Jude Hardin

Author, Drummer, Turtle Whisperer

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Location: United States

Monday, November 27, 2006

Can't Start A Fire Without A Spark

I don’t outline. Not in any “normal” way.

Sometimes, I wish I could. Or, better yet, that someone would do it for me. Just give me a nice complete skeleton of The Perfect Plot, and I fill in the blanks.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Sure. But it wouldn’t be real.

For me, a story must grow organically. Characters aren’t something you cut out of a magazine. Plots aren’t something you contrive. Plots happen because of who the characters are, their reactions under stress, their motivations as living, breathing beings.

Everything else is a lie. And we, as fiction writers, don’t want to tell lies, do we? No. We want to find the truth. That’s why we do this.

Sometimes, finding the truth takes some digging.

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time filling in behind-the-scenes information for my work in progress, i.e. what happens offstage.

Why is this important?

One word: Are you listening? Listen closely now...


Oops! Wrong word.

Plastics are artificial. Plots are artificial. We don’t want artificial. We want organic.

The word I had in mind was catalyst.

The action offstage acts as a catalyst for what the reader sees, and what the characters onstage ultimately do.

Why did a young lady show up at my protagonist’s door, seeking help to find her runaway sister? An entire series of events, that happened offstage, compelled her. Most of that backstory will never make it into the finished book; but, it’s important for me, the author, to know, because to truly understand my characters, I need to know what motivates them. The why of their actions, onstage and off.

For every stick of dynamite that explodes onstage, a fuse must first be lighted behind the scenes. I need to know who, what, when, where, why. Especially why.

Know where your sparks originate, and that big old thing we call Story will suddenly fall into place.

Monday, November 13, 2006

"What's Your Book About?"

Ever been asked that question?

Sure you have.

My stock answer (to well-meaning but often naïve laypeople) is usually “murder,” which invariably stops them dead in their tracks. What they’re after, really, is a plot summary.

But plot summaries, to me, are boring. Every plot imaginable has been told thousands of times. Plots are finite, characters infinite. But even a well-drawn, compelling character might fall short in the eyes of an acquisition editor.

So what makes my book different? Why would anyone want to read another story where a PI gets involved in a murder/kidnapping case?

The answer, if you think about it, isn’t what the story is about, but why this character goes to great lengths, risking life and limb, to solve a case (or win someone’s love, or save the world, etc.), when it would be so much easier just to walk away. Why bother?

If you really want to answer the question, you have to start thinking about themes. Not what, but why.

You might not start out with a theme in mind. Even if you don’t, subconsciously there is a current that drives the people in your novel to do what they do. The characters themselves might not be able to vocalize it. The reader might never recognize it. But it’s there. It has to be there, or there is no story. Not one of lasting value, anyway.

Personally, I don’t think about themes at all while I’m writing. But when I go back and read, study, what I’ve written, I can often see that yes, that’s what this was all about!

It’s a magical moment when you discover a theme. Don’t waste it. Go with it, explore and exploit it, rewrite until every scene relates back to it.

If you don’t have any themes in mind when you start, don’t worry. They will emerge. When they do, the smart writer takes advantage of them.

So, dear friends. Tell me. What’s your book about?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Life As A Book

I did a complete gut-rehab on a 500 square foot lake cabin a few years ago. I bought the place in a rundown state, but knew I would have to live there eventually. Divorce. Long story.

I had no idea what I was doing.

I bought books and videos from Home Depot on wiring, plumbing, roofing and siding, flooring, framing, decks, everything you can imagine that goes into building a house.

The demolition came first. The demolition was fun. There’s not much skill involved in tearing shit up. You just have to be careful not to kill yourself while doing it. If you’re going to rip out all the old wiring, for instance, please be sure to cut the power first. If you’re going to smash walls with a sledgehammer, wear gloves and goggles. If you’re going to saw away termite-damaged areas of bottom plate, brace the top plate so the roof doesn’t cave in on top of you.

Demolition was fun, because I had a vision of what everything would look like when replaced. I knew I would put cedar shingles on the gables, French doors where that old crank window used to be, board and batten siding (Little House on the Prairie style) on the exterior walls, stucco walls and tongue-in-groove pine ceilings inside, with faux exposed beams. I had a vision, but it had to come one nail at a time.

And that’s how we have to approach our fiction.

One word, one sentence, one paragraph, one page, one scene at a time.

Sure, we have a vision of the final product, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed when thinking about three hundred blank pages in front of you. The same way it was easy for me to feel overwhelmed facing all those naked two-by-four studs when demolition was complete. Doubt creeps in. Am I good enough? How can I possibly fill all these pages with something someone would actually want to read? How can I possibly build a livable house? How will I ever find an agent? What publisher would want to pay money for my drivel? How am I going to make this four hundred pound iron claw foot bathtub fit into that little space?

Then, we work through all that and write the story, but the doubts still haunt us. I spent six months writing this thing, and it sucks. I suck. I’ll never make it. Just look at this mess!

Hammer time.

Time to tear it down, and build it back up according to the original vision. As writers, we call this revision. Gut-rehab. To me, it’s the most important part of the process. You have to be dedicated to making every word count, every sentence sing, every scene saturated with conflict, emotion, movement, sensation. The story, the original vision, is there. It just needs perfectly aligned cedar shingles on the gables.

When you’re faced with doubts, smash a wall with a sledgehammer and put up a new, clean, textured one. It’ll feel good, and you’ll have something you’re proud to live in.