Q & A: What method do you use to write a novel? Please include some things you like and dislike about your method.

The only “correct” way to write is the way that works best for you. Some write longhand on a tablet. Some outline, draft, outline again, then fill in the blanks. Some write the ending first then work their way toward it. Some write sequentially though I swear I don’t know how they do it! Stephen King begins all his stories with a single thought. “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” For example, for his novella “The Mist” he thought “Wouldn’t it be funny if huge bugs attacked a supermarket?” (yeah, the guy has a warped sense of humor!)

My personal style is to listen. For example, I was walking downtown recently when I saw a street sign at an intersection. I was on 17th street, but the only marker for the cross street was a “one way” sign. And I suddenly heard a voice say “I live at the corner of 17th and One Way.” The voice was middle-aged, female, and quite British. I tried to figure out who said it, why it was important, and what the townsfolk thought about the lady who lived there. It’s one of my best stories!

Oh, also, I don’t really write. Even this answer to you – my fingers write. If I couldn’t type I’m not sure I’d be much of a writer, because most of the time they tell the tales. I sometimes feel as though I’m just along for the ride!


Q & A: How Do I Become a Writer?

Excellent question!  I think many people who aren’t actively involved in the arts are a bit intimidated when they start.  Really, the best way to be a good writer is to be a good reader. And by “good” I mean voracious. Consume books. Devour books. And when you’re not doing that, write.

Second – don’t worry. People will say you can’t do it. You’ll receive that judgey little smirk when you announce you’re writing a novel, followed by the withering down-their-nose stare when they ask how often you’ve been published. Screw ‘em. You aren’t writing for them. I worried myself straight out of a career that way. Don’t be me.

Third – listen to those who have gone before you, but don’t dwell on them. Neil Gaiman offers some nifty advice here (check out the very first thing he says and take it to heart):

FAQs | Advice to Authors

FWIW, my favorite “how to” book is written by Stephen King.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Wikipedia

Reading that made me feel like I was sitting down with my favorite Uncle. You know, the one who tells all the really cool stories your parents don’t want you to hear. At the same time his advice is clear, direct, and entirely useful.

Along with ditching the worry, don’t stress about getting it right. When I write I turn off both my spell check and my grammar program. If I edit as I write I’ll never finish a page. Don’t worry about “voice”. Don’t worry about “tense”. Don’t worry about format. All that comes later. Until you have something down on paper all you have is an idea.

Come on! The world needs your novel, or whatever the heck it is you’re writing. Speaking of which, one of my favorite motivations is National Novel Writing Month (aka Nanowrimo).

National Novel Writing Month

It happens every November but don’t fret. Even if you’re past the date (or too early, it really depends on your point-of-view) you’ll still find an active community of writers there. It’s great for encouragement.

One last thing. Writer’s block. It hits us all. Perhaps that’s why you were asking in the first place. If you’re still wondering how to write, what to write, when to write… do this. Snag your favorite pen, tablet, journal or word processor. Write this sentence:

“I can’t write.”

Write it out again.

“I can’t write. I can’t write.”

Try a few more. Seriously.

“I can’t write. I can’t write. I can’t write! And there’s this crazy American chick who just told me to write this stupid phrase when I really wanted to flirt with this amazing British actor. But here I am writing this stupid phrase anyway. So there, are you HAPPY NOW? Crazy American chick? I can’t write I can’t write I can’t write! I. Can’t WRITE!!!”

Congratulations. You just wrote. Not only that, you have the basis of a character! He’s talking to you. Listen to him. Write him down. In the end that’s really who you’re writing for. Your characters need a voice. Now, this one has one. Go get ‘em!

Air Force Jargon for Civilians

USAFI grew up in the twilight world of the Military Brat.  I wasn’t in the military myself, but because I was raised in that culture I have far more in common with them than I do with civilians.  40 years later I frequently pepper my speech with things I heard my father say when I was a kid.

When you’re writing about the military don’t forget that it casts a very long shadow.  There’s two sets of acronyms.  The first is the most common,  used by active duty personnel while at work.  It includes very specific terms to describe a weapon, a base, a plane etc. – you can find a ton of lists like this for all branches.

I’ve tried to focus on the second set, which is either used by active duty personnel when they’re off duty / off base, or by people who associate with active duty personnel (parent, spouse, child etc.).  Rather than describing a specific weapon or machine, the majority of phrases in the second set are situational (“SNAFU” is a great personal favorite).

warning_MCGPlease keep in mind a few truths about military speech – strong language is a given, and the phrases are often extremely misogynisticI’ve done my best to avoid the latter, but if you’re writing in a military environment be aware it’s just par for the course. Even females will use anti-female terms if applied to someone who is thought to be weaker than themselves. For example “BIB” would be the “Bitch in Back”. It can refer to a female copilot or to a whiny / weak male copilot while on base.  Off base “BIB” might describe a nagging wife, girlfriend, mother or daughter.

Edit:  My darlin’ Father added clarification to a few of these – thanks Dad!

ACC – for example, this is one that Dad clarified.  I grew up in the era of TAC/SAC (see below).  The last base Dad was stationed at was Langley Field in Virginia.  As of 1992 TAC/SAC merged to become Air Combat Command, which is one of the 10 major commands in the USAF.  Wow.  No more TAC/SAC?  The horror!!  Anyway, if your story is set before 1992 use TAC/SAC.  After – use ACC and carry on.

AFU – All fucked up – pronounced “Alpha Foxtrot Uniform”

AWOL – Absent Without Leave.  Civilian application = someone who isn’t home / where they ought to be when they said they’d be.

penguinBag of Balls / Penguin – a plane that’s always broken. Civilian application – a lemon.  When calling about a car in the shop, it might be: “How’s the Penguin?” “Tango Uniform”.

Barn – hangar. Hangars can be used for many things, so for example a “barn dance” is any recreational gathering held for a lot of people in an unused hangar

BFE – ‘Bum Fuck Egypt.’ Refers to a remote base. In civilian speak, it means “middle of nowhere”

BLQ / BOQ – Bachelor Living Quarters / Bachelor Officer Quarters – this one’s important! This is where most of the cute and available guys are concentrated, also where the majority of trouble starts (either there or the O Club)

Bingo – very low / close to zero, usually applied to fuel level. Bingo Fuel = just enough fuel to get home.  Though when used by civilians in casual conversation it could be “out of gas” as well.

BX – Base Exchange – it’s sort of like the base Walmart. The entire family would use this one easily.  This is “PX” in the Army.

Clusterfuck – this one is commonly used by civilians, but in the military it usually refers to one of two specific events – either the superior officer really screwed up, resulting in mission failure / punishment for all, or a woman is involved. (sorry, sad but true usage)

Commissary – that’s the base grocery store. Here’s some info on the BX / Commisary places a military spouse / family would know about.

Snoopy flying on his dog houseDipsy Doodle – this is when a pilot climbs to altitude, then suddenly dives for quick acceleration – usually to go supersonic. I include this one because any kid who hears it adores the term, and they’ll use it for all sorts of things. My brother and I called pill bugs “Dipsy Doodles” later shortened to “Doodle Bugs” just for the hell of it.  The last time I heard it, a guy with a motorcycle was describing riding on a very hilly road so fast that his butt left the seat a few times.

DOE – Date of Enlistment – this is important for any number of reasons – most have to do with pay or when you get out. This is one of the terms a spouse would be very aware of.

PatchAAF.0000.AAF.ArmyAirForceCadetSchoolDoolie – A freshman attending the USAFA.

Doolie Lookout – usually a balcony or other place where a parent can spy on a couple out on a date

Double Aught Dark – midnight (fwiw, “aught” sounds like “ought” with a sort of flat “ah” sound at the beginning)

FRED – Fucking Ridiculous Economic Disaster – It has a specific usage for military personnel, but for a military family / spouse this term can have some very creative usage.

FUBAR – Fucked Up Beyond All Reason

GMT – Greenwich Mean Time (see “Zulu”)

Grub Steak – this isn’t always present, but on several of the bases I was at, it’s sort of a military 7-11. Without Slurpies.

HUAW – Hurry Up and Wait

keep-it-simple-stupid-3KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid – never said aloud, but written in notes

NCO – Non-commissioned Officer – this is often a source of confusion outside military families.

O Club – Officer’s club – imagine a strange hybrid of a really run down country club and a bank.

OIC – Officer in Command – often a nickname applied to a military spouse

OTS – Officer Training School – this is different from Basic, just for officers.

PICNIC – Problem In Chair, Not In Computer; Used by help desk personnel to indicate user ignorance. This is the military version of PIBKAC (problem is between keyboard and chair – in other words, the user)

RTB – Return To Base – civilian application, “Go home”

SAC – Strategic Air Command – big rivalry with TAC.  Use this term if your story is set before 1992.

SNAFU – Situation Normal All Fucked Up

TAC – Tactical Air Command – big rivalry with SAC.  Use this term if your story is set before 1992.

TDY – Temporary Duty. This is when someone is assigned to another base short-term – say a couple of weeks, maybe for specialized training. One of the most common phrases I heard growing up.

Tango Uniform = “Tits Up” = “it’s broken” civilian application “How’s the car?” “Tango Uniform” (you’d say “tits up” if not in mixed company, in other words if your superior or children aren’t present – used by mixed genders around mixed genders)

USAFA – this wouldn’t actually be used or spoken by anyone normally, but it’s the official abbreviation of the United States Air Force Academy. If you have a character referring to it, they’d say “the Academy”, “The Zoo” (most common) or maybe even “C Springs”, but this is how they’d write it, and know what they’re talking about.

Zoo – Nickname for the Air Force Academy, home of the Doolie

Zulu – Standardized clock setting where all military clocks are set to the same time – usually corresponds with GMT

Also, if you’re writing military, be sure to know your phonetic alphabet! You wouldn’t say something like ATB – you’d say Alpha Tango Bravo.

Writing Is a “Risky, Humiliating Endeavor”?

insecureThe New York Times recently published an “Opinionator” entitled “Writing is a Risky, Humiliating Endeavor”. In it, the author describes how his ex-wife unfriended him for what she considered an unflattering portrait of her in his book. He goes on to confess various insecurities about his writing, how it will be received, his fear of offending anyone. A friend of his called him in a panic – people had been talking about her online after being published.

Let’s face it: just writing something, anything, and showing it to the world, is to risk ridicule and shame. What if it is bad? What if no one wants to read it, publish it? What if I can’t even finish the thing? Every time I begin a book, a story, even a fresh page, I have a sense that it might go horribly wrong.”

At first I thought the piece was satire, a little comedy bit about papering the walls with rejection slips. It dawned on me about 2/3 of the way through the article that he was sincere. He really cringes at the thought of people judging him through his work.

3v1vhlThis is tough for me to wrap my mind around. Before I ever wrote a word I knew the horror stories told by Stephen King and William Golding. Not “The Stand” or “Lord of the Flies”, but rather the dozens of rejection letters they received before gaining the attention of a publisher. JK Rowling approached bankruptcy before “Harry Potter” became an international bestseller. Before the advent of the form letter, many rejection slips came with a personal warning. Zane Grey was told he had no business being a writer and to give up. Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was assured he was just too weird to ever succeed.

As I mulled these statistics I remembered something else. Robin Williams. When I heard about his death it hit me as though I lost a personal friend. When I heard it was suicide, a part of me just started crying. It’s still crying.

The public reacted pretty much as one would expect. The first wave was of loss, sadness, pure grief. But the moment the news came out that it was suicide, the “social sneer” started to raise it’s head. Instead of “how horrible” I started seeing stories about how weak he was, how selfish. How could he do that to his public? To his family? What had started as a tragedy devolved into a character flaw.

I did what I always do when I’m mad. I wrote about it. I even submitted a shorter version to my local paper. To consider suicide an act of selfish weakness is to completely, thoroughly, utterly lack the slightest understanding of mental illness. This conclusion lacks empathy, compassion and…


David Gordon, author of the above article, I offer my apology. In my determination to become published, I have indeed forgotten the kind of personal risk that’s involved. I’ve armor plated my emotions these days when it comes to my writing. I take constructive criticism with a grain of salt and cheerfully feed flames to my Charmander. Maybe it’s just that I’ve fought so many personal battles over my health that I can afford to be a bit blaze if people reject my writing. No matter.

anne+frankTo you, David, and to every insecure writer out there I say this – we’re all in this together. The people who aspire to create for a living are already setting themselves apart from the “norm”. Most people can’t imagine how we do what we do. David, you say you used to cringe if someone described writing as “brave”. First responders are indeed very brave people. But so are writers, artists and anyone who would try to create something from nothing for a living, then offer it for consumption to the general public. Yes, those same people who can’t imagine how we do what we do.

It’s a scary, scary world, David. I’m not even sure why. There’s a way to tell someone “no” with kindness, to encourage them even while rejecting their efforts. Then there’s the fan who told me they wanted to give one of my stories the MST3K treatment, in a sincere desire to “help me improve”. Funny? Maybe. Constructive? No.

David, you’re published. I’m not. Your opinion piece ran in the bloody New York Times! In the world of profit and loss you’re already worlds ahead of me. But even more, even with all that insecurity, you still have the guts to go out there and just do it.

Thank you, David, not only for the inspiration, but for the best perspective check I’ve had in a long time.

And now… a motivational message.

Today is February 16th, which means that those of us who are participating in Febnowrimo have just hit our halfway point.  I volunteered to offer the midway motivational message.  So here it is!

 Neil Gaiman says...

Neil Gaiman says…

My original goal was just like November – 50,000 words.  This averages to 1,667 words per day. THEN reality came to call.  Drear Mundania stomped in, tracked mud all over my carpet and put its grimy feet up on my couch.  I’ve just passed 17,000 words and there’s little hope I’ll make my original goal.  I’m feeling the weight of a lot of unexpected pressures right now.  Maybe I’ll just quit.

give up

Oh, heck no.  Not going to happen.

We can start with cliché.  Anything worth doing is worth doing well.  However, if that isn’t working, fine.  Don’t stand on perfection.  Don’t worry about the world or what they think.  Just WRITE.


Writing grows as you do.  Your idea will take shape around you.  The key to it all is to start, and not to stop until it’s done.




How to write: cutting down exterior distractions

Right now, as I type, there’s a siren going past outside.  My cats are trying to kill each other.  The phone has been ringing all morning (the dentists had to cancel my partner’s appointment – apparently the surgeon quit).  My own surgeon canceled my appointment (again), I’m mulling the benefits of a one-on-one vs. class action lawsuit, and my partner’s alarm clock is going off.


Why yes, I’m a bit stressed. Why do you ask?

Yeah, this is what happens when I try to write during the day.

But it brings up a good point.  Writers write because they must.  It’s not a calling, it’s a necessity.  It’s not like I can stop.  However, there are days when I suffer not so much from writer’s block as from serious brain frag (pause here to comfort the little frightened cat who just jumped into my lap).

It’s time to pull out a few tricks, designed to keep Drear Mundania at bay.  Incidentally, these are honest recommendations – I don’t profit from them.

1. Noise cancelling earphones.  This was a gross indulgence – I admit it.  I got an amazing deal on a professional pair of Koss headphones nearly 20 years ago.  I almost cried when they finally died.  It took a long time to settle on a replacement pair.  Ultimately, I decided to go with the Bose QuietComfort 15.  They’re targeted to the business / commuter crowd, designed to block out airplane noise.  But they also block out sirens, cats, doorbells, telephones, televisions alarm clocks etc. etc.  When you don’t have the luxury of solitude, this is the next best thing.  If you want to listen to music in addition to blocking outside noise, the sound quality is amazing!  Just what you’d expect from Bose.

2. Ambient sound – I know most writers have a soundtrack for their stories, which is a grand idea.  But sometimes I prefer a different type of mood.  That’s where the ambient sound generators come in.  My favorite (by a long chalk) is “Relax Melodies” from Ipnos Soft.  I’m so enthusiastic about this product I really should work for the company!

One of several pages of ambient sound choices from Relax Melodies

One of several pages of ambient sound choices from Relax Melodies

The basic package for a computer (vs. a smart phone) comes with nearly 100 different sounds that you can combine, depending on need.  Feeling cheerful?  Let’s combine bird song, children’s laughter and some water sprinklers.  No, I’m feeling drama coming on.  For that one, how about slow rolling waves combined with the sound of a distant fog horn.  Maybe some seagulls.  Wait, I’m writing historical romance!  Punch in a crackling fireplace and a harpsichord.  Wait, it’s set in the winter.  No problem!  Fire, harpsichord and sleet hitting the window.  Got it!  And so on.  The combinations are nearly endless!

In addition to the sounds, Relax Melodies also includes six “binaural beats”.  These are not intended to be heard, you layer them under the sounds you’ve selected.  When listened to in the headphones, the binaurals promote different brain wave activity ranging from “pre-sleep” and “Deep meditation” to “Concentration”.  I’ve found that the “Relaxation” setting is the most productive for writing, but YMMV of course.  It also can be set to a timer if you want to use the program to sleep to.  Nice touch!


3.  If heavy duty headphones or binaurals aren’t your thing, how about a distraction-free word processor?  Many packages come with a minimalist environment setting to help you focus.  I personally like the “OmmWriter” by Dana.  This software starts with a blank screen, artfully decorated with a scattering of trees in the background.  You have the option of turning on ambient noise such as keyboard clicking, and there are relaxing musical tones such as chimes that can repeat softly if you wish.  It’s inexpensive and the company just upgraded to work well with the latest OS packages.

These ideas won’t keep all your problems at bay, but they can certainly help improve your writing environment!

Scene Excerpt: 75 Miles to Montauk

Of course they got caught!


“They think we’re part of a… a… conspiracy theory!”  For the first time in a very long time, Caden was angry.

“We are part of a conspiracy theory.”  Muffled in his arms, Evan’s voice still carried.

“That’s hardly the point.”

“They don’t really think that.”  For once Julie was calm, reasonable.

“My ears must deceive me.”

“It’s what they want you to hear.”


Julie warmed to her topic.  “Conspiracy theory is sort of a code.  They want us to think they’re blowing us off.  They’re just testing us.”

“For what?’  Tristan seemed neither angry nor bitter.  He was just curious.

“To see how serious we are.”  Julie looked around.  “Am I the only person who saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind?”

“No dear,” Caden replied wearily, eyeing the bars.  “You’re just the only one who took it seriously.”


Writing Journey – HOW many hats does an aspiring author wear?

When I decided to really get serious about my writing, I took several factors into consideration.  The idea for this novel is very timely, and will remain so for at least the next 18-24 months.  If I’m lucky, I should still have a socially relevant book to sell when I’m done pounding keys.  I’ve shown a few scenes to various groups with enthusiastic results.  I also have time to write just now, which can’t be underestimated.  Combine that with signing up for Nanowrimo at just the right time last year, and I gave myself permission to go for it.

That was last October.  Since then I’ve not only focused on my writing, but on learning as much as I can about the publishing industry.  I’m not discouraged by what I’ve learned.  In fact, I’m glad the climb is becoming more defined, less nebulous.  But this is not a climb for the faint of heart.

First: statistics.  As of a few years ago, 47% of American households could be expected to go out and buy a book.  Yes, that means 53% of all American households didn’t.  Of that 47%, 80% bought romance novels.  This leaves 20% to split between JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephen King, and the rest of us.


If a first-time author wants to try publishing the old-fashioned way (that is, find an agent, an editor and a publishing house willing to take a chance) the first thing that author must bring to the table is (obviously) a finished product.  Finished, polished, buffed, honed and as perfect as they can get it.  While your first hat must be your “Author” cap, your second hat should be that of “Editor”.  It’s good advice to squash the inner editor during the creative process.  However, that voice is of critical importance during the polishing phase.  The word count for a debut novel should be no more than 50,000 – 80,000. If your team wants a more detailed effort they’ll tell you, but it’s likely they’ll want to hedge their bet.  Short novels have a better chance of catching a new audience, and cost less to publish.

Ok, you’ve written the greatest American novel ever.  You’ve edited it down to a nub of its former self.  Do you have a fan base?  If not, stop.  Go forth, new author.  Obtain fans.  In addition to being a fantastic writer and a whiz bang editor, the modern novelist must also excel in marketing.  Beat the bushes.  Network like mad.  Bring at least 1,000 willing and able readers with you to the negotiating table or go home.

I will NOT be intimidated! (she says, eyeing the growing pile of hats)

Right!  You’ve written the novel, you’ve polished your baby, you’ve whipped up a rabid fan base.  You’re good to go, right?  Park that right now, aspiring author!  Get measured for hats #4 & 5, movie producer.

Isn’t this putting the cart slightly before the horse?  No, not really.  There’s two ways to employ your inner director/producer/casting agent, both will serve you well.  The first really is in the form of a film.  I remember one of my favorite Ian McKellen quotes.  Coming off Lord of the Rings, moving into X-men, he was asked what it was like jumping back and forth between them.  He didn’t miss a beat.  “Darling,” he replied with a smile, “one can never have too many franchises!”  Likewise, you can never go wrong anticipating multiple markets for your material.  You’ve got a great story.  Now you’re trying to sell it.  You’ve got the readership, no problem.  But if you can throw in a potential movie, it may be one more reason to move forward to publication.  Are you supposed to contact studios before publishers?  No.  But if your project lends itself well to multiple mediums, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

unitThe second way is a “book trailer”.  I was introduced to this concept several months ago while considering “The Unit”, by Ninni Holmqvist.  It’s an intriguing dystopian novel on the subject of “disposable humans”.   As I mulled over the description, I saw a link asking me to “View the Trailer”.  What, it’s being made into a movie already?  No.  As I quickly discovered, it was a 2 minute teaser for the book itself.

According to this happily straightforward article featured in the “ProActive Writer Blog”, a book trailer is a must-have for the self-published writer.  I agree, but I’d expand that to “every single author engaged in the art of self-promotion”.  In other words, all of us.  While books are designed to appeal to a readership, a book trailer works quickly on an emotional level to promote a concept.  It also helps boost the idea that yes, your book will easily adapt to the silver screen if (when!) the time comes.

Writers are creative, or we couldn’t do this at all.  Shepherding your first project from concept to sale will require quite a bit of mental gymnastics.  JK Rowling did it.  Suzanne Collins handled it.  Stephan King makes it look easy.  I can do it!

Can you?  (the correct answer is HECK YEAH!!)

How to Write: Are there rules to good writing?

I like io9.com.  It’s a strange little website covering geeky stuff that appeals to my inner nerd.  But I just read something in their “writing advice” column that had me gnashing my teeth.   “What it Means When Someone Tries to Tell You THE Rules of Good Writing“.  This is an informal follow-up to a previous article, “10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break”

The ideas behind them both is that hard and fast rules, when applied to the creative process, are more like guidelines.  Essentially, go with whatever works for you, but try to be consistent.  Then they offer an example of an occasion when one of their suggestions actually worked.  At this point I’m reminded of the old bumper sticker; “Just because you’re misunderstood does not make you an artist”.

I appreciate the well intended “accept yourself for who you are” movement.  And I do agree that ironclad laws should not be strictly applied to creative expression.  There is a strong need for individual expression, otherwise “creative” wouldn’t be in the description.  But there’s what works, and what doesn’t.  If your goal is to write for public consumption you need a solid foundation in the mechanics of the written word, along with the construction of longer works.  After you’ve got that down. then start branching out into your own unique style.

What annoys me so much about articles like this is the mixed message it sends out.  Unless a writer is completely delusional, they know when something isn’t working.  It’s the “something” that confuses so many.  They know what they want to say, but how do you get to that point?  According to the self-acceptance movement, you don’t.  You create in whatever manner you see fit, it’s up to the public to accept your genius for what it is.  If they don’t the problem is with them, not you.

Really no.  There is such a thing as bad writing.  And yes, there are some excellent guidelines to follow.  I traditionally recommend “On Writing” by Stephen King as my favorite how-to book.  King is wildly popular with a broad swath of the public – his credit is good.  Also, he offers solid information without making the reader feel like a moron.

Let’s look at examples.  We’ll start with bad.  The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual contest seeking out the worst writing of the year (in a single sentence).  It’s named after the guy who really did begin his novel with “It was a dark and stormy night”.  Here’s the whole passage, from the novel “Paul Clifford”:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” –Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, 1830

This is classic “purple prose”.  Why say it in one word when fourteen will do?  I can already hear the protests going out – Yes.  It works sometimes.  Two examples off the top of my head are “The Witching Hour” by Anne Rice, and any line written by Quentin Tarantino for a Christoph Waltz character.  But these are devices.  They should not to be used on a regular basis.  Anne uses the device to draw a reader into a dreamy world of magic, where life moves at a different, slower pace.  Intended as a seduction, it works only occasionally.  Most readers will tell you it’s cool for a while, then they start skipping pages (entire pages!) of descriptive passages.  Tarantino, meanwhile, balances the verbose Waltz characters with a taciturn counterpart, King Shultz with Django Freeman, Hans Landa first with Perrier LaPadite, then with Shosanna Dreyfus.

Let’s stay with Stephen King for a great example of an opening sequence. This is the first page of “The Long Walk”.  One of his infamous “Bachman Books”, he wrote under a pen name to see if he could appeal to an audience when they didn’t know who he was.


An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.  One of the guards, an expressionless young man in a khaki uniform and a Sam Browne belt, asked to see the blue plastic ID card.  The boy in the back seat handed it to his mother.  His mother handed it to the guard.  The guard took it to a computer terminal that looked strange and out of place in the rural stillness.  The computer terminal ate the card and flashed this on its screen:




ID NUMBER 49-801-89


The guard punched another button and all of this disappeared, leaving the terminal screen smooth and green and blank again.  He waved them forward.

“Don’t they give the card back?” Mrs. Garraty asked.  “Don’t they–”

“No, Mom,” Garraty said patiently.

“Well, I don’t like it,” she said, pulling forward into an empty space.  She had been saying it ever since they set out in the dark of two in the morning.  She had been moaning it, actually.

“Don’t worry,” he said without hearing himself.  He was occupied with looking and with his own confusion of anticipation and fear.  He was out of the car almost before the engine’s last asthmatic wheeze – a tall, well-built boy wearing a faded army fatigue jacket against the eight o’clock spring chill.

His mother was also tall, but too thin.  Her breasts were almost nonexistent: token nubs.  Her eyes were wandering and unsure, somehow shocked.  Her face was an invalid’s face.  Her iron-colored hair had gone awry under the complication of clips that was supposed to hold it in place.  Her dress hung badly on her body as if she had recently lost a lot of weight.

“Ray,” she said in that whispery conspirator’s voice that he had come to dread.  “Ray, listen–”


King makes the most of his 320 words. His use of simile quickly draws his reader into a fantastical situation, by comparing it to the ordinary.  Description of the objects around them go far to describe both Ray and his mother – her dress hangs off of her, the car is old and in need of repair.  By associating the word “asthmatic ” with the engine he puts in a clever twist.  While it’s possible for rich people to have asthma, it’s typically associated with the poor.  He’s implying not only a broken car but reinforcing an economic assumption about his character.

The guard is given next to no description.  He’s young and has no expression.  He does not judge.  But note Ray’s mother – her panic when he didn’t give the card back.  Her reaction establishes everything we need to know about the soldier.  He is part of the machine they find themselves trapped in.  They don’t attempt to speak to him directly – this telegraphs to the reader there’s no point.  He is AUTHORITY.

What do we know about Ray? It is implied he’s in the back seat because he’s too young to drive.  And yet in two sentences King established that the mother is in need of reassurance, the child must be patient with her.  This tells you a great deal not only about both characters, but about the situation as a whole.

The selection concludes with Ray’s mother whispering frantically to him.  At this point the reader should really want to know more.  Why is she whispering?  Why does he dread it?  What the heck is going on?  Already King is building a cage for his characters, and by extension his readers.  When she hunches in, the conspirator’s voice, it begins to close in.

Good writers are normally voracious readers.  When you see something good, stop.  Go back.  Read it again.  Start taking it apart.  Why did this work for you?  At the same time don’t avoid bad writing.  Seek it out.  Start at a page like The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  Read over the entries.  Check out the comments.  Why don’t they work?

There may not be ironclad rules for creative expression, but don’t be lulled into the idea that it’s “anything goes”, or even that there are just casual guidelines.  Even Picasso had to learn the basics first.

The Kindle Single

I do not like horror, but I love Stephen King as an author and a businessman. The first time the Green Mile was published, it was serialized. I own the complete collection of The Stand as a graphic novel. This is another example of his willingness to expand the limits of what an author can (and perhaps should) do.

Guns (Kindle Single)

Also, while we’re on the subject of King, his book “On Writing” is one of the finest I’ve read in the “how to” genre.