Friday, October 11, 2013


Plot Outline Map from Hollywood Story Structure Guru Robert McKee
When it comes to plotting a novel, there are two basic approaches and, thus, two kinds of writers. There are the naturals, the seat-of-your-pants folks who “just do it.” Their stories “just grow’d,” like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Then there are the rest of us, writers who, like me, need to build an elaborate track and know exactly where they’re going, or they end up nowhere. Or stranded, at some accidental and inconclusive terminus.

That’s happened to me—especially during the long, frustrating years of my apprenticeship—more times than I want to count. In my garage are stacks of cardboard boxes full of false starts and miscarriages, some of them hundreds of pages long. There’s even some good writing in those fragmentary projects, but so what? It’s all overdue for the recycling bin.
Elmore Leonard
But what about the “naturals”? How does yarn-spinning work for them?
The world recently lost one of these naturally gifted storytellers, Elmore Leonard, a writer who never outlined or plotted in advance.  Here’s how he once explained his process:
“Most thrillers are based on a situation, or on a plot, which is the most important element in the book. I don't see it that way. I see my characters as being most important, how they bounce off one another, how they talk to each other, and the plot just sort of comes along.”

In fact, “Mr. Leonard is so comfortable allowing his characters to control the pace and action of his stories that he didn't know how Bandits would end until three days before he finished it.” (Elmore Leonard quoted by Michael Ruhlman, New York Times Book Review, Jan. 4, 1987)

Joe Wambaugh
This approach is usually described as character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven. Another best-selling crime writer, Joe Wambaugh, places himself emphatically in the character-first camp beside Leonard:

“I sort of relegate plot a little bit down on the list of importance in my mind. I don't really have an outline when I start a book. If I did, it wouldn't be any good. I create characters and, if you're really cooking, they take over. They direct you. You follow them.” (Joe Wambaugh interviewed in the San Diego Reader, Nov. 4, 1993) 

Howard & Frazetta's Conan
I remember reading about Robert E. Howard, a pulp-magazine writer back in the ‘30s who famously created Conan the Barbarian. Howard had scant success with his adventure yarns until one day, as he recalled, he had this overpowering vision of a big, musclebound, wild-eyed barbarian dude. The visitation drove Howard to his typewriter; and, from then on, the stories just flowed—and sold.

Stephen King
I love these examples, and I love the mystic process of being possessed by characters. But it rarely works that way for me. I'm more like Stephen King, at least in this one regard:

"For me, it's the idea [that comes first]. The characters are a perfect blank. Everything about the character is a blank... the first thing that comes is the situation, and the next thing that comes are characters that will fulfill that situation." (Stephen King, Writer's Digest,  March 1992, p. 24 & 25)

Of course, most writers, including me, have experienced to some extent both kinds of writing—switching back and forth, as it were, from left brain (plot-analytical) to right (character-synthetic). The great novels of Charles Dickens are indelibly character-driven. His unforgettable players come alive on the stage of the reader’s mind and drive the story forward, installment after installment. And yet, before launching on each new book and letting his conjured creatures consume him, Dickens would scribble cryptic notes—names and places, touchstones and benchmarks—for the great narrative journey that stretched ahead.

I suspect that even sly old Elmore Leonard had an inkling of where he was letting himself be led. John D. MacDonald, whom I have quoted so often in past posts, once described a novel-writing process that sounds to me like a hybrid between plot-and-character driven:

"He explained that he never plotted in advance, but let the story form itself as he wrote. Story elements, he said, were in a kind of hopper tapering down to a point where they came out. If you tried to grab them all at once they'd jam, but if you picked them out one by one they'd come in proper sequence." (MacDonald paraphrased by Walter Sheldon, "Plotting the Novel," 1973 Writer's Yearbook)
So—to plot or not to plot, that is the question. It would seem there are two equally valid answers. But for me, alas, there is only one.


Up top I described myself as one of those “who need to build a track and know exactly where they’re going, or they end up nowhere.” A writer friend of mine put it this way: “Learning to write is track-laying. Writing is running on the track. What people are always trying to do is run without a track.”

In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about how I eventually learned to lay that story track. The learning process, for me, was methodical and laborious, but utterly essential, lacking as I did (and still do) that unerring narrative gift or instinct with which some writers are so wonderfully endowed. And, as I say, careful plotting is still essential for me, all these years and novels later. Novel construction has not gotten noticeably easier. Each new project I undertake, like the building of a house, requires careful blueprinting and frequent piece-by-piece inspections to assure solid story structure with satisfying character trajectories, plot tendencies, resolutions, declining action and so forth.

And I suspect I’m not alone in my predicament. So, if you are like me, stay tuned to this space as I pass along some hard-won tips on plotting, from short stories to long-form novels.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Self-Promo Dept Update: THE RUNNING BOY is a featured title on today's Kindle Books and Tips blog  ; once there, please just scroll down to the first book cover (after the boxed set).

The Kindle Books and Tips blog has been ranked the #1 blog in terms of paid subscriptions in the Amazon Kindle store since 2010, and is consistently ranked in the Top 100 for all Kindle titles week in and week out. If you would like to have the blog’s posts sent to your email, you can subscribe here.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Self-Promo Dept Update: LAIR OF THE FOX is a featured title on today's Kindle Books and Tips blog; once there, please just scroll down to the second book cover (unless, that is, you desperately need to buy the first title, HOW TO FIND A JOB).

The Kindle Books and Tips blog has been ranked the #1 blog in terms of paid subscriptions in the Amazon Kindle store since 2010, and is consistently ranked in the Top 100 for all Kindle titles week in and week out. If you would like to have the blog’s posts sent to your email, you can subscribe here, or via e-Ink direct to you Kindle, you can click here

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Your characters are obviously more important than their settings, but there is a critical and creative synergy between character and setting--a synergy that takes place in the reader’s brain.

The late, great John D. MacDonald codified it this way: "When the environment is less real, the people you put into that environment become less believable, and less interesting."

He illustrated his point with two descriptive passages. Here is the first:

“The air conditioning unit in the motel room window was old and somewhat noisy.” MacDonald called this an image cut out of gray paper. It triggers no vivid visual image.

By contrast, see what happens in the imagination while reading this passage:

"The air conditioning unit in the motel room had a final fraction of its name left, an 'aire' in silver plastic, so loose that when it resonated to the coughing thud of the compressor, it would blur. A rusty water stain on the green wall under the unit was shaped like the bottom half of Texas. From the stained grid, the air conditioner exhaled its stale and icy breath into the room, redolent of chemicals and of someone burning garbage far, far away."

From these close-up clues, MacDonald said, you the reader can construct the rest of the room--bed, carpeting, shower, with vivid pictures from your own experience.
The trick is how much to describe--the telling detail--and what to leave out. Too much detail and you turn the reader into a spectator, no longer part of the creative partnership whereby the reader fills in the rest of the scene out of experience and imagination.

“No two readers will see exactly the same motel room,” he added. But “the pictures you have composed in your head are more vivid than the ones I would try to describe.”

Note that MacDonald did not label the air conditioner as old or noisy or battered or cheap. Those are all subjective words, evaluations that the reader should make. “Do not say a man looks seedy. That is a judgment, not a description. All over the world, millions of men look seedy, each one in his own fashion. Describe a cracked lens on his glasses, a bow fixed with stained tape, an odor of old laundry.”

Note also that MacDonald is using sensory cues in his quick sketch of the air conditioner. You not only see the bottom half of Texas, you smell the burning garbage, you hear the coughing thud.

There are many masters of detailed description. One that comes to mind is the late Joseph Hansen, author of the David Brandstetter mysteries. Here is an example, picked almost at random from his 1973 novel, Death Claims:

“…The front wall was glass for the view of the bay. It was salt-misted, but it let him see the room. Neglected. Dust blurred the spooled maple of furniture that was old but used to better care. The faded chintz slipcovers needed straightening. Threads of cobwebs spanned lapshades. And on a coffee table stood plates soiled from a meal eaten days ago—canned roast-beef hash, ketchup—dregs of coffee in a cup, half a glass of dead, varnish liquid…”

It’s clearly of a piece with MacDonald’s example. But Hansen, a poet as well as novelist, seems to describe everything, every setting, every character, with such laser-like attention to detail, while MacDonald picks his spots. For me as a reader, exhaustive detail is exhausting.

There are celebrated passages, of course, where an author intends to glut the reader with overflowing detail. A famous example occurs in Gustave Flaubert’s descriptions of Madame Bovary’s wedding, in which every costume and every menu course is lavished with loving prose:

“Upon [the table] there stood four sirloins, six dishes of hashed chicken, stewed veal, three legs of mutton and, in the centre, a comely roast sucking-pig flanked with four hogs-puddings garnished with sorrel. At each corner was a decanter filled with spirits. Sweet cider in bottles was fizzling out round the corks, and every glass had already been charged with wine to the brim. Yellow custard in great dishes, which would undulate at the slightest jog of the table, displayed on its smooth surface the initials of the wedded pair in arabesques of candied peel…”

MacDonald cites another exception to the less-is-more dictum: “In one of the Franny and Zooey stories, [J.D.] Salinger describes the contents of a medicine cabinet shelf by shelf in such infinite detail that finally a curious monumentality is achieved…”


Tuesday, July 9, 2013


As a happy postscript to the previous, Orinoco is now available on Kindle  and in paperback  through Lulu.

Even better news, Orinoco will be FREE for download this coming Saturday and Sunday, July 13 and 14.

I quoted Tom Keneally's blurb on the previous post. Here are a few more I was tickled to get for this adventurous thriller:

"I never give quotes for fiction books, but Dan Pollock is a writer of talent and drive. His Orinoco is a riveting read." --Len Deighton
 "Vivid and unforgettable..." --Liz Smith, syndicated columnist
 "The mining of iron ore in thejungles of Venezuela is hampered by archaeological finds, and we have the ingredients of a good old-fashioned action-adventure story. Dan Pollock brings the reader right into the exotic locale and peoples his story with interesting characters. A well-written and obviously well-researched novel; classical escape reading."--Nelson DeMille

Thursday, July 4, 2013


My South American-sited action-adventure thriller Orinoco suffered a strange fate at the hands of its original publisher, Pocket Books. Despite rave endorsements from three best-selling writers—Len Deighton, Thomas Keneally (author of Schindler’s List) and Nelson DeMille—the publisher decided to change my title to one that I found vague and actually meaningless.

I was informed, but not consulted. I felt like a parent watching helplessly through the hospital nursery window as the nametag is switched on the bassinet bearing his child. Orinoco was thus born into the book world as Pursuit Into Darkness. With this eminently forgettable dust jacket over its face, the novel was barely promoted, scarcely noticed and soon forgotten.

The brilliant Australian novelist Thomas Keneally captured my feelings perfectly when he called me from “Oz” just about that time with his solicited endorsement. He had read an early proof of Orinoco and was properly disdainful when I told him of the last-minute name change. He dictated his blurb thus:
“What a ripping read. Orinoco--or by whatever meaningless name it is now being called--is a rapidly moving, thoroughly satisfying opus, good for a winter’s night or a summer’s day.”
Flash forward a bunch of years to the present era of self- and independent publishing. In my case (and in the case of many another published writer), it affords the glorious opportunity to republish out-of-print titles—and do it right this second time around.

This time no committee, no finger-to-the-wind marketing manager, gets to rename my opus. This is why I am particularly excited about the imminent independent publication of PURSUIT INTO DARKNESS ORINOCO. In a couple weeks, it will be available under its rightful and original name, and be judged by its proper merits.

You see, the title was the book at its inception. I began not with an idea, but just that rhythmically resonant name. Other tributaries of the story flowed into that riverine trunk. As I mentioned in a previous post, among my early inspirations was Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, though I skipped the dinosaurs that Doyle’s imagination deposited atop Auyán-Tepui, the giant sandstone mesa from whose prow Angel Falls plunges endlessly down into the surrounding Venezuelan jungle.

Now I've just reread my manuscript for this South American thriller and discover that it's good! In fact, I have to agree with Nelson DeMille's generous plaudit: "A well-written and obviously well-researched novel; classical escape reading." (Thank you again, Mr. DeMille!)

I can hardly wait until Orinoco is reborn and rechristened on Kindle (and in Lulu print-on-demand). In fact, I'm going to be giving copies away, in lieu of cigars, as soon as they emerge from their digital womb.

Stay tuned for the official birth announcement!