had been a brutal rape and murder nearby. The victim’s friend had spotted a green car at the scene. Putting two-and-two together, she and her husband contacted the police. They learned the man was a serial killer who had killed two other people on the twenty-second day of each month at 2:20 p.m. After realizing the man was dangerous and knew she was often home alone, Judy Jance began carrying a gun. It might have been a wise precaution because when the man was arrested on the 2oth day of the following month, Jance learned that he had intended to make her his next victim on the 22nd!

As one might expect, Judy Jance admitted that the experience changed her. It led her to write her first book, which was a fictionalized account of what happened. Although she found an agent and revised the book, she never sold it. She reported, however, that her second novel sold relatively quickly. It was solidly fiction.

Many things can be taken from this story. First of all, if the detective had taken a few more days to track down the killer, the world might not have J.A. Jance books. On the other hand, if the killer had never existed, she might not have been inspired to write, and if she had chosen to write, she likely would have written something besides police procedurals. Going deeper, you might conclude stories based on true events don’t always make good fiction, no matter how good the writer is.

Beginning writers may find comfort in the fact even bestselling authors may have a “trunk novel” that didn’t sell. Probably Jance’s best advice was that she didn’t fire her agent when her first book didn’t sell, but “fired the book” instead. She still has the same agent, one who has fully supported her career as a bestselling author. What a story!

What do you think?

(By the way, I’m not revealing anything that isn’t already in print. You can read a more about J.A. Jance in an article in the East Valley Tribune from 2004.)

Related posts:

WhoDunIt Challenge with J.A. Jance

Jance interview with Mark David Garrison

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Laura Gibson: Music to Write By

Do you listen to music when you are writing?

I don’t listen when I’m actually writing, but I do look for music to get me into a certain mood or to motivate me before I start for the day.

Laura Gibson (no relation) is not only a singer-songwriter, but also recently completed her MFA in creative writing. Maybe that’s why this song is so inspiring.

 

 

In case you aren’t familiar, the Empire Builder is a train route from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest.

Some of the lines are haunting. I like that you can see the lyrics so you don’t have to guess the words.

What line(s) do you like best? What kind of music inspires you to write?

foggy-road-writing-prompt

Related:

Pitchfork has more information about Laura Gibson’s Empire Builder album and a review.

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Capitalizing Names of Dog Breeds

At a recent writing group meeting, we had a discussion about how to properly capitalize the names of dog breeds. Because there was no consensus. I thought it might be worth doing some research.

belgian-malinois

 (Photograph of Belgian Malinois by GBokas via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA)

Looking at various dog breeder websites, there is no consistency as to how dog breed names are capitalized. Apparently no rules apply.

I decided to go to a grammar expert instead. According to Grammar Girl, the parts of the names derived from proper nouns are capitalized and those from common nouns are not. To be sure, she suggests checking a dictionary.

Examples:

For the German shepherd dog breed, German is capitalized because it is a proper noun (Germany) and shepherd is not because it is a common noun. Dictionary.com agrees with this pattern of capitalization.

Using this model, a standard poodle is not capitalized, but the proper noun in Labrador retriever would be capitalized. Cross those two breeds, however, and the resulting labradoodle is not capitalized (Oxford concurs).

The dog breed that started the discussion was a Belgian Malinois, which is a type of working dog currently favored by law enforcement. Obviously Belgian is a proper noun, but what is Malinois? It turns out Malinois is also a proper name. It is derived from Malines, the French name for the city where the breed originated. Thus, both parts of the name should be capitalized.

Here’s how to pronounce Malinois:

 

In conclusion, whether you are writing about a beagle or an Irish setter a little research will keep you out of the dog house.

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