May 21st, 2014

Want To Write Like a Best Seller? Write Naked First!

by Tiffany Lawson Inman, @NakedEditor

NYTBSA_PhotopinThere it is.  LARGE bold print peering out at me from underneath the Life and Home section….THE NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLERS LIST, nagging me to grab my Kindle and start downloading fabulous fiction at lightning speed.

Sounds magical, doesn’t it?

Right now I’m talking about that list.  You know the one. The list that, if you are on it, says: You are a really-really-GOOD-writer-and-being-on-this-list-makes-you-special!

What makes that writing so darn special? 

My mom, Margie Lawson, creator of deep editing, and I have discussed on end why bestselling authors are bestselling authors. Using my background in theatre and hers in psychology, we probed the question.

No… bestselling authors are NOT walking around with fairy dust in their pockets.

Nope… they don’t have magic beans either.

The answer: It’s the words they use, the order they use them in, and how they tell their story.

Sounds easy, right?

Of course there are stylistic differences surrounding how each author of each genre approaches action, movement, and tension.

  • Some are minimalists when it comes to dialogue cues and body language and visceral.
  • Others push our senses to the max.
  • And a select few authors out there have the gift to use every aspect of scene writing to show evolving character relationships.

All are golden tools of scene writing!

While teaching Triple Threat Behind Staging a Scene, I ask the class members to pick out an action/movement, heavy dialogue, or multi-character scene from their favorite author. And to include an explanation on why they thought the scene kept them hooked and kept them reading.

Here are a few of the words and phrases my class used to describe their favorite bestselling scenes:

  • moves the story forward
  • natural dialogue, showed relationship and kept pace
  • understated dialogue  punctuated by bits of physical movements
  • visible tension in the body language
  • get to know the characters without losing interest  or forward momentum.
  • fluid internalization
  • seamlessly weaving all the elements of story together
  • multiple switches in tone
  • easy to read, no description or info dumps
  • tight choreography

Similarities: Tension, tight dialogue, show not tell, fluid internalizations, emotive body language, and smooth choreography.

Can you describe your writing with the words and phrases above?

Learning to train our reading brains to see emotional and dramatic patterns can awaken the bestselling writer within all of us.

The question is, HOW?

This is one of the many tools I use to awaken the bestselling authors within my students, so read carefully, this is privileged information  🙂

What if bestselling authors forgot about tension, tight dialogue, show-not-tell, fluid internalizations, emotive body language, and smooth choreography in their scenes?

What if I stripped their writing down to its birthday suit? Yup. Naked Writing.

What if, indeed…

Grab hold of your seats folks, I have stripped and re-written this scene and it’s not going to move you one inch. This scene is a HUGE turning point in a well known YA fantasy.

The protagonist thinks he is confronting a known serial killer, a man who betrayed his parents — that betrayal led to their death.  He and his two best friends are secluded in a room with this known villain and the protagonist is the only one with a weapon. This is his opportunity to avenge his parents and commit murder.

Black was on the ground at that point and he was out of breath. He watched Harry as Harry walked toward him slowly.  Harry’s wand was pointed at Black.

“Are you going to kill me, Harry?” he said.

Harry stopped walking, his wand was still pointing forward. Black’s face showed an ugly bruise and he had a bloody nose.

“You killed my parents, “ Harry said.

Black paused.”I don’t deny it,” he said. “But if you knew the whole story.”

“You sold them to Voldemort. That’s all I need to know.” Harry said.

“You’ve got to listen to me,” Black said quickly, “You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

“I understand a lot better than you think,” said Harry.

Hermione’s fat cat jumped onto the front of Black’s coat. “Get off,” he said, trying to push Crookshanks off of him.

Crookshanks was an ugly cat with a squashed face and yellow eyes. The ugly cat continued to sit on his chest. Hermione started crying.

Harry guessed he would have to kill the cat too.  Harry still held the wand out in front of him towards Black, but he was having a hard time with this decision. Ron’s breathing was loud. He was sitting by the bed next to Hermione.

Harry heard a noise from down the stairs.

Hermione loudly yelled for help.

Black tried to get the cat off of his chest again. He was unsuccessful.

Harry shook his wand. A voice in his head told him to kill Black soon. He could hear footsteps on the stairs. This decision was hard and he didn’t know what to do.

Someone opened the door. It was Professor Lupin and he had his wand out.  When he came through the door, he scanned the room.   Harry still had his wand pointing at Black who was on the floor in front of him. 

 Lupin then yelled, “Expelliarmus!”

OH, my goodness….did anyone stop reading after line 4? And you guessed it – that was an altered scene from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. That’s right.  This children’s book has adult size muscles packed into its action scenes.

I have to admit, it was kind of fun to strip the magic away…so-to-speak… 🙂

I WISH I could show you the whole scene, fully clothed. Alas, it is too large of a sample for me to retype without copyright infringements. If you have your own copy (and I know you do) crack it open and read this scene.  Not only is this a turning point for the book, but it is a turning point for the entire series.  Must read!

Here are the highlights:

  • Emotive Physicality:

Black was sprawled at the bottom of the wall. His thin chest rose and fell rapidly as he watched.         

  • Active Description:

A livid bruise was rising around Black’s left eye and his nose was bleeding.

  • Underlying Emotion:

“You killed my parents,” said Harry, his voice shaking slightly, but his wand hand quite steady.

  • Quickening Pace:

“You’ve got to listen to me,” Black said, and there was a note of urgency in his voice now. “You’ll regret it if you don’t… You don’t understand…”

  • Natural Dialogue and Emotive Dialogue Cues:

“I understand a lot better than you think,” said Harry, and his voice shook more than ever. “You never heard her, did you? My mum… trying to stop Voldemort killing me… and you did that… you did it…”

  • Smooth Choreography and Active Description:

But Crookshanks sank his claws into Black’s robes and wouldn’t shift. He turned his ugly, squashed face to Harry and looked up at him with those great yellow eyes. To his right, Hermione gave a dry sob.

  • Gripping Cadence and Visible Tension:

Harry raised the wand. Now was the moment to do it. Now was the moment to avenge his mother and father. He was going to kill Black. He had to kill Black. This was his chance…

The seconds lengthened. And still Harry stood frozen there, wand poised, Black staring up at him, Crookshanks on his chest. Ron’s ragged breathing came from near the bed; Hermione was quite silent.

And then came a new sound  

  • Fluid Internalizations and Seamless Transitions:

Black made a startled movement that almost dislodged Crookshanks; Harry gripped his wand convulsively — Do it now! said a voice in his head — but the footsteps were thundering up the stairs and Harry still hadn’t done it.

  • Active Descriptions and Smooth Choreography and Emotive Physicality:

The door of the room burst open in a shower of red sparks and Harry wheeled around as Professor Lupin came hurtling into the room, his face bloodless, his wand raised and ready. His eyes flicked over Ron, lying on the floor, Hermione, cowering next to the door, to Harry, standing there with his wand covering Black, and then to Black himself, crumpled and bleeding at Harry’s feet.

“Expelliarmus!” Lupin shouted.

By stripping away the Rowling bestseller qualities we are able to see what is missing. And by putting them back, we can see the quality and quantity of what she used.  Yes, there can be too much of a good thing and readers will put your book down if they can’t see what’s happening.

Look at your own writing with Naked Editor Vision and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your writing already look like it’s been stripped?
  • Is your writing wearing too many layers of clothing? Is it hard to see what is really happening under there?
  • Have you overdosed the scene with one or two elements and scrimped on the rest?
  • If you stripped it down, can you still see what is happening? What do you see?  Does your scene still have all of its body parts?

Sound like fun? 

Comment below and tell us about your favorite scene writing author. How do they do it?  Have you ever studied their writing? What did it tell you? 

*  *  *  *  *  *

Tiffany Lawson Inman

Tiffany Lawson Inman

Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit.

She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online, presents hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars in  late 2014.

As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.

NYT photo credit: Timothy Valentine via photopin cc

31 comments to Want To Write Like a Best Seller? Write Naked First!

  • Powerful stuff, Tiffany! And thank you for the list at the top, the components of spellbinding scenes. I’m writing a scene now, and after, I’m going to go back and be sure that list describes the scene!

    I feel like such a hack when I read yours, and your mom’s lessons…but I guess that’s good, because it pushes us to strive to be better – and keep learning, right?

    And I think THAT’S how you make those dream lists!
    Though I’m still hoping for fairy dust…
    Sigh.

  • Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    Excellent analysis and advice.

  • Excellent post, Tiffany. Thank you so much!

  • What a wonderful post – you put so much time and effort into it, and you taught us well by doing so. I’d like to share this with my creative writing students. You hit the nail on the head with the 10 points your class gave on what makes a novel worth becoming a bestseller. Thank you!

  • You’re right. I wanted to stop reading after a few sentences. What a difference good writing makes!!

  • This was FANTASTICALLY helpful. The stripped-down HP scene left me going, “why did I read that book?” Great example. Thank you!

  • Tiffany, doesn’t it occur to us that the shortest of Harry’s seven books was still over 400 pages? And that she captured and changed forever the way young adults read?? As always, I love your post. Someone told me a couple of days ago that there are dozens of books on the best seller’s list that break all our “modern” rules. Harry’s books changed the rule book forever.

    And whenever anyone points to the enormous success of the Harry Potter series, I always smile and think about the dozens and dozens of publishers that turned her down. Good writing … or as Stephan King says of Rowling … great writing makes its own rules.

    And again, I owe you and your mother a great deal for your classes 🙂

    • Ramblings, that is exactly what goes through my head when I read mediocre published writing, I am mentally screaming for them to break a rule, write something new, be the new normal, push push push! And that is also what I hear over and over in my head when I write. Great writing does make it’s own rules.

  • I think this is why writer’s struggle with first draft woes. A lot of my writing during a first draft tends to look/read like the stripped down (naked!) stuff. It’s only after I work with it – over and over – when I’m not struggling with plot and everything else, that I can focus on choosing better/more descriptive words. Thanks for a great post!

    • Donnaeve, some writers struggle with too much clothing and have a hard time stripping it. So you might count yourself as lucky! Think of it as a second or third to last edit/rewrite pass. Don’t stress out over it if it gets in the way of your plot. Thanks for being her today!

  • I have to admit, the stripped-down version had a humorous rhythm. It was like watching a movie on fast forward.

  • Fantastic post, Tiffany! I just approved a few more comments, so be sure to scroll up as you chase a baby around and monitor comments from that iPhone. 🙂

  • Reblogged this on Lara McGill and commented:
    Outstanding, important information! Really makes me want to take classes from Ms. Lawson.

  • I feel like I have so much to learn, thank you for sharing! What a great book to use as an example too 🙂

    • With a name like Crazy Mama it sounds like you have the same issue that I have. “Get your fingers off of my keyboard! NO, don’t chew on the power adapter! Stop taking the note tabs out of my books!!!”

      THat is what my morning sounded like today. 🙂

      Don’t worry, learning comes with practice and reading posts like this.

      Keep it up!

  • I can’t believe I’m reading this – because I’ve never heard of naked writing or this idea or concept, but I’m doing it right now. I have a chapter that I know the basics of, but it’s with four people. One is the main speaker, and the rest will react (while they are doing something somewhat dangerous) in a way that will divulge their character. SOOOO I wrote down the basic dialogue, with no tags or flourishes. The info that needed giving. Then I wrote the responses each person would have to each part (not each person responds to each part cuz that would be a little too cute) without emotion or description. Now I’m going in to put action where it fits in, and then the emotional descriptions, and so on. I now have something to look at while I do this. To see that I do it right. And then, months from now when I’ve finished the whole book, I’ll do it all over again with everything. 🙂 Thanks SO MUCH for such a great post! I’m so glad I stumbled onto your blog.

  • Wow. I ALWAYS love your posts, Tiffany! This one is so brilliant! 🙂

  • Amazing as always. I will print out this list for scene enhancing. I’ve learned so much from you – many thanks!

  • […] Lawson Inman guest posted at Writers in the Storm with Want to Write Like a Bestseller? Write Naked First! The woman behind the Twitter account @NakedEditor, Tiffany offers advice on writing emotion, […]