Sunday, February 28, 2010

Is Your Story Expertise Lacking? Make It Up!

A "writer's block" moment from "For All The Marbles" might be illustrative of a problem you may have faced in the past. And, the problem was:

"I don't have experience in that area. I don't know what should/would happen there."

The issue was the main character who was being rushed to Offutt, Air Force Base, where he would be sworn in as President after a terrorist attack on Washington. I did get "stuck" here for a few weeks, and finally had lunch with a friend of mine who had recently retired from the Navy. When I told him of my predicament, he asked why that stumped me. My answer was that I had no idea how that transition would go...what would happen...what would be said.

His response really stopped me cold and opened the door to completing that section in record time. His response was, "Neither does anyone else! Just write your story. Less than 1 percent of the public will know whether it is accurate or not." Case closed.

Do you run into blocks like this where you feel your expertise is not great enough to write accurately? In fiction, we're very lucky as writers. We can just make it up. Get some facts...get some information, certainly. But, if you wait until you are an expert in every subject area before you begin writing a book or a section or a scene, then you will be waiting for a very long time. Non-fiction is different. But, in the world of fiction, you get to create your own world. Surely there is a base protocol officer out there, who if they ever happen to read my book, might laugh out loud at that particular section. However, for the vast majority of readers, they will read my "transition" section and assume that's exactly the way it happens.

This bit of advice was particularly helpful to me, and I hope it will be useful to you, if you happen to be stuck at some point in your writing just now.

Write On!

Jack Riston

Hide Your Clue In Plain Sight

I was told once that Clues for the readers should a lot like a woman's dress: Veiled enough to keep the plot covered up, but revealing enough to keep up interest.

How do you go about slowly revealing clues to your readers in your books? If you remember watching "Sixth Sense" the second time around, you probably managed to catch almost all of the clues that the Bruce Willis "Psychologist" character verbalized to you, sprinkled all through the movie. I used that pattern to some good effect in "For All The Marbles". Those who have gone through the manuscript the second time have all said, "Ah, now I see what he was up to. It was there all along!"

In my next book, currently titled "Mandate", the only "clue" that is presented at the outset of the book is a picture, taken from a spy satellite, of the airplane boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, AZ. And, on the picture, someone has scrawled a single word: "ANTS!!!"

I will be very deep into the book before my detective/investigator will discover through a casual conversation with an intelligence technician that hidden among the countless aircraft in the picture is a small fleet of Antonov-124 Russian transport aircraft, which the technician will explain are commonly called "ANTS" at the NORAD Command Center, where they track all foreign aircraft: Foxbats, Floggers, Badgers, Bears...and, of course, ANTS.

In the story, the previous owner of the picture was murdered. He was an ex-Air Force pilot, and it was his hand that had scribbled ANTS on the picture. When the detective stumbles across the true meaning of the word, he suddenly picks up the trail the victim was on when he was murdered. Of course, now being on to the same information, the detective's life becomes threatened, and we will move toward discovery of just who is behind this murder, and just what ANTS means....why there is a group of ANTonov-124's hidden in plain sight in what is supposed to be a scrapyard?

Have fun with your clues. If you can, put them out there in plain sight and tease your reader. It will keep them turning those pages, one after the other!

Keep writing!

Jack Riston

New Novel? Write The Ending First

A successful trip usually starts with a destination. We seldom just pile into the family automobile and pull out of the driveway or head down to the airport to board a flight without a known destination in mind. It could be something as simple as a trip into Shasta to the supermarket, or it might be that we're starting out on a trip around the globe. The fact is that those directionless Sunday afternoon drives that the family used to take when I was a child are things of the past. Today, with time and gasoline so precious, we usually know exactly where we are going and have a MapQuest printout right beside us.

If you are stymied a bit with your story writing, I'm going to suggest that you consider starting your next book with your “destination”...the ending...the last chapter. There's nothing quite like knowing the final outcome of your the main characters solved their issues, how the plot resolved, etc. If you have a clear understanding of the resolution or conclusions you are planning to reach in the final moments of the book, conflicts will often be clearly evident between an earlier chapter you are writing now and the ending of the book that you wrote earlier. You won't find yourself going back to an earlier chapter and changing the look or action of a character due to a major difference in the final chapter. You will already know where you are going, and this will assist you in avoiding major (or even minor) conflicts between sections of the book. You may not spot these conflicts easily, but your readers often will, and an obvious or major discrepancy will probably spoil the entire story for them.

I'm worked on the final chapter of “Mandate” last night, for this very reason....and, now I have the entire rest of the book to write. It was such a powerful and touching ending, IMHO, that I only hope I can do justice to the chapters that will lead up to the final moments of the book.

Good luck on the “destination” of your next book.
Write on!

Jack Riston

What Time Does Your Book Start?

The rain and wind has moved out of Shasta for the moment, and it's just cloudy and mid 40s this morning, with no snow in the forecast. In fact, tomorrow should be sunny. However, even without snow, the damp cold gets to the bones, and today is a day for staying inside and writing.

As I get down to the business of starting “Mandate”, I always come down to that point where I have to decide just where in time to begin the story. This one involves the murder of a US Senator in a very compromising situation and the subsequent investigation that eventually leads to the Oval Office. But, does it begin while the Senator is still alive and trace the steps that lead to his murder? Or, should it begin with the grieved spouse pleading with an investigator to take on a case that everyone is convinced is just another sleaze-bag example of how money, power, drugs, and sex will corrupt anyone, once they reach elected office? Another possibility is to begin with the impeachment of the President and then use flashbacks to tell the story. Ahhhh, decisions!!

In “For All The Marbles”, there really was a small bag of marbles that played a critical part to understanding the story. In order to underscore the importance of these marbles, I allowed my reader to arrive right at the end of Custer's Last Stand, where the marbles are found on the body of a dead soldier. At the end of that first chapter, however, I raced forward through the generations, depositing the marbles into the 15-year old hands of my protagonist. Chapter two then snapped forward to present day, and the story was off to the races, as they say.

So, just how do you begin your stories? Do you always use a linear progression from event to event? Or, do you throw something at the reader in order to make them wonder....”what happened before this?” The answer probably comes down to what you believe will involve your reader the most, and also what allows you to tell your story in the most intriguing possible fashion. If you've seen “Law and Order” episodes on TV, let's use that story line as an example for the moment. It's always the same: someone discovers a body; investigation begins. Fairly effective the first time I saw an episode, but quite boring in the syndicated episodes now. But, just how would you as a writer use this technique in your next story?

Here's just an “off the top of my head” first page opening couple of sentences for you to play around with this morning. First, look at the structure as a reader. Does it pique our interest? Then, look at it as a writer. Would you do it differently? And, if not, then how would the rest of the story evolve to give the back story to the characters in these opening phrases and set up the reader for the remaining pages?

“He was dead all right, as were the other two gunshot victims...just about as dead as a 58 year old Air Force Ace-turned lawyer-turned US Senator could get. There wasn't even a trace of blood where the bullet had entered between his eyes. The exit area at the back of his skull was quite different story, however. A small amount of what appeared to be cocaine was smeared just under his nose, and the remaining residue was sprinkled across the face of a small pocket mirror just to the side of his body. He was sprawled naked across the bed of this hapless motel room on the outskirts of Tucson, AZ, no more than 30 minutes from his multi-million dollar estate in the Ranchitos De Los Saguaros estates area that lies at the foot of the Milagrosa Mountains east of town. Every local knew that the late Senator, Hugh Dakan, was a party boy, going back as far as his high school days at Dunham and Eastside High schools. And, he had cut a record size swath through the coed ranks of Arizona State back in the 70s. So, few would be surprised to learn that drugs, money, or sex had finally caught up with him. What might be surprising to some, however, was that the two other dead bodies on the bed appeared to be those of two 12-14 year old boys, both of obvious Mexican heritage.”

As a writer, you've decided to start your story here. Now, the challenge will be to go backwards and forwards to fill in the blanks for your reader. How will you do it? Or, is this the place you would start? Just food for thought.

I'm off to throw another chunk of wood on the fire and pour myself another cup of coffee. Have a great day of writing!

Write on!


New Novel? Consider Making It Into A Movie

Make my book into a movie?
I know what you're thinking: I WOULD LOVE TO MAKE MY BOOK INTO A MOVIE!! Well, who wouldn't? But, if you can dream of your novel being turned into the next silver screen blockbuster, then you can do what I'm suggesting here. The movie I'm referencing here is the movie in your mind.
We've largely grown up in a visual age. Current movie and television production makes great use of visuals, rather than words to impart the story. As a writer, it's up to you to write words that create those visuals in the minds of your readers. However, in order to write those words most effectively, it's critical that you, as the author, as a story teller, know just what movie of your work would look like, so that you can create the words that will recreate that picture for your reader.
This is a tricky area, and it can quickly lead the unwary into writing about the color of the sky and every blade of grass and other superfluous information that will only bog down the reader. Creating a feeling and and image with just a smattering of words is, IMO, the holy grail of that I pursue and fail to grasp, in every story it seems.
But try out the concept. If you are working on a new project, or even a new chapter, find a quiet place and just sit back. Let the movie projector of your mind flash the characters in front of you. See them taking those next thrilling actions you've planned. Watch the tears or anger flow from them, and scan their surroundings for that gun or knife, or that precious last letter from their spouse who was killed in that far off war. Not only will you enjoy the respite from the keyboard, but you may find that you gain new energies and insight when you next sit down to write.
….and, you may find that popcorn is suddenly on your mind, also. Ahhh, but that's another story in itself.
Good luck on the next book, but even better luck on your next “movie”.
Write on!

Jack Riston

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

So, you want to write the next great American novel?

Having just finished a novel, I'm in the midst of coming up with a new idea for another book...something interesting, different, timely, controversial, perhaps, or focused on an issue of the day. I write fiction, but with my background and interest in history, politics, and military themes, you can bet this next book will be addressed at one, if not all three of those.

I don't know if it will be of interest, but I thought as sort of a diary for my own curiosity, and perhaps as a tool that would be of use to those who have an interest in writing a novel, but have yet to lift fingers to keyboard, that this particular blog would be dedicated to the process that I use. While I can't say that I'm any sort of super-writer, I've certainly learned a lot from the transition from newspaper articles and very short stories, to a full length novel.

I learned a whole lot this first time out, and I'm certainly willing to share that experience and answer questions from anyone who has an interest in following this next book...which right now looks like a political/thriller/murder-mystery novel.

Top Down, then Bottom Up:
In my military, teaching, and business years, the approach to problem solving was always top-down first: get the big picture out in the open. Then, bottom-up, disect and solve the problem in managable chunks. Book writing is not much different, in my humble opinion.

Decide On A Basic Theme:
So, where do I start? Using the top-down approach, it's a murder-mystery (always interesting). It involves politics (a hot topic at this particular time), and it involves (full disclosure: my personal interests will show now) some aspect of how government is affecting our lives, for better or worse. OK, I'll admit personal opinions will come into play here, but my aim is to leave the "spin" out of it, and base as much of the aside narrative of the book on the data and dot-connecting that I can find; not just ideology. My goal is not to convince, but to entertain. This is not commentary, but observation. Am I always successful? Probably not. And, there will always be some who will take an opposing view. That's fine. If you, as a new writer, start out assuming that 100% of the readers will agree with your view, then you will be disappointed.

Why Should This Story Be Told?:
The Story Premise: So, the topmost part of the problem has been addressed. Knowing that it's a political murder mystery, then, just like a detective, I begin asking myself the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY questions to come up with a framework that is going to guide me for the rest of the novel.

1. Who got murdered? A Senator? The President? Some political big-wig?
2. Why did they wind up dead? They found out something big? They got involved with the baddies?
3. What did they know or stumble across that got them killed?
4. Where did it happen? Who stands to benefit or suffer from their murder? What bit of information did they find out that I can realistically build a believable story around?
5. Who wants to dig into this murder, and why? What happens if the culprit is discovered?

There are just so many questions to ask before you touch the keyboard. If you do this part right and well, then you will make your task of actually writing the story that much easier.

Storyboard Your Ideas:
I use a big dry erase board for this planning part. As I work, I use sticky notes with character IDs on them: "Senator X, President X, Wife X, Detective X", and I move those around while making notes and lines to clearly create the overall story in my mind before I begin writing. When I sit down at the keyboard, I'll have already become quite familiar with these characters and even have a feel for what they look like and sound like. I'll have motivations and intentions written on my dry-erase board, or clearly etched in my mind. Storyboarding can take a day, or it can take a month. However long it takes, you will be forever thankful that you did it. When I wrote "For All The Marbles", I had the framework done in about an hour. I knew the beginning, the motivation, and the ending. (I actually wrote the ending chapter first - more on that next time) However, I spent about a month storyboarding, really trying to get the nuances of my character's actions and the interplay between them honed fine. There were some philosophical discussions with my wife to (no plot spoiler here) because of some of the things I was going to have the main character say and do after the terrorist attack on America. We spent hours discussing the motivation and morality of what I was planning for the "President Jim Anderson" character. At first, she couldn't buy my premise. But now, with some of my readers weeping at the ending, she's convinced that his actions were right, for duty...for country.

The point here is that all of that time spent working on characters and story thread from beginning to end paid off "big time". The writing just seemed to flow most of the time, with only a little of the so-called "writer's block"..another topic we'll visit during the course of this blog. And, I was feeling the story so intently at times, that I could hardly see the keyboard for my own tears and emotions. It was an intensely personal feeling when I typed our the words, "The End". My hope is that through this little simple blog, you will feel the same emotions.

FOR NEXT TIME: Write The Movie Trailer First

OK...not exactly a movie trailer. But as part of that clear definition of what your novel is going to be about, we'll look at the synopsis and why it's critical to successfully finishing your novel. In the meantime, check out my website at You can even download an eBook version of For All The Marbles there and read the first two chapters. You can do the same at, where I have the book posted. You can read about 45 pages or so there, also. You can also read a bit more of the synopsis information at And feel free to post thoughts, questions, or comments here. I plan to check back often and keep diary up to date as I work on my next novel.

Keep writing!