(Tip: Get a free copy of Jim Magwood’s So You’ve Written a Book. Now What? Your coupon code is at the end of this article.)
Jim Magwood spoke at the Writers of Kern meeting in Bakersfield, Saturday. His topic? How to craft suspenseful plots from news headlines.
Magwood is the self-published author of suspense novels: Nightmare, Sanction, The Lesser Evil, and Cop.
His speaking style revealed a natural propensity for suspense as he carried his audience from one topic to the next with transitions like mini cliffhangers. His quiet and confident demeanor lent the impression that Magwood was fully in control of his topic and his audience.
His topic “Seeing and Writing in Reality” promised to reveal the technique behind his suspense novels. With a topic like that, I expected more instruction. And the first half of Magwood’s talk built up to what he ultimately did not deliver.
That’s okay. Magwood provided a list of ideas for inspiring novel premises instead. Although his audience was more advanced than the “where do you get your ideas?” stage, Magwood’s ideas list proved fairly intriguing.
He offered a few gemlike tips, too. And dispelled writing myths that trip up many a writer.
In the end, Jim Magwood’s talk was worth the time. Here’s the best of what he offered.
How to Write from Reality (or Where to Find Story Ideas So Good, They Practically Write Themselves)
Don’t focus just on the headline, Magwood said. Ask yourself “why?” How and why did events coalesce to make this headline possible? Tell that story.
Pay attention in everyday life. Did you notice “yet another tractor in another field” as you drove down some lonely Kern County road? Ask yourself, “who is the driver?” Tell his story.
Steal from Other Writers
Take a page or a paragraph or a sentence from a novel, and write a book about it. “Don’t plagiarize,” Magwood said. “But take the theme.”
Books like Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist encourage writers to do the same. Steal from a variety of sources and it isn’t plagiarism. It’s inspiration.
Take the Expected and Turn It on Its Head
Write what happens when people break the rules. Or when life doesn’t follow the expected path. Magwood’s example: What happens when a defense attorney believes so much in his client’s guilt that he disregards his job and family to break that almost sacred confidentiality agreement?
This premise alone is intriguing. More important is the advice behind it: follow what happens when people or circumstances break the norm.
Writing Myths to Ignore
Magwood dispelled these writing myths during the best parts of his talk.
Forget the Rules
“Don’t let yourself get bound by rules,” he said. And he’s right. Rules create more problems for writers than they solve. Too often, writers get so wrapped up in the rules without understanding the reason behind them. Their stories suffer for it.
I know writers who tell hilarious or compelling stories when chatting with a friend. But, put a pen in their hand, and that wonderful story bogs down in overwriting and awkward backbends.
Magwood cited the only real rule in writing: write what works. How do you know what works? That’s the real question. Here’s what Magwood said about it.
The Only Rule that Matters
All that matters for writers is whether readers connect with the work. But first, they have to understand it. I agree with Magwood, here. Every other rule is just an opinion.
Don’t Write What You Know; Write What You Imagine
“‘Write what you know’ may be a fallacy,” Magwood said. Here’s a concept that’s gaining traction in writing circles.
But if you can’t write what you know, what do you write?
Write from imagination. Some would call it empathy. As Magwood said, “I may not know that, but I can dream it.” Excellent point.
The Wrap Up
Magwood delivered more of an ideas list than the plotting technique his topic promised.
I’d hoped to leave his talk with a ready-made tool for turning news headlines into cohesive, suspenseful narratives. What Magwood did offer, though, made his speech worth the time. I learned where to find story ideas so good, they practically write themselves.
Magwood closed with this gem: Don’t worry about failing. Pursue writing with everything you’ve got. Because, as Magwood put it, “some goals are so worthy that even to fail is glorious.”
How can you argue with that?
Pick up a free copy of Jim Magwood’s So You’ve Written a Book. Now What? (Hint: Look for the coupon code on his page, and get your copy free.)
Writers of Kern features authors and publishing professionals in Bakersfield, California most months of the year. Learn the when, where, and who at Writers of Kern, meetings.