Learning from Fiction #1: Writing Tips Gleaned from Clive Cussler

Lately I've been committing myself to learn more about writing.  One of the ways I've decided to  do that is to read a variety of "successful" fiction authors to try to gain broad principles and writing tips as I observe how they tackle story-telling in their works.  (Note: My selections are what I have on hand and am interested in... not necessarily literary greats or must-reads.  But I am choosing from best-selling fiction.)

Clive Cussler is the ultimate modern-day adventure novelist.  I've read perhaps half a dozen of his novels, and always enjoy the immediate, swept-away-into-danger feel of his writing.  His work is globetrotting, history-delving, and hero-creating, even if requiring a good bit of suspension of disbelief.

When reading his work, I find that it brings up the same feelings as when I watched Alias.  As I read about heroes traversing the Himalayas, motorboating up African rivers, and researching fossils in Indonesia, I feel like I *am* a Sydney-Bristow-esque spy, figuring it out, fighting the bad guys, and unraveling the mysteries.

This book, Clive Cussler's The Kingdom (A Fargo Adventure), centers around a history-loving independently-wealthy couple (the Fargos) who trek the globe in search of a long-lost centuries-old Asian relic that they learn may point to the actual location of the storied Shangri-La.

Here are the best writing tips I gleaned from Cussler's writing in The Kingdom:
Clive Cussler

  1. For action writing, use directional language to bring about a sense of setting.  In one short passage describing a horse chase, he uses sixteen descriptive words or phrases to paint a clear picture of what danger the central character is facing.   These words are also used to give insight into where he is looking-- "ahead", "behind him", "over his shoulder", etc.  This language gives visual imagery while keeping the pace and tension high during a fast-and-furious chase scene.
  2. As James Scott Bell often talks about, the characters leap off the page.  Specific, memorable traits are assigned to new characters to get them clear in the reader's mind.  Descriptions like "cat-like", "impassive", "stoic", and "as though she were an automaton" give Cussler's unsettling antagonist a definite creepiness and amp up the fear factor.  
  3. Consider using thematic vocabulary.  On page 1 of the prologue, in just one paragraph came these words: mission, sacred, holy relic, reverence, spirited.  This of course was the paragraph introducing the central artifact of the book.  The larger point: use vocabulary to give a sense of the theme (this was done even with the chosen verb: "spirited away").
  4. Take time to set the scene.  He doesn't skimp on place descriptions.  The city of Kathmandu is given a full page, just for introduction, in addition to smaller details he later weaves into the story line.  Smaller locales (smaller in the sense of importance to the story) are given a paragraph or two.  But the accuracy and visualization is significant and dealt with up front, so the reader has "feet on the ground" in the location before jumping back into the story.
  5. Use special language, then explain it.  Foreign words, scientific gadgetry, obscure abbreviations-- Cussler uses these freely when necessary, but then immediately explains their meaning.   
  6. Don't be afraid to twist language and make up words to suit your purpose.  He doesn't do this willy-nilly, but occasionally, non-traditional words like "stoop-walked" or "squelched" may be just the right fit to describe an action or sound that will communicate clearly to the reader even though your choice isn't a dictionary-found word. 
  7. Use the outlandish if it gives a clear visual.  At one point, the protagonists find themselves in a mining area, and this is Cussler's description: "The sides of the pit were perfectly vertical, ...as though a giant had slammed a cookie cutter into the earth and scooped out the center."  While this type of description would be absurd if used repetitively throughout the novel, occasionally, an unusual description can be just the right thing to clearly paint a picture of what you as the author want the reader to see.
  8. Amp up tension through unexpected challenges.  Conflict is where it's at.  And don't just go with foreseeable challenges, but let unseen obstacles crop up to further frustrate your poor protagonist.  Just when they're about to have a break through, throw in another problem to overcome.                                                                                             
  9. Let the "worst possible scenario" happen.  And set it up... have your protagonist somehow speak or imply what the worst possible situation would be, and have it look as if things will work out differently, but then, lo and behold, the worst happens.  
  10. Mention what the best case scenario would be.  It shows the protagonists analyzing their problems, and gives the readers a gauge for what "the perfect ten" would look like in a given situation.  He also used this approach once to set up a slightly less-than-perfect, but still fairly great outcome (a 7 or 8 out of 10), so that it didn't seem quite as perfect of a solution.  
  11. Keep the story moving through goals.  Beyond the mega-goal of the novel (whether that's an Amish love story, globetrotting spy mission, legal settlement), let your characters set mini-goals that will keep the story moving.  Better yet, let the mega-goal rest on the success of the mini-goal.  No job, no love story.  If this particular artifact isn't found, the mission is destroyed.  If the deposition doesn't go well, the case is lost.  He continually links these smaller goals to the mega-goal.
  12. Cussler doesn't shy away from humor.  But his understated humor works.  Embedded in a paragraph describing a forgotten, ramshackle, out-of-the-way museum in Bulgaria, he included this gem: "The interior smelled of old wood and cabbage..." Or when describing a Nepali hostel's decor: "Hollywood western chic sans the chic."
  13. Let your characters utilize different skill sets than you yourself possess, and when you do, offer enough information to seem authoritative.  Cussler takes time to describe actions like rigging the ropes for cave spelunking, or setting up lamps and a light box for taking archival photos.  These details give an authority and specificity to his writing that pulls the reader in and makes the story infinitely more believable than just skipping over the specifics, or assuming that "we all know" the protagonist would do it the right way.
  14. Find a way to humanize complex data.  When measuring distance, "half a kilometer" is such an unknown quantity to the average American reader.  So Cussler's woman protagonist expresses her inability to gauge distances, and her husband explains "imagine a standard running track."  He communicated the information in an understandable way (dumbing it down for us readers in the process) without only expressing it in the simplest manner.
I found it helpful to read through his novel this week with a learner's posture, and plan to continue doing this with a variety of novels and authors.  My hope is that by consolidating writing tips from seasoned, best-selling authors, it will help you too.

Come back soon to read more from my "Learning From Fiction" series.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Joy said...

Thank you for this. I have long toyed with the idea of writing a book, but I haven't known where to start. This is very encouraging.

Also, thank you for your blog. I have popped in from time to time since you were expecting Moses and have found so many good articles and resources.


M.K. said...

Hi, Jess -- Thanks for stopping over at my blog and reading the Voskamp post. Those were difficult reviews to write. I hope you find them interesting. Like you, I've enjoyed Alcorn's "Heaven" book. It was truly transforming for me, a few years back, and the whole process of sorting through concrete thinking of heaven has kind of revolutionized my Christian life and view of the kingdom. I look forward to browsing through your blog too!