Why I Liked the Movie Whiplash

Blog 66 ImageThe movie Whiplash has stuck with me since I saw it a few weeks ago. I see lots of movies and most zip in and out of my brain. I’m going to blog about why I think Whiplash found a few memory cells. Bear with me. There’s a connection to writing.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s about a brutally demanding teacher at an elite New York music academy driving a willingly submissive drumming student to greatness. The relationship is wildly at odds with current expectations around appropriate teacher-student relations, but it’s gripping as hell.

So, why? Some of the credit goes to the acting. J.K. Simmons nails the part of Terence Fletcher, the music teacher, who tests the boundaries of abuse in his obsession to push artists beyond mediocrity. And Miles Teller is impressive as Andrew Neyman, the student driven to be the best, even at the cost of his teacher’s savage mind games as well as family relationships and a love interest.

Mostly, though, it’s the story. This is intense mano a mano, testosterone-filled stuff that just pulls back from being too crazy to believe. Though set in the arts’ world, it reminded me of NCAA football coaches screaming at players and slapping their helmets to induce their best performance. Son, if you wanna be picked in the draft, you’ll take my medicine. Yes, sir! It’s my ticket to realizing my forever dream of going first overall.

For me, the connection between Whiplash and writing fiction is that the story has the key elements of a well-crafted psychological thriller. Great pacing, gripping conflict and intriguing characters. A neat resolution that fits the characters’ psychology, yet leaves enough ambivalence to keep one thinking after. And scenes in which characters spar with nuance to reveal themselves.

In other words, the elements I strive for in my books.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Choosing a Story’s Specifics

Blog 65 ImageAnother breezy blog post this week as I push to the end of my first edit of book three.

Almost every fiction writer knows the golden rule that a story must show, not tell. A lot of nonfiction tells, usually with generalizations. Fiction shows, by using specifics and often setting the story in real time. This allows readers to see and feel the action and conflicts. Then they’re entertained, while having the chance to infer the generalizations.

As I edit book three, I’m constantly vigilant for showing and not telling. I know that a bit of telling is allowed. It often starts chapters, is needed for a brief bit of background and gets readers from A to B. However, for building drama and conflict, I’d better be showing.

If showing is about offering specifics, the real challenge, I find, is choosing which specifics to include. Here are the guideposts I’m currently using.

I write thrillers. My genre is thrillers/mysteries. I’m not aspiring to literary fiction. My readers want the action to flow and that keeps me spare in my use of specifics. For example, increasingly, I avoid describing the colour of clothes that characters wear unless it’s essential to the plot.

Dialogue is powerful. Dialogue of course develops plot and characters. It’s powerful because a lot can be communicated with nuanced choices or absences of words. I rely on dialogue to round out characters economically and even offer specifics I might otherwise exclude. I don’t need to tell readers that a character is a man of few words if I ensure he speaks that way. And when that man is spurred to make a small speech, readers have a clear picture of something that’s important to him.

Is the detail significant? For descriptive passages, I ask myself whether readers really need to know the specifics I give. Some commentators use the term significant detail for specifics. So the question becomes whether the detail is significant enough to include.

Judging this can be trickier than it sounds and takes practice. I try to strip down to their basics the passages that transition between key scenes. However, key scenes must have enough detail for readers to see and feel the action. A good editor will tell me if I’ve gotten it right.

Other considerations may influence a writer’s judgment of what detail is significant. The writer may be more or less detailed in order to create the style he thinks best suits his story. Or he might be influenced by what will make his book more marketable.

Let readers imagine. I need to set scenes for readers but I want their imagination working alongside mine. By adding their details, readers not only immerse themselves in my story, they’re participants in the storytelling. This draws people to fiction and explains why movie renditions of stories can be disappointing. And it’s another reason for me to be sparing with specifics.

Characters’ thoughts are valuable but in small doses. I’m interested in how the psychology of characters drives consequences. So, in addition to describing what characters say and do, I write about what they’re thinking. However, I limit the specifics to quick, single thoughts and brief ruminations about a conflict, which works well for thrillers. I figure anything more will bore readers, probably because it’ll feel like I’m telling instead of showing.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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The Writer’s First Edit

Blog 64 ImageI’m deep into the first edit of my third book. A shorter blog this week, then, as I’m pushing hard to the finish.

My approach to writing a book’s initial draft is to follow a flexible outline and to use a construct, which gives details about the characters and puts them in a chronology so I know what they’re doing at any time. I’m not a writer who knows from my outline whether I have a good story. I do the initial draft for that. Indeed, as I write the draft, I update the outline.

The initial draft might feel pretty good once I’m done, but when I re-read it, I quickly see a lot of work to do. In fact, I think the first edit is the hardest work in writing a book of fiction. That’s because I’m revising to:

  • Reflect new research
  • Identify and fix many plot problems
  • Deepen the characters, which often leads to new plot problems
  • Make structural changes
  • Improve and shorten the writing
  • Catch the many grammar problems and typos
  • Add some more creativity.

What makes the first edit especially challenging is that those areas of revision seem to involve different types of thinking. I can’t explain this beyond saying it’s like different parts of my brain are used. And It’s tiring to switch between those parts. The initial draft, at least, is largely a long exercise in creativity.

Anyway, right now, the first edit of my third book is going well. I’m an optimist in editing. I actually think that the book will be just about perfect once the first edit, or at worst the second, is done.

Then I’ll hear back from my editor and beta readers, shake my head a few times and edit a whole lot more. Mind you, while I’m working on the third, fourth and tenth drafts of the book, I’ll think each of those will be perfect, too. Quite a good strategy, really.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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8 Tips to Help Writers Avoid Procrastination

Blog 61 ImageOne of the pleasures of writing fiction is meeting readers. Some readers also are closet writers. They often tell me that getting words to paper is challenging and completing a story is daunting. So they procrastinate.

This problem, I’m sure, dates back to the first writers in Mesopotamia. Here are some strategies to get the writing happening.

Let the idea carry you. Many books start with an idea that intrigues the writer enough to begin exploring it. I find the exploration most fruitful if I give the idea licence to send me in unexpected directions. Fairly quickly, words emerge, whether for an outline, some pages or a chapter. Even though these words will be revised many times, they’re not a waste. A story is evolving.

Keep the challenge small. It can be exciting for a writer to think he’s writing a book. But the sheer size of the project can create paralysis. So I prefer to think that if I regularly get an amount of writing done, the book will take care of itself. Reducing a problem to small constituents is old advice but it works in writing.

Commit to a daily amount of writing. A daily amount of writing can be measured in hours, words, pages, sunrises, etc. On a first draft, I use 4-5 hours or 2000 words, whichever comes first. For a first edit, that changes to 4-5 hours or 5 pages.

And I mean commit. Everyone I know is busy and constantly prioritizing. So when I say a writer must commit to a daily amount of writing, it probably means he must move writing up the priority list. Which means bumping other things down. Which can be stressful. Other than long walks, I don’t have a great solution for that stress.

Recharge. I find I need a day off a week to recharge the writing battery. It’s also a good time to let the story sift through my mind. I get new ideas as well as a broader perspective on the story.

Start writing the same time every day. I find this makes me more productive. It’s made easier by knowing that I’ll feel a sense of achievement 4-5 hours later.

Cut out the noise and get comfortable. I get the most done when it’s quiet, I’m sitting in a good chair and the temperature is right.

Use the smartphone. Ideas that stimulate writing can come out of nowhere. I keep my iPhone close for voice memos and quick notes. Sadly, when I tell myself I’ll remember an idea, I usually don’t. Getting an idea while at the movies is still a problem.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Should writers watch word count?

Blog 58 ImageA recent Microsoft study concludes that the average human attention span has fallen from twelve seconds to eight since 2000. Apparently that’s less than the attention span of a goldfish. I’ll try to keep this post short.

I’m not a fan of proclaiming rules that writers need to follow in order to write a book and get some readers. But I have been wondering if, in a digital age with falling attention span, fiction writers should try to keep their books within a word count range. For example, I often read that thrillers should be 80,000–120,000 words. Here are some things to consider.

Readers are busy and have enormous content choice. These realities are obvious but they account for the declining human attention span. And I think writers ignore them at their peril. For example, a thriller writer should ensure that his book has a strong opening, good pacing and crisp writing.

A writer needs to keep his genre in mind. Readers of genres like mysteries, thrillers and romance have expectations about the length of the books they read. They can be convinced to read longer books but writers should be sure they have the goods to do it.

What is the writer trying to give the readers? The main goal of my books, The Case for Killing and False Guilt, is to entertain readers for a weekend. I hope the books offer the occasional human insight as well, but they’re thrillers, not literary fiction. A weekend is a precious amount of time these days, so I look to keep my books around 95,000 words.

What does your publisher want? For books of traditionally published authors, the publishing house will have ideas what word count the market prefers.

Books should be ruthlessly edited. Using fewer words for the same effect often leads to better writing and pace. In later edits of my books, I get cruel satisfaction from pulling out words. Especially adverbs.

Word count isn’t the be all and end all, of course. A really engaging book, especially with extraordinary writing, will hook readers regardless of length. But I do think that modern realities should drive a writer to keep an eye on how many words he’s written. And the added benefit is that he’ll likely produce a better book. Watching word count compels a writer to ensure that every word counts.

P.S. I thought about reading the Microsoft report, but it’s fifty-four pages long.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

Buy False Guilt.

Buy The Case for Killing.

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My Guest Blog

This week, I’ve guest blogged for Melodie Campbell. Melodie is a crime/comedy writer, a winner of the Derringer and Arthur Ellis Awards, a fellow Canadian and just an all-around really nice person. I read her book The Goddaughter and found it hilarious.

Read my cringeworthy young lawyer experience on Melodie’s blog at http://funnygirlmelodie.blogspot.ca/.

Back to a full blog here next week. Thanks!

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Buy False Guilt

Buy The Case for Killing.

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Writers Should Network

Blog 46 ImageI know that I should network to advance my writing aspirations. But knowing doesn’t mean doing, at least for someone like me, whose default is looking inward, not outward.

So this blog considers the reasons writers should network. Extroverted writers might shrug and stop reading. As far as I can tell, networking and its benefits come naturally to them. This post is intended for writers who need the extra push to connect with others.

First, however, a comment on what type of networking to engage in. Social media obviously offers many ways to connect. However, it’s very easy to post and dash, with the result that, at best, a superficial connection is created and the benefits of networking don’t materialize. So, in this blog, what I have in mind is old-school conversation, preferably face-to-face, or real social media interaction.

Here are the reasons I see for a writer to network.

It’s less lonely. Writers seem generally constituted to work happily over long stretches on their own. Most, though, need at least some human contact from time to time, which networking can help.

It’s enriching. Apart from helping her writing, networking will enrich a writer through what she learns and the benefits of friendship like an increased sense of belonging and the ability to share life’s stresses.

For content. This verges on crass, but a writer will be exposed to another person’s experiences, which in turn can be fodder for writing.

To help research. Lots of book research can be done using online and textual sources. However, interviews can greatly improve verisimilitude. Often, though, strangers will not give interviews without a reference. Networking can offer routes to and references for interviews.

For feedback. It’s possible a person with whom a writer networks has read her book(s) or knows someone who has. The writer may have an excellent opportunity to receive constructive criticism.

To promote. And if that person hasn’t read the writer’s book(s), the writer has an excellent opportunity to pique that person’s interest or induce him to think of someone who might have an interest. It’s best to promote with a soft touch, though.

For other opportunities. The person with whom a writer meets may know circumstances which could help the writer. There are countless examples, like the person having novel promotional ideas or knowing a book club that follows the writer’s genre.

For more networking. And that person will also have his own group of friends who might be suitable for further networking. In corporate networking, it’s often said that a person should leave a meeting with three new contact names. A writer can think in the same terms.

To offer help. The writer should be on the lookout for how she can help the person she’s networking with. Without intending to sound like a line from The Godfather, a writer who offers a favour may gain a future one.

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.

Writer’s Emotional Block

Blog 45 ImageI haven’t felt at all like writing in the last four days.

I don’t have writer’s block, in the sense of having the will to write but not the words. It’s emotional block, caused by life stuff that’s using all my processing power. The result is I have no words because I don’t have the will to write.

I’ve been thinking all day how to regenerate the will. In my blog, I offer all kinds of checklists; maybe there’s one for emotional block, too.

If there is, I haven’t found it. All I have is loose thoughts.

The first is that it should be possible to overcome emotional block with discipline. But I am disciplined, and that’s not working.

The second is that when serious emotions need processing, well, maybe they should be given some time to do so. A book, a movie or a walk may be a better remedy than aimless keyboard pecking.

And the third is that, at least for the two hundred or so words in this short, disjointed blog, the emotional block is starting to lift. I’m pretty sure there’ll be more words tomorrow, and more the day after, and so on.

I’m guessing emotional block requires some self-care – and patience. Time to exercise those.

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.

The Pre-Release Checklist

FalseGuilt_FrontCover_Blog 44Last December, I wrote up a checklist of things to do for the upcoming release of False Guilt. The checklist has evolved through the first weeks of 2015 and I thought I would share a summary for other self-published authors.

But, first, a snippet of False Guilt: the opening and closing paragraphs of chapter 1.

“Tell me this,” the man across from Paul Tews said. “What the hell is wrong with my son?”

Fifteen minutes earlier, moving a tray along a railing in front of a Greek fast-food place, Paul had heard his name. He’d been flattered that the President of Pan Canadian Securities asked to join him for lunch. Now he understood why. His question was a fair one.

. . .

“When [Art] was in L.A.,” [Art’s father] said, “the requests for money came faster and faster. For a long time, I sent him whatever he wanted. Then I made a few calls and figured things out. After that, I stuck to a monthly allowance, even if he complained, and then, when he came back last November, I cut him off and told him to get a job. And I told him if he keeps using cocaine I’ll write him out of my will.”

Paul’s face flushed and he looked away. “If it makes you feel any better, I know he tried reducing it recently.” He shot a hesitant glance across the table. “Anyway, he’s a brilliant guy. I meant it when I said he’ll get things working for him.”

“I don’t see him going to law school,” Art’s father said, snorting. “And he’s a failed actor as far as I can tell. I mean, right now, he pours people coffee for a living.”

Paul was at a loss. The lunchtime din suffused the pause in their conversation. Finally, Art’s father said, “Sometimes, Paul, sometimes I ask myself which one of us will die first.”

Another fair question, Paul thought.

And here’s the summary of my pre-release checklist for a self-published book.

Eight to twelve weeks before release date:

  1. Approach candidates for release reviews.
  2. Settle on print and eBook distribution platforms.
  3. Editor and author complete final manuscript proof.
  4. Draft marketing plan, including blogging and social media strategies.
  5. Assign cover design and interior design.

Four weeks before:

  1. Get print and eBook ISBNs.
  2. Obtain release reviews, and choose excerpts for back cover.
  3. Finalize cover and interior designs.
  4. Complete last front-to-back review and have final fixes made.
  5. Obtain necessary files for print and eBook distribution.
  6. Refine marketing plan, including developing updates for website and online profiles.

Two weeks before:

  1. Begin implementing blogging and social media strategies.
  2. Upload files to print-on-demand site; approve online and hard copy proofs as available.

Release:

  1. Upload eBook platform files and approve POD publication.
  2. Post release reviews on distribution site(s) and website.
  3. Implement other website changes and changes to online profiles.
  4. Announce release on blog and social media.
  5. Email interested readers and ask for reviews.
  6. Add book to Goodreads and/or similar sites.

I’ve actually broken down these steps further using a calendar.

I only wish I’d been this thoughtful on the release of The Case for Killing!

False Guilt will be out later this month.

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.

Improving the First Draft

Blog41 ImageIn early January, I read through the first draft of my as-yet-untitled third book. I wrote it last summer, so I got a fresh take on it. After finishing the book, I considered what questions to answer in order to create the best next draft. Here’s what I came up with.

Is the book a satisfying reading experience? If I didn’t like reading my book, it’s unlikely others will. I did though.

Does the structure work? I enjoy experimenting with structure. However, it can’t be at the expense of plot unfolding properly and good pace. I thought that, for the most part, the third book’s structure worked.

Are there plot problems? I plotted the third book quite carefully. However, I’ve seen at least one major plot problem. I’m sure I’ll also find many more minor inconsistencies; it’s amazing how those can hang around for many drafts.

What research is required? For better or for worse, I tend to write the first draft of a book with only the most essential research done. As I read the draft, I note down where more research is needed. For the third book, there’s a lot to do.

Do the characters resonate? In the first draft of a book, I only make the acquaintance of the characters. Going forward, they’ll develop much more. Lots of pleasurable work to be done there.

Do the characters have consistent voices? Characters’ voices can take time to develop. Many of my third book’s characters have only hinted at how they like to communicate.

Do the characters’ interactions make sense? Ah, no, not in all cases. For example, in the first half of the book, one character is quite friendly to another when she has reason to be angry or at least ambivalent. Overall I need to get to know the characters better; their reactions to one another will then clarify.

How is the writing? The quality of writing in my first drafts is always suspect and inconsistent. No surprise there; my first drafts are largely about seeing if there’s a story. I know it takes many drafts for the writing to become succinct and fluid. However, reading the third book front-to-back allowed me to identify redundant passages, poor transitions and, yes, even writing I liked.

On to the next draft!

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.