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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Favorite Books

Writing Tip — Favorite Books: The Deer on a Bicycle by Patrick McManus

735600I featured this book a couple of years ago, but I am revisiting it because this month’s theme is humor, and Patrick McManus is my favorite humor writer. His stories appeared in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life and then were collected into books. He also wrote a series of mysteries featuring Sheriff Bo Tully.

One of the many great things about this book is that Mr. McManus’s day job was teaching writing at Eastern Washington University, so not only could he write, he could teach it, too. Even if you don’t write humor, The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor is packed with great advice.

I like the framework for the first half of the book. Mr. McManus has an imaginary character named Newton ask questions about writing, such as “Pat, what do you mean by ‘indirection’ in a story?”, “What do you believe is the ultimate in prose style, Pat?’, and “Short humor, Pat. What is it and who cares?”

In the second half of the book, the author selects twelve of his short stories and provides commentary about each one, focusing on structure or characters or some other writing techniques.

In his commentary on the story “Sequences”, Mr. McManus describes the Recognition Factor. These are little aspects of life that are true to almost everybody. Writers notice these thing because we are always on the look out for inspiration. The reader “gets this little charge of delight” when he reads something in a story that he recognizes from his own life.

When he comments on a disastrous camping trip in “The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw,” Mr. McManus explains that he visualizes “the kind of disaster I want to produce”. Then he plots the events “that will lead to that disaster.”

Both of these pieces of advice I can use in my mysteries. In my upcoming short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, my main character owns a beat-up truck with gears that jam. My dad had a truck like that when I was growing up. Many readers have had a vehicle that  quits working when they need it most. That’s the Recognition Factor.

When plotting a mystery, I often know where I want to end. Then I plot backwards and see how I can logically arrive at my ending.

I’ll be discussing other pieces of advice from this book later this month.

Has a humorous story contained a Recognition Factor for you?

Writing Tip — Favorite Book: 20 Master Plots (and How to Build Them) by Ronald B. Tobias

20 Master PlotsPlotting seems to be my weakest skill, so I’m always interested in improving it. I snatched up 20 Master Plots (and How to Build Then) by Ronald B. Tobias when I found it at the library. The edition I read was published in 1993. A newer edition was published in 2003.

Mr. Tobias categorizes the twenty plots in chapters with titles like “Quest”, “The Riddle” (of particular interest to this crime writer), “Temptation”, and “Sacrifice.” For each plot he summarizes classic examples. In “Quest”, he uses The Wizard of Oz and the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In “Sacrifice”, he describes the plots for the movies Casablanca and High Noon. The 1949 film noir D.O.A. is the example for “The Riddle”.

Before he gets to the master plots, Mr. Tobias has five chapters on some basic principles of plot, including story vs. plot, creating opposing arguments, and the inseparable link between plot and character. Some of his points I already knew and appreciated the author’s confirmation. Others were new to me. Some I disagreed with, such as Mr. Tobias doesn’t like plots that exist solely to deliver a “gotcha” to the reader. I loves those kind of plots in short stories.

Warning for Worriers

When I first had my kids, I tried to read What to Expect When You are Expecting from cover to cover and gave myself a terrible case of anxiety. Every time I read about a particular developmental problem or disease, I worried that one of my children was exhibiting those symptoms. I learned I should only consult the book when I had specific need, such as a teething problem.

It works the same with books on writing.

If I pick one up without a specific purpose in mind, I imagine my writing has every problem the author of the advice book outlines. If your mind runs this away too, then only go to writing books when you want help in a specific area. When several agents told me to work on “show, don’t tell”, I bought two book on the topic. When I thought my dialogue could be better, I checked out a book from my library.

What resources have you found to help you with plot?

Writing Tip — Favorite Book: The Outsiders

OutsidersThe Outsiders was the one Young Adult (YA) novel I read as a young adult and actually liked. By the time I was twelve, I was reading adult books, mostly mysteries from the Golden Age of Detective fiction and action-adventure novels by Alistair MacLean. I only discovered the novel when the movie aired on TV when I was sixteen. I wrote about that two years ago when it was the fiftieth anniversary of The Outsiders.

Today I am writing about the things that made me fall in love with the novel, qualities I try to remember when writing my YA fiction.

Kids on Their Own

I think one of the reasons I switched to adult fiction is that I got sick of books with teen characters, who make huge mistakes — dumb ones in my opinion — and then get corrected by adults. I had enough of that going on in reality. In The Outsiders, Ponyboy Curtis, the main character, lives with his twenty-year-old brother because their parents recently died in a car accident. He has to work out the problems in his life for himself or with the help of his brothers or friends. I found the absence of adult figures, except for a few key scenes, greatly appealing.

First-Person Narration

Ponyboy tells his story in first-person. His narration is so personal that I felt like he was sitting beside me, talking to me as a friend. Author S. E. Hinton threw in all kinds of extra detail that didn’t directly affect the plot but made Ponyboy, his brothers, and the friends of his gang seem real. Such as the Curtis brothers like chocolate cake for breakfast, Ponyboy hates most guys with green eyes, and he loves to smoke but also runs track.

I still enjoy reading YA fiction because so many authors use first-person. I don’t find it nearly as often in adult fiction of any genre. Many times the third-person narration keeps the characters at a distance from me.

Characters Described in Depth

Ms. Hinton introduces Ponyboy and the other main characters in the first chapter with detailed descriptions. Today her style is considered poor writing. But I loved it then and still do. In a few pages, Ms. Hinton allowed me to imagine those characters vividly.

Sodapop Curtis –” . . . he has a finely drawn, sensitive face that somehow manages to be reckless and thoughtful at the same time.”

Dallas Winston — “He had an elfish face, with high cheekbones and a pointed chine, small, sharp animal teeth, and ears like a lynx.”

Johnny Cade — “He was the gang’s pet, everyone’s kid brother.”

What’s your favorite YA novel? Do you still love it as an adult?

Writing Tip — Favorite Books and Giveaway: “The Emotion Thesaurus”

Emotion-Thesaurus-2nd-EditionI can’t remember how I found The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, but it was one of the best books I’ve bought on writing technique. It’s so good that everyone who comments during the month of May will be put in a drawing for it. To enter the drawing, you must be a U.S. resident You can comment from now until May 31 at 5 p.m. EST. I will notify the winner that day.

When my freelance editor Sharyn Kopf tackled my YA novel, The Truth and Other Strangers, she pointed out that I used the same facial expressions to convey emotions, usually smiles, grins, and the width of the eyes. So I had to figure out how to describe emotions in a variety of ways.

The Emotion Thesaurus offers loads of descriptions for 130 emotions. Under each one is a definition, a list of physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of an acute case of this emotion, and cues of suppressing it, along with a writer’s tip.

Whenever I see that I am falling into the trap of relying too heavily on my character’s grins or narrowed eyes, I pick up the thesaurus. Reading the list of physical signs lifts my imagination out of its rut. Sometimes, I don’t use the exact sign the authors have listed, but the signs have sparked my creativity, and I come up with one of my own.

For example, when my main character experiences fear, I often use shortness of breath or a sick stomach. The thesaurus suggests such reactions as “lowering voice to a whisper”, “pleading, talking to oneself.”, and “stiff walking, the knees locking” among 33 physical signs. For the main character of my recent mystery short story, I decided when she was scared that she would raise up on her toes, digging in like a sprinter, to be ready to run.

These authors have other writing thesaurus, which I have not read, but I’m intrigued by The Rural Setting Thesaurus. Although I live in the country, I know I can use someone else’s perspective to see a familiar setting with new eyes.

Be sure to comment during May and to be eligible to win The Emotion Thesaurus

 

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