Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Law and Order Approach to Writing Fiction

Today I welcome John Sharpe blogging about how Law and Order helped mold his writing. John is a Colorado native whose family lineage includes lawmen, ranchers, miners and businessmen - with a couple school teachers thrown in for balance. He spent many years in the magazine business and retired as managing editor of The Texas Longhorn Trails. He writes mysteries set in the mountains and ranchlands of Colorado.

John will be giving away two copies of his book (choice of print or digital) to randomly selected commenters. As always, you have until Friday to post your comments, and winners will be announced here over the weekend. (I might be late because I'll be in LA cheering on my daughter who's running the LA Marathon that weekend.)

I consider Law and Order (I’m talking the long running TV program here) a good learning tool for writers. I wrote for magazines for years while reading from one to three works of fiction every week and secretly wishing I was writing those instead of about the worries of hoof rot, wonders of artificial insemination, how to build an electric fence or reporting on current livestock market conditions. When I retired to finally write mysteries I realized I didn’t know how. I had read hundreds of books but studied none of the techniques that allowed me to enjoy them. So before I could write I had to learn how.

I started by doing what I always did before I got a computer that I didn’t need to crank and discovered Google, I went to the library. If I found a how-to book I liked by someone that seemed to know what they were talking about and had the credentials to back it up I would buy a copy so that I could highlight and write notes in the margins. I ended up with twenty-two of them. I know; they’re sitting on a shelf behind me and I just turned around and counted. The second thing I did was join Pikes Peak Writers based in Colorado Springs, attended many of their seminars and their wonderful annual conferences.

I learned today’s reader wants you to start off with a bang. Get their attention. Keep the pace moving to retain the reader’s interest. Provide red herrings to keep them off guard. Add surprising plot twists. Don’t write down to the reader, but avoid terminology that is too specialized without some explanation. Develop believable characters and provide them with dialogue that sounds like real human beings. A sonsabitch should sound like a sonsabitch and not Aunt Tillie at a pot luck. And don’t forget - show don’t tell.

As I studied these techniques, listened to presentations at the PPW Conference by renowned experts like Jeffery Deaver, James N. Frey and Donald Maass just to name three, I continued reading my two to three novels each week. Now I did it differently. I looked at point of view. I studied structure. I noticed how they started. I also became more critical and even quit reading some authors.

But what finally brought it all together was my weekly Law and Order fix. I’ve watched it from its first season - still do. One night it hit me like a Soupy Sales pie. They’ve got it down. They know what today’s reader/viewer wants. The opening scene starts fast, introduces the crime and the victim, is kept short and gets you involved in the story. There is always at least one plot twist where you think they have the culprit figured out until something comes along to prove the detectives or the ADA’s are on the wrong track. The characters are always diverse and well developed. I have heard Oscar and Emmy recipients credit their successful portrayal to the writers. If you want to enjoy great acting, watch Law and Order. Hmm, maybe it’s the writers.

And they are masters of the surprise ending. I’ve given up trying to predict the verdict. And just because there is a verdict doesn’t mean that the story is over. There can still be a twist.

Recently I had another pie in the face. The majority of today’s readers have spent their lives watching television. Even movies are shorter. Most under two hours. Audiences (and readers) are used to quick fulfillment. What I’ve heard from published writers and their editors is keep it short. Between seventy-five and eighty-five thousand words for a mystery. Sure, there is your occasional dragon tattoo exception. But there’s a lot more fast food sold than sit down. Today’s public is in a hurry. Maybe a beginning author would do well to study the Law and Order formula - adding their own secret herbs and spices.

I’m not saying don’t study your craft. Read the books. Attend conferences. Interact with other writers. Write., write, writ. But think KFC, not the five course meal.

To see how well John followed his own advice join him at www.johnsharpebooks.com for an excerpt from No More Bull, his current mystery featuring a veterinarian who has to solve a murder to save his reputation, career and finally his life. No More Bull is available on his website or through book stores, Barnes and Noble, Amazon and Smashwords.

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Karen C said...

Enjoyed the post. As I thought about my reading habits, I would say that you are pretty accurate in describing what a reader is looking for.
Like Law and Order, although I don't watch it much anymore.
I also read the excerpt for No More Bull - loved it! It made me smile and want more. Thanks.

John Sharpe said...

Thanks for your nice comments, Karen. Another program that follows the same formula is NCIS which is really hot right now. And then there's The Closer - my favorite. The writer's for this series are terrific. The character development over the four or five seasons has been special.

And thanks for your comments about No More Bull. Perhaps you'll win a copy. If not, friend me on Facebook for a special offer I have coming up.


Janet Kerr said...

You had a great idea to watch these TV Shows & apparently it worked out great for you.
I am going to check both of these out.
And, your book No More Bull sounds interesting.
Please enter me in the draw;
Thanks so much!

John Sharpe said...

Your in the draw, Janet.

Thanks for the comments. I didn't think to follow the Law and Order formula. I simply realized that they did what all of my writing advisers had said.

But I do think a beginning writer could get some tips that would aid them.