The audience settles. House lights dim. The curtain opens. The stage lights come up. On the stage, an opulent den. Big cushy leather chairs opposite an ornate desk. Well-stocked bookshelves along the wall. A globe on a stand. A character enters stage left. He reaches into his waistband and pulls out a revolver. He slides open the drawer and places the gun in, and slides it closed.
I guarantee you, from that moment on, everyone in the theater is focused on that drawer. The specter of it being within his reach charges every line of dialog with a subtext of impending confrontation. A normally innocent inquiry becomes a possible trigger to pull the trigger. “What did you do yesterday?” suddenly has a dark shade as the aura of the gun raises it to an interrogation tone.
It is the same as if a wife character learns she is pregnant but hides it from her loser husband. A husband who has lost his job and the family doesn’t know. The kid who flunked out but can’t tell his parents. The fiancée, who lost the engagement ring money at the racetrack. These too are guns in the drawer. They shape the trajectory of the dialogue and the character’s actions and responses to things.
Got it? Secrets. Below the text, subtext, charge the text. Now as a book coach I have found a very common error in most manuscripts is when the writer places the gun in the drawer, but it does not affect anything. Like it was never there. Secrets are prime character motivators. Secrets yield lies. Lies yield mistrust and mistrust yields suspense. All that takes a simple scene, sequence, or book and charges it with subtext.
For more writing tips to help you author your next novel, check out my online course, From Writer to Author. It will open up the drawer to your next manuscript!
For those of you that haven’t read my novels, Brooke Burrell has appeared in many of them. She had a great role in my first #1 bestseller, The Eighth Day, came to age as an operative in The Hammer of God, and took the lead in book number 3, The God Particle. Brooke then became the star of her own series when I wrote Give Us This Day.
In my latest book, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, the press, terrorists, and other groups go after Brooke for her unconventional methods used in eliminating a dire threat to millions of lives. Some take it too far, only to find out they have messed with the wrong, pregnant “housewife.”
Okay, sounds cool. But who is she?
She’s a tomboy turned Naval JAG Officer, turned FBI agent, and was the pointy end of the stick for the President of the United States. Brooke’s courage valor and situational awareness have earned her the right, and the reward, of being a top member of this ‘best-of-the-best’ team. Want a deeper look into Brooke’s world? Check out this interview.
Judy Helms: I recently had the chance to sit down, one-on-one with Brooke Burrell-Morton, many of you may not immediately recognize that name, but she’s been all over every TV, Newspaper, and checkout magazine for weeks. Here’s the first-ever interview with the woman who, in media shorthand, is referred to as, the BBK.
JH: Brooke, let’s get right to it, how do you feel now that it’s all over?
Brooke Burrell-Morton: Judy, all I know is, I was out of that life. I was happy here on the island, coaching girls’ soccer. Looking forward, with my husband, to bringing a new life into this world. That was all the excitement I was looking for, believe me, this whole nightmare was the last thing I needed. But looking at how it all came out, I guess it was inevitable.
JH: So how did you wind up in the middle of all this?
BB-M: I kept asking myself that same question, but when I think about it, it was that sixth sense from being in years of being in law enforcement that started nagging me, one of my girls was showing signs of abuse. So, I mean, I guess I got a lot to learn about no longer having a badge or creds. Anyway, I confront the dad in the parking lot of his job, he takes a swing at me, I duck, he falls. The next day the dad, he winds up dead, and I am murder suspect number 1.
JH: Did you?
BB-M: Did I what?
JH: You know, kill him?
BB-M: No way! All I did was try to put the fear of God into him, so he’d never raise a hand to his daughter again. He got all dead on his own time. Can we talk about something else?
JH: Sure. Tell me about Mush?
BB-M: Ah, he’s proof that if you wait till you see exactly what you want it’s the best thing ever. You know, I spent a long time married to the job. If I did meet a guy, he was either intimidated or afraid I’d lock him up. So, I kind of avoided the whole issue.
JH: So, what did you see in Admiral Brent “Mush’ Morton that told you he was the one?
BB-M: Well, there are less than 100 men in America who have been entrusted with the power to destroy 50 cities with one push of a button. So, my nuclear submarine Captain husband was already extremely vetted at the highest level. But he has what I call, command voltage, you feel it when you are with him. Also, his hands. Something about them, but most of all he’s incredibly passionate and truly an officer and gentleman.
JH: I ask because you know there was that rumor…
BB-M: Oh, him and Susan Brock, the Hollywood actress with the ‘leaked’ sex videos. Let me tell you something, any other guy would have jumped at the chance to be a notch on her garter belt, but my Mush, he taught her a thing or two about commitment and true love. We’re good me and her. In fact, she wants to play me in a movie someday. Haha!
JH: So now that I finally have the chance to interview the Blonde Bridge Killer, the toughest get in media I might add, it must have been a rude awakening, I mean, being a top-secret operative working for the president one minute, then suddenly on every TV news show, newspaper, and gossip magazine in the world, the next.
BB-M: Yeah, made me want to dye my hair.
JH: …and… that’s it? That’s all you are going to say about the most sensational news story of the decade, the insidious plot, the hundreds of thousands of lives, the entire civilized world brought to its knees?
BB-M: Look, Judy, that’s all classified, I can’t talk about, acknowledge, confirm, or deny anything. I thought that was made clear to your editor before I agreed to this sit-down.
JH: Can’t blame a girl for trying…
BB-M: That’s what Susan Brock said. Hahaha
JH: Can we talk about your brother, Harland for a minute?
BB-M: You know, I’m pregnant, more emotional than usual you sure you want to go there?
JH: I’m sorry it’s just, he was a big part of your life.
BB-M: Wow. Where do you get your intel? Yeah, Harland was my big brother, I grew up with 5 brothers, and I was a tomboy. Everybody was trying to get me to be a proper little girl, but not Harland, he said, “If you can whip ‘em, don’t back off.” So, for a while, I was the one to beat. I was pretty good at everything, but then the boys started to catch up as they got older, so Harland said, Brookie, he called me that, “You can’t outrun, or outplay them anymore, so you’ll just have to outsmart them.” And I did. When Harland was killed in Gulf War I, that was when I joined the Navy. I… I… I’m sorry.
JH: That’s okay take your time…
BB-M: When I was all alone, out in the middle of the ocean, and the sharks were circling, and I couldn’t fight them off and didn’t have the energy to swim to a life raft, Harland, he came to me, told me not to quit. And you know, that’s when Mush showed up in his 5-billion-dollar submarine and plucked me out of the ocean. I guess Harland knew I couldn’t die out there because I had, I had to, to meet Mush. Sorry, it must be the hormones…
JH: Do you need a minute?
BB-M: No, No I’m good…
JH: All right, you brought up hormones just now, obviously, this is your first child, you’re carrying beautifully, by the way, was it hard defending yourself against a murder charge, being hounded by the media as the Blonde Bridge Killer, and stumbling on to a terrorist plot worse than one thousand 911s while pregnant?
BB-M: It really sucked. The biggest problem was, yeah dealing with all that, what you mentioned, but here I am big as a house, in a moo-moo, while my husband is being propositioned by a sex goddess without an ounce of fat… and her own jet. That was hard. And yeah, constant bathroom breaks can really get in the way of a gunfight.
JH: For me, it was hard-boiled eggs and Welches’ grape juice. What was your craving?
BB-M: Brussel sprouts and a Cholados Colombianos. It’s a dessert made of chocolate, fruit, and ice. I had Mush going out in the middle of the night to a Colombian place on the other side of Honolulu for it. He finally got an ice crusher and all the ingredients.
JH: How did you ever…?
BB-M: Early in my career, I was stationed in Colombia, then when I was pregnant it came back to me.
JH: Well, thanks for your time, good luck with the baby, do you know what you are going to have?
BB-M: Sorry, but that’s classified as well… for now.
She’s pretty badass. Grab your copy of Forgive Us Our Trespasses today through Amazon or Barnes & Noble!
A booth at a diner in Jersey, the knee knocker seat on the LIRR, or on my lap sitting in a chaise on the beach in Puerto Rico, even in a hotel room at a writer’s conference. All these admittedly non-romantic settings in which I have penned much of my 6 published novels, 4 number ones, and three pending manuscripts, have one thing in common. A space that, beyond everything else, allowed me to write, compose, imagine, edit, polish, and author a manuscript. That space can best be visualized as a box with its four corners drawn from my left ear to the left edge of the screen and from the right side of the screen back to my right ear. Everything outside that “thought rectangle” dissolves away, goes out of focus, and becomes the comforting background lullaby that has underscored my “performance” whenever I wrote.
For me, when the idea is breaching in the birth canal, there’s an immediacy to getting it out, regardless of the purity or quiescence of wherever I happen to be. I have even knocked out a few paragraphs on my iPhone in the back of a funeral parlor during a wake. Even in my home, I may be out on the balcony, on the kitchen table, or with my laptop on a snack tray, usually with a TV, radio, or some other background noise that has accompanied my workspace all the way back to homework in elementary school.
I am lucky enough to have met and conversed with some of the most well-known and prolific authors on the planet or listened to them interviewed at writer’s conferences. Question 5 or 6 is always, “Do you have a place, or time or routine when you write?” and some have elaborate ceremonies and rituals and others the simple; “my desk every day from 10-2.” Some need a fresh pot of coffee or progressive jazz on the stereo, or in one very famous case, toke up on prodigious amounts of weed. (And he is at the very pinnacle of a successful author!)
Again, just last night, a vintage episode of the Dick Van Dyke show aired in black and white. The one where Rob, a head writer for a TV show, is driven to become a novelist. The setup is that he can’t get to writing because of all the domestic distractions of his suburban New Rochelle home, which are frustrating his efforts. The solution to the marital friction that this occurs results in a suggestion from his wife Laura that he go to a cabin in the woods for a few weeks and concentrate on his book. Well, of course, he winds up doing all kinds of foolish things which delay and get in the way of his writing. Finally admitting that it was him, not the setting, that is the problem, he puts the idea of being an author on the shelf having learned that his novel just wasn’t ready to come out yet.
I find that notion to be paramount amid all the reasons a writer can’t author. In my class, From Writer to Author, at the online Academy of Creative Skills.com, I address the ‘internal space’ that we need to create in order to satisfy that need to create.
Rob does write one thing in all those days, the only line he could manage, the dedication, to his wife expressing his love and admiration of her. His line after she reads it and does her trademark, “Oh, Rob…” he adds, “Now all I have to do is write a novel to hang on the end of it.”
Aw, 60’s TV, where everything works out in 28 minutes and 30 seconds, including commercials.
By the way, I wrote this at 6:30 in the morning, on a snack table, with the sun coming up over the skyline of New York splashing over the Hudson River to my right, – the iHeart radio from my iPhone on in the background.
Ready to embark on your journey From Writer to Author? Check out my online course for 15 steps to elevate your writing craft!
In a previous blog post, I spoke of empathetic love connectors to the reader and used the classic film Citizen Kane as a reference. Well, here’s another little gem for authors coming from the genius writing duo of H.J Mankowitz and Orson Welles. I believe they are teaching all writers by channeling this lesson through the words of their character, Rawlston.
I like the simple thing notion. Because simple means common, and usually common is not complicated because it is innate to us, simple. So, when building a Character follow what Rawlston (Mankowitz and Welles) instructs us. After all, they made a movie that many call the greatest movie of all time, all around a simple thing. Rosebud!
As we authors fill out a Character it’s always good to investigate the family. We are all shaped both positively and negatively by our familial connections, experiences, and memories. As we grow up with impressionable open minds, the right thing said by a relative can lead us down a righteous and successful path, or to prison. The beauty of enhancing Character profiles with family-borne aspects is that you can thank or get even with the people in your family. Just joking, but I have used a Character’s family member many times to explain, rationalize or put a finer point on a Character’s predilection without needless expository verbiage. Often, it’s not a whole in-depth bio but sometimes it’s just a line, “My Uncle Joe was like that.” Or a longer description of a brother who died in Iraq as a prime motivator to enlist. These baked-in memories and trajectories are indelible and can be stated in the story or kept to yourself as a personality subtext that is never revealed to the reader but guides you where to place the character on their arc.
In my own life, I have a formula that describes my emotional, practical, and psychological makeup. I find it’s true in everything I do; from being a director on a set, a senior Vice President, an entrepreneur, or an uncle. When I am at my best, all cylinders running at 100%, and I am in touch with the universe and tapping into a white-light energy source that almost guarantees that I can handle anything and usually make it better for all concerned. When I am in that state, I feel that I am 60% my mom, 30% my dad, and 10% ESP. When I am producing, my mom can charm a Teamster out of charging me meal penalties. When I am running a business, my dad can stand up to competition and people who wish you no good. When I am authoring, directing, or helping someone through a rough patch in their lives, then ESP (or it could be my great grandparents, or some guardian angel,) sends me a notion, a spark, or sometimes a smack on the head to ask about, or bring into the situation something random, out of the box, that opens a new door to a character, or it may point me to a course of action for a person to ponder, or for me whether to cut the blue or the red wire.
Now, I can’t prove that to anyone, but I know when I am in that ‘zone.’ When I am operating at just that right balance from the positive results I get. The whole point of this is that we are the cake our families put in the oven, what happens later is either the icing on top or the grit from falling on the kitchen floor. This should also be true of your Characters; they didn’t just pop out of the turnip patch. They can be shaped by their family for better or worse. For further proof simply look at the wholesale employment of therapists and psychiatrists who, in most cases, deal with replanting, pruning, or dealing with the fruit of a person’s family tree.
Obviously, we all have our own family stories, joys, and tragedies from our lives. This little treatise is by no means exhaustive but just a little nudge to suggest that sometimes the fruit of the family tree, whether it is juicy or rotted, could be just the thing you need to motivate your story, plot, character, conflict, or resolution.
Today we celebrate a giant in the world of literature. J.R. Tolkien was a super achiever. He was a very accomplished fellow. An academic and expert on language analysis. But it helps all aspiring writers to remember that as brilliant as he was, he too had to face a blank page at some point. And although he did it with a full mind, that blank page was the first challenge that every author faces. His expertise in fantasy world-building eventually came down to word choice and story structure. Same as every other author, from the beginning of civilization, has had to contend. So, the next Tolkien could be out there right now, with their facial features filled in by the light of a blank screen or the light reflecting off a blank page.
I am sitting in the reflection of a screen in the aftermath of sending off my next novel, Aquasapien, to my publisher. An 87,000-word dive into a genre that J.R. Tolkien pioneered; world-building. In my case, not middle earth, but contemporary earth. Not Hobbits, but an evolutionary offshoot of homo sapiens, evolved and adapted to earth’s other environment through genetic anomalies. Resulting in attributes and capacities enable them to achieve and perform incredible feats. It also makes them a target. And hence my tail… oops, er, tale.
Yesterday was James Patterson’s birthday. He is a monster author. And why not? I know where he came from. Same place I did. Advertising. We both were creatives in the New York ad biz. I understand the approach to story that comes from the discipline to get a message out in only 75 words or less. Thirty seconds of broadcast time that educates, motivates, and ends with a call to action, while wrapped around a USP device.
We shook hands once, at a Borders conference when my first book and his 14,345th title was coming out. I exaggerate, but like I said he’s a monster. But in point of fact, he’s a brand! Good for him!
I spend a lot of time helping good writers to become authors. Ultimately the next stop after author is BRAND. And if your brand gets big enough, your style can take a back seat. You may continue it or freely move around the literary Ouija board, without fear of rejection because your brand sells the book. He has been successful in many genres: romance novels, historical fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and science fiction.
But for the rest of us mere mortals, hammering out 85,000 words or so, into a compelling, satisfying manuscript is the immediate task before us, on the way to potentially becoming a brand. To that end it helps to find the common ground with those whose names are above the title, we all face the blank page. We all have no idea if what we are composing will be a great symphony or a one hit wonder. Branding aside, every book stands alone, even those in a series. So how to succeed in authoring a novel? I believe the answer is…
“I guess I write four or five hours a day, but I do it seven days a week. It’s very disciplined, yes, but it’s joy for me.” – James Patterson
That’s one more thing that I share with Mr. Patterson, and I am sure with nearly every successful author, we both consider writing a joy. Finding joy, is the key to facing that page, working out the plot, defining and building character and tying out the resolution of a brilliant conflict. Sheer Joy!
I can’t teach Joy. But when I see it in a student, I know we are more than halfway along to a better, manuscript. In a word, the whole process becomes a… joy!
Oh, one more thing, the New York Ad shop where I was a creative director/senior VP for 40 years, was Sid Paterson Advertising. No relation, and only one ‘T.’