Monday, December 27, 2010

A Father's Love

Hi folks,

I recently received an email from a good friend of mine who’s a fantastic writer and thought what he communicated to me and a few close friends would be the perfect thing to post during the holiday season as a true-life example of something truly wondrous.

As writers, we have many reasons why we write and why we desire publication. One of the most universal reasons I think, is that many of us want to make our parents proud of us. For more than one writer, it was our parents’ support—both financial and emotional—that support undoubtedly provided the impetus to stay the course, plugging through the trials and setbacks we all experience as writers. In my own case, that wasn’t the environment—my father made it clear he thought anyone who wrote or read books was pretty much a sissy, and my mother is a religious fanatic who believed the only book a writer should write should be to the “glory of God.” My latest novel my agent is shopping, titled The Bitch, probably won’t fit her idea of a worthy book, but that’s all right. She’s never read any of my books and this one won’t be any different.

Nevertheless, I am envious of those who have parents who do support their life choices and the following is something I can’t have for myself, but wish I could.

I asked my friend if I could post this and he said it was truly private but that if I wanted to, he didn’t mind so long as I kept his identity secret, which I readily agreed to. It was just such a heartwarming story that I thought it might move others the way it moved me. He’s just a lucky guy as you’ll see.

Here’s what he said:”…as for the blog..I’m flattered you would use this... but my old man is kind of a private dude. If you want to use it and keep the names anonymous that’s totally cool... just as a guy of yesteryear, I know my old man prefers to keep under the radar...but YES… as a tale of inspiration, feel free to mention it...”

And, here’s how he prefaced what his dad said: 

“I wanted to pass this along to a few close lifelong friends. It’s the speech my father gave at a small dinner of the National Arts Club for the book launch. It’s an understated short speech with much gravitas & sense of the past and the kind only my dad is capable of giving. I want to thank you all for in one way or another for your friendship. This is the best I can do, plagarizing another's words.”

May we all arrive at Isfahan in style,

Your friend_______

His father’s words:

Your literary debut at the National Arts Club was an iconic event for Mom and me. It represented the culmination of years of work, perseverance, tenacity and focus. For every person that says, ”I’m going to write a book,” you are the one in a thousand who actually achieved that goal.

To me, the book launching was like a caravan from China via the long arduous Silk Road trek through deserts, mountains, and SOB-infested tribal areas finally arriving at the caravanserai in Isfahan in central Persia(Iran). It was a sophisticated city even in the 12th century, having as its most notable building the Blue Mosque, one of the largest and most beautiful in Islam.

To those in a caravan it must have created feelings of both accomplishment and relief, arriving where they could sell their goods to traders who would then take their caravans to the Mediterranean coast for sale.

The trading area in Isfahan, still present today, is a rectangular area about 100 yards wide and 200 yards long. It was in this area that the merchants from China sold their wares to the merchants buying them and taking them to sell in the west.

Son, you have made it to Isfahan in style, and I know the rest of your journey be an even greater success.


Short message, but man, I wish my own father would have said something like that to me! Isn’t he a lucky guy?

I just think this fits the spirit of the times. I suspect that long after his book fades from the bestseller lists and he’s off onto another novel, these words will burn in his memory as bright as the day he heard his father utter them.

Hope you found this as uplifting as I did.

BTW, I ran this by my friend to be sure it met with his approval and didn’t give his identity away and this is how he replied:

Les, hey that’s really cool, man… hope my pop’s short speech provides some inspiration to folks on that literary caravan & any caravan, any journey...

Blue skies,

BTW, Writer’s Digest is calling for nominations for its 2011-101 Best Websites for Writers. Nominations are due by January 1. If you like the stuff you see on my blog, I hope you’ll consider sending an email to Put “101 Websites” in the subject line and include a brief note about how Les Edgerton’s blog at has helped you in your own writing journey. Thank you! (I’m nominating all the blogs I’ve listed on my own as well as a few others.)

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Hi folks,

Just want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and that next year everyone get published well!

And, be sure to laugh often! It really is the best medicine.

Blue skies,

Monday, December 13, 2010


Hi folks,
I thought I’d show again exchanges with one of my students on the novel she’s writing in our class. Not only is she a terrific writer, but she has a powerful story to tell and it’s one I feel confident is going to be published when finished. She’s been one of the best students I’ve ever had and I can’t wait until she’s finished to be able to introduce her to my agent and get this puppy on the shelves of B&N and Border’s. Most of us experience the same problems in our own writing, so I hope this might prove of value to at least a few of you.

What follows are some of the recent exchanges we went through for her novel over the last two weeks. My comments are in bold and hers in regular type. (I’m going to call her “Brenda” which isn’t her real name.) I’ll use parts of our exchanges from the past two weeks. I used her work before and received positive feedback from it--hope this helps some as well.

(Disclaimer: there are some portions of this that some may view as R- or X-rated.)

Here is a dialog portion of a scene of Brenda’s I commented on. This is an exchange between a Japanese WWII veteran (Takami) whom an American veteran (Jake) has just prevented from killing himself. It’s really well-written and would pass muster with most, but I felt it could be made even better as per my comments following this.

Hai, it is true. A Japanese warrior must fight to the death to protect his country, his Emperor. It is Bushido, the way of the warrior. But I was captured. So now, I bear my dishonor forever. Whether or not it was my choice.”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Wow. That is really tough. But… how were you captured, anyway?”
Takami dropped his eyes to the table top again. He furrowed his brow, bit his lip. “I was a navy lieutenant in command of a picket boat. A converted fishing trawler, really. Crew of ten besides myself. We were on patrol off the coast of Japan—in these waters, in fact.
“We were on the lookout for American carriers. Headquarters had analyzed some radio traffic—we knew they were headed our way. But we weren’t sure of their exact plans.”
Takami looked up at Jake. “Well, I sighted them. I took the stairs two at a time to the radio room, ordered the operator to report to the fleet. Stood over him while he radioed it out. But… the Americans saw us, too. They came after us with everything they had.” He sat just a little straighter. “I’m proud to say it took them a while to sink us.
“First their fighters strafed us—a wave of Wildcats off one of the carriers. Then the dive bombers made passes at us. The seas were rough—we got tossed all ‘round—and my ship was small, so I guess we were hard to hit. Anyway, none of that stuff did any real damage. You know…” The corners of his lips and eyes lifted into something that was almost a smile. “I started to think the storm was some kind of divine wind sent to protect us.” He gave his head a slight shake. The wry smile disappeared. “But a cruiser opened up with her big guns. It was only a matter of time ‘til we took a hit.
            “It was like the whole world exploded. I flew up off the deck. After that I remember nothing… Until I woke up on an American ship, in traction, concussion, third-degree burns, broken bones. Horyu.”

Les says:

Brenda, I think there’s a problem with Takami’s dialog is that it could just as easily be Jake’s. It doesn’t sound like a guy who’s been raised Japanese and probably learned English as a second language as an adult. Your police chief does and your other Japanese characters do, but not him. Other than an occasional Japanese word inserted into his dialog (Horyu, e.g.), his sentences just don’t sound like his character probably would. This is tough to do, I know. The danger is of giving him what I call “Tonto language.” It’s a term I came up with to describe those early screenwriters of Native American language, where they had them all saying stuff like “How” and speaking in telegram language where they leave out articles (i.e., the parts of speech like “the” and “an” and the like). Like: “Soaring eagle fly far overhead, near heap big mountain where Great Spirit lives.” This is better than that, most definitely (!), but I think it tips too far toward how any average American would talk rather than a Japanese. Also, I always wonder why when a foreigner in novels speaks English, he or she always finds it necessary to throw in a word from their native language occasionally. I don’t see Americans doing the same when they speak Spanish or French or Japanese, but invariably, in novels, foreigners all seem to have to need to do this. I’m being a bit facetious—I know why writers feel the need to do this—they feel it gives the speech the flavor of an ESL speaker, but it more gives the effect or contrived speech. It basically makes the reader aware that an author is at work, therefore interrupting the fictive dream.
Couple of things I’d consider here, Brenda. One, you’ve got him opening up to Jake immediately, telling him personal things within five minutes of meeting him it would be hard for a longshoreman to confess in a Catholic confessional. He has no sense of reticence whatsoever. He’s basically, “Chatty Charlie.” This has the feel of a contrived scene. A somewhat dramatized way of getting a worldview across. Almost like an Ayn Rand novel, where the author has a political agenda and assembles a wooden play to preach to the choir. I know I’m being harsh here, but the passages with Miyako come across so realistically, but the ones with Jake and now Takima come across as those “Ayn Randish” kind of scenes. The place where the preaching begins. Much of that stems from the fact that almost all that happens in the Jake scenes are conversations. I know there was this brief bit where Takima tries to kill himself, but that’s just a tiny part of the scene and then it just goes into this confessional, conversation stuff. It’s really thinly-disguised exposition delivering a big chunk of backstory. I think it’s a major flaw and think you need to rethink the Jake portions of the story. Character is revealed by action and not much at all by dialog, introspection, and other forms of exposition. And that’s what’s missing in the Jake scenes—action. Even the dialog scenes—both between Jake and his wife and now, Jake and Takima—lack much conflict. You improved the wife scenes a lot by giving her a bit of opposition, but there’s virtually none here.
Also, you’re trying to dole out too much here. I’d try to create a mosaic, rather than a slide show of complete scenes. What I mean by that is I think you sometimes lose track of the fact that you’ve got 350-400 pages to create a story in. Here, it seems as if you’re not developing characters and their relationships bit by bit, over time, but instead trying to deliver whole histories whole cloth.
Here, for instance, think about showing the scene where Jake saves him from suicide and end with them going into the dining room. Get out of the scene at that point. Later on, after we get more of Miyako, come back to them talking, but don’t have Takima unburden himself of all this so readily. Make Jake have to drag it out of him more. This should be a big relationship in the novel, and you’re trying to create that all in one big scene. Make sense? Instead of all this lengthy confessional stuff, maybe just have him give Jake a short, curt reply to why he tried to kill himself. “My shame.” That’s it. Don’t have him elaborate at that point. Have Jake begin to earn his trust before he gives more and have him pull it out of him, little by little. That’s also a way to create tension with the reader. If you have him deliver what should be an intensely personal story en toto to this stranger like he has, you lose any possible tension and not only that, you create a character who’s largely unlikeable. Who likes a person who wears his heart on his sleeve and blurts out all this stuff this quickly? Most people don’t. And, I'd think that one from his culture would be even more reticent. Also, he should be resentful of Jake for thwarting his mission, and, instead, he’s becoming his best friend in the space of a few minutes. See what I mean?

Later, in the remarks at the end of her submission for the week, I address this further:

Brenda, sorry to kind of unload on the Jake/Takami scene, but you’ve done so well until then, that I think you need to rethink how you’ve delivered that scene to make it as good as the rest of this. Just think “piece by piece” in the story structure and not deliver huge chunks of it like you are there. Lead up to Takami’s revelation instead of delivering it whole.

The story structure you’re employing in that scene reminds me of play structure. A drama where the playwright has to deliver big, start-to-finish scenes like that because of the type of audience he or she is writing for. If so, that’s a big mistake. Plays are examples of “cold media” while novels are “hot media” and the rules are vastly different.

If you (or others in class) aren’t familiar with the theory of hot and cold media, it comes from Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. He’s the guy who gave us brilliant theories such as: “The media is the message.” His theory of hot and cold media is that a cold media employs more than one sense and therefore the audience is largely passive and not much thought or imagination is required to receive the experience successfully. Hot media are those which only employ one sense and therefore the audience’s active participation in the form of their imaginations is required.

Examples of cold media are TV, movies, and plays. There are at least two senses affected—sight and sound and, occasionally smell, as in the John Water’s movie, Polyester, and in some plays where odors are provided for various effects. That means the audience mostly has to just sit there and do nothing. There’s a valid reason why many feel that watching movies solely leads to the “dumbing down” of people. They just don’t do much with their minds when experiencing them. It’s kind of all done for them. One just sits in the theater and lets the experience wash over them passively. The brain is kind of put in neutral.

Hot medias are totally different. They require the audience to employ their minds and imagination, because only one physical sense is affected. Hot medias require active participants among the audience for it to be an effective experience. Examples are novels and radio. Only sight is used in novels and only sound is used with radio. It’s why Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, when broadcast over radio, created mass chaos and suicides, which wouldn’t have happened if it had been a movie at the time or a TV show. People used their imaginations, which are infinitely more intense than seeing aliens on the big screen can effect. In fact, even though we can become affected emotionally during say a horror movie, because of the FX effects and the thirty-foot images, as soon as the credits roll and we walk out of the theater, it’s over. Until… that night, when we go to sleep. Then, our imaginations take over and we wake up that night in a cold sweat, experiencing an infinitely deeper dread than we did earlier at the Cineplex. Our imaginations are infinitely more creative than anything Dream Works can ever cook up.

All of this is just to show why you use the advantage of hot media when writing a novel. You become aware that the reader’s imagination is in play and use that to your benefit. That means that, unlike a play or a movie, you only create a skeleton and make the reader an active participant by having to provide the flesh. You don’t create scenes that explain everything. You create clues and hints and let the reader provide the rest. And, that’s what you’re not doing in the Jake/Takami scene. You’re providing everything and all in one fell swoop.

I’d urge every writer to read Marshall McLuan’s work. More than anything else, it shows clearly the difference between all the media and is a wonderful resource to learn how to write a novel that’s effective. He should be required in all writing courses, imo.

Hope this helps, Brenda! You’ve got a marvelous work going here. Just want to make sure you don’t misstep. Keep the overall picture in mind and don’t get lost in the trees!

Week 2. In the next week’s submission, Brenda said:

As usual, your comments last week were very insightful. I really was thinking about this more like a play, where you have only a fixed number of scenes to get all the key facts on the table. And you’re very right, Takami/Eiji becomes an important character in the story so I need to be thoughtful about where I take this relationship. I will have to give this some deep thought over break.

To which I replied:
Good. It just kept looking like a “play” mentality was taking over a bit. Plays, by necessity, pretty much have to be “dumbed down” structure-wise a bit to fit the dramatic parameters, but a novel is more fragmented, presented with bits and pieces, more like a mosaic. A novel is read at the audience’s leisure, giving the reader time to mull over and consider what’s going on, and parts can be gone over again, but a play is (usually) viewed once in “real time” and everything has to be visible and clear instantly or the audience is lost. And, a play is basically a “cold” media where more is provided the audience (sight and sound and sometimes even smell) and the audience is largely passive, receiving information. A novel is a “hot” media in that only one sense is affected (sight) and the audience has to bring their imaginations into play much more. It’s just more intellectual in nature, simply because of that. As long as the writer is aware of the differences and takes advantage of the advantages of each, she’ll be all right. But, it’s important not to use one framework for the other. Glad you see what was happening! With your (immense) talent, I’d expect you to nail this absolutely.

Brenda said:

I also agree that the Jake / Takami dialog scene was probably not very realistic the way I had written it, although it felt good at the time! Sigh.

Les said:
Just part of the deal. Writing is always rewriting. This is why almost all writing teachers advise the novelist, when finished, to put it in a drawer for at least a month before rewriting it. You’ll see the work for what it really is at that time, after some distance has been created.

Brenda said:
I have struggled with how to make my Japanese characters sound Japanese. I’ve had some comments from classmates on overly formal language I’ve given some of my characters (although I haven’t changed it). I’ve listened closely to Japanese business colleagues and it isn’t so much what they say, but the inflection and timing and tone in which they say it, that make them sound Japanese. So I’m not sure how to put that across on the page.

Les said:
It’s tough, but I have no doubt you’ll make it work. When I have trouble with a technique, I try to find writers who use that technique well. Here’s a “textbook” you might look at to see how a writer uses such a technique well—take a look at Andrew Klavan’s novel, Empire of Lies. In it, he has a major character who is obviously based on William Shatner. Look at how he portrays his speech to get ideas on how to portray Takimi’s speech. Now, I don’t mean to imply that Shatner speaks anything at all like Takimi, but just want to give you an example of how a different speech pattern can be shown by a skillful writer. You’ll notice he doesn’t do what Mark Twain did with his Jim character in Huckleberry Finn—using phonetic spellings to portray his speech (which isn’t done these days at all), but uses inflections, spacing of words as spoken, etc. Don’t misunderstand—not saying you should mimic what Klavan does but just see how he portrays one person’s speech, and that may give you ideas of how to do the same with Takimi’s, based on your observations of Japanese business colleagues. Delivery timing is an important component of effective dialog. It’s hard, but you’re just the person who can do it! Another good model of how to effectively use dialog patterns to define characters is virtually any Elmore Leonard work. There are lots of others, but these two come to mind at the moment.

Brenda said:
The only comment you made I’m not sure I agreed with was this one:
The ones with Jake and now Takima come across as those “Ayn Rand” kind of scenes. The place where the preaching begins.
I’m not seeing Jake as preachy so far, but he is a missionary, and preach is something he will do. In fact my rewrite of the Takami dialog is probably more preachy, cuz I think that to be realistic, this is a case in which he would preach. And pray. I hope you won’t hate it—I took your advice otherwise.

Les said:
Not to worry! I’m not going to hate it at all! But, think hard about your character. Before he became a missionary, he was something else, right? For one thing, he was a member of a crew on a bomber. Which means he had a particular sensibility and way of thinking and talking, probably much like any other average person. Then, he becomes a missionary and all of a sudden he’s thinking and speaking in “missionary-speak?” See what I mean? To portray him this way delivers kind of a stereotype, I think. I suspect that anyone who undergoes the kind of conversion he has wouldn’t suddenly change his everyday language and speech patterns to reflect the layperson’s idea of what a minister says and how he thinks. Does this make sense? What I’d (gently) suggest is to give him the same language and thought patterns of anyone else, and from time to time, use his “minister” language, i.e. “preachiness.” But, just not continually. He’s a relatively newbie in terms of being a missionary, right? Which means I’d think his old patterns of thought and language used wouldn’t have yet had time to make a full transition into “minister-speak.” Has he, for instance, gone to college and majored in theology by this point? Four years of being in such a program might have reprogrammed him into this mode of thought and speech, but if he hadn’t, it probably wouldn’t have happened yet. He would also be a different type of speaker and thinker if he’d been raised in a minister’s family, where he’d spent his entire life in such a milieu and been expected to become a pastor. See the difference? A lot of how you portray him would depend on stuff like this.
Now, I know you said there is a true-life account of this man’s experience. And, in that (if he wrote it), the language used might be what I keep calling “minister-speak.” But, if so, I’d suspect that he wrote it as a minister, being fully aware of that role, and consciously used such language. That would be a natural thing for him to do as the author of such a work. But, the key to that is that he would “consciously” employ such language as the author, meaning it still wasn’t his “natural” language, but a more formal one he uses to write a book. To write his book as a kind of “animated” sermon or parable for a specific audience. I don’t know—just throwing possibilities out there for you to consider. Just keep in mind that you’re writing a novel and not a true-life account of your own life as he was. Big difference.
That’s why I used the Ayn Rand reference. Rand wrote novels that were too-obviously thinly-veiled polemics for her political point of view. (Actually, I personally happen to agree with many of her politics, but not her novel-writing techniques, which were really of poor quality.) Giving her characters long monologues in which they make impassioned speeches is a very bad novelistic technique. She gets away with it because in many instances she’s “preaching to the choir,” her audience largely being college sophomores and those who already believe in her tenets. And, she happened to write in a different era and it’s doubtful she’d get published today since they’re really poorly-written. Good literature, it ain’t. Any political or religious book like hers or Marx’s Glen Beck's or Rachel Maddox's or anyone with a particular view outside the main is going to sell books. That’s fine, but they’re just not good models for novel writers. And, that’s all I’m concerned with here. Make sense?
I just know that many readers get turned off when a character too much resembles a stereotype and that’s my fear with Jake. I think if you show him as just a regular guy in his thought processes and language patterns most of the time and only occasionally show him delivering sermon-like language and thoughts, you’ll make him a lot more likeable character. For instance, in the scenes with his wife, you might consider making him less of what the congregation might expect of a Billy Graham and more of a regular guy. I’ll bet even Billy didn’t think in terms of John the Baptist all the time, especially when he was in the sheets with Mrs. Graham… Make sense?

This from Brenda’s novel for the week, from the thoughts of her Japanese character who’s become a prostitute to survive:
Her life was a sham. The GIs’ gangling bodies. Their juices emptying into her. Faking her climax. Counting the money the instant they left.

Les said:

If she’s really a pro, she wouldn’t wait until they leave to count it but would count it before they even had sex. She would have learned this the first day on the job.) Are you aware that the most common sexual act prostitutes engage in is oral sex? Probably 10-1 to penetration. Especially street hookers. Doesn’t mean they don’t practice “regular” sex—they do—but by and large, b.j.’s are the biggest stock in trade. Lots of reasons for that. For one, oral sex is quicker and easier and infinitely more convenient as the girl doesn’t need much but an alley or the back seat of a car. Being quicker lets them make a lot more money as they are able to get back on the block a lot quicker for the next one. For “regular sex” a place is required, necessitating some kind of rent, which eats into the profit. And, a lot of johns are really ignorant about sex, feeling that oral sex won’t lead to venereal disease or AIDs—believe it or not, there are people that believe that. Lots of johns are on a fixed time frame as well—they’re getting sex on the way home and they don’t dare be too late. There are also those who want anal sex or other varieties and that’s pretty common. The reason a lot of johns look up prosties is to get stuff their wives won’t do (except with the pool man, which they neglect to tell their husbands…).

Another thing you might want to address, that in very few societies (including Japan) is it easy or even possible for a girl to freelance. There are those who do, but they’re relatively rare. I’d think she’d have to go through some s**t to be able to work without a pimp. It would really be dangerous for her if she didn’t have a guy to work for. She’d face problems with other girls who’d know she didn’t have protection, for one thing, and would be motivated to get rid of the competition since she doesn’t have anyone to protect her. It’s not some kind of cozy “girl’s club” out there, but a violent, extremely competitive milieu. She’d also have to be able to fend off those pimps who would try to force her to join their stable. She’d also have no protection from johns. She’d be without someone to bail her out when she got arrested, a big part of a pimp’s job. Not saying she’d have to have a pimp—there are those who don’t—but they’re relatively rare, especially in the case of a street hooker. Almost nonexistent and the ones who do operate that way usually do so because they’ve got some serious stones. She doesn’t seem to be that type. Also, her girlfriend didn’t seem to have one either, and while one hooker may be a freelancer, again, that’s a rarity, and two are really a rarity. In fact, so far we haven’t seen any pimps at all in her “working” scenes. If she’s working in a large Japanese city, surely the “bad hands” or yakuza would be in control and it’s virtually impossible to freelance. Think you need to address that and give a plausible reason for her not to have a pimp. Or, you might consider giving her one, which might add even more complexity to the story.

The above is a fairly typical exchange between a student and myself. We try to look at everything important that’s going on in the writing, from dialog to character realism and motivation and everything else that can make it better. What happens often is that writers create their characters from stereotypes they’ve assimilated from hundreds of (incorrect) movies and books and that means what we (readers) get are… stereotypes. And, worse… incorrect stereotypes.
As I think you can see by the small samples of the writing, “Brenda” is a terrific writer and without my comments would probably end up with a publishable book. What we’re both after isn’t simply a publishable book, but a great book. I can see already that she’s going to accomplish that. And, when it gets published, be assured I’m going to tell everybody here about it and urge you to buy it!
Hope this helps!

Blue skies,

Monday, December 6, 2010


Hi folks,

I'm posting something a bit different. Cortright McMeel, a writer I've admired for a long time has his first novel coming out from St. Martin's Press. He asked me to write a review for it for Amazon which I'm posting below. Cort found me several years ago when he founded the national noir magazine, Murdaland, and invited me to submit a story for their first issue. From that moment, we became good friends. He has a dream of creating his own press and came close but at the last minute his financing fell through. We're both hoping he realizes enough from this novel for him to start up his press, which will focus on noir ala Georges Simenon. Cort believes in my work and wants to publish one of my novels as his press's first offering. It would be a distinct honor for me--he's a superb editor and knows the world of noir better than anyone I know.

Anyway, I loved the novel he wrote. It's breathtakingly original and the language is pure poetry. The story is simply, powerful. I hope lots of you glom onto a copy--you won't be sorry.

Here's the review I wrote (which doesn't do it the justice it deserves.).

We’ve seen financial thrillers before—such bestselling novels such as Joseph Finder and James Grippando have provided, as well as accounts of insider Wall Street reporting as Michael Lewis’ (The Big Short) and Harry Markopolos’ expose of Bernie Madoff in his seminal No One Would Listen come to mind—but Cortright McMeel’s first novel, Short, pioneers new territory. Not a thriller in the vein of Finder or a expose such as Markopolos delivers, but rather, Short delivers us a character-driven existential work that goes much deeper than a simple detective yarn or a fact-laden historical work. In Short, we see deeply into the minds and motivations of the characters and all the permutations of greed the human animal is capable of. The characters who people this novel are not only creating a scheme to short electrical power and make obscene fortunes; they are shorting their own spirituality. And… they all lose.

McMeel has created a cautionary tale of greed gone amok, of acts of terrorism as heinous as from any militant jihad, only for fortunes and not souls. A landscape of lust and gluttony, Bibical in its scope. Of the horror of modern society and the moral landscape that has shifted to naked materialism sans any semblance of moral character.

Trader Joe Gallagher becomes enmeshed in a scheme to short electrical power by his boss The Ghost whose machinations include an act of terrorism as heinous as any jihad, and almost succeeds until a tropical storm turns the wrong way and becomes Hurricane Katrina, wiping out all the players in its path. Gallagher has his own agenda and ends up making money, but still comes up short on the ledger of life as he’s fired and loses his wife Celina along the way.

In fact, everyone loses and readers expecting to find a formulaic ending in which characters are changed as a result will discover a much more noir-like finale and one which more accurately reveals the place we find ourselves in the reality of today’s society.

The reader will be rewarded with more than a powerful story. McMeel delivers a original voice that is sure to draw comparisons to some of our best stylists. At turns, the prose becomes lyrical and poetic, as in this passage…

Celina felt comfortable among her old friends. The feeling of being in a nexus of the art world among artists made Celina feel as if she had woken up from a deep sleep. Her eyes and ears cannibalized the room, taking in the various energies, the steely hope of the up and comers, the sucking sound made by the failures and the struggling, the tittering of industry minions and the smug, leering eyes of the wealthy buyers, professionals, middle aged men in pressed pants. She was normally so far away from this and the room began to pulse like a heart beat. Celina was aware of the hunger sweeping over her like it does those recovering from a sickness; the appetite, so long suppressed, returns ravenous tenfold, almost to the point of passion.

…to profound insights…

There is a difference between boxers and warriors. The old veteran’s of the trading floor fought for more than money, more than the game, it was a strange war to them, one that would never end until the trader’s on the other end were destroyed and they were victorious. Theirs was a taste of something that they themselves could not define. The only glimpse of it could be seen when they were up a crapload of money and they had a look on their face that was not of happiness, nor giddiness with riches, but one of relief. That moment which would make any normal man ecstatic, merely served as brief respite for them before they embarked on their next campaign, the result of which would have them losing what they had won or making more. Gallagher wondered if the way trading was for them, a life or death affair, was more of a blessing or a curse.

…and the heart of the matter…

As Stan spoke and praised the Lord and his life and his wife and his luck and his house and his pool and his job and his country and his faith, Milt bore inside his own belly an evil, yellow-fanged, greedy, ugly, growling demon, even more hungry and obscene than usual. Milt felt he saw Stan’s preaching for what it was, a selfish need to exorcise guilt by saving others.

In the end, none of the players escape the insanity. Which is the brilliance of this novel. The author knows the truth of the matter—that learning one is mad doesn’t constitute a cure. This is Camus’ The Stranger written by a spiritual descendant of Kafka and decidedly worth your time.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I recently received an email from a writer who asked me for advice on how on “how to create and write an inciting incident for a scene” in her novel.

This was a new one on me, as my view of a novel is that there’s one inciting incident per novel. Upon further investigation, it turned out this person had attended a writer’s workshop in which the leader of the workshop advocated an inciting incident to create a scene as a component of scenes.

I’ve tried to wrap my brain around this concept, but can’t see how such a thing could possibly exist. It simply goes against how stories are created. Publishable stories, at least. Perhaps stories that are “only available in one’s room” can have an inciting incident to kick-start each scene, but of all the thousands and thousands of novels I’ve read, I can’t recall a single one that included inciting incidents as the beginnings of the scenes in any of them.

Here’s how I answered the emailer.


First, a story is about one thing always. Trouble. And, in today’s market, that’s where novels need to begin. When the trouble begins. And here’s where part of the problem comes from. “Trouble” in literary terms doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in lay terms. Trouble in lay terms (i.e. “real life”) can mean any kind of difficulty at all—you can’t pay the rent, your mate is divorcing you, your mate is sleeping with someone else, your best friend is murdered or kidnapped or raped (or you have…), your teacher has just failed you in class, a comet is headed for earth, the wrong person is elected President… you name it, those are all troubles in real life. But, trouble in literature isn’t the same thing. While it can take the same form as those listed, it’s a much different animal in fiction.

Surface problems and story-worthy problems

Trouble in fiction is presented first as a surface problem. That can take the form of almost anything, including all of those real-life problems above and almost anything else that represents trouble in one’s life. But… and this is a huge “but”—the surface problem has to be representative of a much bigger issue in the protagonist’s life, what I’ve called the “story-worthy problem.” This is a deeper, psychological issue that the surface problem is symptomatic of.

It takes the protagonist’s struggle to resolve the surface problem, and that struggle, little by little through that struggle, eventually reveals the true and much deeper, story-worthy problem. Usually the story-worthy problem is resolved at the same time the surface problem is, in the final scene of the novel. Once the problem(s) resolved, the story is over.

Both problems are the same problem. The surface problem exists solely to create the events of the story. If you began with the story-worthy problem there could be no story. It takes the struggle to resolve the surface problem to reveal the real, deeper problem to the protagonist. Without that struggle, there would be no story. The character would just go into therapy.


In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarisse is trying to catch Buffalo Bill as her surface problem… which leads her to the discovery of her real, story-worthy problem—dealing with the demons in her childhood. She couldn’t save the lamb from being slaughtered when a child, and she goes into the FBI to be able to save the “lambs” (i.e., victims) of serial killers like Buffalo Bill and to prove herself worthy to the man she worships as a hero—her father. It is only through the struggle to resolve her surface problem (catching Buffalo Bill) and with the insights provided by Hannibal Lector, that she discovers what she’s really been trying to resolve. She actually doesn’t resolve her story-worthy problem, as evidenced by her inability to be able to answer Hannibal’s final phone call—this is a story whose conclusion answers some questions but raises even more—but she’s at last aware of her personal demons and that is a resolution in itself.

In Thelma & Louise, Thelma’s surface problem is to escape, even if just for a weekend, her overbearing husband Darryl. Her story-worthy problem is to escape a totally male-dominated society.

In Indiana Jones, the protagonist’s surface problem is to find the Holy Grail. His story-worthy problem is to gain his father’s respect. When he first begins his quest, all he knows is that he wants the Grail for professional reasons—at the end, he realizes he was after the relic solely to prove his worth to his father. It took the struggle to lead him to that realization and to resolve his story-worthy problem by knowing that he can’t achieve his self-respect by gaining his father’s respect, but that one gains self-respect irregardless of how others view him. Without all he goes through to gain the Grail, he could never have come to that realization or even known what his real problem was.

In each of these examples, as well as any of thousands and thousands of other novels and films, the surface problem is just that—a surface problem representative of a much deeper, more intensely psychological problem it’s symptomatic of—the story-worthy problem. Can’t have one without the other. This is why many novelists fail. They have a surface problem… but no story-worthy problem. Without that, it’s simply pulp fiction and not much good. It’s just too shallow.

Okay. With me so far? Good. I know that was a bit of a lengthy explanation of what appears to be a simple term—trouble—but it’s important to understand the definitions of the terms we use. We borrow our writer’s terms from the lay language, and too often, the student assumes those definitions are the same and more often than not, they carry additional connotations. I routinely see my new students who see the word “trouble” and just assume it means their story can be about the “bad things in life.” (Usually and more often—the melodramatic bad things like kidnappings, murders, rapes, et al.). Those kinds of troubles can, indeed, work, but there has to be more at stake than simply solving a murder, gaining a lover, etc.

Inciting incident—where the story begins

Now, if you buy all this, and agree that stories need to begin where the trouble (the surface problem) begins, then that means the story has to begin with the inciting incident. The definition of the inciting incident is: Something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the surface problem to the protagonist.

It’s extremely important to look at every single word in that definition to fully grasp it. By being an event that “happens to” the protagonist, that means it’s something that’s happened to which the protagonist has to react to. And, it’s virtually the only time in the story that the protagonist gets to react. After that scene, (s)he has to become proactive in resolving the problem. (That doesn’t mean the protagonist never gets to react. Of course she does. But, not in terms of resolving the problem. The major actions that create the plot turns all have to be initiated by the protagonist.) He or she absolutely must be proactive on their own behalf to resolve their problem and never depend on or be helped by fate, coincidence, other characters, to resolve that problem. That doesn’t mean others can’t help them, but when they do it has to be because of something the protagonist did to effect that help. It can’t just be out of the blue, but as a result of the protagonist’s own actions.

Causal plots

What this means is that good plots are causal. (Not casual!) This happens (inciting incident) in which a surface problem is created and/or revealed and that causes the protatonist to take an action to resolve it. That action to resolve the problem must end in failure. (Again “failure” doesn’t have quite the same definition as the lay term. It simply means the action taken can’t resolve the problem, ergo the “failure.”) When the first action ends in such failure, the protagonist has to come up with a new action to resolve the problem. Which will end in failure again to resolve the problem. However, the failure may and should lead to the protagonist getting closer to resolution. It’s just a failure in terms of resolving the problem. It can and should succeed inasfar as getting closer to the solution. And so on until the final scene in which the problem is resolved. Once the problem is resolved, the story’s over. The point is, plots are always causal. This happens which causes this which causes this which… you get the point.

What has to be on every single page of the novel is the surface problem (as well as bit-by-bit revelations of the story-worthy problem, both to the protagonist and to the reader.). The story should never depart from that. That’s why subplots always have to be subservient to the main story—the struggle to resolve the problem. They can’t be separate stories, but have to play a role in support of the primary problem. In Thelma & Louise, there are several subplots. One is the relationship between the two women. Thelma’s friendship with Louise is a subplot totally dependent and serving the main plot as Louise provides the function of being a mentor to Thelma, among other things. The romance Thelma has with J.T. isn’t just some sex stuff in there to satisfy a romantic element. When they have sex, it’s the precise physical action that transforms her into a woman. Again, it’s a subplot that’s subservient to the main plot.

And, this brings me back to the original subject of this article. The writer wanting to know how to create and write inciting incidents for scenes.

Episodic stories

This kind of stance suggests to me that she’s thinking of episodic stories. (Which, incidentally, aren’t publishable.) The kind of thinking where you create this really cool character and/or situation and set ‘em loose to have neat-o adventures. That isn‘t a novel, unfortunately. Even Indiana Jones isn’t an episodic story, although it may appear to be so on the surface. Everything he does is to resolve his problem—recover the Holy Grail (and, win his father’s approbation).

The story problem is the spine of every good story. It’s what everything in the novel has to be attached to and firmly. It’s causal. The plot simply must be causal.

A novel isn’t a journey in the sense that the protagonist is traveling around having adventures. (Another instance of a writer assigning a lay definition to a writing term.) It’s a journey with a destination in mind all the way and with every single step. The destination is the resolution of the problem. Nothing can or should interfere with that, not even for five seconds. If the protagonist can depart, even briefly, from the goal of resolving their problem, it wasn’t a good enough problem for the novel. Nothing can get in the way of that goal for any reason.

In Thelma & Louise, to the person watching it on a surface level may think that that’s mainly what Thelma does—drive around with Louise, go to bars, pick up guys, etc., and have a series of adventures. But, that’s a person who’s not thinking as a writer. When she pleads with Louise to go to the roadhouse, it’s an action she’s taking to resolve the problem of her overbearing husband. When she kicks back the traces and gets drunk and dances with Harlan, it’s an extension of the same action to resolve the problem of her husband who’s kept her in a prison during their relationship. And so on. Everything in the story is a direct and causal action to resolve her problem. And, each action fails to resolve the problem until the final action and scene which both reveals to her her true problem and resolves both the surface and story-worthy problems.

Therefore, there isn’t any “inciting incident to begin a scene.” Each scene is simply the next action the protagonist takes to resolve the surface problem. The failure to resolve the previous scene is the “inciting incident.” To create an inciting incident for scenes just doesn’t make any kind of sense whatsoever. It’s already created. She failed in the previous scene. She still has the problem, only now it seems even further away. Her motivation is that she desperately wants to resolve the problem. Period. To even think about creating some kind of “inciting incident” to begin scenes with is… well, it’s really ludicrous. It’s not this writer’s fault—it’s something she heard at a workshop. Personally, I’d ask for a refund… Or, she may have misunderstood what they were talking about.

We haven’t talked about sequel, but I suspect that’s what she may have been thinking of. Sequel is the novel element that follows scene. I won’t go into depth here about sequels as I’ve covered that in prior posts and it’s in my book, Hooked, but basically, sequel is this:

Scenes all have to end in failure (in terms of the protagonist not resolving the problem.). Okay? Well, just as in “real life” when this happens, immediately after a setback like this an emotional reaction occurs. (This is the beginning of sequel.) Upon failure, the character feels something. Frustration, sadness, anger, despair, whatever. She failed to achieve resolution. That’s the emotional part and beginning of sequel. This is the place in our novels where we get to do all that exposition and summary. This is where flashbacks go. Backstory and all that junk. And then, during the course of sequel, the protagonist begins to switch from the emotional to the intellectual, and the protagonist begins to figure out a Plan 2 to resolve the problem. As soon as that plan has been decided on, the sequel is over and… you guessed it… the next scene begins.

Possibly, this is what my emailer was thinking about. The end of the sequel following the previous scene. But, that’s not an inciting incident. It’s what creates the occasion of the next scene, but it’s not an inciting incident. It doesn’t fit any of the definition of an inciting incident. It fits the definition of the end of sequel. BTW, for a great discussion of sequel, get Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure.

I hope this helps anyone else who may be struggling with plot or have a misconception about inciting incidents!

Remember: One inciting incident per novel…

Blue skies,