Great writing tips from Sleuthfest and James W. Hall

By Christine DeSmet

 I attended Sleuthfest in Deerfield Beach, Florida, a few days ago and wanted to report on why James W. Hall got a huge standing ovation.

Many of you know him from his fabulous suspense books set in Florida and starring Thorn.

Jim keynoted our very own Writers’ Institute in Madison one year, so it was a pleasure to see him again.

When James Patterson didn’t show for the Sleuthfest luncheon, Jim took the podium and filled in without skipping a beat. He delivered super tips about writing. Plus, Jim Hall had great jokes!

No joke here:  I loved his analogy about writing about bananas. Jim said writers too often start out writing about bigger things about life but should instead write about the bananas. Here’s the hierarchy that he pointed out:  The bottom of the ladder is specificity, the banana. That leads to the next rung up the ladder of words, fruit (a broader term). Next comes “food.” Then “nutrition.” Then “life.”

Too often we’re consumed with how to write about “life” when we start a novel.

Jim said, “The beauty is the banana. We care about the banana world. These [specific] things create emotion.”

He also loves Elmore Leonard’s rule:  Cut the stuff people skip anyway.

Jim also advised:  “First show your character in action.”

To learn how to write well he said you only need ONE book to learn from. What is that magic book? The novel that you loved reading. Diagram it. Study its architecture. Borrow the architecture and write your story using it.

You’ll soon find your own original voice and sense of story structure taking over, so don’t have fear that you’re relying on your admired author too much. Using a skillful published author’s excellent novel as a template acts like a booster rocket for your prose.

Other tips if you want to be a writer:

Turn off the internet.

Ignore all the rules and make your own list.

And quit if you can—it solves a lot.


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