The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

The Blasted Backstory

I took a great short course on backstory at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference last week. Michelle Hoover, the teacher, is a fine writer (literary fiction – The Quickening) and knowledgeable instructor. I really needed the course.

She remarked to us that we control some part … maybe 60% … of what the reader gets out of a story, and that we ought to embrace the creativity and life experience the reader brings to the reading. That’s something I forget, particularly when wrestling with plot. Her notes for the class remind us, “The biggest mistake most beginning writers make is the belief a reader must know this or that about what occurred before the character’s present moment. The fault is generally due to the following: 1) the author’s distrust of the reader’s intelligence; 2) the author’s distrust of his/her own writing ability; 3) the author’s inability to give up control; 4) the author’s nervousness about beginning his/her own story …”

Ouch! I suffer from all of the above. Does the reader really need to know exactly what stop loss insurance is and how it’s calculated to fully understand the plot line of Hack the Yak? Or am I just a lazy, controlling author?

There. 1,000 words gone. Easy. Just like a good healthy …

stoploss insurance

One Rule of Writing from South Park

Great writing advice.  Not Aristotle’s Poetics.  Not E.M. Forster.  Not even Stephen King.  They’re great resources, but …

TA-DA … South Park. South Park

Great short interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker in which they divulge their ONE RULE of good writing!

You’ll like it.  Script writer, fiction writer, makes no difference … it’s good advice.  Simple and to the point.  (Contributed by my son, Edward.)



Quieting the Mind, Digital Flotsam and the Beach

I had my knee scoped back in January, and my plot for Skins and Bone went to hell. At the time, I didn’t associate the two. In fact, I didn’t figure it all out until the knee improved and I got to the beach. Where I could walk. Where I did not have to check my e-mail, look at Twitter, get drawn into the abyss of looking at YouTube videos or bathe in the statistics the elliptical trainer spits out (320 calories <blip> 134 bpm <blip> 18 minutes left <blip>).

Beach walkingWalking on the beach (I race walk, look funny and sweat) allows me to quiet my mind and speculate on plot. The current novel is a thriller, so plot’s important, but I am not one to write an outline and stick to it. My characters don’t always follow outlines very well … they’re human, after all. Instead, I float ideas, then let the characters marinate in them.

I guess I just relearned what wise men always knew: Quiet the mind to let creativity flow.

The Pilgrim’s Progress

HTY progress chartWhen I started out writing Hack the Yak, I didn’t think about genre, length or plot.  Just an interesting story.  The characters pretty much wrote the plot as they developed.  I ended up with 127,000 words, a main plot, two subplots, and a trip through the country where the blues music I love came from.  Then came reality.  Editors and published writers pointed out that a beginning writer has to hit the expectation of the market, which is 80 to 90 thousand words for mystery/suspense … 100,000 at very most.  So the seventh rewrite took it to 88,000 words.  I’ll save the subplots for other novels.  The blues highway is gone, too, but it gave me a published short story and inspired two that are out to magazines. All in all, it’s been a wonderful learning experience.  I hope the next novel, Skins and Bone, will require a little less rewrite.

Writing Groups and the Deluge

Ahh, those writing groups.  When I started, I bought into the concept of the lonely life.  You know, the writer sitting at a desk in his hovel (before publication) or hideaway (after publication), concentrating on stringing words together.  But ‘they’ said, join a writing group.  For the first several months, I was resistant.  Who could possibly critique my writing but myself.  Or maybe my wife, who is an accomplished writer.

Short story:  I did, and I’m glad.  I’m playing out the second novel to the threCritiquee writing groups in which I now participate.  I’d be disingenuous to say that it’s humbling.  Rather, it’s exciting, and it’s great to have other eyes coming from other perspectives look at one’s writing.  A writer of romance novels turns out to be a master at sentence structure.  A writer of mid-grade stories helps me understand that my hero is too much a wimp.  My wife makes my plots much, much better.  So far, I’m halfway through Skins and Bone, and I have these references (picture) to consider in the rewrite.  Hallelujah!

Groped! … Help!

Novice writers get a raft of advice.  One of the most repeated is the admonition to ‘Write what you know.’  Probably a good idea.  After all, if your character is someone entirely outside of your experience, how will you know how she reacts to the events in the plot?

That brings me to the problem at hand:  In my current story, my protagonist Weezy, Joe Mayfield’s special friend (lady friend? See last post ‘Pelvic Affiliate’) attends a business event with him.  Now, Weezy is 35 and no shrinking violet.  At the event, Joe’s uber-boss slips a hand on Weezy’s girl surprisedbehind. I need some help from the women who read this, because I haven’t been groped.  Fondled, maybe, and then only in a friendly way.  Never groped, though.

What would you do?

There’s some background on Weezy here, although I’m more interested in how YOU would react.  The lead-in to the grope is an excerpt from Skins and Bone, here.

If you are willing to answer, write a response to this post.  In the response, let me know whether you’re willing to have your answer be public.  (I moderate all posts and will not show your response if you tell me it should not be public.)

Outline or Crash ahead?

For my first novel, Hack the Yak, I just started writing, mostly character sketches.  Then wove the people together into a plot.  Call it the Crash Ahead writing method.  I loved writing that first draft, typos and inconsistencies included.  I’d just sit down and throw myself at my characters and watch ‘em react.  The plot suffered.  Stuff happened in Spring that should have happened in Winter.  Characters ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Subplots wrenched control away from the main plot .  But, ahhh, it was fun.

Early in the novel I’m working on now, I joined two writing groups.  We’ve had some discussion on the subject.  I got fired up about using an outline and began assembling (electronic) index cards to sort out the plot.  I just couldn’t get into the outlining business.  Too much like work.  But I could see that the plot would benefit.  So, being a middle-of-the-road, see-both-sides-and-generally-stay-in-the-middle kind of guy, I produced a fairly detailed synopsis, then got back to what I like doing, generally following the synopsis.  We’ll see how it goes.


Potholes!  Newly returned to Minneapolis, I had forgotten that pothoPotholeles are an attribute not of winter, but of that brief season between Winter and Road Construction called Spring.

I get potholes in my stories, too. In the chapter of Skins and Bone that I just put up, someone in my writing group pointed out that Nita Solchow, a minor chararacter who is interested (perhaps romantically) in my protagonist Joe Mayfield is far too emotionally fragile when confronted with the fact that Joe’s attention and intention is toward Louise Napolitani. Nita is, after a New York investment banker. It was a point well taken. I was talking about how she felt, not how she acted. So, I’ve got to fill that pothole with some cement and do a bit of a rewrite.

Technical Details

As you have noticed, intrepid readers, I have been away from the blog for a couple of  weeks.  I have a variety of well-rehearsed excuses, but the real reason is that I have been doing the pick-and-shovel work of writing Skins and Bone, whose plot is based on a somewhat intricate set of financial transactions.  My struggle has been how to provide enough background without boring the reader.

The leader of a writing group I’m in suggested that I watch a 2011 movie, Margin Call, which is based on the intricate financial transactions behind the 2007-8 financial meltdown of the financial markets and seems to be channeling the Lehman Brothers story.  The movie has helped me immensely.  It made me realize that that there are two groups of readers for any book with technical details in the plot:  the presumably smallish group that understands the details and will be critical if the author slips up on details, and the much larger group that wants to get on with the story.  Margin Call handles this by using technical VAR graphdetail when it needs to without lengthy definitions … in fact, without any definition at all. For those of us that know VAR means Value At Risk, for example, the movie uses the term accurately.  Margin Call doesn’t explain VAR or MBS (mortgage-backed security) or counterparty risk, but it develops a plot that depends on those concepts.  Instead of intricate detail, it goes straight for the conclusion:  Kevin Spacey, looking at a monitor over the shoulder of a junior analyst, says, “This number here is telling me that we’re going under, right?”  So, both the critical techies and the interested general readers are given what they need.

HittingTime_7Phew!  I guess that means I don’t have to get into stochastic calculus in Skins and Bone.  It’s just sufficient to know that my character Weezy understands it.