What five rules of Journalism also apply to fiction


Years ago I wrote brief high school sports reports on games I never saw. Honest. There were too many schools and too many games to cover in basketball, wrestling, swimming, and soccer, so somebody from outlying schools would call the newsroom, usually the winning coach, to give me all the stats, after which I would do a brief interview. The sports editor was emphatic that the five W’s should be in the first paragraph. Those five are  ‘who, what, where, when, and why.’ The rest of the article expands the five w’s.

Some fiction does begin with the five w’s, but obviously not all. A clever writer can do it and it might be a good writing exercise, especially for flash fiction.

Those five w’s also apply to fiction. The ‘who’ are the characters, notably the protagonist and the antagonist, the ones who get top billing, but all other relevant characters as well. The ‘where’ is the setting of where the story takes place and of course ‘when’ the story takes place. The’ what’ is the story, the action, the plot, the ‘whatever’ the story is including the denouement, the resolution of the plot that explains everything; in other words the ‘why.’ 

Of course the ‘why’ need  not explain everything in black and white. Often a little mystery, or something not quite resolved, or something to make the reader think about the ending is welcome. Not wrapping everything up in a nice little bow is not always for the best. It depends on what you want to leave the reader with and how you built up to that point.

The ‘how’ is sometimes considered the sixth rule of journalism, but that is iffy for a journalist, as one never gets all the facts, nor all the story so the ‘how’ is contingent on what is known. The ‘how’ in fiction, however, should be seamless because the ‘how’ are the tricks of the trade, the things a writer does to make to make the ‘how’ invisible.

Those who are avid readers know that some journalist’s stories often read like fiction in that they use fiction devices in long articles. Conversely some fiction reads like a news story. Clearly the two different modes of writing can become blurred. Not a bad thing. Everyone chooses how best to tell the story, whether it be news or entertainment. We have rules, but how we use them is where the creativity comes into play.

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Challenge your creativity with these stolen writing exercises

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Did the word ‘stolen’ get your attention. Shame on you.

They are not stolen, they are published in John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction.” If you click on his name you find his Wiki page and a picture of him smoking a pipe. Writer’s back in the day-a long day past-often posed with their pipe. It made them look intellectual. He was that; a Beowulf scholar, professor, and writer. One of his students was the great short story writer, Raymond Carver. Before he died in a motorcycle accident in 1982 I met Mr. Gardner when I was in college.

There were two things I remember from his visit to my college to speak with some of us English Lit majors. First he said “Treasure Island” was something beyond fiction. He tried to explain, then realized he couldn’t explain it. It bothers me to this day. What was he trying to say when he is not sure what he is trying to say. The second is that when I had him sign my copy of his book “Grendel” he said it was his least favorite book, that it was not written well. Yet the book won an award, so there you go, a writer never satisfied with his work. And I respect that.

But he was very engaging and he offered a great writing exercise which I never forgot. He mentions it in the aforementioned book, on fiction, but I will offer some other exercises from the book to challenge your creativity and to make your work better.

For the  exercise to develop technique try this: Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death. Or describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention murder. Or describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird. 

To control tone in a complex sentence try this on for size. Write three effective long sentences: each at least 250 words, each involving a different emotion ( anger, pensiveness, sorrow, joy).

There are reasons for the exercises and that is to make your writing better, so get at it.

Thanks John.



The best writing lesson from a six word story

Ernest Hemmingway is know for many memorable novels. I prefer Fitzgerald for Jazz Age writers, but like food, it is a matter of taste. I like cheese, my brother doesn’t. And he claims to be Scandinavian. But Hemmingway’s six word story is food for a writer to digest. It is the best example of flash fiction I can think of.

In my previous blog I wrote about the simplicity of Bukowski’s opening to his novel “Post Office.” Simplicity was the theme in that post and so is this one. Hemmingway wrote, “Baby clothes for sale, never worn.”

My first thought is the story is a tragedy. The baby died. Since the clothes were never worn, did the mother lose the baby, perhaps it was stillborn. But maybe the clothes were blue and the baby was a girl and the parents want pink. I don’t know.

But what writers can learn is that they need not always be descriptive. If a writer goes into the description of the clothes, the type, the color, the why, it could be the writer is clogging the readers mind with unnecessary information. There are things to tell and things not to tell, because the details are not important.

As I said in my Bukowski blog a writer can get in the way of his story. Elmore Leonard is said to have had a rule of never writing about the weather. If true his tongue may have been in his cheek. In my novel in progress that takes place in western Washington during November of 1927, I mention that it is raining in a couple of scenes. I note that it is the thick misty type of rain that so often inundates the area. But I do no belabor the point, not going into great detail, not over doing it. And it is important to place and atmosphere of the story. But the point is, I kept it simple.

When a writer goes over what he wrote he should not fall in love with his words. He should look at how to cut, what to cut. In doing so, in making it simple, in making it clear, the story is front and center, not the vainglorious wordsmith. 

Five simple words to begin a novel

“Once upon a time” no longer works, we are past the fairy tale age, so how and why does a writer start chapter one. Writers are told to make the first paragraph interesting, give a hook, something to make the reader move to the 2nd paragraph. Some writers think that means  a slam bang opening, or beginning in the middle of some compelling mystery. Writers are free to choose their own opening, but . . .

Consider the simplicity of a single sentence. The first paragraph of Charles Bukowski’s “Post Office” is an example. He begins with five words. Bukowski writes, ” It began with a mistake.” Notice he did not say who made a mistake, not he, not her, not anybody, just ‘it.’ So what is ‘it’?  What is the mistake? What was the result of the mistake? How did the mistake affect the characters?  ‘It’ must be an action, don’t you think. Something happened that in the end was a mistake. Could the mistake have  been averted, or was it something innocent that turned out bad? There is no action, there is no beginning in the middle of something, there is no tension between hero and adversary.

Just five simple words.

Those five words bring up lots of questions and aren’t you curious to find out what the mistake was? Something bad is bound to happen, after all there was a mistake.

Writers too often try to overdo everything, including a novels opening. Like a young baseball pitcher trying to impress a manger by throwing too hard with no plan for the pitch a writer tries to hard to impress. Sentences overflowing with steroidal adverbs meant to dazzle, instead fizzle. The best thing a writer can do, the very best thing-yes I just used ‘very’-but it works here-is to get out of the way, not only of your writing, but of the characters, of the story, of everything. Writers should not draw attention to themselves, but be invisible.

Thus the simplicity of ‘It began with a mistake.’ Bukowski was not trying to impress, he was luring you into the story. And that is impressive.


Survival for writers suffering with depression.

Depression is not fun. I know because I have dysthymia, a mild form of depression for which I took a prescribed drug for many years, but I stopped due to side effects and I wanted to battle it on my own. People with dysthymia are apathetic (not always a bad thing), both mentally and physically and tend to be negative and passive. Now blend in two of the four Greco-Roman humors, those being melancholy (analytic and quiet) with choleric (short tempered and irritable) and you know more about me than I want you to know. As you may have surmised that being apathetic, negative, short tempered, and irritable I have no friends. But then I also have a twinge of paranoia.

Let me be clear. Depression is not feelings of sadness. Everyone feels sadness, not everyone is depressive. Depression is a disease. In my case and in most forms of this depression, it is a problem with the flow of serotonin in the brain. “Beating the Blues”, paperback and Kindle was helpful to me. 

Now that you know I have depression and if you a writer suffering with this disease I can tell how I battle my apathy to get going. I try to write everyday, yet I fail. It is not that I have places to go, though sometimes that is true, but there is no excuse other than I can’t overcome my apathy. What does help, though not always, is drinking Chinese tea. I suppose it is the caffeine, but it does simulate my brain. I am writing my third blog today, all drafts that will appear in the next week or two. I may do another draft as my brain is active. In other words, strike when you can. One day, full of Chinese green tea, I wrote 2,410 words of my novel in progress in three hours. I drank three cups of the same tea today and now, as I said, I am working on my third post draft.

One other thing to overcome is the quilt if you are not writing. It is hard to forgive yourself, that you are wasting valuable time, that you should be writing, but can’t. That is the hardest thing for me, as the guilt festers, multiplying the apathy, increasing the feelings of futilityThen you have to forgive yourself for the guilt over the guilt. It can be a never ending cycle.

I can tell you what doctors will say. Exercise the body, you will feel better. When I do that, I do feel better. But being apathetic, like writing, I fall away, not able to keep it up every day. It is interesting in listening to those who do not suffer from depression, who do not, can not, understand it. They say, ”Well just do it,  just sit down and write.” Ah, if only it were that easy. Even with depression and understanding it, I still don’t know why I can’t just sit down and do it.

So if you are a depressed writer, do something to stimulate your brain, whether coffee, tea, exercise, running, walking, swimming, and then remember to forgive yourself if you are not stimulated each and every day. And of course it does not hurt to just sit down and write one sentence and see where it leads. Just tell yourself, just one sentence. You never know, it may lead to another, then a paragraph, then . . .

just keep trying. 

Three reasons to advertise your book on Amazon

I avoided advertising my books because I wanted to build a library and now that I have five e-books on Amazon I thought it was time. I also delayed because being frugal (cheap), I was leery of diving into that pool. Add to that I am not a business person, nor a social media butterfly, and, in the interest of full disclosure, I am lazy. But it is good to research extensively before diving into the pool. So here is why I chose Amazon.

Reason number one to advertise with Amazon: As someone said if you do nothing, then nothing will happen. So if you want to achieve something you must do something. If it fails, you learn something and move forward. Since my books are on Amazon I researched their marketing program. It was easy to set up a campaign. You set a budget, say $100. The good thing is you are not charged up front. You are charged when someone clicks your ad to read about the book. The charge comes from what you bid-and this I do not understand at all. I was never good in math. The bad news is that there is always the chance that during the length of the campaign, nobody will buy your book and you are out $100. That is not a bad thing though as I will share on reason two. The poor result could be that the brief description of your book, the hook, the logline, the pitch, did not register with those who clicked. What you write in the ad must sell interest to click. I plan on adding a campaign with all my books, staggering them. The reason you will read about in reason three.

Reason two to advertise with Amazon: I mentioned the possibility that you could end up losing $100 if nobody bought your book. Yes that hurts. But consider this. You can read in your dashboard how many clicks you are getting. I had 48 clicks within a couple of days. The cost was just over $3. If you extend the number of clicks you can get for $100 then you have a lot of people who are now familiar with your name and that is part of building awareness. The more people who see your name, the better chance they will buy a book in the future. To build your brand ( I hate this word) you build name recognition. Consider it part of long term strategy. The only thing that happens overnight is dawn. Everything else takes time.

That brings me to reason three as to why I am staggering my add campaign with my books on Amazon. It not only has to do with getting my name out there by clicks and sales, but because I  have different audiences. I have two collection of short stories, both of which fall into the supernatural and horror category. Three other books are part of a series, though each can be read as a stand alone e-novel. The first is a satire on fame and celebrity based on a true story with the 1911 New York Giants baseball team. So that is baseball fiction. The two main characters I created I then used in two murder mysteries, with a third on the way. So I can not advertise just one book, as I have different audiences to reach.

But is Amazon the only place to advertise? No. But I had to start someplace. I will try Facebook in April and may tinker here and there with other avenues. Previously I had dipped into the water by trying Awesome Gang newsletter. They say they have over 4,000 subscribers I believe, but don’t quote me on that. It cost $10 to be in their newsletter for one day. Cheap, I like it. No sales though. But as I said I was dipping my toes in the water. There are many of these newsletters and some authors have had sales. But I would urge you to fully research these sites as many will not deliver what you want. Also, based on what I have read from other authors, be cautious of anyone promoting your book on Twitter. Writers are told not to use adverbs like ‘very’ so I will not write that you should be very cautious.

I will keep you updated.