5 Tips from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing

Years ago, I skimmed Evan Marshall’s book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.  At the time, I was an undergraduate English major who did more drinking and talking about writing than actual writing, so the book didn’t really make much of an impression on me. Cut to six years later.  I was in a graduate program for Creative Writing, and my professors, all accomplished writers with decades of wisdom and knowledge, were explaining to me, in laborious detail, just how much work it was to write well, and it finally dawned on me that I needed to work on my craft. So I dragged a desk, a laptop, and The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing into the windowless closet of my 400-square foot apartment and got to work. One of the first sections of the book I read (and re-read, and annotated, and applied) was Marhsall’s section on breaking bad writing habits. Suffice to say, I was a serial offender (and still am before revisions), and I wanted to pass a few of these along. I’ve excerpted several very helpful tips below from Marshall’s website, which I’ve also linked to at the bottom of the page. Read and apply!

1)Identify Character Perspective at the Beginning of Each New Chapter

A globally popular mystery writer often likes to start a chapter or new section without identifying which character she’s writing about—the character is “he” or “she” and we scratch our heads, trying to guess who it is, until the writer decides to tell us. Then, once we know, we have to go back and reread those paragraphs to get the fully import of what’s been written.
2)Repetition of Phrases or Body Movements
Perhaps the most common bad writing habit is “She nodded.” “He nodded.” One book I read recently had so much nodding that I had a picture in my mind of a bunch of bobble-head dolls, like in the back window of a car.
3)Unnecessary Punctuation
A common bad writing habit is “Morse Code”: constant use of dots (ellipses) and dashes. This is frequently a beginner’s habit. Characters are always trailing off or being interrupted. Remember, fiction is like life, only neater. Try to let speakers finish speaking whenever possible, and save the Morse Code for when it’s really necessary.

4)Edit Descriptions
Delete unnecessary details. Not: He opened the cupboard, took out a can of beans, opened the drawer, took out the can opener, and opened the can of beans. But: He opened a can of beans. . .Don’t describe what doesn’t need describing. We all know what certain things look like. Describe an object only if it differs from what we’d expect.
5)Describe weather…sparingly
Spare us the weather reports. If the weather matters, describe it quickly and move on.
Reading Marshall’s book and applying the principles therein helped me secure a book contract for my detective novel Go Go Gato. I give his books and website my highest recommendation. I plan on dropping many more of these pearls of editorial wisdom in the future. In the meantime, I’ve linked to two articles on Marshall’s website, one called “Breaking Bad Writing Habits” and one called “Novelist, Edit Thyself.”
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MacGuffin Revisited

Far be it from me to disagree with Alfred Hitchcock, but I believe the concept of the MacGuffin has evolved sense he first popularized the term with his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Below is a brief definition of the term from the excellent literary magazine The MacGuffin, which is published out of Schoolcraft College:

The moving force (and sometimes the solution) of a work of mystery fiction is referred to as a MacGuffin. . . Alfred Hitchcock used the term and said, “No film is complete without a MacGuffin because that’s what everybody is after.” . . .in short, the MacGuffin is any device or gimmick that gets a plot rolling. The MacGuffin itself has little, if any, fundamental importance, and, according to Hitchcock, is nothing in and of itself.

Now, I am a fan of Hitchcock’s films, especially Rear Window and Psycho.  AIthough I cannot be sure what precisely he means by “fundamental importance,”I interpret it this way: the MacGuffin is purely a way to kick start a story’s plot, and it has no real significance beyond that. Working from that interpretation, I must offer an alternative thesis on the subject: in films and books, the MacGuffin does much more than just get the plot moving. When used by skilled artists (including Hitchcock himself), the MacGuffin has both symbolic and thematic significance.

malteseTake mystery novels, for example.  More specifically, let’s examine The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett for a moment.  The valuable black bird figurine–a.k.a. the maltese falcon–does exhilarate the narrative, but it also becomes a symbol for greed (the figurine is worth a bundle) and trickery (the figurine turns out to be a fake); it becomes a tangible representation of human weakness. To take the idea a bit further, the maltese falcon also not only propels the plot forward, but it helps develop layer upon layer of characterization in the novel. In this sense, the figurine reveals (or helps to reveal) the uglier sides of basically every character in the narrative, sides which would have remained hidden without the introduction of the maltese falcon (the MacGuffin).

dude How about an example from the movies? The Big Lebowski, a personal favorite, has arguably two MacGuffins: the alleged kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski and/or the theft of The Dude’s favorite rug. But let’s discuss the rug as it is the more interesting MacGuffin of the two. When The Dude is employed to give the money to the kidnappers and get Bunny back, he isn’t so much motivated by the fee he will receive; he is more interested in recovering his beloved rug, the one that “really tied the room together.” Because the rug belongs to The Dude, who has precious little interest in material possessions, it takes on an added layer of meaning when he is willing to risk life and limb to recover it, and he does so in such a humorous and imminently watchable manner. Go a step further: I would argue that the rug has a metaphorical significance as well, for The Dude’s life before his rug is taken is tranquil; after the rug is “swept out from under him” so to speak, his life is chaotic and, in many ways, not nearly as happy.

hitchcockBottom line, I think Hitchcock’s definition of the MacGuffin is limited. In many ways, the MacGuffin contributes to a more deeply satisfying narrative in both film and books. I recently turned in my second Eli Sharpe novel to my publisher, and the MacGuffin in that one is a valuable baseball, which has been stolen. I intentionally tried to make the stolen baseball mean something different to every character in the novel, and, in a way, the baseball becomes a character in and of itself. Hitchcock did this also, made MacGuffins more than just plot devices. What’s more, I suspect he did it deliberately. How else would he have become such a master of suspense?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eli Sharpe: Enter the Mind of my Fictional Private Detective

Question: Why is Eli Sharpe, the PI featured in my debut novel Go Go Gato, fascinated by and/or obsessed with Richard Nixon, seersucker jackets, baseball, psychology, detective novels, George Dickel whiskey, guns, the Rolling Stones, his complicated relationship with his father, and lie detection?

Answer: Because I am fascinated by and/or obsessed with those things. I write for two main reasons. First reason: I love to read, and by writing, I can write the kind of stories I prefer to read, which, primarily, are detective stories. Second reason: wish fulfillment. I’m never going to be involved in a shootout or fistfight.  I’m never going to track down a missing person or say witty, off-the-cuff remarks to a femme fatale.  I’m never going to interrogate a suspect, or go on a high speed chase, or a stakeout.  I’m never going to break into a car or house, or any of the other incredibly cool stuff that happens in detective stories. I can, however, write about those things. What I can do is create a fictional world based on my own experiences and tastes, construct an interesting cast of characters to inhabit this world, and then–this is the fun part!–I can shove these characters into a dicey situation…just so I can watch what happens. The truth? The characters I create are the adult versions of imaginary friends; they’re who I “hang out” with instead of going golfing with buddies or drinking with colleagues.  And best of all? They don’t talk at me; they talk for me.  (Pretty sure Stevie Ray Vaughn said something similar about his guitar.)

Bottom line, Eli Sharpe is an amalgamation, a Frankenstein I cobbled together out of spare parts just lying around the junkyard in my brain.  From television, I constructed my detective from Atlanta Braves games circa mid-1980s, reruns of the Rockford Files,the first season of The Wire, and the Fletch movies.  From hard-boiled PI books, I borrowed elements from Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, C.W. Sughrue, Archy McNally, and dozens of other fictional detectives. From my own life, I drew on half-remembered conversations between my father and me, fragmented images from my time in Asheville, and god-only-knows what else. But, in the end, Go Go Gato is the kind of story I would like to read, and Eli Sharpe is the type of detective that I, as a reader, would become obsessed with. Hopefully, other readers will share my obsession.  rockford_files__120417170500

 

 

 

 

 

Eat More Vienna Sausage, Listen to More Phish: Why Writers Should Go Back to Their Childhoods

Proust had his madeleines, but when I want to remember something from my childhood, I reach for a tin of Armour’s Vienna sausages. There is something about the taste of mechanically separated chicken, pork, salt, corn syrup and hydrolyzed soy that floods my brain with images from my misspent youth. . .me in my Little League uniform, looking out the bay window in my parent’s house, cursing the storm clouds on the horizon, knowing that the game would be canceled. I’d stomp my cleats on the wood floors and call Mother Nature horrible names and slam my head against the wood paneling in the living room until the anger subsided. (What can I say? I was an angry child, and I loved baseball.)

Now when I want to remember something from my so-called adolescent years, I queue up Phish on Spotify, and suddenly, I have bleached blonde hair and a face full of acne and a chip on both shoulders.  Suddenly, once again, I have a head full of dreams of becoming a granola-chewing, psychedelic-drug-taking guitar god a la Trey Anastasio, or Jerry Garcia before him. The songs–“Bouncing Around the Room”; “You Enjoy Myself”; or “Sample in a Jar” for any fans of the band–transport me back to how I felt dancing (horribly!) at their shows, how I felt driving around and around listening to live shows on my cassette deck and wondering if I could one day create music that made people feel the way I felt at that moment. The music was an escape from the (then) purposelessness of my existence. . .

Which brings me to my point: I love to write, to turn pain or pleasure into stories, and sometimes I need a tangible trigger to get me reacquainted with certain emotions from my past. Otherwise, how could I write convincingly about anything? I suggest that writers who might be stuck with a piece of writing try going back to their childhood and rediscovering a favorite food or favorite band.  Or, you could go the other way and revisit the sight of an embarrassing moment, the location of a cringe-worthy failure. (Believe me, I have enough of both of those to last three lifetimes).  In my opinion, writers need to be jarred out of their comfort zone from time to time, and what better way to do that than by eating over-processed foods that will cause hypertension and strokes, and listening to Hippie music with nonsensical lyrics and never-ending jam sessions.

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