Writing Advice

The Secrets Behind Buried Dialogue

20 November 2014

From editor Lynnette Labelle:

Buried or hidden dialogue, both terms mean the same thing, but what is that exactly? Buried dialogue happens when you bury the dialogue between the narratives. The paragraph will look like this: narrative, dialogue, narrative. Still don’t know what I mean? Don’t worry. Some examples are coming up.

. . . .

While buried dialogue isn’t a technical term nor is there a rule that says you can’t use it, editors often suggest you eliminate as much of it as possible. There are two basic reasons behind this.

1) Buried dialogue slows the pace.
2) Dialogue can lose its oomph when squished between two narratives.

. . . .

With Buried Dialogue:

Toni opened the door. “What are you doing here?” She crossed her arms, determined to show him she meant business. “I told you to stay away.” Why was he there anyway? Didn’t he know what was good for him?

Without Buried Dialogue:

Toni opened the door.

“What are you doing here?” She crossed her arms, determined to show him she meant business. “I told you to stay away.”

Why was he there anyway? Didn’t he know what was good for him?

Link to the rest at Lynnette Labelle


Autopsy: From Crime Scene To Toe Tag

17 November 2014

From The Graveyard Shift, information for budding crime and police procedural authors:

Death investigations are conducted by both the police and medical examiners or coroners. The law in each jurisdiction determines whether or not the area utilizes a coroner or medical examiner.

A coroner is an elected official and may or may not be a medical doctor. (Many California sheriffs also serve as coroner).

A medical examiner is a medical doctor who has been hired/appointed by the city/county/state/federal government to conduct autopsies and investigate the cause of suspicious deaths. Elected coroners who are not doctors must hire a pathologist to conduct autopsies.

The police are in charge of all murder scenes, but medical examiners and coroners are in charge of the body. Medical examiners and coroners do not interrogate and/or arrest suspects. Detectives do not poke and prod the insides of human bodies.

Bodies are placed inside body bags and are generally delivered to the morgue in specially equipped vehicles (pictured above). However, in some areas bodies are transported by EMS, funeral homes, or body transport services.

Upon arrival at the morgue, the body (on a gurney) is rolled onto scales where it’s weighed.

. . . .

The paper bag resting on the body of the murder victim at the top of the above photo contains the victim’s personal belongings. Notice there are no individual drawers for bodies.

Cold rooms also store amputated body parts. The gray trays on the right contain severed limbs. White, paper-like body bags, like the one lying on the gurney in the rear of the cold room above, are used post-autopsy for bodies waiting to be transported to funeral homes.

. . . .

The photograph above is of an autopsy station. Think of it as a pathologist’s workshop. To begin the autopsy, a body is placed on a gurney and is then positioned against the center, sink area of the station (feet-first in this morgue).

. . . .

Some M.E.’s prefer to use a bone saw used for cutting through the rib cage beneath the “Y” incision. It’s also used for cutting through the skull.

Link to the rest at The Graveyard Shift

Is Talent Overrated? 8 Things that are More Important than Talent for Writing Success

10 November 2014

From author Anne R. Allen:

I often run into new writers who want to be reassured they have talent. They sometimes ask me to read some fledgling work in hopes I’ll pronounce them “talented.”

I always decline. (A wise author never goes there.) It’s not simply that I can’t fit one more thing into my already jam-packed schedule—it’s also that I have no way of telling if people have talent.

I can only tell if they have skills. And if they don’t have skills—which they probably don’t if they’re newbies—their job is to acquire some, not rely on some stranger’s opinion of what abilities they were born with.

. . . .

Lots of people are born with creative gifts—but very few have the ambition and determination to use those gifts to create anything meaningful. Many talented people sit around in cafés and talk about the great art they’re going to create someday.

But skilled people are more likely to be at home actually creating it.

. . . .

But even if you do have loads of talent, that and five bucks will get you a Venti Caffe Mocha. What you need is talent plus skills.

And acquiring skills takes time.

I have known lots of wannabe writers who sabotaged themselves with magical thinking about their own talent. Usually some teacher or mentor told them early on that they were gifted in some way, and this made them feel special.

Feeling special is great, if it motivates you to work hard and acquire skills.

But unfortunately, for a lot of people, this “special” feeling either makes them feel entitled to a fast-track to success, or it paralyzes them with fear they can’t live up to the promise.

. . . .

3) Listening Skills

This may be the most important ability of all. If you can’t listen to other people—and work to truly understand them—your stories will be flat and repetitive.

If you only write about yourself and your own thoughts and experiences, you’ll bore your readers silly. You also won’t have much to say. As Nikki Giovanni said, “If you wrote [only] from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

You need to tell stories about other people. How do you find out about other people? By zipping your own lips and listening to them. And caring about what you hear.

This is true of listening to your fellow writers, too. Sometimes they can give you insanely stupid advice—more on that in a future post—but usually you can get some pretty solid tips.

. . . .

5) The Ability to be Alone

I suspect a lot of those café sitters are simply extroverts who have a tough time being alone.

I’m not saying you have to be an introvert to be a good writer. Many great novels have been written by extroverts. Many have even been written in cafés.

But these are people who are actually writing, not talking about it. And when they write, they’re creating their own “alone” space. You can’t write without it.

And no matter where your “room” is, you have to be able to tolerate your own company.

Columnist Michael Ventura wrote an iconic essay on the subject for The Sun literary magazine over two decades ago, called The Talent of the Room, and it is all still true:

“Writing is something you do alone in a room. Copy that sentence and put it on your wall because there’s no way to exaggerate or overemphasize this fact. It’s the most important thing to remember if you want to be a writer. Writing is something you do alone in a room.”…Michael Ventura

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

Here’s a link to Anne R. Allen’s books

What Are Your Writing Habits?

4 November 2014

From Publishing Perspectives:

Nicholas Best:

I live in a Cambridge village and work in a 17th century barn across the drive from the house. There’s a 400-year-old skeleton under the floorboards, a cat buried in a corner to ward off evil spirits. It doesn’t work for the Inland Revenue.I start writing after breakfast and continue until lunchtime. If I’m lucky, I’ll have written 400 words by then, although I do occasionally stretch to a thousand. If I’m unlucky, I’ll have clocked up minus 200 or so after deciding that whatever I wrote yesterday was rubbish. Apart from the odd Spitfire overhead in summer, there’s no noise to disturb me. I write the first draft with pen and paper, then produce a second draft on computer. I write the third draft with pen and paper again and so on for anything up to five or six drafts. After lunch, I have a nap before going back to work for another hour and a half. I sometimes write again in the afternoon. Usually I just sit at my desk thinking and planning, or else staring into space and having unsuitable fantasies. When all is done, I lock up the barn, stroll down to the river and talk to the horses in the field, unwinding after a hard day at the coal face. All too often, I then unlock the barn again and go back to work for another hour, having had second thoughts about whatever I was writing that day. It’s usually then that I decide to tear the whole lot up and begin again from scratch next morning.

. . . .

Cathy Glass:

I rely on a writing routine; it’s the catalyst that triggers my writing, like the dinner bell rung for Pavlov’s dogs it sets my creative juices flowing. I’ve had the same writing routine for the last fifteen years: I rise early (approximately the same time every morning), put on my joggers and a comfortable top and creep downstairs so that I don’t disturb my family. I make a large mug of coffee and go through to the front room where I collect my paper, pen, and the printed text I’ve written the day before. I go into the living room and quietly close the door. I need absolute quiet for writing and I need to be alone. I sit in the same chair each morning and with my coffee within reach I begin by reading what I’ve written the day before, editing with a pen as necessary. By the time I come to the end of the previous day’s work, my new words are ready to flow. I still use pen and paper for the first draft, as I do for editing. I write very quickly, often unaware of my surroundings as my pen dashes across the page until the words stop. I don’t force any more. As the author Ray Bradbury said: ‘My stories run up and bite me on the leg – I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.’ I know exactly what he means. When ‘the idea has run away’ and I’ve run out of words I go through to my study and switch on my computer. First, I input the edits from the previous day’s work, and then I type up the new work. I print out the new pages ready for revising the following morning, and place the edited pages in the growing pile that will be my new book. It takes me six months to write and revise a full length book of approximately 85,000, and I never let anyone see it unto it is finished and I know have achieved my personal best.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives and thanks to Sandra for the tip.

NaNoWriMo Is Upon Us: How to Get Inspired Even If You’re Not Participating

2 November 2014

From Flavorwire:

A day before it begins, NaNoWriMo, the November novel write-a-thon that boasts half a million participants rushing in tandem towards 50,000-word rough drafts, is already giving me a major dose of writerly anxiety. Writers love it, agents supposedly dread it, but one way or another, a lot of writing gets done.

I’m anxious because, as enticing as it is to seize my share of the momentum I see gathering online, it’s not a good move for me. With a manuscript or two waiting patiently for my attention, multiple short stories and essays begun or drafted but not yet polished, and my outgoing submittable queue having dwindled down to zero, embarking on a new novel would actually be a form of procrastination.

What I require at this moment as a writer is a National Editing Your Stuff Month (or, you know, a National Editing Your Stuff Year!), complete with the array of rubrics and goals and pep talks and all-night group write-a-thons that the NaNoWriMo folks will soon be utilizing.

. . . .

Even if first drafts are easier to do in sprints than final projects are, I’m still rather envious of the tremendous discipline the people who will complete the month’s project are about to exert. And I’m also curious about a process that removes all the annoying psychological blocks and cobwebs that plague us scribbling types by simply forcing butts into seats, hands onto keyboards.

Link to the rest at Flavorwire

What do you feel most guilty about?

31 October 2014

From Humans of New York:

“What do you feel most guilty about?”

“Not finishing my novel. I’ve already built the room where I’m going to write it at my house in Sag Harbor. The walls of the room are painted Venetian red. It has shelves filled with every book I’ve ever read. There’s a scallop striped Victorian chair. A little pine desk— two feet by three feet, with all my pens lined up, and an 18th Century sang de bouef vase lamp. And there’s a French door with a step that goes out onto the roof so I can look at the clouds. I have everything I need. Except the time.”

Link to the rest at Humans of New York and thanks to Bill for the tip.

How To Create A Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story

30 October 2014

From io9:

A short story is like a chess game: The opening is a huge part of whether you win or lose. The first sentence of a short story doesn’t just “hook” readers, it also sets the tone and launches the plot. So here are the seven major types of short story openings, and how to pick one.

Sure, the opening sentences are important in novels, too. A strong beginning, in a novel, can help provide momentum that will carry the reader all the way to the last page, sometimes in one sitting. But short stories are different: the first sentence, or the first paragraph, often hangs over the whole rest of the story. Many short stories are really about one idea, or one situation, and that’s what the opening sentences establish.

. . . .

 2) The conflict establisher.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with an opening sentence that shows the exact moment when your characters knew they were in trouble. The classic “we were halfway to Mars when our fuel tank blew up” beginning. It creates a nice sense of urgency, and then you can go back and fill in the details once people are on board with the fact that exciting stuff is happening.

Why you might use this one: If you want to start your story with a bang.

Why you might not: If your bang falls flat, then your story is lost. This is actually a high-risk opening. It’s also easy to overuse the “starting with a bang” style. Sometimes you want to be a bit more subtle, and draw your readers in slowly before dropping the boom on them. Your readers may expect the rest of your story to keep that propulsive feeling, and to revolve around the incident you describe at the start, so you have a lot to live up to.


“When it starts we’re in a hotel room, the two of us curled up on a double bed. It’s a two-star kind of place: cracks in the walls, curtains covered in faded daisies, the clinging smell of camphor attaching itself after the first few minutes of your stay. The television stutters as we flick through the channels, colours blending together and rendering the devastation a fuzzy blue or green. Still, we see it happen: the great machines of the merfolk coming up over the shore, rampaging through the city with devastating effect.” — Peter M. Ball, “On the Destruction of Copenhagen by the War-Machines of the Merfolk.”

“Hala is running for class when her cell phone rings. She slows to take it from her pocket, glances at the screen: UNKNOWN CALLER.” — Kij Johnson, “Names for Water”

“They left Abal in a hurry, after Ozma’s mother killed the constable.” — Kelly Link, “The Constable of Abal”

“I slammed the door in the child’s face, a horrific scream trapped in my throat.” — Nnedi Okorafor, “On the Road”

“When Denis died, he found himself in another place. Dead people came at him with party hats and presents.” — Rachel Swirsky, “Fields of Gold”

3) The mystifier

At first, it doesn’t entirely make sense, because it refers to stuff we don’t know about yet. Or it throws us into a situation without giving us all the pieces right away.

Why you might use this one: There’s nothing more intriguing than a mysterious situation, where you’re thrown in the deep end. People are willing to hang with you for quite a while to find out what this is all about.

Why you might not: The mystery has to be really cool, for this to work. Also, you’re asking your readers to work pretty hard — they have to ponder the clues you’re throwing at them, but then they also have to get into your world and your characters. I feel like the “thrown in the deep end” opening is the riskiest type, because it’s the kind that asks the most of the reader. You have to be pretty skillful, to unravel your cryptic opening at the same time as you’re introducing the world and the characters, and it’s a bit of a high-wire act.


“I still have the dollar bill. It’s in my box at the bank, and I think that’s where it will stay. I simply won’t destroy it, but I can think of nobody to whom I’d be willing to show it — certainly nobody at the college, my History Department colleagues least of all. Merely to tell the story would brand me irredeemably as a crackpot, but crackpots are tolerated, even on college faculties. It’s only when they begin producing physical evidence that they get themselves actively resented.” — H. Beam Piper, “Crossroads of Destiny”.

“‘They don’t look very dangerous,’ Xiao Ling Yun said to the aide. Ling Yun wished she understood what Phoenix Command wanted from her. Not that she minded the excuse to take a break from the composition for two flutes and hammered dulcimer that had been stymieing her for the past two weeks.” — Yoon Ha Lee, “The Unstrung Zither.”

“Mariska shivered when she realized that her room had been tapping at the dreamfeed for several minutes. ‘The Earth is up,’ it murmured in its gentle singing accent. ‘Daddy Al is up, and I am always up. Now Mariska gets up.'” — James Patrick Kelly, “Going Deep”

“I remember the night I became a goddess.” — Ian McDonald, “The Little Goddess”

“Memory is a strange thing. I haven’t changed my sex in eighty three years.” — Vandana Singh, “Oblivion: A Journey”

“There is a magic shore where children used to beach their coracles every night.” — Sarah Rees Brennan, “The Spy Who Never Grew Up”

Link to the rest at io9

Cutting to the Heart of Your Story

27 October 2014

From Dave Farland:

Many times as an editor, I will look at a scene and ask myself: “Does this scene belong? Does it move the story along? Does it change the story in new and exciting ways?” Too often, the answer is, “No, it’s wasted text.”

I recently looked at a novel that had a fantastic opening. The problem was, that that great opening didn’t come until fifty pages into the book. Any editor would have rejected the manuscript long before that.

Every single page was well written. The characters were fleshed out, the character’s voices and dialog were convincing, the details of setting were great.

The problem was that those first fifty pages consisted of people talking, relating their backstories, and introducing themselves to the audience, and it just didn’t work.

. . . .

1) Do your characters do anything, or do they just think? Too often, I will see scenes where characters just sit and think about what has happened. “How did I get in this mess?” The chances are good that this kind of scene is garbage. You’re trying to lead up to the action when you do this. Instead, let characters think while they are in action.

. . . .

3) Two characters have a conversation—but nothing changes. Very often I see conversations that seem to be rather maid-and-butler, where one character says, “Gee, Bob, you know I think we have a major problem,” and the other says, “Yes, I agree.” That’s all a waste.


Link to the rest at David Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books

The Trouble with Writing

27 October 2014

From The Millions:

The following is adapted from the keynote address Michelle Huneven gave at Writing Workshops LA: The Conference, which took place on June 28, 2014 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

I would qualify to speak to the trouble with writing based on the sole fact that it took me 22 years to finish my first novel. In those years of trying and failing and trying again, and failing again, I even gave up writing fiction altogether and went back to grad school to train for a new career. But I failed to embark on a new career because writing, and all its attendant troubles, wouldn’t leave me alone. In those twenty-odd years, in which I tried and failed to write a book, and left writing and then came back to it and became a working writer who wrote books and also supported herself by writing, I grew intimately acquainted with many forms of trouble inherent in the vocation. And many of those troubles dog me to this day.

. . . .

2. The Trouble with Writing is Writing

A few months ago, I was interviewed by a 3rd grader whose assignment was to interview someone with an interesting job. Her father’s work, running two physics labs at Cal Tech, apparently was insufficiently intriguing. She had only three questions, one of which was, “What do you write about?”

I knew I had to keep it simple. I said, “I write about people who get into trouble and then get themselves out of trouble.” Of course, that describes a great many books, but it strikes me that this also describes my writing process. I’ll take an assignment, or start a short story or a novel or an essay, and soon enough it feels exactly as if I’ve gotten myself into trouble. I actually feel like a bad person, guilty and a little ashamed, like, I’ve gotten myself into this thing, and now I have to do it, and I’m not sure if I can pull it off.

I know too that, even if I manage to write my way out of this hole, it will take time, and cause me aggravation and pain along the way—pain in the form of self doubt, frustration, and one more time, hitting the limits of my capabilities.

I was a restaurant critic for a dozen years, turning in one column a week, 52 weeks a year. Not once did I sit down and just knock one out. Every single review was a tumble into trouble, and a climb back out.

You could say, I took the trouble to do the best I could.

3. It Never Gets Easier

The trouble with writing says the historian who lives next door to me, is that no matter how many times you do it, you start out every time with the sick sense that you don’t know what you’re doing.

The trouble with writing says a novelist friend, is that it never gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. And if it starts to get easier, you’re probably slacking off or repeating yourself.

. . . .

6. The Trouble with Writing is that it is Fraught with Self-Loathing, Shame, Grandiosity, and Pride

I told you I quit writing at a certain point and embarked on another career. That career was to become a UU minister. In that process, I had to undergo a psychological evaluation—essentially, two psychologists determined my weak points and poked at me for a couple of days.

One psychologist asked why I had quit writing.

I told him that I’d grown up with parents who were highly disapproving and critical, and I must have internalized all that, because I lacked the confidence and self-esteem to write.

The shrink said, “You can blame a lot on your parents, but not that–that kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.”

. . . .

Because writing is so personal, or, more exactly, because its prima materia, or primal material, is the self, many, many writers do experience various troubling, vexatious states around their writing. Recently, I have heard Donald Antrim and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Edward St. Aubyn all talk about the shame they feel around their writing, and I have read that John Banville, whose arrogance is singular—he freely admits this—also admits to feeling a terrible sticky shame about all his work and cannot bear to reread it. I am constantly bolstering my female writer friends, and they me, about the quality of our work, and even its right to exist.

Of course, even as the writing process tends to kick up doubt, fear, and self-loathing for some temperaments, it also kicks up the opposing states of grandiosity, entitlement, arrogance. Some writers think their work can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be edited at all. More of us pingpong between grandiosity and despair. This is a terrible failure of a book, we tell ourselves, and I should really get an enormous advance for it! One writer I knew periodically had to stop working on his novel to compose acceptance speeches for the major awards the book was going to win. (He did actually win several awards.)

The trouble with writing is that it is often a roller coaster pitching us between grandiosity and despair.

As troublesome as they are, these uncomfortable emotional states, can serve to our advantage. Self-doubt humbles me sufficiently, so that I can improve and revise, and accept editorial assistance. And a certain stubborn pride serves me well in the face of awful editing or bad reviews.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Here’s a link to Michelle Huneven’s books

5 Biggest Mistakes When Writing Mental Illness

23 October 2014

From author, doctor and soon-to-be psychiatrist Rosie Claverton:

Madness in fiction, like most things in fiction, reflects and informs the popular view. If we write about terrifying, violent mad folk running about with machetes in our films, books and TV shows, the general public nod at how much that confirms their view of madness and cross the street when they see someone out of the ordinary. Or worse. Much worse.

At the bare minimum, we should get the facts right. Here are my Top 5 mental health myths in fiction that need to be kicked to the kerb.

1) Straitjackets and padded cells are not standard issue

Let’s start with straitjackets. We do not use straitjackets in mental health in the UK. They are cruel and dangerous. Short-term physical restraint is used during a psychiatric emergency and it is tightly-regulated, with training and a mountain of paperwork. If your character is spending time in a mental health unit, they will not see a straitjacket.

A bedroom in a modern mental health unit has more in common with a room in university halls than it does a padded cell.There are certain things which distinguish them – the furniture is usually heavy and secured to the walls or floor, and you won’t find hooks, nails, curtain rails or door handles, because we are safety conscious.

The Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), where the most unwell people stay, has a step up in safety features – most notably, a seclusion or low stimulation room. This small room has furniture made of the soft squishy blocks you might see in a children’s play area. The walls, however, are just walls.

Padded rooms do still exist in some facilities. They are for short durations where a person is unwell and very rarely a permanent residence. If your character is spending a week in a mental health unit for depression, they are really unlikely to see one.

. . . .

4) OCD is not about being a neat freak

My husband has OCD. When I mention this to people, I sometimes get the response “your house must be so clean!” Wrong, on so many levels.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder involves intrusive, unpleasant, horrific thoughts (obsessions) and the felt-necessary rituals to attempt to undo, remove or counteract the thoughts (compulsions). Cleaning, ordering and symmetry can all be compulsions, but they are almost always related to an intrusive thought – for example, “if I don’t wipe the table seven times, my children will die from ebola”.

Not “I like a clean house because I hate clutter”. Or the recent nonsensical trend in dousing children in alcohol gel (hint: it does fuck-all – let them develop an immune system).

And sometimes OCD has absolutely nothing to do with cleaning. Sometimes it’s about checking the door is locked 99 times. Or repeatedly driving the same piece of road to make sure you didn’t hit anyone. Or repeating The Lord’s Prayer over and over again to protect your wife from being raped by a stranger.

It’s not about a bit of spit and polish.

Link to the rest at Swords and Lattes and thanks to Jayne for the tip.

Here’s a link to Rosie Claverton’s books

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