The Write Stuff

What better way to start the new year than with a complete writing-course-in-a-blog? I’m happy to have my friend and award-winning writer, MICHAEL A. BLACK as my guest today.

The Write Stuff

By

Michael A. Black

When Camille heard that I had a new book out, she graciously offered me a chance to be a guest on her blog. We used to be alternating partners on the now defunct Ladykillers blog, and I always looked forward to reading her submissions on that site. So, after offering my heartfelt thanks to this great lady for this opportunity, I’ll offer the following.

Besides writing at as furious a pace as I can manage, I also teach creative writing classes at a local junior college. I find the experience gratifying in being able to offer suggestions to people interested in writing. I’ve found that teaching, once thought to be the refuge of “those who can’t,” has actually helped me refine my own writing process. I’ve distilled this process into seven steps, which I list as Characters, Plotting, Point of View, Setting, Showing vs. Telling, Dialogue, and Revision. I spend a lot of time explaining each one in the beginning weeks of the class, and use various short stories as examples of each principle. I also stress that all of them need to be viewed in a holistic sense, and not as disparate entities.

For Characters I suggest the creation of a character bible, which details the physical characteristics and backgrounds of each character. These can be as detailed or brief as you want. For a major character, the entry would normally be much greater than that of a minor character who will appear only once in the story.

Plotting seems to be the most difficult aspect to master for beginning writers. It’s easy to start, but harder to finish, and it’s a lot easier to finish if you know where you want to end up. For that reason I stress outlining. It not only saves time, but it also helps curtail tangential writing. How many times does a “pantser” have to throw out long passages of really fine writing because it eventually becomes clear that the writer has strayed off the path? The answer for me is, “Too many.” Outlining helps you save time and effort.

Selecting the right point of view is also a crucial thing to decide before you start writing. Y advice on this is simple: if the story is character oriented, use the first person. If it’s plot oriented, use the third. And above all, stay away from using the second person. There supposedly is a successfully written novel using the second person out there, but I’ve never been able to find it. I also stress that these rules aren’t set in stone, so if you start out in one point of view and feel it’s not working, try switching it for a while and see if it sounds better.

With setting I point out that it’s imperative to involve the reader in the scene, and the easiest way to do this is by using the five senses. What is the character seeing, smelling, hearing, etc. as he walks into the old house? Usage of the senses will put the reader in the character’s shoes.

Keep this in mind with showing vs. telling as well. The common advice of “Show, don’t tell,” isn’t always applicable. You should use “showing” to ground the reader in the scene, but there are times when the story needs to be advanced at a quicker rate, and “telling” is how you do this.

Dialogue must sound natural, but it shouldn’t copy conversational speech verbatim. Dialouge is the ultimate show and tell device and it should advance the story in an entertaining fashion. Thus, leave out all the mundane stuff that a real conversation might include.

And lastly, I stress the most important part: revision. As Roald Dahl used to say, ”Good writing is rewriting.” It’s also the most fun for me.

Let’s take a look at this process in action. I write the Executioner series under the name Don Pendleton, and my latest book, Dying Art, was just released in December. Now the characters and point of view are already set ahead of time, so I had to come up with a new idea for the plot.

I started out doing some brainstorming:

A stolen ancient artifact… The pending trial of a drug kingpin’s son… A murdered Mexican reporter… A vengeful message scrawled in Arabic… And a state of the art superweapon…

I had to combine all of these into the Executioner’s newest adventure.

I then expanded these ideas into a paragraph:

After conducting a daring raid south of the border to capture the wanted son of a Mexican drug lord, Bolan finds himself in the crosshairs of the scion’s vengeful father. Added to the mix is a wealthy industrialist willing to go to any length to acquire a stolen, ancient Iraqi artifact. He also happens to have a defense contract to develop a new superweapon. Making things more dangerous is a ruthless team of highly proficient members of a private military organization employed by the cartel to carry out a sinister revenge plot of international proportions. Bolan finds himself in a race against the clock to prevent the superweapon from falling into the wrong hands and sending the nation into chaos.

Once I had the plot down, I kept expanding the paragraph until I had a detailed summary of the novel. Then I broke it down into scenes and the story was clear to me, which is not to say that it was set in stone. I ended up changing and modifying the scenes a few times during the course of writing the book.

I used the same process for my previous Executioner novel, Fatal Prescription, which won the Best Original Novel Scribe Award in 2018.

Initially, there’s seemingly little connection between the brutal, viral devastation of a small, African village and the massacre at a drug research facility in Belgium. The Executioner’s interest is piqued by the purported involvement in the latter of a mysterious assassin known as the Red Talon, who’s a master of disguise. With the Talon now in the U.S. committing a series of new murders, Bolan must pull out all the stops to track down the killer, and find those responsible for hiring him. But when the Executioner discovers that a millionaire industrialist is about to unleash the lethal virus in the U.S., and use the antidote as a ticket to Oval Office, Bolan finds himself in a race against a ticking time bomb to stop both the Talon and the pending epidemic.

Before I write each scene, I jot down a list of things I need to accomplish in it. Once I’ve finished writing, I check the list to see if I hit all the points. If not, I know what I have to go back and include.

While I was writing Dying Art, I also had a western novel due the same month. Since I pride myself in never having missed a deadline, I worked on both manuscripts in tandem, writing one and then the other on successive days. It was a challenge, but I finished. The western, which won’t be coming out until October of 2019, is called Legends of the West. A Bass Reeves Story. It’ll be released under my own name, as was my last thriller, Blood Trials, which is about a series of murders that exactly mimic a serial killer case that occurred twenty-eight years before.

In closing I’d also like to say that while this process has served me well in the writing of 31 books, I make no claim that it’s the only way to write a book. Writing is an individual process and you have to find what works best for you. So take a look and give it a try, and if you feel any of the aspects might be beneficial, use them. Anything that doesn’t feel right for you can be discarded. The main thing is to write. Good luck.

How’s this for an impressive bio (editorial comment by Camille)

Michael A. Black graduated from Columbia College, Chicago in 2000 with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Fiction Writing. He previously earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Northern Illinois University. Despite his literary leanings, he has often said that police work has been his life. A former Army Military Policeman, he entered civilian law enforcement after his discharge, and for the past twenty-seven years has been a police officer in the south suburbs of Chicago.

The author of over forty articles on subjects ranging from police work to popular fiction, he has also had over thirty short stories published in various anthologies and magazines, including Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His first novel, A Killing Frost, featuring private investigator Ron Shade, was published by Five Star in September 2002, with endorsements from such respected authors as Sara Paretsky and Andrew Vachss. The novel received universally excellent reviews, and was subsequently released in trade paperback.

Windy City Knights, the second novel in the Ron Shade series, came out in March of 2004. His third novel, The Heist, a stand-alone thriller set in Chicago, is Black’s third novel. He has also written two nonfiction books, The M1A1 Abrams Tank and Volunteering to Help Kids, which were published by Rosen Press.

He has worked in various capacities in police work including patrol supervisor, tactical squad, investigations, raid team member, and SWAT team leader. He is currently a sergeant on the Matteson, Illinois Police Department. His hobbies include weightlifting, running, and the martial arts. He holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. It is rumored he has five cats.

 

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “The Write Stuff”

  1. Ann says:

    Wow, Michael, I’d love to take a class from you sometime! All of your suggestions are great… I should (note the word “should”) create a character bible, because when it comes to returning characters I’m always stumbling over one detail or another, and it takes precious time to figure out if, for instance, a certain character limps on the left or the right.
    Thanks for sharing your insights with us, and thank you, Camille, for hosting!

  2. Camille says:

    One time, I said that so-and-so from Book1 had never married, whereas I’d given him a wife and 2 kids in that first book. Fortunately a sharp copyeditor caught it.
    Yes, a character bible would have helped.