The Joys of Mystery Fiction’s Most Enduring Tropes

From CrimeReads:

The tropes of the murder mystery genre are familiar and widely parodied.

My personal favorite is the remote island location: barren and desolate, bordered by a wild blue sea, too sparse to have any hiding places and too far from the mainland to swim to, with a single, unimposing house. The perfect place for a murder.

My debut novel, The Eighth Detective, is a book all about murder mysteries and their tropes. It centers around a reclusive author, Grant McAllister, and a quick-witted young editor, Julia Hart, who meets with him to discuss reprinting some of his old stories, which have been unavailable for nearly thirty years. While Julia works hard to decode their secrets, which may or may not lead back to a murder, several of Grant’s short stories are reproduced in the novel in full.

. . . .

I sprinkled them liberally with tropes. Remote locations; country houses; characters distinguished only by their eccentricities; families ruled over by grumbling figureheads; bodies discovered in toilets, attics, and beds that don’t belong to them; poisoned drinks and disappearing weapons. But it wasn’t until I came to write them that I started to consider how these things became tropes in the first place, or why so many authors returned to them so often. What struck me was how useful they all are from the point of view of plotting. Each one offers a shortcut through pages and pages of narrative convolutions.

Take the remote location, for example. It may be atmospheric, but what’s more important is the use it has to the story. Our murder mystery needs to present the reader with a limited list of suspects, along with the promise that one of them will later be exposed as a murderer. We need to assure the reader that the crime couldn’t have been committed by a passing stranger. But there’s no need to tie ourselves in knots trying to justify this confected situation, when geography compels it. That’s the beauty of the remote location, bucolic or otherwise. The trope acts as a narrative shortcut.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Public Humiliation

From Writers Helping Writers:

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

. . . .

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Public Humiliation

Category: Power struggles, failures and mistakes, relationship friction, duty and responsibilities, moral dilemmas and temptation, losing an advantage, loss of control, ego

Examples:
Infidelity being made public (through a sign on the lawn, a billboard ad, announcing it at a wedding or family event, in a mass email, or on social media)
Having private letters, images, or video shared online
The character being negatively singled out in front of peers
Being ridiculed by family or friends at a group event
Having their dirty laundry aired publically
An explosive secret coming out (drug use, sexual fetishes, criminal behavior, etc.)
Being put on the spot when the character is unprepared or at a disadvantage
Guilt by association (a spouse’s drunkenness at a company event, an adult child who has a very public arrest, a family scandal coming out, etc.)
Having a lie publically exposed or fraudulent behavior called out
Being forced to do something in public that the character believes is beneath them (due to their status, prestige, wealth, etc.)

Minor Complications:
Embarrassment, guilt, or shame (or all three)
Friends and connections who distance themselves, leaving the character to deal with the fallout alone
The rumor mill spinning, adding to the drama
Not knowing who to trust
Being shunned by neighbors or coworkers
Having to explain what happened over and over
Paying for legal advice
Changing a routine to avoid being harassed or ridiculed
Pulling back from activities to protect one’s privacy
Feeling trapped at home because of reporters, protesters, etc.
Having to disguise oneself in public
The character’s family members being inconvenienced or harassed
The character’s words being twisted in the media to fit a certain narrative to make things more “news-worthy”
Feeling watched
Having one’s other past actions examined and scrutinized
Damage to the character’s reputation
Having a membership revoked or an award taken back
Feeling uncomfortable around others due to being judged
Being unwelcome at a club, event, or establishment
Being threatened and harrassed
Being bullied or targeted online

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Don’t Forget the H

From SFWA:

The horror genre is undergoing a renaissance these days, with audiences devouring popular and critically acclaimed books, movies, and television series. If you’re a science fiction or fantasy writer who’d like to add more horror to your authorial toolbox, but you’re not quite sure how to go about it, you’re in luck, because that’s what this article is all about.

A lot of people’s views on horror have been shaped by slasher films, simplistic predator-stalks-prey stories with lots of blood and sex. But the genre of horror performs some very important functions for its audience beyond providing simple scares. Horror is a way for us to face our fears and come to terms with death and the “evil” in the world. Through horror, we explore, confront, and (hopefully) make peace with our dark side. And as a particular benefit for writers, horror can add a different level of suspense and emotional involvement for readers in any story.

Good horror is internal more than external. Horror stories are reaction stories. They’re not about monsters or monstrous forces as much as how characters react to monsters (or to becoming monsters themselves). Horror also thrives on fear of the unknown, so you should strive to avoid standard horror tropes such as bloodthirsty vampires or demon-possessed children, or rework them to make them more original and impactful for readers. Maybe your vampire is a creature that feeds on people’s memories, or maybe your possessed child is an android created to be a child’s companion who’s desperately trying to repel a hacker’s efforts to take over its system. Reworking a trope — dressing it in new clothes, so to speak — allows you to reclaim the power of its core archetype while jettisoning the cliched baggage it’s picked up over the years.

Link to the rest at SFWA

Previously, PG used the acronym SWFA instead of SFWA.

That’s the first mistake he’s made in the last five years and he apologizes immoderately.

Maintaining Steam As A Fulltime Author

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning” This quote often attributed to William Faulkner has become a staple in my approach when building my fulltime career as an author.

When I took the leap to follow my dream of becoming an author five years ago, I did so in the same manner in which I would approach a new career of any sort and I invested in myself. Granted an author’s career seldom takes off like a rocket and is much more akin to a slow burn.

Thus, the result of effort put in is far from immediate. If you are looking for instant gratification, you may wish to try your hand somewhere other than writing novels.

But if you are committed to the scenic route of building a career, I hope these practices will help keep you moving down the road toward a life as a fulltime author.

Show up each morning ready to work

This may seem obvious but the idea of an author lounging in their PJ’s comes up in conversation more often than you’d think. It seems many in the non-writing world have a notion that we writers, roll out of bed and stumble to the coffee pot before sitting at our desk to write the day away in brilliant fashion.

For me though, I don’t drink coffee and I rarely begin my writing day without first having taken care of the “life stuff”. You know the “life stuff”? The stuff that all of us, no matter what profession we have chosen must complete. The exercise routine, feeding the dog and the family, showering and dressing for the day, and all the other little things we cram into the hours when we aren’t at work.

Set a writing schedule

Right on the heels of showing up ready to work is the idea of having a set start and end time to your writing schedule. I prefer to write in the morning but life doesn’t always work out that way so I have learned to be flexible, but even my flexibility is scheduled. I plan each upcoming week the Sunday before the week begins and schedule my writing time just as I would a doctor’s appointment or a family commitment.

Setting an end time for your writing is just as crucial for maintaining balance in the rest of your life. Whether it is a word goal or a time goal, knowing how long you will be in writing mode each day is a blessing on good writing days and a forced imprisonment on the not so good writing days. But as you’ve likely heard a thousand times, “you can’t edit a blank page” so what you can do is sit down and write.

Read within your genre

. . . .

Read outside your genre

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

Books versus TV, Narrative Voice versus Scripted Scenes Longmire, Outlander

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Every author wants their novels to be made into a film or a television series. Right? 

So let’s take a look at how these two worlds of “series”—both the readable and the viewable kind—connect, overlap, or compete. Some people discover a great series first on TV, then want to dig deeper by reading the original books. Some don’t want to see the adaptation on a screen until they’ve delved into the books, sometimes referred to by producers as “source material.” 

Here we’ll take a look at works by Diana Gabaldon (the Outlander series), and Craig Johnson (the Longmire series).

I. VOICE

Any author who sits down to write fiction has to choose whether to write in first or in third person. (Rarely, someone writes in the second person, but it’s very hard to sustain the “you” throughout a lengthy tale.) Neither first nor third are right or wrong. They’re both excellent, so it depends on whether you want your reader to know only what the “I” of the story knows (first person) or to know beyond what all the characters know (third person), which sometimes means your protagonist is in the dark, but your reader is not. In fact, the third person is often called the “unlimited” POV (Point of View.)

In the mystery genre, there are famous examples of the first-person-Seamus wise-cracking his (or her) way from crime scene to back ally to police blotter to aha moments. It can be an engrossing experience to be inside the head of the protagonist, peeping out through his or her eyes, seeing the world from someone else’s perspective. Peter Lewis wrote an excellence blog called The Five Best First-Person Crime Novels.

He mentions among others, Double Indemnity which started as a book and became the iconic film starring Barbara Stanwyck and FredMacMurray.

The Longmire books are written in first person. We climb inside Walt Longmire’s head and stay there as he rides roughshod in his Rum 1500 Laramie Longhorn truck from headquarters to the Rez, and wherever in Wyoming he needs to roam. We therefore have to gather important details about his attitude, fears, likes, and irritations from how he reacts to others, and how they react to him. The author know his character exceptionally well, but it takes us longer to know him than it might if we could see him from the outside. Walt thus becomes more accessible by listening to Longmire audios, beautifully narrated and performed by George Guidall; and Longmire leaps off the page and onto the screen in the television series, as described below. The audiobooks are, of course, in first-person. The television series, however, has no narrator, and is told in the traditional third-person style. Though many of the scenes include Walt, many do not, so we viewers get to know things Walt doesn’t know and has to figure out.

The Outlander books are also written in first person. We’re with Claire Randall when she inadvertently falls through the Stonehenge-style ring of stones and time-travels backwards by 200 years. Given the extreme disorientation this would produce, it’s probably the only authentic way to tell at least this part of the story, and it works well. Later in the series, Gabaldon is forced to write some segments in third person, since it becomes important to the story to show things Claire doesn’t know. The default first-person is retained in the television series, insofar as we hear intermittent pieces of voice-over narration. These occur just often enough to remind us that this is primarily Claire’s story, and though I’m not usually a fan of voice-over, here it’s handled very well.

II. CHARACTERS

What words of wisdom might Johnson or Gabaldon have for us about developing these characters?

1 – Dimensions. About his protagonist, Walt Longmire, Johnson points out that he’s given Walt a context that not only allows for, but requires multi-dimensions. He’s not out to solve one crime per episode, or per book; he’s a sheriff, so “He’s dealing with so many things that are going on in his county.” This is a great idea for lifting a crime-protagonist out of being driven by one storyline. You might enjoy the interview of Craig by bookseller Scott Montgomery on the Crime Reads blog.

Gabaldon began her story when the notion of a kilt-clad Scotsman captured her fancy. But when she introduced her female character Claire, “she took over,” the author declared. Bossy and determined, and with a modern edge to her voice, the female protagonist seemed to have come not from 17th century Scotland, but from an earlier era when women could express more overt power. When might that have been? Well, during WWII when the men were away in battle, women took over the jobs at home. And some of them joined the men at the front: Army nurses. So now Claire had a mandate with the determination to match. When she herself travels back to that earlier century, she takes her power, attitude, and skills with her, which places her, by turns, in positions of peril or power. The character is quite irresistible, for readers, for producers, and for actors, especially the one who landed the part and performs it so perfectly, Caitriona Balfe.

The author has a terrific post on her website: My Writing Process

2 – Setting. Johnson set his protagonist in as remote a setting as he could, while keeping him in the Lower 48. Because he’s in the “least populated county in the least populated state” he doesn’t have the usual access to technology, teams, or rapid response. Longmire and his bare-bones crew have to cover hundreds of miles a day to keep up with multiple situations. This gives the protagonist a hand-hewn self-reliance he must live up to, or wither and die.

To read more about this aspect of his writing, visit his interview on the Stories About America blog.

Gabaldon has several settings, both chronologically and geographically. These settings—some civilized some not; some bristling with untamed nature and some swishing with silks and velvets—serve to offer the extreme challenges her characters must face, even though some of the settings may be sumptuous in appearance. Though we do learn fascinating historical details, they are present to serve the advancement of the characters, more than to teach us the lessons of history.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

On the Diaries of Helen Garner and the Quagmire of the Fictionalized Self

From LitHub:

The Australian writer Helen Garner published her debut novel, Monkey Grip, in 1977. It was an immediate sensation. The novel follows a doomed love affair between the protagonist Nora and a heroin addict named Javo, amid the countercultural milieu of Melbourne’s inner north. Reviews were positive, but many were dismayed at what they considered Garner’s shameless use of autobiographical material. The crime writer Peter Corris was scathing: “Helen Garner has published her private journal rather than written a novel,” he said. “The “I” of the book, Nora, is indisputably the author herself and the other characters are identifiable members of the… Pram Factory set in Melbourne.”

. . . .

Writing things down can be compulsive for those of us who’ve formed the habit. These are people who have notebooks always tucked in a shirt pocket or a grubby tote bag, who have scraps of paper they do not throw away, who type homilies into the Notes app on their phones. We write things down because we want to remember, and to save things. In her essay “Woman in a Green Mantle,” Garner references poet Philip Larkin, who once said, “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art. Garner writes that she has “had it up to here with rhetoric about art, but the urge to preserve—I understand that. I’ve been a captive of it for most of my adult life.”

. . . .

Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Victoria in 1942, the eldest girl in a working-class family. She attended the University of Melbourne, where she studied English and French. She married young, had a daughter, and then quickly divorced. For most of the 1970s, she lived in the communal counterculture of Melbourne’s Carlton and Fitzroy North, in a milieu which had strong ties to the influential performance collective La Mama, based at the Pram Factory, and to the feminist consciousness-raising groups that proliferated early in that decade.

In 1972, Garner was sacked from the education department after she taught an impromptu sex education lesson to a class of thirteen-year-olds at Fitzroy High School. “Getting the sack was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to start writing for a living,” she wrote.

. . . .

With her daughter at school, Garner began to write. She spent mornings in the reading room of the State Library of Victoria, poring over her old diaries and working on what she thought might be a novel. The novel was Monkey Grip, and it launched her career as a writer. It also launched the debate, which has never ended, about how much of her self was in her work, and whether it was somehow unseemly, or inappropriate.

So Monkey Grip did emerge from Garner’s diaries. It was in the diary that she found a shape and a story. But Bernadette Brennan, Garner’s biographer (and, in all transparency, my former professor at the University of Sydney), notes in her book A Writing Life that “Reading Monkey Grip as poorly disguised reality not only dismisses the creative process of shaping the story, it also ignores how and why the diarised basis for this novel contributes to its meaning.”

Link to the rest at LitHub

PG is of the (always and eternally) humble opinion that whatever an author puts into a novel, true or false, is just fine, absent copyright infringement or libel.

Who cares if the novel is based on the author’s life and acquaintances or on Hobbits?

There is likely something of a fiction author’s actual life and experiences in almost every novel, even if it is incorporated in the predilections of one or more fictional characters, the point of view and attitude of a disembodied narrator or the author’s ideas about what a truly evil person would think.

If a book purports to be non-fiction, PG prefers either a fairly-close approximation of reality or clearly-identified speculation about what might have happened when there is no reliable record or recollection available.

In a cookbook, for example, PG would be a bit put-off if fictional ingredients were required (unless it was a fantasy cookbook).

That said, all books are artificial creations. General Douglas MacArthur, as portrayed in many and various biographies and accounts of his participation in two world wars of the Twentieth Century, is not the real Douglas MacArthur, but a Douglas MacArthur created from facts selected by a biographer from the much larger group of facts contained in the man’s life.

A biographer focused on MacArthur in the Philippines may quite likely not include a complete, accurate and detailed account of his actions and experiences during the 1914 United States occupation of Veracruz.

Time Off

From Digital Pubbing:

What do Aristotle, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Lebron James all have in common? Time off in the most creative and nourishing way!

Amidst a culture that worships “busyness”, millennials John Fitch and Max Frenzel want us to unlearn workaholism by learning “noble leisure” of the past and developing a quality #RestEthic. The AI researcher (Max) and entrepreneur (John) have collaborated to share the history of how we value time and work, show us that a little time off will go a lot further than we may think, and that it doesn’t have to be a vacation or even a full day.

Science supports that time off (whether that be walking on your lunch break or saying no to drinks with friends to work on a passion project) is a critical factor for anyone who wants to achieve a fulfilling life, both personally and professionally. Time Off is intended for knowledge workers, creatives, entrepreneurs and business leaders who feel overwhelmed, giving them the knowledge and tools to hone the essential skill of taking time off work before it’s too late.

Read on for an interview with John Fitch and Max Frenzl, authors of Time Off, as well as an excerpt of the book.

Q: How has society’s view of “noble leisure” time changed over the years?

A: In Ancient Greece and Rome, leisure was at the center of society. According to Aristotle, we rest for the sake of work, and we work for the sake of leisure. But leisure is defined entirely through itself. It stands at the top of the hierarchy. And it was exactly this leisure-focused life and the time it provided for philosophy, games, literature, family, and sports that allowed culture to blossom. Leisure, as Betrand Russell would later write, was “essential to civilization.” But over time, this appreciation for leisure started to change. As people started collaborating on more complex projects, our perception of time shifted from natural cycles and a task-oriented notion, to timed labor. Time suddenly became a currency that could be traded and had value, and leisure was wasting this value. This became even worse around the turn of the 18th century, when the idea of “time discipline” developed. The middle and upper classes started to worry that the poor wouldn’t know what to do with their leisure, so they invoked religion to give work a divine justification and meaning. The “Protestant Work Ethic” was born. Now leisure wasn’t just wasteful, it was actually a sin. Another century later and the Industrial Revolution takes place. As religion gradually lost its omnipotent grip, the perception of why work was good, or rather the opposite so bad, started to change amongst the elite. Rather than a sin against god, the newly emerging class of industrialists started to equate idleness with another moral vice: theft. They paid for their employees’ time, so they felt like they owned it. Over and over again, the question of work became deeply fused with our morality. Are you productive (good)? Or idle (bad)? Today, we have largely forgotten the religious origins of this morality question, but it’s so deeply ingrained in our psyche that it’s hard to shake off. And this is especially true for knowledge workers, who don’t have eight model T engines to show for their day’s labor. Without any tangible progress indicators or a boss constantly telling us that he owns our time, our internalized sense that time equals value and morality becomes even stronger to compensate. Those who could choose to once again live Aristotle’s idea of noble leisure are often furthest away from it! But we need noble leisure more than ever. Genuinely productive knowledge work is the opposite of busyness and requires taking time off seriously. We wrote this book because we are extremely optimistic that our culture can and should find its way back to noble leisure.

Q: What is the culture of “busyness”?

A: Busyness—essentially productivity without the output—is a bad habit from the start of the industrial era and it still reigns supreme. For entrepreneurs and creatives this is particularly problematic. Like addicts seeking the next quick fix, we are hooked on busyness. Without any tangible progress indicators or a boss constantly reminding us that he owns our time, our internalized sense that time equals value and morality becomes even stronger to compensate.

In the 2019 edition of their International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The official WHO report states that burnout is characterized by three key components: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” Sound familiar?

Just as a century ago people were overworked beyond healthy sustainable physical capabilities, we are now experiencing something similar with our mental abilities. Where early industrial factory workers were physically drained and exhausted, modern workers in the knowledge factories of the world suffer the same fate on a mental level.

Genuinely productive knowledge work is the opposite of busyness and requires a harder, more thoughtful approach. It requires taking time off seriously. In addition to a solid work ethic, it requires an equally well-established rest ethic. Good knowledge work is, like the work of a craftsman, based on mastery and quality, rather than the sheer quantity of simple and repeatable tasks—which will soon be done by robots and AI anyway.

We need to acknowledge that productivity in creative work is much more multifaceted than the one-dimensional productivity of a manual laborer churning out widgets.

Link to the rest at Digital Pubbing

Editing

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Having just emerged from the murky depths of structural edits, and sent the results back to my publisher, I’m in the perfect place to think back and appreciate the value of a distanced eye, and the insights it can provide.

As authors we live in constant state of waiting, even as we’re scribbling fiercely away on our next book: waiting for the nod from agent or publisher that our proposal is a goer; for a contract to arrive; for the first look at our cover design; for the go ahead to reveal news, titles, covers, release dates; and, most nail-biting of all, for those edits. We hover over our inbox, imagining every scenario from a glowing, “it’s gone straight to copy edits,” to the heart-sinking: “I’ve attached a 10-page document with extensive notes.”

Much as it can be a bit disheartening to see a beloved manuscript questioned deeply, I do find the editing process itself an exciting one, particularly the first round, before I even send it away. Having completed a first draft and seen the fully-rounded novel my scrappy set of notes has become, it’s so satisfying to go back and tidy up loose ends, clarify motivations and, now that I know them better, enrich my characters with their own quirks and favourite sayings and behaviours.

The first thing I try to do, if I have the luxury of time, is to put it aside for at least a week before even looking at it. Then I read it through in one quick go, making notes in another document – either by hand or on screen – and trying not to get caught up in the minutiae of typos and sentence structure. The story is the important thing at that stage, making sure it all hangs together, that there are no plot holes, and that your characters don’t behave out of, well, character!

Now it’s time to go back and make changes, and it’s a wonderful thing to see how everything suddenly slide into place. At the risk of using a tired old cliché, it’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle; first of all you’ll notice missing pieces, and you have to do the literary equivalent of searching under the table; or a wrong piece of sky has been wedged in, out of desperation and a desire to complete at least part of the puzzle. You’d planned to go back and swap it for the right bit, but somehow you forgot until you’re left with a piece that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere.

Finally you have the completed picture in front of you, but it’s bumpy in places, where some of the pieces aren’t lying flat, so your final job is to make it look pretty from top to bottom, and send it away to your agent, publisher, or beta-readers.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

Writing for a Living

From David Farland, Story Doctor:

As Cicero put it over 2000 years ago, “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” What was true in Rome is true today.

We’re facing a global downturn in the economy due to the Corona virus. Whenever that kind of thing happens, a lot of people begin looking toward writing as a way to support themselves. Very often these are people who always wanted to be writers but have put their writing dreams on hold to do other things. Some are entrepreneurs or lawyers or work running newspapers—anything that they imagine will make them feel more secure about making money. But now they’re looking seriously at their dream job once again.

So I often hear the question, “Can you make a living as a writer?” My answer of course is “Yes, I’ve been doing it for thirty years.” The real question is, “Can YOU make a living?”

The question gets couched in a number of different ways. “How long does it take to learn to write?” “Are publishers buying books?” “Can you make money writing as an Indie?” “Is one place better for a writer to live than another?” and so on.

Over the past few months, with our Apex writer’s group, I’ve been interviewing successful writers. Some are #1 New York Times bestsellers in different genres—thrillers, romance, fantasy. Others are killing it as Indies—in adult, young adult, and middle grade lit. It has surprised me how each of the writers has his or her own path to success. One author might be writing huge thrillers for adults and pays little attention to social media. Another focuses on advertising on Amazon.com, while a third is making big money just by hand-selling his work to kids. My friend and old student Brandon Sanderson is doing a Kickstarter this week for his “Way of Kings” anniversary edition and is right at $5 million this morning. His efforts were so successful, he just made Newsweek Magazine. But I know lots of authors who are using Kickstarter and Patreon as distribution methods to support themselves.

In short, I see dozens of paths to success.

Link to the rest at David Farland, Story Doctor

The Most Frustrating Part of Your Story May Be the Best

From Electric Lit:

In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?” we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This month we’re talking to Megan Giddings, author of Lakewood, who is teaching an upcoming six-week workshop on creating characters in fiction.

. . . .

What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student? 

I learned that often when people keep talking about the same thing in a story and try to diagnose what’s wrong with it, that’s usually the most alive part. You might have to alter how it’s written, but it’s probably the thing the story needs to actually be worth reading. 

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student? 

I had an instructor tell me that she didn’t think “I had it” and I should think seriously about maybe switching from fiction to poetry. If I had been a younger writer, it probably would’ve killed my writing for a long time to have someone in authority say that to me.

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor? 

Learn to love specificity. 

. . . .

Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?

I wouldn’t ever encourage a student to give up writing, but I would point them toward learning how to write without getting attention. There’s a big difference between writing because you love it and the process and writing because you want money, attention, praise. The latter will only hurt you throughout your career. Writing and knowing it might just be for you and learning to be fine with that is important. 

. . . .

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not? 

Students shouldn’t draft with publication in mind, but when they’re at a point where they’re making a serious revision, they should start thinking about readers. Drafting with publication in mind will often kill creativity. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

From Writers Helping Writers:

Have you ever felt unqualified for a job even though you have extensive training? Do you ever shy away from giving advice because you believe that what you have to say is wrong or unimportant—even though you know what you’re talking about? 

When I graduated and took on my first clients, I had nightmares about how others would receive me. I questioned myself constantly; Do you know what you’re talking about? Who would trust you to guide their writing? Regardless of the knowledge and experience I had, that little voice in the back of my mind continued to cast doubt, uncertainty, and fear.

I lived with this feeling for years. In fact, I still struggle with it. I figured it was a part of my brain trying to make me better at my craft, so I continued learning and growing. What I didn’t know is that this feeling doesn’t go away, at least not on its own. You have to consciously work to eradicate it.

I didn’t know until recently that this feeling had a name: impostor syndrome. It’s not a diagnosed syndrome, but around 70% of creative minds struggle with this issue. That’s a sizable portion of us. Impostor syndrome is the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite accomplishments. It is the feeling that all of your accomplishments result from luck. It is a psychological phenomenon to which most creatives can relate.

For writers, impostor syndrome attacks your unique “voice”, and it can be the worst feeling in the world. It causes anxiety, stress, fear, low self-confidence, and even shame and depression. If allowed to go unchecked, it can lead to less risk-taking and missed opportunities. 

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Touching Your Audience Deeply through Viewpoint

From Story Doctor Dave Farland:

Almost every time a book is made into film, you will hear the comment over and over, “The book was better.”

Some time ago I was talking to a friend of Christopher Paolini, whose novel Eragon was made into a movie, and some fans of the books were so disappointed in the film adaptation, that they actually sent death threats to the author. Sorry folks, but in this case, poor Christopher didn’t have any control in making the movie. Maybe there will be a better adaptation in a couple years.

There’s a huge reason why the book is better, or should always be better. The reason is that the book can transport you into the story better. But it only works if you do it right.

When you write a story, for each scene you need to choose your viewpoint character. Often this is the protagonist. Let’s call him Brad. As an author, you use your protagonist as something like a camera. You show the reader the world through Brad’s eyes, just as if he were a camera. You let us hear the world through Brad’s ears, just as if he were a camera.

But Brad is more than a camera. You show us through internal dialog what Brad is thinking. Now, a voiceover can do that on film, but the technique is not often used. You can also let us smell the world and feel the world—two things that cameras can’t do. You can let us know what Brad is feeling—something that the camera might reveal but only if the actor and the director are talented enough to catch it. You can report on Brad’s motions, give information on what it feels like to jump or run—things that cameras can’t do. You can report on variations in temperature or the texture of surfaces.

In fact, if you think about it, a novel allows you to transport Brad in several ways that a camera can’t, and that tends to make your book a better medium for storytelling than a film.

Here’s the thing. Readers subconsciously recognize the lack. Have you ever gone to the dentist and had your mouth numbed with Novocaine, then gone out to eat afterward? Even the best meal doesn’t satisfy your taste buds when they’re out of commission.

A film doesn’t normally convey the sense of smell, taste, touch, kinetic motion, or the character’s thoughts. Film can be poor at revealing a character’s interior emotions and intent. In other words, watching a film is like being anesthetized. The reader is cut off from so many senses, that really, it’s surprising that viewers get much from it at all.

But the thing that I want to point out is that the book as a medium for storytelling only works if you put it to use. For example, I’ve read a lot of stories where the writer won’t even commit to a viewpoint character. The writer won’t show us the character’s thoughts and feelings, their internal hopes and fears.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Theatrical Shortcuts for Dynamic Fiction

From SWFA:

I’m often asked if my professional theatre and playwrighting background helps me as a fiction writer. It does in countless ways. Theatrical form, training, and structure are holistically integrated into how I see the world and operate as a storyteller. I adore diving deep into character, creating atmosphere, and ‘setting the stage’ for my novels. I became a traditionally published novelist many years after I’d established myself on stage and published as a playwright.

I teach a workshop called “Direct Your Book: Theatre Techniques Towards A Blockbuster Novel” about using theatrical concepts to invigorate, inspire, and problem-solve in fiction writing. Here’s what I’ve found to be the most consistently useful takeaways:

Physicality. One of my favorite aspects of character building when taking on a role is figuring out how they move; where their “center of gravity” is, whether the gut, the chest, or the head; what part of their body leads the way? Thinking about this can really ground you in the bodies of your characters and how they interact with their world.

Environment. I’m a licensed New York City tour guide and there’s really nothing like moving through the streets your characters move through and truly living in all those details. In my Spectral City series, I utilize many of the city’s most haunted paths as the routes my psychic medium heroine takes to navigate the city. Her noting the various haunts of the city creates a sort of ‘lived in’ feel to the prose and to her experiences as a psychic detective. There is something to be said sometimes for writing ‘what you know’. If at all possible, visiting a place that informs your world directly, or inspires it if your world is a secondary one, can add so much in detail and expansive sensory experience. You can pair the experience of walking and drinking in this environment by thinking of the characters’ physicality and qualities of movement as you do so.

Clothing. Even if it isn’t a period piece, clothing tells a lot about a world and how characters live in it. Every clothing choice is an act of world-building. If your work is historical or historically informed, I suggest spending time in clothing from the time period. Try to rent something or commission something you could walk, run, move, and interact in for a period of time that helps you understand how garments inform movement, posture, breathing, existing. These things change radically across class and area of the world. For my part, as most of my novels are set in the late 19th century, the most important gift the theatre gave my historical novels is a tactile reality and personal experience ‘existing’ in other time periods with which I can paint details. In the 19th century, for example, women could be wearing an average of 40 pounds of clothing and that significantly affects one’s daily life. Knowing what it is like to move, sit, prepare food, lift, climb stairs, walk, trot, run, seize, weep, laugh, recline, jump and collapse in a corset, bodice, bustle, petticoat, hat, layers, gloves, and other accessories–all of which I’ve personally experienced in various historical plays and presentations I’ve acted in–is vitally important to taking the reader physically as well as visually and emotionally through a character’s experience. It changes breathing, posture, and interactions with the environment and others in a core, defining way.

Link to the rest at SWFA

The Power of Pronouns

From Writers in the Storm:

Some of the smallest words in English (and other languages) are pronouns, but they have a profound impact on meaning and emotions. Using them well in our writing is a powerful shortcut to help our readers.

Pronouns can be proclamations of our psyches to the world, about how we feel about ourselves and others around us. Pronouns can bring us comfort and they can bring us pain. Pronouns can drive us to rage or drop us into tears.

Pronouns are declarations separating us from them. They can bring us together. And they can accuse them.

Sit with this simple sentence for a moment:

Look at what they are doing to my city.

More than likely when you read that sentence, your inner voice reacted. How did it make you feel? What did it make you think about?

Consider this sentence below and notice what changing the pronouns does to the tone, feel, and imagery.

Look at what we are doing to our city.  

Pronouns are debated in Washington. Laws are made surrounding them. The usage of the right pronoun can make us feel included. Conversely, the misuse or misattribution of a pronoun can be used as a weapon.

It is for these reasons that the proper use and care of pronouns should be given in our writing. All our writing: articles, books, emails, and social media. As writers, we have a responsibility to use pronouns with the highest level of ethics and personal moral standards.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Writing and Hiking

From Writer Unboxed:

Charles Dickens died this day, June 9, 150 years ago. He gave many pieces of writing advice throughout his incredible career, the most famous, and probably best, of which was: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” It was the motto against which he judged his own work.

He also recognized the toll writing can take on an author, the “wear and tear,” and saw the importance of taking a break from writing, of having distractions away from quill and ink, computer and keyboard.

You must remember that in all your literary aspiration, and whether thinking or writing, it is indispensably necessary to relieve that wear and tear of the mind by some other exertion that may be wholesomely set against it.

For many writers, that relief comes from walking. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. For Nietzsche, “Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.” And JK Rowling finds inspiration in walking too: “Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas.”

. . . .

Research backs up the idea of walking to improve creativity. A 2014 study by behavioral scientists Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford University stated that, “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”

The study, entitled Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, goes on to say that, “Walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.”

. . . .

There are many parallels between walking and writing. Just as walking is about putting one foot after another, writing is – in its very basic form – one word after another. Remembering that as you go for a walk, especially a long walk, can help you get over any blocks you might be experiencing in your writing.

Five, ten or fifteen miles can seem like a long way when you first set off, just as the prospect of writing an 80,000 word novel (perhaps more the equivalent of the entire Pacific Northwest Trail) can be daunting. But one foot/one word in front of the other eventually gets you there. And the sense of achievement at the end can be exhilarating. Even more so, I’d argue, when completing a novel.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

My Experiences Writing and Publishing as a Teen

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

For me, the biggest difference between writing as a teen and as an adult is being able to write how teenagers think, what it’s like to be in school, because you’re not looking at it through rose-tinted glasses, looking back on it with nostalgia; you don’t have to remember what it was like, you’re still there. Even just after having been out of school for a few years, I read my work and think the choices of my characters are somewhat idiotic. But I wrote it when I was their age. When it seemed reasonable. And I’m aware that I have to hold on to that as I get older if I want to keep writing about teenage characters. 

I can see the differences in my writing from when I was teenager, both in that my writing ability has improved, and that my ability to plan and plot has improved. I’ve also moved past the fear that people are only telling me my writing is good because I’m a kid and they want to be encouraging.  

I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I started with fanfiction of whatever was my favourite book, movie, or video game at the time. Eventually, I started introducing my own characters into these worlds and stories, and then I moved on to creating my own world for my characters to live in. I quickly realised that I wanted to be a writer, to publish books, to share my stories. 

The only reason I was able to publish at my age was because of my parents. They saw that I had a passion for writing and were willing to indulge me for at least one book, to pay to have it self-published so that I could have that achievement under my belt. It was their idea that I would write more as a hobby, a side career, but would do something else as a main job. Then my mum, whose favourite author is Tom Clancy, read my young adult fantasy book, and said it was good. Amazing. Better than she had been expecting. 

. . . .

The hardest thing about publishing as a teenager was that I couldn’t work full time. I was trying to finish my manuscript to submit while in the last years of high school. I never had time to work on it because I either had school work to do, or I was too stressed out to have any good ideas. 

However, when it wasn’t so stressful, school was the source of my inspiration. I would sit in class and daydream about what my characters running across the rooftops of the other buildings and what adventures they might be off on; what evil they could be fighting while everyone else in the school was none the wiser.

I also came up with ideas as a result of being bullied. I would imagine what it would be like to be the characters in my favourite books; to have problems that didn’t revolve around who I was going to sit with at lunch, and if I could take the constant jibes from a certain girl, always delivered under her breath so no one else would hear. What if I could be Valkyrie in Skulduggery Pleasant, going on grand adventures and saving the world? What would I have to save the world from? Who would my villain be? Certainly, someone I would stand up to for taunting me.

Because of these thoughts I decided that I wanted my main characters to be from different walks of life – at least school life. I wanted to make a scenario where it wasn’t just the quirky kid that gets bullied who goes on a magical adventure, because as much as I wanted to escape some of the people I went to school with, I couldn’t. I wanted to bring the social environment of school into a different situation, and try to experiment with how this would make the characters interact.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

The Shiver Test

From David Farland, Story Doctor:

When you’re brainstorming a new story, how do you know that it will be good?

Recently a young writer presented me with an outline for a novel that was nicely formed, had an interesting protagonist, and appeared to be well designed. She said, “It’s almost all there, but I don’t quite feel that it’s bestseller material yet.”

She was right. It was excellent in several ways, but it felt as if it lacked something. I had to think a minute to decide what that “special something” was. I realized that the story didn’t pass the shiver test.

What’s the shiver test?

It’s a phrase that I came up with years ago. I remember sitting in on a meeting with some producers. I was working as a greenlighting analyst at the time, and we were looking at a script that was nicely written. One of the producers came up with a little plot twist and said, “What if we did this. . . .”

The lead producer in the group said, “Oooh, that gave me shivers!” And the others in the room said, “Yeah, that gave me shivers, too!” I knew immediately that we’d need to rewrite the climax of that film to incorporate the change.
At the time, I recalled hearing an agent and an editor talking about a novel, and both had mentioned that the very concept “gave me the chills.”

A great idea for a story will give you shivers. Your basic concept for a story, even a little short story, should generate the combined sense of wonder and excitement that causes your reader to get chills. In order to arouse that sense of wonder, the idea has to be fresh, perhaps even unique. You can’t arouse wonder with an idea we’ve all seen done before. And the idea has to be weighty enough so that it causes excitement, so that it gets each listener thinking about the possibilities.

Sometimes it’s not the story idea as a whole that gives us the chills, but a smaller component of the package.

For example I might get the chills when I hear a cool concept for a setting, or a stunning idea for a character, or an exciting idea for a conflict. Other times it might be an exhilarating plot twist, or a great way to raise the tension. A great metaphor can give me chills. So can a beautifully written hook or a lovely description.

Link to the rest at David Farland, Story Doctor

Here’s a link to David Farland’s Author Page on Amazon

How to Become a Self-Published Author

From Stage32.com:

It was back in 2010 when I was first approached about publishing a novel. I was a lighter shade of Latina actress who had met the frustration of waiting for casting directors and agents to notice me, and see me as Latina enough…so I decided to write my own stage play. It was my autobiographical, coming of age story, that would show people once and for all who I was, instead of waiting for them to see and find a place for me. My one-woman stage play (Brownsville Bred) took the festival circuit by storm and within one year I was performing it Off-Broadway and to critical acclaim.

The book packager, who shall remain nameless, was absolutely wonderful, experienced and best of all she loved my story and believed in me as a writer.

. . . .

My book packager sat me down and told me how it “Usually” worked. It seemed that “usually” they (the packager or publisher) hire a GHOST WRITER–someone who comes in, listens to your story, and reads your work, before diving in to write their version of your story. The ghostwriter never gets credited as the Author, but they are still the person who is actually writing the book.

“Hold up…wait a minute,” I said. “I am a writer!” But it wasn’t that easy. I had to prove that I could write in prose and that I did. One sample chapter later and I proved to her (and to myself) that I was able to write prose just as well as I wrote for the stage. I was handed the STANDARD publishing contract–which is…to put it delicately…HORRIBLE. For the most part, it says you get about twenty-five cents per book, and you give up your rights to the book, TV, and Film.

As a writer/filmmaker, the cents didn’t matter to me nearly as much as the TV and film rights did, and luckily for me, she quickly took it out of our contract. So we had the deal and now it was time to write the book, right? Kind of. I learned the lesson that most book publishers only want a package that would include an intro, an About The Author page, and about three or four sample chapters–this because anyone who picks it up will want a hand on the direction they want it to take.

Long story short, within three months we had a great package, sample chapters, and people willing to bring it into their publishing house pitch meetings. I was never in on those meetings so I can’t tell you exactly how those went. But I can tell you that my packager described these folks as “LOVING” the materials. I even got the words, “No one could love it more than her”…but still, it was rejected by the ultimate decision-makers. That process repeated a few times and before long, my one-year agreement with my packager was up.

. . . .

It was also around the same time that the publishing world was changing. Kindle was managing to do to the book publishing world what Napster had done to the record industry. The world was changing and my story, about a Puerto Rican girl growing up in the welfare projects of Brownsville Brooklyn, proved “too dark” for the YA readers they had in mind for it.

With that, I took the experience and told myself that it had veered my journey away from the on-screen journey that I had hoped for the story. But I am a firm believer in “everything happens for a reason…moreover a GOOD reason and it’s up to us to find that reason.”

Fast forward a few years later, I was in the thick of filmmaking. I had a few episodes of a web series that I’d written, produced, and directed and found filmmaking to be my greatest passion. I knew I wanted to make my stage play into a feature film. It was then that I sought the advice of a great feature film director, Rashaad Ernesto Green, who told me that if I wanted to direct a film I should, “Make short films”.

. . . .

It was while at the Official Latino Film Festival in late 2019 that I received the next big great piece of advice. During a panel of professional writers–people who had all of the experience of being in a pitch room, I asked, “what is the number one thing that gets projects sold?” The answer sent bursts of colors through my brain– “I.P.”–Intellectual Property. Intellectual Property like a book lends any story credibility.

The writer went on to say that he had an idea for an alien series, and so he wrote and self- published a graphic novel to support the idea. When asked where the story came from, he simply took out the book and said, “this graphic novel”.

. . . .

I dug up all of the chapters I’d written and spent the next two days immersed in what I had and figuring out what was missing. I looked to my stage play and then to my new screenplay’s beat sheet. I added some parts that would reinforce the decisions I had made for the screenplay version. Within a week I had my first manuscript.

. . . .

My eyes were strained from reading, and so I uploaded my manuscript into Speechify and listened to it read back to me over and over again as I noted the errors to correct.

I googled everything I could about self-publishing…and it wasn’t the first time I’d done that but 2019 proved to be the year when technology would finally catch up to me, without the demand of financial investment. It took me a few weeks to consume the self-help videos and seminars made available through KDP Amazon. Yes, people, we have to thank Jeff Bezos on this one.

. . . .

After you’ve gotten through the editor’s changes you should get BETA Readers. These can be hired or just ask people who you know are avid readers if they’d give you feedback on the manuscript. I recommend creating a questionnaire specific to your book.

It should have questions like:

  • “What was your favorite part?
  • What confused you?
  • What would you tell someone about this book?
  • Who would you want to read this book?
  • Did you feel that anything was missing?

In my case, I had added a whole end chapter to my book, after a friend who had seen the play, told me that she very much missed the end of the play where I gave a recap of the real people the book was based on and shared where they are today. Now in retrospect, I can report that, at my book-club readings, I am often asked to read that very chapter aloud.

Link to the rest at Stage32.com and thanks to Judith for the tip.

PG will note that, just like literary agents, book packagers are not licensed and are not subject to any effective regulation. A high school dropout on drugs can promote her/himself as a book packager or literary agent.

One difference between the two is that the literary agent typically doesn’t get paid until you receive some money from your book (although there are those agents who charge “reading fees” for scanning your ms.).

5 Ways to Improve the Action in your Story

From author Megan Ward via Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Page-turners aren’t the only books that employ action. In every story the characters’ actions drive the narrative forward. Without action, a book would be a series of scenes full of dialogue and description, a literary Dinner with Andre that would put the reader straight to sleep.

. . . .

1) Evocative Verbs Improve the Action

The easiest way to improve the action in your story is through verb selection. Forget is and does and seems and feels. How about rattles and shakes and leaps and destroys? Forget was and did and appears and smells. How about hobbles and shimmers and carouses and spins?

You can even make verbs up, like “He drawered the manuscript,” “Her hair waterfalled across her face,” and “I watched the sand delta by the shore.”

We all know that active verbs are better than passive verbs, so try replacing “The book was passed down the row” with something like “The book jumped down the row from hand to hand.” Replace “The package was delivered to her house” with “The delivery man jettisoned her package from the truck before careening back down the street.”

Start by making a list of your favorite verbs. Think jitterspewfesterswagger, glimmer, squawk…if you run out of ideas try your thesaurus.

. . . .

3) Engage the Senses

Don’t confuse static “sensing verbs” (I feel sad, It smells good, You sound angry, She looks tired) with their dynamic counterparts (I feel the scalding water on my feet, I smell the loamy earth, The siren sounded throughout the town). And don’t confuse the use of sensing verbs with the use of sensory details in your writing. You should always aim to engage the senses in your writing.

Note how Sonali Deraniyagala uses dynamic verbs like hissed and rustled to engage the sense of sound in this passage from her memoir Wave:

“I moved on to make sinister noises when the phone was answered. I hissed, I rustled, I made ghostly sounds. The Dutch man spoke with more urgency now. ‘What is it you want?’ he said time and again. ‘Tell me, please. What is it you want?’”

Here’s a line from an LA Times article by Philip Caputo that engages the sense of smell. Note the use of the dynamic verbs overwhelmed and burned to convey the putrid odor of war:

“Their putrefying flesh overwhelmed the odors of smoke and diesel fuel and burned tanks, trucks and armored personnel carriers.”

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Meghan is one of the authors of Writing Action

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Physical Exhaustion

From Writers Helping Writers:

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

ConflictPHYSICAL EXHAUSTION

Category: Increased pressure and ticking clocks, failures and mistakes, duty and responsibilities, losing an advantage, no-win situations, miscellaneous challenges

Examples:
The character’s body being pushed past it’s limits due to exertion
Being depleted due to poor nutrition or starvation
An illness that ravages the character’s strength
Forced wakefulness that takes a physical toll

. . . .

Resulting Emotions: anger, anguish, defeat, defiant, despair, desperation, determination, dread, emasculated, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, inadequate, powerlessness, regret, resentment, resignation, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, tormented, unappreciated, uncertainty, vulnerability, worthlessness

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

10 Ways to Feel Like a Real Writer When You Can’t Write Thanks to Coronavirus

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

You might have thought because you’re staying at home that you’d have more free time to start/finish a book or take an on-line yoga class. But in reality, because we’re all spending so much time at home, much of that time is consumed by eating which means food prep and cooking (which means there’s a kitchen to clean and dishes to be washed), bathrooms to be cleaned and tidied plus, of course, more toilet paper to be purchased (if we can even scrounge up a few rolls somewhere), laundry duty, garbage and trash removal, dusting, vacuuming and, of course, sanitizing.

As one day melts seamlessly into the next, and we can’t tell Sunday from Tuesday, weekdays from weekends.

Our moods whiplash between “This sucks” and “It could be worse.”

We’re bored, anxious, and tired. We’re having trouble sleeping and concentrating. Much less writing.

“A lot of us are mentally exhausted, because the energy it takes to mentally manage everything that’s happening is very draining,” says Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality for the American Psychological Association. “The habits we’ve worked to develop over time to keep us healthy and productive can fall by the wayside.”

. . . .

As Anne wrote in an earlier post, she’s heard from a lot of writers about the difficulty they’re experiencing writing in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

She had a meltdown involving a TV remote.

I had one triggered by laundry. I don’t know if there’s actually more laundry, or if it just feels that way, but it seems that no sooner have I finished folding and putting clean laundry away, magically new dirty laundry appears in its place to replace the old dirty laundry. Not good for my mental health—or my disposition.

Needless to say, feeling overwhelmed by an Everest of laundry or frustrated by a cranky TV remote even as we are bombarded by relentless reports of death and disease, does not contribute to creativity.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

The Science Behind the Meet-Cute

From Writer Unboxed:

At the WU Unconference last fall, I gave a presentation on the “meet-cute.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s that moment when your characters meet for the first time. Sometimes they click immediately (Titanic; 50 First Dates), other times they don’t (Pride & PrejudiceWhen Harry Met Sally). Regardless,some kind of chemistry is established between them that makes the reader want to root for the characters as a couple. It’s a typical element of every romance novel, but it can manifest in other ways in other genres. The typical meet-cute goes a little something like this:

Sarah walked onto campus as a new freshman. While she wrestled one-handed with the campus map, her Human Anatomy textbook slipped from her hands and fell open on the sidewalk to a page her mother would have censored. Embarrassed, Sarah quickly crouched to retrieve the book before anyone saw, just as someone knelt to help her. She looked up and locked eyes with the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Sarah’s heart raced.

When I say this example reflects the typical meet-cute, I mean really, really typical. Too many meet-cutes I read are all about racing hearts, or some other obvious go-to like stammering, sweaty palms, or stumbling over words and/or feet. These common crutches got me thinking. How can we better delve into our own personal experiences to come up with more unique and inspired ways to demonstrate the interior landscape of a scene? How can we show our characters’ feelings through more unique physical reactions to those feelings?

According to a team of scientists at Rutgers University, romantic love can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each of these categories is characterized by its own set of chemicals (or hormones) that manifest in physical ways.

With lust, the hypothalamus stimulates the production of the sex hormones, which shut off the prefrontal cortex, the origin of rational behavior. Sexual arousal also appears to turn off parts of the brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior. The younger and more outrageously hormonal you are, the more irrational you may act. (Romeo & Juliet, anyone?).

With attraction, the hypothalamus stimulates the production of dopamine. Dopamine is released when we do things that feel good to us, and it controls “reward” behavior, which partly explains why the beginning of a new relationship can be so exciting. When dopamine gets released at high levels, it triggers physical reactions such as giddiness, increased energy, euphoria, stress, and even an increased fight or flight response. (e.g., Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or Love Actually or Notting Hill).

Finally, attachment is the predominant factor in long-term relationships. The hypothalamus stimulates the production of oxytocin—a bonding hormone—which has also been nicknamed the “cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin reinforces the positive feelings we already have for the people we love most in our lives.

. . . .

[O]ne way to write more creative meet-cutes is to step away from the actual meet-cute scene itself and instead look at other types of scenes that trigger the same chemical reactions as lust, attraction, and/or attachment. What I’m suggesting is that we write about those other things, then use those writing exercises to enrich the meet-cute scenes when we’re ready to return to them.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

What Is Emotional Context And Why Does Your Story Need It?

From Writers Helping Writers:

Have you ever had an editor or critique partner say “go deeper”? And you throw up your hands and glare at the screen because you DID go deeper.

Deep point of view is a writing technique that aims to create an emotional connection for readers by immersing them in real time in the character’s emotional journey. Because this is something my readers frequently ask about, I’ve been exploring it at my blog. 

. . . .

Something that trips writers up is that their character’s emotions lack context. Your character has a reason for feeling the way they do and reacting the way they do. In deep point of view, everything is filtered through your POV character’s perspective. What does this situation mean to THAT character, RIGHT NOW, based on their own unique past experiences, prejudices, fears/concerns, priorities, and goals (emotional context)? Even when a truly new experience presents itself, the brain is always searching for context, for something from the past that will help keep us safe in the present. Understanding this as a writer helps you show the WHY behind your character’s emotions, thoughts, and actions. 

Emotions Serve A Purpose

Emotions (I talk about them like they’re people – stay with me) are preoccupied with keeping us safe by giving us information, warning us about something, or raising a concern. The longer your character suppresses or denies an emotion, the louder and more insistent it should become. 

This is how emotions work. Take a look at one of the more emotional scenes in your WIP. Can you identify what function the emotions in that scene are serving? How are they trying to protect your character, warn them, or get their attention? 

The Kids at The Table

Back to emotions as people. Imagine your character has a table in their heads and around it sits their younger selves from key moments in their past, but the seat at the head of the table is empty. The character hasn’t decided how to act or what to feel yet.

When a difficulty arises, each kid at the table does a quick evaluation, and those with a concern raise a hand and start talking over each other. Each of them believes their concern should be the character’s priority and the solution they used last time is the way to fix this current problem. Why isn’t your character listening – this is IMPORTANT!! (The pitfall is that putting a terrified five-year-old in charge of the emotional reaction to your adult boyfriend’s anger probably isn’t going to be helpful. The concern can be valid while the proposed solution can get the character in hot water.)

Internal conflict isn’t when more than one kid at the table is upset, it’s when those kids can’t agree on what to do or which concern should be the priority.

. . . .

The kids want to keep the character safe – they mean well. Does your character just give the head seat at the table to one of the kids? Or do they acknowledge the kid’s valid concern and attempt a new way ahead with a different solution? In essence, which past experience is going to inform the current reality? The emotion your character prioritizes will be influenced by their goal for the scene.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

If it’s not on the page, your reader doesn’t know it

From Nathan Bransford:

This is one of the hardest, nubbiest challenges of writing a good novel.

You know your world backwards and forwards. You know what makes your characters tick. You can picture what’s happening. You know what you’re trying to say.

But unless these elements actually make it onto the page, your reader is left in the dark.

It’s really, really hard to put yourself in the shoes of one of your readers and accurately assess what you have and haven’t told them.

. . . .

Err on the side of clarity

I was one of the less-promising students in my creative writing classes in college and I seriously doubt any of my teachers thought I would be someone who went on to be a published author. Among the many problems with my writing was one big flaw: I expected too much of my readers.

After receiving feedback that it was too difficult to follow one of my stories, I still remember the look of frustration on my creative writing teacher’s face when I insisted, “It’s all there on the page!”

Sure. Maybe. The problem was that it was way too difficult to piece everything together.

Don’t make your reader go digging for clues for the basics of what’s happening. Try not to beat your reader over the head with obviousness, but remember this: you’re probably not being as clear as you think you are.

This goes doubly for a character’s motivation and what’s at stake. You can’t possibly be too clear about these elements.

Always establish the physical setting

This is one of the easy ones and yet so many writers neglect it: The reader has no idea where they are unless you tell them.

Always set the scene. You don’t need pages and pages of paid-by-the-word 19th Century style description, but you should at least give the reader enough information so they can picture their surroundings.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

When Words Melt Away

From SWFA:

Writing classes and books are filled with tips on creating characters and developing plot, but very few ever offer the golden jewel that oversees all the other components meshing together to arrive at a story or novel: coherence. In fact, when an author discovers coherence for the first time, they will experience a place where words melt away, and the only thing that remains is a deep knowing and trust in how the story will take shape.

When the outside world interrupts our writing practice, we can find it hard to let it go enough to get back to work. Depending on the circumstances—job, social events, health issues, chores or family responsibilities, and certainly global changes—we might feel more like a chess pawn being moved around, than a disciplined writer turning out pages each day. If this resonates with you, then you understand incoherence, the state of mind we writers are most often trying to negotiate.

Incoherence tricks us into thinking ‘Time’ is our master and that there will always be a short supply of it. And if not lacking time, then some good old fashion quiet, a writer’s best friend—and by quiet, I don’t mean sheltering in the high mountains without Wi-Fi, but the mental silence that comes from coherence, which allows us to turn the tables on outer distractions, in order to regain our throne of peace, enough to create.

Every writer knows this secret place. How many times have you said, ‘The book just wrote itself,’ or ‘the words just spilled out like someone else wrote it?’ That’s the outer rim of what coherence has to offer. Coherence will help you regain control over your environment which is distracting or stealing your attention to write; or your body that will swing from being tired to super energetic impacting your productivity; or time, mentioned above, which appears to control your every attempt to write and complete things.

Coherence isn’t a mythological place like Narnia or Shangri-La that writer-heroes go in search of. No, it’s a state of mind that can actually be accessed and then utilized in your writing practice. In reality, if we stay writing long enough, we’ll reach this space of mental clarity—it can take hours or days or a long retreat. But what if you could access a deeper coherence quicker, or even better, never leave it?

That’s the golden jewel. It’s a writer’s superpower.

Link to the rest at SWFA

A Story in One Sentence

From The Paris Review:

To showcase the variety of the short stories published in the Spring issue, we asked the six writers to select a single sentence that marked the moment they first knew what story they were writing. 

This story was stuck in my head for months, so by the time I started writing it, I felt like I knew more about it than anyone needs to know about anything. Drafting is often a sweaty, anxious process for me, but there are always surprises that make it worthwhile. I wanted the story to have a slippery quality to it, but nailing down the narrative voice was a series of small discoveries. Writing the opening, and writing this sentence in particular, is maybe the moment when the story and its somewhat capricious voice slid into proper focus for me. —Senaa Ahmad, “Let’s Play Dead” 

. . . .

I initially thought I was going to explore this incident that happened in a neighboring town back home involving an elderly woman and her young-man neighbor. And I knew I wanted to start with the woman, Clara, at her kitchen sink, washing dishes and looking out her window. But I had no idea the story would unfurl like it did, and I ended up discovering the story wasn’t even about the incident after all. I love a good surprise. —Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, “An Unspoken”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Murder for Profit, Mystery Story Techniques Part 1

From The Writers Digest, April 1931:

Writing a mystery story is like playing a game of chess with a thousand unknown opponents.

As a matter of fact, the game is one more fascinating than chess, and more intricate, for in it the pawns and bishops and knights are replaced by human characters whose value as pieces varies as widely as the poles, and because the “moves” are twists of plot and situation which are not limited by neat squares on a board. But definite rules do exist, and if reader or writer does not conform to them strictly, his opponent may justly raise the cry “unfair!”

The regulations governing the reader’s part in the game are simpler than those controlling the writer. He can only cheat in one well-recognized way, by looking at the end of the story or novel before he should. The author-player, on the other hand, is bound by a number of restrictions. If he disregards any one of them, he has not played square.

But the writer, once he has these rules clearly in mind, can have no more entertaining diversion than this, of pitting his skill against his readers. In spite of the greater complexity of his rules, or perhaps because of it and because of the mentality of his reader-antagonist is an unknown quantity to him, his is the more exciting side to be one. He, after all, is the chief player; the reader must follow along as the author chooses to have him. And so, within the rigid formula, the writer of a mystery story is referee and umpire as well as player.

The rules controlling the writer are not as complex as they might seem at first. Everyone who has read detective stories has spotted various unfair tactics on the author’s part, and is familiar with certain of them.

From such criticism it is easy to collect a fairly obvious list of “do’s and don’ts” for the writer, a sort of Hoyle for the constructor of mystery fiction.

In the first place, the author must not introduce some character at the last minute, a deus ex machina, to be revealed as the murderer or thief. The guilty man must have put in an appearance early in the story, and be well known to the reader throughout. How he may be introduced, and still be covered up from the reader’s suspicion will be touched upon later. This is the chief rule, and the most evident one.

In the second, the writer must not deliberately inject inconsistencies with the narrative to blind the reader to the identity of his guilty person. This is equally evident, and should not be taken to mean that the murderer cannot have an apparent “cast-iron alibi” or apparently no possible motive for the crime. Only facts which cannot be, or never are, satisfactorily explained are barred.

. . . .

It is common experience, I believe, and I have found it to be true, that it is safer to work from the “checkmate” backwards, so to speak. The writer first devises the method of killing or an unusual motive; then, with this in mind, develops his characters and plot to work up to a revelation of this first idea.

The simplest way to do this is to ask, “If I were going to murder So-and-so, so as to escape being hanged by the neck until dead, how would I go about it?” Fortunately, all of us know people with whom we could do away with pleasure, and this adds zest to the work! The next bit of self-interrogation is, “Why do I really want to commit homicide on So-and-so?” With a strong intensification of the answer to this question, or a slight modification downwards of his own character, the author has his motive.

For example, with all my heart I would like to kill Editor Jones, I know his working hours, approximately nine to five. I know where his office is located, up how many stories he takes an elevator to work, and by what street-car line he travels between desk and home. But I do not wish to go to the Chair after killing him. Life though good, would be much better were Editor Jones not in it. Now, shooting this individual would be gratifying, but firearms make a loud noise and could be used only on a dark winter afternoon as he walks from the trolley to his house. I therefore note those conditions as the best under which to shoot the abhorred publicist. Perhaps stabbing editor Jones would be nice, and certainly it would attract less unwelcome attention. Where could that be done, and how? Perhaps a painful poison would be most amusing of all. Where may it be best administered? And so on.

Then, why do I wish to remove this gentleman? Because he rejected that five-page narrative poem of mine called The Charge of the Violets, and was sufficiently rude about it, too. But changing myself into a Bolshevik, who has had an anti-bourgeois paper turned down, I may have an acceptable grounds for murder.

Link to the rest at The Writers Digest

How to Rescue an Endangered Book and Find your Author Mojo

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

You’ve kinda/sorta finished your book/first draft/whachamacallit.

In drastic cases, it could even be an outline that’s gone off the rails and landed in a ditch.

But.

  • Your original brilliant idea is drowning in a sea of ugly clutter.
  • There are dust bunnies in the corners.
  • An overflowing laundry hamper in the hall.
  • First chapter is suffering from ring-around-the-collar.
  • Inciting incident is ho-hum and forgettable (even by you).
  • Plot has more holes than plot.
  • Characters have mutated into unrecognizable forms (and you’re not writing sci-fi or alien invasion fiction).
  • Verbs are passive, the nouns flabby and adjectives rust in the front yard.
  • Ending limps to a conclusion.

. . . .

It’s obvious that double applications of the Quicker-Picker-Upper, Fantastic and Tidy-Bowl aren’t going to get the job done. Your book (or whachamacallit) is in deep doo doo, and, because you’re not in deep denial, you recognize that there is work to be done.

You feel out of control and overwhelmed. Perhaps you’ve been here before and abandoned the poor thing to gather cyber cobwebs in some dank, dark back alley of your computer.

Maybe Marie Kondo could help, but she’s not available. She’s folding t-shirts.

It’s our mess. We made it and, according to the gospel of Moms everywhere, it’s up to us to clean it up.

. . . .

1. Write — or Rewrite — your Blurb or Elevator Pitch.

Maybe it’s OK, but maybe it could be better.

What’s the headline? What’s the hook? What about a grabby ending?

Need some help?

Turn to other writers for inspiration.

Read blurbs for top selling books in your genre.

List the phrases and words other writers use to position their book to appeal to the same readers you hope to seduce.

Have you used some of the same words and phrases? Or can you do some creative — uh — “borrowing?”

. . . .

Four editors dish the details about how to write a selling blurb including standout examples from Lee Child, Diana Gabaldon and Nicholas Sparks.

What about your elevator pitch? Is it pulling its weight? Can it help inspire your blurb?

Remember whether it’s a blurb or an elevator pitch:  Sell the sizzle!

To your readers.

And, right now, most of all to yourself!

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Red Herrings in Contemporary Crime Literature

From Crime Reads:

When plotting a tale of suspense, any writer worth her salt understands the importance of distraction—intriguing details that lead the reader down a path of uncertainty, false clues intentionally planted to mislead, and of course the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator. This is why the red herring is a staple in mystery writing. These sneaky devices can serve to ratchet up the suspense as the author gleefully provides twist and turns throughout the book.

When writers use the art of distraction, the reader remains off balance, constantly wondering if they will ever gain a sure foothold on the story. The best writers understand that red herrings are not simply shiny objects to avert your gaze—they are well-constructed traps the reader can’t help but enter, often against their better judgment.

For me, what happens in my mind while I read is just as important as what happens on the page. It’s the experience of reading a book that stays with me. The way my pulse pounded during certain scenes. The feeling of uncertainty that made me stay up later and read just one more chapter (and then one more after that, because I won’t be satisfied until I know the truth). The way the writer took me on a rollercoaster traveling through the dark, at the mercy of the treacherous track with no idea how it all will end.

Is it possible to include too many red herrings? There’s certainly no magic number, but the best writers understand how to distract in covert ways, never drawing too much attention to the false clues they’re planting. Understatement works best, and my favorite reading experience is finishing a book and then immediately having the desire to start over and read again from the very beginning, armed with the knowledge I now have, so that I can dig in and reassess everything I thought I knew.

Red herrings keep the reader turning pages, yes, but they also keep the reader wondering what the hell is actually going on. Just when you think you’d got it all figured out, another clue appears. Is this one a red herring or the real thing? These books play with the reader’s mind in wonderfully twisted ways, using red herrings masterfully and keeping the reader guessing. And second-guessing.

. . . .

The Witch Elm by Tana French

French’s masterfully plotted tales of suspense have earned her the devotion of fans, loyal readers who eagerly await her next book. The Witch Elm begins with Toby, a generally likeable nice guy, who has just been brutally attacked by burglars. He’s a bit foggy on all the details, and in need of assistance while recovering, so he moves back into the family homestead with his uncle. The place is full of teenage memories for Toby and at first the place is a comfort—until things start to get a little creepy. A skull is found in the elm tree in the garden, and so police descend onto the property and begin their investigation. Is Toby simply an innocent man lunged into unfortunate circumstances? French might want you to believe that, but as each chapter unfolds, she exposes Toby’s worst fears, using them to her advantage and laying fresh (and possibly false) trails at every turn.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

Sounds of Silence – When writer’s block strikes

From The Smart Set:

It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up one morning to find myself unable to write creatively. For months, I could eke out a story or group of poems, but all attempts at another novel arrived stillborn, exhausting themselves after a few thousand words. My father suggested I had a form of postpartum depression, that seeing my first novel in print, and therefore out of my hands, was too much of a shock, temporarily. I didn’t have the heart to tell him this had been going on for years. 

I finished a decent draft of my novel in 2015, made revisions based on a publisher’s interest in 2017, and sold it to him later that year. The editorial process spanned 18 months, but I had plenty of downtime between rounds of edits to work on something new. A colleague inquired about just this at one point, mentioning, “I hear you’re supposed to have a draft of the next thing by the time the previous book comes out.” I smiled, nodded, and assured him I was on my way. 

That year, I even tried NaNoWriMo. 

Soon, the stories dried up, followed by the poems within a semester. I took an online “poetry salon,” recycling work I’d set aside for the lean months. For a flash-fiction workshop, I generated a few thousand words, most of them rescued from earlier failures. After spending 500 dollars on these two courses, I had yet to spur myself into action. By the time the first box of copies of my novel arrived, the climate in my mind had grown hostile to new growth. 

Around this time, I reread my copy of Richard Ford’s “Goofing Off While the Muse Recharges,” which I’d discovered almost 20 years earlier and had used as cover to justify periods of inactivity in graduate school. Bemused by his friends’ discomfort with fallow periods, Ford crows, “I have made a strict point to take lavish periods away from writing.” He defends his choice by arguing that “I’ve never thought of myself as a man driven to write. I simply choose to do it, often when I can’t be persuaded to do anything else.” Even as an MFA student with limited experience with Ford’s oeuvre, I didn’t buy this. I knew he wasn’t Simenon, Balzac, or Stephen King, but he couldn’t create Frank Bascombe as a diversion between baseball seasons. Later in the essay, he quotes Henry James’s admonition that one must fill one’s “well of unconscious cerebration,” though I doubt the famously-prolific James did so by taking off as much time as Ford does. 

. . . .

The publication process hasn’t helped. Someone who read my novel as soon as it came out tried to commiserate with me when I confessed my frustrations by saying, “given a chance, people will always disappoint you.” This has been the case more often than I would like to admit. Some of those I’d given advanced copies to, out of friendship and gratitude for their support, haven’t read it; most of the universities I attended, not to mention the one I work for, have responded with indifference; acquaintances tell me one day, animatedly, that they’re reading it but avert their gaze days later, having either abandoned it or disliked it by the end, I don’t know which. Many have responded kindly, posting glowing reviews online, but what writer remembers those in light of rejection or the revelation of unexpected petty grievances?    

Link to the rest at The Smart Set

PG can understand burnout, but isn’t sure if writer’s block is a variant or something different.

Legal writing is its own genre, one with some relatively strict rules concerning forms (how you cite statutes and cases, etc.), but litigation documents are written to persuade and, while some judges will say attempts to appeal to their emotions are a waste of time and paper, PG’s approach assumes that the judge wants to feel like he/she is doing the right thing, so PG essentially tries to show the judge a pathway to the right thing bordered with precedent, rules and statutes that assure the judge that no one will accuse her/him of ruling on the basis of emotion rather than law and fact.

(Yes, PG noticed that was quite a long sentence, but he was on a mental roll and didn’t want to stop. It may be his only mental roll for the day.)

Mrs. PG, the author who PG knows best, typically takes a bit of time off between books, but she says writing is generally good for her mental health and enjoys it while it’s happening.

PG suspects that, at least in some cases, writer’s block is related to an underlying mental illness of mild or extreme severity but he is anything but an expert on the topic.