Breaking Up is Hard to Do (Or See)

Lately, I seem to be torn by divided loyalties. Not only are my loyalties divided between two family members, they are now being divided between two friends who once were business partners. They need each other and the business needs them, but as intelligent as they are, they don’t seem to communicate well. They hurt each other, expect too much from each other, blame each other. And since I’m close to both of them, I am in the middle. I wish I could sit them down (or better yet, bang their heads together) and get them to listen to the truth of the other beyond recriminations, guilt, and regret, but it is not my place.

windSometimes outsiders can see what those involved cannot see, but we cannot feel the emotions that are driving our friends apart, and so we can only stand by, ready to listen if they want to talk. Even if I wanted to do something, it’s not my fight, and inserting myself between them will add fuel to an already combustible situation.

I grieve for them and what they are losing. I grieve for what I am losing. But, as with my family situation, I can’t run their lives for them, and I can’t change anything. Maybe no one can. Maybe the roots of the conflict go back too far to untangle. Maybe the breakup has gone forward too far to be rewound. Maybe . . . maybe they will find a way to set aside their feelings and make it work after all, but I don’t hold out much hope. Their loyalties to each other and the business were in conflict, and without reciprocity, loyalty becomes a type of servitude, adding even more conflict to a complicated situation.

In fiction, conflict is all important, and even in life, some conflict is beneficial — one partner was aflame with fantastic ideas, the other partner more down to earth and able to put those fantasies into action. But too much conflict puts a strain on even the most congenial relationship, and this partnership was not always congenial.

I’ve never had to deal with a divorce between two people I cared about — usually I knew only one of the parties. But now I know how I would feel — terribly sad and powerless.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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How to Hook a Reader

The age of writing long descriptive passages (or even short ones) at the beginning of a novel has passed. Today people want to be drawn immediately into the story without wading through such excess. An editor might look at the first five pages before tossing aside your manuscript, but potential customers will give you a mere twenty seconds to draw them in. Once you have caught their attention, they might read a little further, and perhaps they will even buy the book. They certainly will not wade through five, ten, fifty pages until they get to “the good part.”

That “good part” must be right up front, especially if you’re a first-time writer. That’s all you have going for you — the ability to get off to a fast start and capture the reader’s attention. Your name certainly won’t do it; no one knows who you are yet. Your credentials might help, but only to establish your credibility after a potential reader has been hooked. And they will never be hooked by your ability to turn a clever phrase.

So what will hook the reader?  A character. Always a character. No one reads a book for a description of the weather, a place, or an issue. They don’t even want a description of the character. They want to meet him, to see life through his eyes, to bond with him. They want to know what he wants, what his driving force is. And they want to know who or what he’s in conflict with.

Without conflict, there is no story, but without a character for the reader to care about, there is no story either. Character and conflict are inextricably combined, and together they create the tension necessary to sustain a story. I know you think it’s okay to let the tension rise slowly, which it is, but the tension level at the beginning must be high enough to let the reader know something is going on.

I rewrote More Deaths Than One four times, and each time, the story fell flat. It wasn’t until I realized I’d spent too much time describing things or had Bob alone meandering through much of the story that the book took on life. I gave Bob a love interest, a server he met at a coffee shop.

More Deaths Than One begins:

“What do you think of a guy who embezzles from his own business?”

Bob Stark recognized the voice of the graveyard shift waitress, the attractive one with the black hair. He glanced up from his contemplation of the scars on the laminated plastic table and saw her standing by his booth, gazing at him, her eyebrows quirked. She seemed to expect a response, but he had no idea what to say. 

This isn’t the real hook, it’s just enough to capture your attention so I can reel you in for the punchline.

Reviewer Sheila Deeth said, The first three pages of “More Deaths than One” have to constitute a serious contender for the best opening scene of a novel. Two main characters are introduced, a garrulous waitress and a taciturn hot-chocolate customer. They meet. She talks, a lot. He reads the paper. “And Lydia Loretta Stark was dead. Again.” With two such immediately real and appealing characters, and a line like that, I’d challenge anyone not to want to keep turning the pages.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Most Dastardly Villain of All

Sometimes it seems as if most books and movies today are glorified comic books, epic battles between the good and the impossibly evil. Conflicts in which there are no shades of gray must be satisfying for many people, since such books sell by the millions, but I like a little more subtlety in my conflicts, a little more reality.

In a world that seems to be run by the major corporations, the stories where a lone hero takes on a megalithic corporation, brings down the owner of the company, and saves the world just are not plausible. Though I’m sure the presidents of the major corporations think they are indispensable, they are not. If they are eliminated, there will always be others to take their place, and the corporations will go on doing whatever it is that they do.

Because I know this and cannot escape it even in a world of my own creation, the conflicts in my books tend to be less clearly defined than good versus evil. Of course I have heroes and villains, but the villains are not always dastardly ones, though my other characters may perceive them as such. The villains are the heroes of their own story, and though a corporation is often the villains’ vehicle, my heroes don’t bring it down.

I like my heroes to find a romantic partner, but I prefer that partner to be a co-protagonist. It seems to dissipate the energy of the story if the male and female leads are always in conflict. I find it more satisfying when they bond together in their struggle against fate (or against another character as the personification of fate). To me, the biggest villain around is fate. What is more unfair, more murderous, more disastrous, more villainous than fate?

Because of fate, people get sick, die, have accidents, lose the one they love, lose their homes, freeze in winter, swelter in summer, get slammed by hurricanes or tornadoes, get washed away in tsunamis. No human villain can compete with such destruction.

My heroes never bring on their fate for the simple reason that I cannot sympathize with characters who are the cause of their own problems, and why would characters ever have to cause problems for themselves when life itself is always ready to cause problems for them? This is especially true in my poor stalled work in progress. Everywhere my hero turns, fate throws another fit and leaves him to deal with the mess. Sounds like real life, doesn’t it? We make plans, but life doesn’t consider our plans before deciding our fate.

My heroes are always slow to meet their fate. To begin with, they are usually laid back types, but during the course of the book, they are forced into action and then become dedicated to their mission.

Fate, of course, has other plans, and so conflicts escalate throughout my books, just as they do in life. When fate comes knocking on the door, everything changes. And that’s when a real story, not a comic book, begins.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Writing as a Metaphor for Life

I love to talk about the elements of storytelling and the mechanics of writing even though I seldom write fiction any more. For me, writing is a metaphor for life. People don’t seem to want to talk about the philosophical aspects of human motivations or the meaning of life, but if I phrase these questions as part of a discussion about fiction, writers are more than willing to share their ideas.

I’ve had online discussions about the importance of feeling important, about our self-concept and how it motivates us, about how we are only as good as that which angers us, how kindness can drive our lives, how our family and our background creates us, what we win by losing and what we lose by winning. Outwardly, all these discussions were about creating believable characters so real they come alive, but beneath the discussions of characters and place and background, we were talking about us. What gives us worth. What makes us real. What life means.

Life, like writing, is all about connections. Writing coaches often describe a story and its conflicts as war, but a different way of looking at story conflict is connection and disconnection. Like our characters, we relate to other human beings in a constantly changing series of connection and disconnection — from birth to death, from falling in love to grieving, from listening to ignoring, from embracing to turning away, from anger to forgiveness.

Life, like writing, is about learning, perfecting one’s craft, whether breathing life into words or simply breathing life.

Life, like writing, is a puzzle. We follow our story however and wherever it leads us, trying to fit all the pieces into a coherent whole. In writing, we must find the coherency. In life, sometimes coherency eludes us, yet we still puzzle it out the best we can.

Someday, perhaps, I’ll get back to writing fiction. In that case, I’ll probably stop talking about writing. Or maybe it works the other way around. If I stopped talking about writing, maybe I could write.

Conflict: Desire Meeting Resistance

In fiction, conflict is desire meeting resistance.

Many authors, professional and amateur, confuse bickering with conflict, but unless there is an element of desire, such as one of the characters wanting information that the other doesn’t want to give, then there is no conflict, merely disagreement. I learned this particular lesson when writing Light Bringer. I had a lot of historical information I needed to impart, so I had a group of people arguing about various theories in the hope that the scene would seem more immediate, but since there was no compelling desire, just the relatively unimportant desire of the characters wanting to be heard, the dialogue came across as bickering rather than conflict. I kept the sections because they were a more interesting way of presenting the material than a lecture, and they did show the personalities of the characters in a fun and humorous way, but they didn’t have the immediacy true conflict would have brought to the piece.

In a novel, there are many conflicts. Characters can be in conflict with each other, they can be in conflict with the environment, they can be in conflict with themselves. As disparate as these conflicts seem, in essence they are the same. Characters want something and someone or something is preventing them from getting it. The greater the forces keeping the characters from fulfilling their desires, the greater the conflict, and hence the greater the tension. Time constraints add urgency to a conflict, and become a source for conflict themselves, as when one character needs (desires) to rescue another before a bomb goes off.

So, to ramp up the conflict in your novel, figure out what your characters want and who or what is keeping them from getting it, show or tell the reader what is a stake (this is very important — if the reader doesn’t know what the characters want and doesn’t know what is at stake, then the conflict is muted) and then let the characters fight it out. It’s as simple as that.

An Excerpt From Light Bringer with Bickering Characters

They barely had time to exchange more than a few words when Philip heard a thundering knock.

“That’s Faye.” Emery went to let her in.

Faye strode into the living room with all the delicacy of a drill sergeant. “Who’s this?” she barked, fixing her gaze on Philip. “Oh, yes. Now I recall. Toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream, disposable razors.”

Philip recoiled, wondering if this woman in the royal blue, turquoise, and orange dress was crazy, then he remembered she clerked at the grocery store where he’d purchased those very items. “Over-qualified for her job,” Emery had told him, “but there aren’t a lot of opportunities for an ample woman in her fifties.”

He stepped forward. “I’m Philip.”

She grabbed his extended hand and pumped it as if trying to draw water. Or blood.

“Glad you could join us,” she said.

A brisk rap seemed to catch her attention. She dropped Philip’s hand and bellowed, “Go away, you gormless lummox. We don’t need your kind here.”

“Let me in, you draggle-tailed witch,” came a muffled voice from outside.

She opened the door and in walked a sharp-featured man wearing a yellow pullover shirt and plaid golfing pants.

“So how many widows and orphans did you fleece today?” she asked.

“Stupid ostrich! You know I’m retired.”

“Now you spend all your time trying to hit defenseless balls and hitting on show ghouls.”

He looked down his nose at her. “Show ghouls? That the best you can do? And anyway, Doreen is a sweet girl.”

She punched him on the arm.

An elderly, bow-legged man with a face the color and texture of walnut shells pushed past them.

“Gil isn’t coming,” he said, throwing up his hands.

Faye rolled her eyes. “Always so dramatic, Chester.”

Chester lowered his arms. “Aren’t you going to ask me why?”

“Oh, all right. Why?”

“He has a meeting with Santero. Santero’s selling his antique store.”

Faye hooted. “Antiques! Junk’s more like it. Broken rocking chairs, moldy patchwork quilts, and dusty canning jars. Who’d buy a place like that?”

“It’s a good location,” Emery said. “A downtown corner, not far from that monstrosity Luke’s remodeling into a bed and breakfast. Must be worth a bundle.”

Brian nodded. “The building’s in good condition, too — all new plumbing.”

“Well, anyway,” Faye said, “we don’t need Gil. Counting Philip there’s six of us.”

Philip held up his palms. “I’m not playing.”

“Nonsense.” She seized him by an arm and dragged him to the table.

He shot a beseeching look at Emery, who merely grinned.

“If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play, you overbearing hag,” the golfer said. By process of elimination, Philip decided he must be Scott, the ex-banker.

Faye stuck out her tongue at Scott. “Flush you.”

***

Want to read more? You can find the first chapter here, download the first 20% of Light Bringer here, or buy the book from  Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords.

Conflict Opens a Door and a Story Begins

Sometimes it seems as if most books and movies today are glorified comic books, epic battles between the dubiously good and the impossibly evil. Conflicts in which there are no shades of gray must be satisfying for many people, but I like a little more subtlety in my conflicts, a little more reality.

In a world that is run by major corporations, stories where a lone hero takes on a megalithic corporation, brings down the owner of the company, and saves the world just are not plausible. Though I’m sure presidents of the major corporations think they are indispensable, they are not. If they are eliminated, there will always be others to take their place, and the corporations will go on doing whatever it is that they do.

Because I know this and cannot escape it even in a world of my own creation, conflicts in my books tend to be less clearly defined. Of course I have heroes and villains, but the villains are not always dastardly ones, though my other characters may perceive them as such. The villains are the heroes of their own story, and though a corporation is often the villains’ vehicle, my heroes don’t bring it down.

I like my heroes to find a romantic partner, a co-protagonist. It seems to dissipate the energy of the story if the two are always in conflict, so I prefer it when they bond together in their struggle against fate (or an employee of a corporation as the personification of fate). To me, the biggest villain around is fate. What is more unfair, more murderous, more disastrous than fate?

My heroes never bring on their fate. Perhaps my books would be more dramatic if they did, but I cannot sympathize with characters who cause their own problems. And why do they have to cause problems for themselves when other people or even life itself is always ready to cause problems for them?

When fate comes knocking on the door, everything changes. And that’s when a real story, not a comic book, begins.

In my novel Light Bringer, “fate knocking at the door” is a one of the unintended themes. In the prologue, baby Rena is found at the door of a remote Colorado cabin. In the first chapter, fate comes with an actual knock when men proclaiming to be NSA agents show up at Philip Hansen’s door. Fate finds Jane Keeler when she shows up at her sister’s door and finds the house empty. Fate knocks even harder when she opens the door of a local coffee shop and meets the man of her dreams, and poor Jane’s fate is sealed when she is abducted and shoved through the door of car.

So many doors! Philip knocks on Rena’s door, and later the two are carried uncocnscious through the door to an underground facility, where Jane is also being held behind a locked door. Philip and Rena find out that between them they can open doors without a key, and when they do, they find secrets behind even more doors. And then there is the ghost cat Wisdom and the invisible watcher who seem to need no doors, but are more than willing to open them for Philip and Rena. Each time a character goes through a door, things change, and they find more conflict.

Fate doesn’t have to come with an actual knock, but it’s been said there are only two stories — a character goes on a trip and a stranger knocks on the door, so doors are an important symbol of conflict and change.

How do doors enter into your story?

Does Curiosity Automatically Create Conflict?

In an online writing discussion the other day, someone asked if curiosity automatically presented conflict. I had to think about that. If the curiosity isn’t at odds with the character in any way, if nothing is stopping the character from following their curiosity, there is no conflict. Curiosity, in that case, is about doing what comes naturally, going with the flow. And going with the flow is not conflict. Conflict is going against the flow.

Curiosity can lead to conflict, of course, since curiosity can get our characters into trouble, and trouble does present as conflict. Or perhaps the character is tempted to follow his curiosity but he needs to resist since his curiosity always gets him into trouble, and that temptation/resistance is conflict. In fact, curiosity is a great reason for a character to get into trouble, which moves the story along (especially if you’ve shown that your character is apt to follow his/her curiosity no matter what.)

As a plot driver or as a motivation for your character’s actions, curiosity may not have the emotional power of love, hatred, vengeance, anger, fear, but it has a power all its own. This drive to know new things, to find out about life’s mysteries, both major and minor, is one we can all understand. If we find a locked box, don’t we all want to know what is inside? If the box belongs to our spouse, do we have a right to open it? Do we look for the key? Do we open it? In real life, we might resist the urge out of respect or loyalty, but if we read a book where the character finds the box, we sure keep reading to find out how the character satisfies his/her curiosity . . .  and ours. For that is the crux of a story — as readers, it is our curiosity to find out what is going on that keeps us turning pages. If we didn’t care, if we had no curiosity about what is happening in the story world, we’d toss the book aside and find other things that arouse our curiosity, such as what’s on television, or who’s online.

So, even though curiosity doesn’t automatically create conflict, it might lead to conflict, and for sure will keep us reading.

Oddly, curiosity can also bring peace, which is the direct opposite of conflict. If a character has suffered greivous trauma, if the character as no other reason for living, their natural curiosity might give them a reason. Sometimes all one has to hold on to is curiosity as to what the future holds. And that realization brings peace of a sort. At least, it does bring peace until you start throwing more trauma at your character, because peaceful characters are not necessarily compelling characters.

Writing Discussion: Playing Fair With Your Readers

A novel is a writer’s contract with readers. The author promises to keep readers interested, to not waste their time, to play fair. The reader promises nothing, except perhaps to read the book if the writer fulfills the contract.

To a great extent, genre is about fulfilling the contract of reader expectations. In a romance novel, the story conflict revolves around the romantic relationship between two people and is characterized by romantic tension, desire, and often an ending that unites the couple. In mystery, the story conflict revolves around a crime and is characterized by clues leading to answers, increased tension, and often danger as the solution nears. If a story strays too far from the reader’s expectations, the reader will feel as if the author is reneging on the contract and might not finish reading the book. Even worse, they might not buy the author’s next one. That isn’t to say a writer can’t follow unexpected storylines, but somehow that difference must be conveyed to readers so they know the author is playing fair.

Suspense is considered a genre, yet suspense should be part of every novel, part of the contract with the reader. If readers are not at least bit curious about the outcome, if the story or the ending is obvious, readers have no reason to read. On the other hand, if the author withholds vital information to release at the end, it creates suspicion, not suspense, and the reader feels cheated.

So, let’s discuss playing fair with the reader. How do you create suspense in your genre? How do you gradually release the needed information, so that at the end, your reader feels surprise mingled with “Of course!” What is your contract with your contract with your readers, and how are you going about fulfilling it? How do you keep from cheating your readers? And for the reader in all of us, have you ever read books that made you angry because the authors did not fulfill their contract?

My online writing group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about playing fair with readers during our live discussion on Thursday, November 6 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there!

Sports As Story

The one thing that separates humans from other animals is not our ability to communicate; most (perhaps all) creatures possess that ability to some degree. What separates us from animals is how we communicate: by words, by stories.

We all have stories to tell. At work, we tell colleagues, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night.” At home, we tell our families, “You know what Sally did today? She . . .” Out with friends, we top each other’s jokes.

Stories. That’s what we’re about.

We love to hear other people’s stories, we love to tell stories, and we love to read stories, both real and imagined. “I don’t like stories,” you might say; “I like sports.” Ah, but sports is all about story. The hero, the villain, the conflict, the passion, the suspense, the unexpected or the hoped-for ending. We identify with the characters; we empathize with their plight; we feel as if we have a stake in the outcome of the game. All elements of story. No wonder so many sports movies have been made, so many sports novels have been written. The story of a game within the story of a character. Heady stuff.

Conflict keeps us reading a story, conflict keeps us watching a game. When a character or a player with whom we identify runs up against an obstacle, we want to find out how things will turn out. That conflict forces us to pay attention. When a book is too slow or too predictable, we will toss it aside. When a clear winner of a game is indicated, we will leave the ballpark or turn off the television. When a game is desultorily played, neither team giving that fabled one hundred and ten percent, we lose interest.

We might try to avoid conflict in our lives, but when in comes to story, we need conflict. We need characters, we need to care, we need the contrast and the conflict between the hero and the villain, and we like to see characters change. We love when underdogs win, when they pull out the best in themselves and change from loser to champion. Doesn’t matter whether we hear an anecdote, tell a joke, read a book, or watch sports. It’s all the same.

We are human. We are story.

On Writing: Food

Sex and violence are visceral activites, but so is eating. Food is at once primitive and sophisticated, animalistic and human. We need to eat, but to a great extent we get to choose what we eat. And we get to choose for our characters. In fact, the characters of our characters lie in that choice. Are they vegan, omnivore, or something in between? Do they binge out or are they ascetic? When alone, do they take the time to cook a meal for themselves, or do they eat it standing over the sink? For me, a big question is what characters do with leftovers. Whenever characters in books throw away perfectly good food, I lose all sympathy for them and start rooting for the villains. Even in a world of abundance, food is precious. Or should be.

Wasted food gripes the heck out of me; I despise real and fictional food fights. Shows disrespect for life, a total lack of sensitivity, and people who never knew want. Another movie/book scene I absolutely hate is when a guy proposes to a woman by putting a ring in her drink, in a desert, or any other comestible. All I can think of is broken teeth when she bites into it or a punctured gut when she swallows it. Very romantic!

Besides describing character, food can be used as a theme, a plot point, a symbol. Food can be used to define the emotion of a scene or to delay the action and add suspense. Food helps create a setting in historical novels. The way a person eats tells a lot about character. You don’t need to describe food. Everyone knows what hamburger tastes like, or ice cream or jello. The whole ambience of food is much more important. I have one character who chews each mouthful of food exactly twenty-five times. His fiance finds herself counting his jaw movements, and by that you can tell that there relationship is doomed.

Just think of all the conflict attached to a family feast, such as a Thanksgiving dinner. The drama of several women competing to make their own favorite dressing, the trauma of a burnt pumpkin pie, the complication of children running underfoot, the conflicts of . . . You know the story. You’ve been there.
 
Movies and television shows are filled with great food scenes. The best Golden Girls shows were the ones where they sat at the kitchen table eating everything in sight, and talking about their lives. And who can forget the breakfast scene in My Stepmother Was an Alien, where she cooked up an entire menu. Or the breakfast scene in Uncle Buck when John Candy made pancakes as big as a table and used a snow shovel as a turner. All great food visuals, but also much going on beneath the scene.  

What role does food plays in your novels, in novels you have read, or in movies you have seen?

Fun food related websites:

The Food Time Line

History and Legends of Favorite Foods

History of Food and Food Products

Food History Resources

Food and Drink in Regency England

Medieval Recipes