Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Guest Post: Eliot Baker

Title: The Last Ancient
Author: Eliot Baker
Publisher: Burst Books, imprint of Champagne Books
Pages: 316
Genre: Supernatural Thriller, Historical Mystery
Format: Paperback/Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

Around Nantucket Island, brutal crime scenes are peppered with ancient coins, found by the one man who can unlock their meaning. But what do the coins have to do with the crimes? Or the sudden disease epidemic? Even the creature? And who--or what--left them?

The answer leads reporter Simon Stephenson on a journey through ancient mythology, numismatics, and the occult. Not to mention his own past, which turns out to be even darker than he'd realized; his murdered father was a feared arms dealer, after all. Along the way, Simon battles panic attacks and a host of nasty characters -- some natural, others less so -- while his heiress fiancee goes bridezilla, and a gorgeous rival TV reporter conceals her own intentions.

The Alchemy of Fiction

Alchemy can be described as the process of sublimating base materials into precious metals; of turning lead to gold through. The process is both mystical and scientific, involving specific materials and properly observed rituals. Fiction writing shares a similar philosophy. There’s a certain alchemy to nurturing a story idea into an actual novel.

Stories, like alchemy, follow a process that varies with the practitioner. First and foremost, you need your base material. In fiction, that is your creative vision. Turning that vision into gold requires a host of skills that you must spend thousands of hours refining. There are dozens of such skills. Here are ten tips to being a fiction alchemist.

1.     State your alchemical intentions
Whether you call it a thesis statement, a lead, an executive statement or a pitch, you should be able to come up with one to three sentences that captures the soul of your story, the central concept of its action, mood, message, and characters. Even if you have a complex plot—my novel, The Last Ancient, does—you can still clearly, succinctly define its core. In doing so, you’ll better nurture your story to its greatest potential. It’s kind of like raising a child. While she has her own personality and might grow in a number of directions you hadn’t anticipated, you can nurture her towards the best path by understanding what fundamentally makes her tick. The end result might surprise you, but you’ll love her all the more for it. Your book, likewise, will grow in directions you hadn’t anticipated but you can keep it from getting out of hand by coming back to remembering what its core goals are as a story.

2.     Remove adverbs from the mixture
On the sixth page of my book, a potentially homicidal hunter tells my protagonist, a journalist: “You use too many (effing) adverbs. Stop writing all flowery and passive. Read some Bukowski.”  It’s true. In journalism and technical writing, adverbs and cliché’s are helpful. In fiction, they are the plague. 

When you look at amateurish writing, you’ll find that it tends to be studded with adverbs. Knights ride beautifully and fight courageously; girls weep sadly and boys laugh merrily; vampires smile evilly as they drink thirstily. Adverb addiction creates redundancies. It also precludes imagery and a unique voice vital for a story to come alive. Adverb addiction promotes laziness in writing. Removing adverbs forces you to make interesting language full of vivid images and deep context. 

3. Let the gold shine—hyperbole dulls it
Avoid saying things like, “He was the strongest knight she’d ever seen with the fastest sword and the most amazingest armor” or “Brutus was indescribably powerful, and his horse was so unbelievably fast no one could believe it.” Constantly saying this or that was the most big or amazing or terrible thing makes your writing sound like a red-faced child bragging about his superhero Daddy. Try instead to convey the gravity of this thing or event through its effect on the surroundings, or by people’s reactions. That will show us what’s happening and establish scene and character depth. Let your scene sparkle by making us see, feel, taste why this place, thing, or action is so amazing.

4.     Touch, smell, taste, hear, feel your elixir
Engage the senses, particularly when introducing a new scene. What music is playing in the restaurant? What conversations are happening? How does the wind and sun feel in the prison yard? What does the murder scene smell like? What does fresh squeezed pineapple juice taste like? How does the rope feel in the sailor’s hands? You’d be amazed at how many sensory observations you can get across in a single sentence within the first two paragraphs of a chapter.  And how you’d be further amazed at how much those observations dually inform us about your characters and bring us into the scene. 

5. In dialogue, just use, “said”
Bad adverb use in attribution actually has its own term; it’s called pulling a Swifty, after the Tom Swift books others like the Hardy Boys series: “Tom said swiftly,” “She said hesitantly,” “He cried indignantly,” “He hollered loudly.” Such attribution gets old quickly. Also, in attribution, avoid consistently doing this stuff: “He intoned.” “She exclaimed.” “They cried.” “He wept.” Constantly using your thesaurus for a variation of “said” is distracting (although in children’s literature it can work). Just use “said.” If people are always crying and shouting and intoning and interjecting, readers get distracted. Again, it’s overwriting, like that red-faced child describing the most amazingest thing that just happened. Your dialogue on its own should indicate whether characters are crying or shouting or interjecting. Avoiding such attribution will force you to beef up your dialogue. If you must convey tone, introduce a descriptive sentence before the character speaks. 

“Boris stared into his drink until the sun broke through the clouds, making him squint his watery dark eyes as he said in trembling tenor of someone repentant for their sins…” See how much you get across there? Compare that to, “Boris said quietly while he stared sadly into his drink as the sun shined harshly in his squinted eyes.”
There are exceptions, but there’s no science behind it. The story will just demand it. But for the vast majority of the time, just use “said.”

6.     Stir your suspension
The book’s heart is its plot. Tension is its pulse. Consistent tension keeps things interesting as information and characters are introduced and dispatched. Some sense of fear and uncertainty must pervade the narrative. That doesn’t mean you need to write a 300-page chase scene. Tension can be whether a boy smiles back at a girl; the pause between a man’s presentation and his superiors’ reaction; a mother’s low fuel-light lighting up while her baby screams on their way to the doctor. Tension is pacing, it is the twisting and unraveling of conflict, it is the pauses in conversations and actions. It is the uncertainty clouding events’ outcomes. Make sure there is always some sense of uncertainty, some tension, in your story that the reader see resolved.

7.     Invert your steps
Write the last page. Know your ending. While your first page is the most important part of selling your book, the last page is most important for first getting it finished. Don’t stress the beginning when you’re in the drafting process. The beginning will be better if you write it to fit with the ending. Try to imagine an ending to your story, something you’re working towards. Write it down. It’s likely that your story will go off in a different direction, but having an ending to aspire to provides you a guiding light for your outlining and writing. 

8. Plan your reaction
I’m a natural pantser who’s seen the light of outlining. They’re so, so helpful, even if you know you’ll stray from it. You can write chapter titles on notecards and lay them on a board. You can make pictures and sprinkle them on the floor. You can write a straightforward plot synopsis and cast of main characters, which agents interested in seeing a full manuscript require. That’s basically what I do.  Or maybe your outline involves graphics, or speaking into a recording device. Whatever your method, organize your basic plot structure.

9.     Isolate your substance
Isolation goes beyond the typical “blow up your TV and go to a cabin in the woods” stuff. Consider your book a classified operation. The wrong influences could compromise it. Until your book is done, be very careful about two things: what you read, and who reads you. I pleasure read within my novel’s genre only before and after my novel’s written, but never during. Otherwise I risk getting derailed; I sometimes find myself subconsciously affected by a story I like, or admiring too much another writer’s style. You’re not writing someone else’s book. You’re writing your book.
Regarding readers: as much as they ask to read it, there’s a chance the wrong reader will provide damaging and unhelpful feedback. Just because you love someone doesn’t make them your ideal reader, as Stephen King calls the person who is most suited to appreciating your work. Choose your first readers wisely. Try to probe for their tastes, strengths, and limitations as readers, and then decide whether they’ll give you useful feedback.

10. Listen to the voices
If you were to look at your dialogue, would you know who was speaking without attribution? No? Then consider altering that character’s voice. Especially the main characters. Consider giving them a social tick, or an accent, or a go-to couple phrases, or an attitude; think about making them speak in longer or shorter sentences. John Irving’s Owen Meany speaks in all caps and declarative sentences. Your characters need individuated voices that reflect and amplify their personality. Think about a Cohen brothers movie like Fargo or Big Lebowski or, well, pretty much all of them—voice practically makes the movies.

About the Author
Eliot Baker lives in Finland. He teaches communications at a local college and runs an editing and translating business, but would be content singing for his heavy metal band and writing novels full-time. He grew up near Seattle, got his B.A. in World Literature at Pitzer College, and got his M.S. in Science Journalism from Boston University. He was an award-winning journalist at the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, and before that he wrote for the Harvard Health Letters. He spent four years pursuing a career in the sciences while at the Harvard Extension School, during which time he spun old people in NASA-designed rocket chairs and kept younger people awake for 86 hours at a time in a sleep deprivation study. He likes good books, all music, and bad movies, and believes music and literature snobs just need a hug.

His latest book is the supernatural thriller/historical mystery, The Last Ancient.

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  1. Although I don't plan to write a novel there are also some great tips I can use for essay writing here. Especially useful for my BA thesis coming up! Thanks :)

  2. It's my pleasure. Thanks so much for reading! Thing to remember whenever someone suggest an approach to writing is that any advice comes with the disclaimer: "This is the process that, after much trial error and research, ultimately worked for me." There's no one-size-fits-all approach, but these tips (amongst a few dozen others) I've found work for me. Also important is to make sure you respect the writing of the person who is telling you how to write. I like Stephen King, for instance, and I found his, "On Writing" to be excellent. Good luck with your thesis and all other literary endeavors.