Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 18, 2011

One Approach to Genre Fiction, or “This Way to ‘The End’”

We're happy to introduce you to James Preston, author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries series.  James' wife, Nancy, encouraged Fae Rowen to write her first book.  James encouraged Fae to go to the San Diego Writers Conference to learn how to write that first book.  He shares his insight on how to get started on your novel, and  how he deconstructed his favorite book to learn how to write what he likes to read. 

by James R. Preston


Let’s assume you want to write fiction, and most likely, genre fiction.  You’re reading this because you are looking for clues on how to proceed, how to get from the blank page to those magic words The End.  Okay, you came to the right place.


My name is James R. Preston, and I write the Surf City Mysteries.

I’ll try to answer a very basic question:  “I want to write, but what do I do first?”

You write.

In an early episode of The Sopranos, Christopher wants to be a screenwriter.  He says something like, “I bought this computer because I thought it would do a lot of the work but it’s not.”

Sorry, pal.  Write.  When I sat in a cubicle and wrote training and documentation for a living, for laughs we used to sneak up behind one another and shout, “Type faster!”  Maybe you had to be there.

One of my writing teachers, an LAPD homicide detective named Paul Bishop, author of a good series of books, including Tequila Mockingbird and Citadel Run, said once that a lady in one of his early classes was all ready to write a mystery, “Just as soon as I know what the entrance to the FBI building looks like.”  I’m guessing, but I’m pretty sure she never got to “The End.”

Writers write.  That’s all there is to it, folks.

Watch Out For That First Step

Of course, there’s more to it than that.  We’re talking genre fiction.  So, you need some structure, right?

What’s the basic unit you’re working in?  Well, after sentence and paragraph, it’s either the scene or the chapter.  Here’s how I do it.

I work in scenes.  When I’m starting to figure out what happens in a book, I use file cards.  On each card (if you’re curious, I prefer 4” x 6”) something happens.  I did not invent this.  I think I first heard a science fiction writer named Larry Niven articulate it at a convention. 

An example is, “Mac and Kandi run up the stairs to see who has broken into Mac’s house.”  A non-example is, “The evening sky purpled in the distance, frogs harrumphed.”  See the difference?  Nothing happens in the second.  It may or may not be great writing, but it’s not something happening, and, friends and neighbors, genre fiction is about things happening to people you care about.

So, how long is a scene?  In my case, it varies.  Typically about four pages at a minimum, or a thousand words.  For a good example of short scenes, look at any of the Mike Hammer books.  The upper end is more flexible, but rarely is more than twelve pages.  And, for impact, sometimes a really short, one-page scene stands out.

What about chapters?

Take a look at a fine example of storytelling, A Catskill Eagle, by Robert B. Parker.  He builds his story around scenes and each scene is a chapter.  Clean and simple, and the reader never bites off too big a chunk right before bedtime.

Another way of doing it is Janet Evanovich in Two For The Dough.  Her scenes vary in length, but she assembles them into chapters that are all about twenty pages.  Again, she moves from scene to chapter.

Can you start by thinking of chapters?  Of course, but it is, in my opinion, more difficult.

So, you’ve got a stack of cards with action, conflict, love, and all kinds of other neat stuff scribbled on them.  Now what?  Why, you start writing.  Words on paper.  Have I said that?

Taking It Apart

If you want to learn more about our craft, you might want to take a deconstructionist approach to the novel.  I did, and it paid dividends.  Find a book in the genre you want to be a part of, and that you like a lot.  Let me say that again—you need to like this book a lot, because you are going to spend some time with it. 

I took a fine mystery by Robert Crais, called Lullaby Town, and I took it apart.  Yep, I sat down with a stack of cards (what is it with this guy and cards?) and identified all of the scenes Crais uses to build his story.  At the end of this exercise you will know that book so well you can recite parts of it in your sleep.  I can and my wife used to look at me strangely, but she’s gotten over it.  But you will learn, oh, boy, how you will learn. 

Specifically, you will see:

  • how many scenes go into a chapter
  • how those scenes and chapters build on one another, and finally make a book. 
  • You may see the underlying structure: plot points, midpoint, denouement.  (At another time if I get a chance I’ll talk about that kind of novel structure.)

But Wait, There’s More

So, you made some cards of your own that represent a novel, and you are actually writing, and maybe you have taken a novel apart, telling people at cocktail parties about your deconstructionist approach until their eyes glaze.  Is there anything else?

You bet.  You’re doing part of it now reading this blog.  Also, you might consider attending conferences, specifically, the San Diego State University Writers Conference, and the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference.  The latter is in Seattle, July 19-22. 2012.

However, like poor Christopher in The Sopranos, you still have to write.


I’ve sucked you in this far, and now I’m assigning homework?  The nerve of this guy!

Your assignment is to find a copy of Stephen King’s novel It, and in Chapter 3 “Six Phone Calls (1985),” Part 6, “Bill Denbrough Takes Time Out,” read the section where King talks about his hero’s experiences in a writing class.  That sums it up nicely.  It’s about story.

Truly, it’s worth a look.  And there won’t be quiz.

You will realize that there is a line of storytellers from the unknown author of Beowulf, to Shakespeare, to Richard Prather, Janet Evanovich, and me.

And to you.  Good luck.

What genre do you write in? What started you down that road? Was there a particular author you "wanted to be like someday?"

James R. Preston writes the award-winning Surf City Mysteries.  He lives in Surf City (Huntington Beach to non-locals) where he is completing the fourth book in the series, called Pennies For Her Eyes.  His next project is a historical novel set in Germany during the Weimar Republic.  He can be reached at james@jamesrpreston.com.  For more information, check out www.jamesrpreston.com

ANNOUNCEMENT: If you'd like to meet James, he'll be signing his books and visiting with readers at Men of Mystery at the Irvine Marriott Hotel on Saturday, November 19, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

0 comments on “One Approach to Genre Fiction, or “This Way to ‘The End’””

  1. I always find this blog informative and this article fit right in with that standard of quality. Mr. Preston's points were very afirming to me. I write my scenes then go back and connect them. It's easy to see if one action should be placed sooner or later that way. If the scene is in the correct POV it will show better.

    Thanks again for the great post
    Mary George

    1. Hey, Mary, thanks for the kind words. I find the smaller unit--scene--is less iintimidating than an entire chapter, and I also move scenes around. One of the big advantages to using file cards is you can lay them out on the floor, look the whole thing over, and move around as necessary. Of course, if you own cats like I do this also provides a great deeal of amusement for them. So far their rearranging has not been helpful, but I have hope.
      Thanks again!

  2. I hope James gets the chance to talk about story structure sometime soon. I'm a structure addict, and I'm interested in his take on the subject. Great post, James, and thanks WITS for having him blog today.

    1. Terry, thanks for the kind words, and congratulations on living the dream. Where were you when I blew a head gasket halfway between Vegas and home?
      On to business. You bet, for genre ficion structure is another topic and one that is worth exploring. Maybe we'll talk about it at some point. I find it really helpful to think in those terms.

      1. HI, Jenny --
        Thaks for the kind words! Yeah, ain't it the truth -- if you ever thought about how big a an an entire novel is, you'd never take it on. Unless of course, you are somebody like Stephen King or Lawrence Block. I was appearing at an Orange County event yesterday called Men of Mystery (if you are in SoCal check out their website and attend next year; it is a fabulous day). Anyway, the headliner was Lawrence Block and the guy is amazing. What a charming speaker! Prolific? 100 books! He probably wrote a novel on the coffee break. He is clearly a no-planning type of writer-- just sits down & cranks it out. He talks about a series where he lost interest, thought it was done, and came back almost two decades later to write more. Which leads me in my usual rouindabout way to my point -- not everybody plans. I don't know how they do it, but they don't, so if you are reading this and just want to start typing, why, go for it!
        Thanks again,

  3. James, I love your matter-of-fact manner of deconstructing, building and fleshing out. Mickey Spillane had a rock solid voice that I love to this day. Robert Parker (RIP) took up the empty space left by Chandler and filled it with powerful voices, Spencer and Jesse Stone. The noir cop detective stories are the stuff dreams are made of. I think your bottom line is clear, writers write and all others tell the rest of us they have this great idea ... and one of these days ... Me? My first and always love is mystery. I play with some romantic entanglments or humor. I once cured a depression by reading the first eight Janet books. By the time I got to eight I couldn't remember what I was depressed about. I fall in love with characters. Story ideas circulate in my brain and I insert said character into the mix. For me it's a puzzle I can't stop until I insert that last piece ... the end. Thanks for this and thanks always to WITS for their amazing and talented guests 🙂

  4. Ramblings, thank you very much. I really liked the bit about Evanovich & depression. I was getting ready for this blog, and for an appearance at Men of Mystery, and I was revsising a novel, and the latter was making me nuts. I think some of the characters were trying to kill me. Anyway, I went back to some early Evanovich, took a break and read, and it worked! I feel better and my characters haven't killed me.

    Do you think we're on to something? Maybe we could patent this apoproach to all kinds of problems . . . Ms. Evanovich might want a cut.
    Thanks again for the kind words, and type faster!


  5. Thank you for the tips and for validating how I currently write. I'm big on doing scenes and then figuring out how they all link together. So I'm happy I'm not completely off my rocker with that approach 🙂

    1. Hi, Carrie --
      Thanks! I think moving scenes around -- file cards on the floor -- makes the later writing much easier. I'd rather move that card than cut and paste a scene and then worry about the lead-in and exit and does it fit!
      However, there are people who don't do it that way and I met one yesterday. (Talked about Lawrence Block in another Reply.) They may not be human.

  6. James,

    Thank you for writing such a great post! I even added a few questions at the end for some of our shy commenters. 🙂

    I am also a scene writer. It's the only way I know how to do it. Nothing else has managed to get me all the way through a book besides doing it in those tiny bite-sized pieces.

    1. Hi, Kari --
      Thanks for the kind words. I visited your site and I'm impressed! Since we are just finishing up the rework on mine, I have some idea of what went into yours. Nice job!

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