Adult Child and Elderly Parent

From Writers Helping Writers:

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite—derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth—or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

. . . .

The relationship between a child and their elderly parent can be riddled with challenges. Oftentimes, the child must care for the aging parent as their health needs rise and their ability to maintain independence declines. But the roles are sometimes reversed, with an elderly parent still needing to fill the parental role for their adult child. If existing conflict is a major factor in the relationship, dynamics such as neglect, resentment, and strife may preclude each party from meeting one another’s needs.

. . . .

Description:
The relationship between a child and their elderly parent can be riddled with challenges. Oftentimes, the child must care for the aging parent as their health needs rise and their ability to maintain independence declines. But the roles are sometimes reversed, with an elderly parent still needing to fill the parental role for their adult child. If existing conflict is a major factor in the relationship, dynamics such as neglect, resentment, and strife may preclude each party from meeting one another’s needs.Relationship Dynamics

Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict. 

An elderly parent and adult child who speak everyday (via phone, Skype, FaceTime, etc.) and offer mutual support

The younger party caring for their aging parent in the child’s home

An elderly parent who actively supports the child and their family (babysitting, driving them to the airport when they’re going out of town, helping out financially, etc.)

An amiable relationship that is distant or superficial

One party only reaching out to the other when they need help

One party being ignored or neglected by the other

Personality differences or past wounds making intimacy between the parties difficult

One party verbally or physically abusing the other

A codependent dynamic

One party tolerating the other for short periods of time until they can’t take being with them anymore

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Close Encounters of the Initial Kind – Tips for When Characters Meet

From WriterUnboxed:

Here is the thing you need to understand about this post – It is not a recipe for perfecting the meet-cute scene of a new romantic comedy, at least not exactly. Simply ask Google to find dozens of suggestions for tackling that particular knot, which makes for a good writing exercise even if not your normal cup of tea. But, no, today my inspiration derives from something much simpler – an admiration I have long held for writers of stage, screen and print, across a wide range of genres, who manage to craft indelible moments when characters engage each other for the first time. Such interactions, handled deftly, add intrigue, tension and occasionally, as with the aforementioned rom-com hook, even humor to a tale. They also offer opportunities to develop character and to underscore core themes of your story.

Wow! That is some heavy lifting for what typically starts out as a checklist item while laying out a plot – Protagonist meets new boss, future father-in-law, child’s teacher, man who later tries to kill her, etc. But if such encounters are necessary on the page, shouldn’t we make the most of them to advance the story in ways beyond the perfunctory? 

. . . .

Keep in Mind Character Needs

In crafting the first encounter, it may help to start by asking yourself a few questions, such as these:

  • What do your characters want from the interaction?
  • What do they fear? What do they desire?
  • How do the characters present themselves? And what motivates them to do so?
  • Is one character more self-assured or aggressive? Is so, why?
  • How does the situation (or how can the situation) reflect a larger conflict within the story?

Remember, each new encounter is an opportunity to explore character, both for you as the writer and ultimately for your audience. 

. . . .

While even chance encounters with minor characters can provide opportunities to layer or reinforce a character’s nature, the initial moments of more complex relationships are even more ripe for exploration. This is where the “meet-cute” exercise comes into play. I may never write a romantic comedy, yet I can appreciate the skill involved. Every rom-com hinges on the moment early on when the love interests first meet. What elevates successful ones, actor chemistry aside, is when the witty interplay reveals personality traits that will drive the action – and the emotional arc – for the remainder of the journey.

In When Harry Met Sally, protagonist Sally Albright’s nearly OCD approach to life encounters, clashes with, and ultimately complements Harry Burn’s more pessimistic take, with both maturing to the point they can appreciate the love that has grown between them and commit to the relationship. In their initial meeting, Sally arrives for their 18-hour road trek from Chicago to New York City, maps and schedule in hand, only to find Harry deep in embrace with his latest girlfriend, content to linger and disrupt her carefully constructed plans. Cuteness ensues as she nudges him to pay heed to her schedule. The scene works because the personalities and stakes are seeded with an economy of words, setting the stage for a delightful exploration of how people worlds apart in philosophy and outlook can still bond, building a durable foundation for a lasting love.

Link to the rest at WriterUnboxed

How to Write a Great Summary

From GrammarlyBlog:

A summary is a shorter description of a longer work, covering all of the highlights but not many of the details. It’s used for an overview so that people can get an idea of what the longer work entails without reading or watching it first.

You see summaries everywhere, from book covers to product descriptions to online review sites. However, no matter how many summaries you’ve read, it can still be difficult to write your own when you need to.

. . . .

What is a summary?

Really, a summary is a general term used to describe any writing that briefly explains, or “summarizes,” a larger work like a novel, academic paper, movie, or TV show. Summaries are usually short, from one or two sentences to a paragraph, but if you’re summarizing an enormous work, like all seven Harry Potter books, they can stretch out over pages. 

Summary writing is like a highlight reel, showing only the best parts and ignoring what’s not strictly necessary. A summary example of Hamlet would mention the main plot points like the murder of Polonius, but wouldn’t mention details irrelevant to the plot, like Polonius’s “to thine own self be true” monologue. 

The key to summary writing is to stick to the facts; do not include opinions, analysis, or bias. If it’s written for commercial purposes, such as the summaries on Netflix, it might be intentionally alluring and withhold spoilers. However, for academic papers and more formal writing, summary writing leans towards factual and clinical. 

Summaries appear in many different shapes and forms, including book reports and other school papers. Academics use summaries all the time for research papers when they write an abstract, which is essentially a summary of an entire research paper. 

Really, everyone needs to know how to write a summary at one point or another. Even finding a job requires you to summarize your own professional background and work experience. Learning how to write a good LinkedIn summary can help you land your dream job!

Summary examples: What makes a good summary

Let’s look at some summary examples of famous works to see what constitutes a strong summary. 

On IMDb, the summary for the 2008 movie The Dark Knight is just a sentence long: 

When the menace known as the Joker wreaks havoc and chaos on the people of Gotham, Batman must accept one of the greatest psychological and physical tests of his ability to fight injustice.

Right away, you’ll notice that the specific events of the movie are omitted and replaced by a general explanation of what happens. The main characters are mentioned—at least the protagonist and antagonist—and there is some description given about the types of events, such as “psychological and physical tests.” 

However, the details are absent. To summarize a two-hour movie in a single sentence requires broad strokes; there’s only room for the bare essentials. 

Most summaries, though, are longer than a sentence, like this multi-paragraph summary example for the novel To Kill a Mockingbird from SparkNotes

As you can see, this summary is about the length of a page. It’s far more detailed, too, mentioning secondary characters and adding more context to the plot events. Still, to condense 281 pages into one requires a lot of cutting, so each key event is given just a sentence or two, consisting of only the need-to-know information. 

How to write a summary in 4 steps

Summary writing uses the same best tips for all good writing. If you want to know how to write a summary yourself, we break the process down into 4 basic steps. 

. . . .

 3. Write the summary in your own words

Next, write the first draft of your summary following the lists you made in the previous outlining stage. If you’re summarizing a book, film, or other media, it’s best to use chronological order (even if the story is told out of order). 

The key here is using your own words. While you’re free to copy the occasional direct quote in your summary writing, it’s best to use original language to make it your own. Also, keep in mind the perspective of someone who’s never read or seen the source material. Do you have all the relevant points they need to understand what’s going on? 

Link to the rest at GrammarlyBlog

Although PG has created a zillion written and spoken summaries for a wide variety of audiences and situations – Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury or In short, for example – he has never consciously focused on how to create a good summary other than with some little-used portion of his reptile brain.

In the future, he’s going to see if he can bump summaries up to a somewhat more evolved part of his mind.

The Three W’s of Scene Orientation

From Writer Unboxed:

I suspect we all know people who will walk in a room and say something like, “I still can’t believe she’d quit on me.” I’m married to one of them.

It’s obvious there is conflict, so this might end up being a good story, but right now the comment is floating in space. I’ll need more words to understand it. Who is this woman? Where did he see her? When did this happen—ten minutes ago? Is he still chewing on something from his youth? Or is this a future action that worries him?

One thing is for sure: to assume that I can read his mind is a sweet yet preposterous overestimate of my editorial prowess. I suppose that’s what happens after you’ve been married a few decades.

But judging from the manuscripts I see, it can also be what happens when you are on your umpteenth draft of a novel and can no longer remember which version of which facts are on the page. For that reason, it can be helpful if at some point, before sending your manuscript to beta readers or developmental editors, you take one pass to make sure that you’ve set each scene appropriately.

Although reportage is different than story-building (for more on this you can check my previous post on paragraphing), borrowing the journalist’s 5 W’s can inspire a set of useful questions that will ensure that the scene you’re building is also giving the reader the information she needs.

Who took action, and who did it affect?

What happened, exactly?

Where did it take place?

When did it take place?

Why did it happen, and why does it matter to this particular story and this particular protagonist?

Wait—didn’t you say 3 W’s?

The bare minimum we need at the outset of a scene is the who, when, and where. With that information, “I still can’t believe she’d quit on me” gains context:

It’s been ten years and Simone’s clothes still hang in the back of my closet. I still can’t believe she quit on me.

~or~

I still can’t believe what just happened at the office—Joanna up and walked out on our partnership.

~or~

I backslid at Ed’s retirement lunch; I couldn’t resist the shrimp scampi. I still can’t believe Cleo warned me to stop eating garlic or she’d quit training me at the gym.

I was thinking about this topic after a question was posed on a Facebook page about how to cleverly fold in these details without being as pedestrian as, say, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch, his brother…” The thing is, though, those seven “pedestrian” words perfectly orient us to who, when, and where.

When it comes to setting your scene, clarity—not cleverness—should be your first priority. Let’s look at how that’s done.

Examples from a Master

As it happened, on the day that question was posted, I had just finished reading The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. It’s the story of two siblings who cannot overcome a past symbolized by the grandiose home that their father had bought—fully furnished by its previous Dutch occupants—for their unappreciative mother, who then left the family. Patchett is an author at the top of her game, and she had plenty of game to start with. Among this bestselling title’s many accolades, it was a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

. . . .

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

5 Steps to Creating a Unique Character Voice

From Writers in the Storm:

Create unique character voices by varying how they communicate with other characters.

I’m one of those writers who needs to put my characters through a first draft before I figure out who they really are. Tossing them into trouble and watching how they wrangle their way out of it helps me get to know them. Their dialogue and voices are usually interchangeable at first. It’s more about what they say than how they say it, or even why they say it.

The voices usually come to me as I write, and by the end of the first draft, I’ve written snippets of voice that let me see and hear the characters. On draft two, I develop those snippets into fleshed-out characters.

Since I don’t hear my characters first (like many writers do), I make conscious choices about their voices, and craft them same as I do a setting or the plot. Which keeps my authorial nose out of my character’s business, and lets them be who they are—not extensions of who I am. Characters who all sound like the protagonist or the author is a common first-draft issue for a lot of writers.

The author’s voice sometimes gets in the way of the character’s voice.

The characters themselves might be fully fleshed out and different as can be, but their voices aren’t. That’s only natural since the author is writing the novel. All their vocal quirks and mannerisms sneak in, which can lead to every character in the story sounding more or less the same. They all ask questions the same way, they react to trouble the same way, they greet each other the same way. If you took out all the dialogue tags, it would be hard to tell which character was which.

Character voices that reflect their personalities not only help readers remember them, it helps them connect to those characters as well. When a reader connects to a character, they care, and when they care, they worry what will happen to that character, and bam—you’ve hooked them in the story. Now they’re invested.

Here’s a five-step plan for creating unique character voices for your novel:

Step One: Pick a greeting that reflects their personality.

How a character greets people says a lot about where they grew up, where they live now, and how open they are toward others. A shy character might offer a soft “Hi,” while an always-the-center-of-attention character might shout, “The party train has arrived!”

For example, imagine one character is waiting outside a restaurant for another. When they approach, the waiting character greets them with:

“Good afternoon.”
“Yo, whassup!”
“Hey.”
“Oh my gosh, it’s so nice to see you.”
“You’re late.”
Did you picture a different character for each of those greetings? Each greeting hints at the type of personality that character might have, from formal, to rude, to enthusiastic.

Step Two: Decide how they answer questions.

How someone responds to a question can tell you a lot about them. If you establish a character as a shy, introvert who has a hard time opening up, it might not ring true if they start giving speeches when asked a question. A non-stop talker is the right character to go to if you need to convey information to readers—just make sure they’d know that info so it doesn’t come across as an infodump.

But a character acting out of character can pique reader curiosity. A chatty gossip will raise eyebrows if they suddenly start giving one-word answers to everything. Why are they so quiet?

For example, what kind of characters do you picture based on these responses to… “Did you go to the movies last night?”

“Yep. Any pizza left?”
“I did. Jo and I went to that old art theater they just remodeled on Main. They’re showing these cheesy old westerns. It was a total blast.”
“Stay out of my business.”
Shrug. “Nothin’ better to do.”
“Oh dear, I should have called you. I’m so terribly sorry.”
“Yeah, with Juan.”

These answers do more than just answer a yes or no question. Many of these answers lead to more questions. Is character one trying to change the subject? Why does character five feel so guilty about not calling?

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Anaphora, Epistrophe, and Symploce

From Daily Writing Tips:

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or sequence of words at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences.

Martin Luther King Jr. made frequent use of anaphora. In the “I Have a Dream” speech (August 1963), he began a sentence with the title clause eight times.

In his Memphis speech, just before his assassination, he used a phrase referring to an assassination attempt that had occurred ten years previously. The attacker’s knife blade had stopped just short of the aorta artery. Doctors told him that if he had so much as sneezed, he would have been a dead man. In that last speech, he emphasized his civil rights achievements to date by beginning six sentences the words “if I had sneezed.”

Here are two examples of anaphora from political leaders in 2021:

The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War. —President Joe Biden, address to Congress, 29 April 2021

This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. —Representative Liz Cheney, speech on the House floor, 21 May 2021

Epistrophe. (also called epiphora) is the opposite of anaphora. Epistrophe is the repetition at the end of successive clauses or sentences.

There are causes as I have said for everything that happens in the world. War is a part of it; education is a part of it; birth is a part of it; money is a part of it. — Clarence Darrow arguing to spare Leopold and Loeb the death penalty, 1924.

I confided all to my aunt when I got home; and in spite of all she could say to me, went to bed despairing. I got up despairing, and went out despairing.” — Dickens, David Copperfield

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. —Lyndon Baines Johnson, address to Congress, 15 March 1965.

. . . .

Advertising also makes effective use of these rhetorical devices.

Since 2009, Google has produced a three-minute video called “Year in Search” that summarizes the most popular searches from the previous year. I watched the one for 2017, in which the search box is shown with words being typed into it. First comes a statement:

This year, more than ever, we were asked how

Then follow dozens of questions, each one introduced with the word how.

Repetition can be an extremely effective rhetorical device in a variety of contexts, not just political harangues.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Becoming a Writer: Calibrating the Work Against the Pleasure

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I met Jacomena van Huizen Maybeck when I was thirty-three and she was seventy-seven. I’d hoped to rent her cottage, and found her tarring the roof, dressed in a halter top and shorts. I’d never met anyone like her. She knew how to throw a pot, wield an ax or a sickle, and make plum jam. She took relationships seriously and had many longstanding friends.

She introduced me to her friends, mostly women educated during the 1920s and now thriving in their winter years. I was a photographer at the time, making a living as a dental hygienist. I was intrigued with these older women and began doing formal portraits of them. Because we’re used to seeing ourselves in movement, the women were surprised but proud to see their wrinkles in stark black and white. 

After entering a few shows and competitions, the photo collection went into the closet. I became obsessed with this problem—what do you do with your completed work? Jacomena suggested making a book and offered to come along with me on many interviews.  While talking with the women, a different view of aging and what was possible began to coalesce.

After another year or so, the book was finally ready for my agent to present to publishers. In summary, they loved the idea and praised the photos but felt that my writing was weak. I still have all the rejection letters!  A local writer gently suggested that I team up with a seasoned writer, Charlotte Painter, and together we re-interviewed the women. Charlotte’s short portrayals were elegant; Chronicle Books offered us a contract. Gifts of Age: Portraits and Essays of 32 Remarkable Women sold over 125,000 copies. 

Jacomena continued her long and creative life into her mid-nineties. She’d become a well-known ceramicist and declared that a privilege of old age was that she could make things just for herself—she no longer felt obliged to compete and make things that would look good in an exhibition. “These days, I calibrate the work against the pleasure. When you’re doing it for yourself, you make the greatest picture or pot.” We were close friends and she helped me through my child-rearing years, always encouraging me to continue with photography. 

Eight years ago, my husband and I bought Jacomena’s home. I realized that I knew little about her early life—what had shaped and supported her in preparation for her later years? I began the research and interviews that would keep me busy as I moved into my own winter years. Jacomena’s grandchildren searched drawers and closets and found invaluable diaries and photos which excited me.

I learned who she was in her thirties and forties, and how those experiences created her self-confidence and flexibility as she reared twins while longing for “creative work.” Jacomena married her childhood sweetheart who left her a widow at age sixty-one. Her approach to life in her winter years inspire me now in my current season. 

But would I dare write again, after my experience with Gifts of Age?  I took several memoir writing classes, studied Charlotte’s and others’ writing styles, and began to write Jacomena’s story. Finally satisfied with the first draft, I asked a writer friend to read it and she advised me to “put more of myself into it.” I was disappointed with her comments, and unsure that I could make more changes. 

I was then in my mid-seventies, forgetting old friends’ names, and misplacing my car keys. Could I re-write this story? And then what—would it too sit in a closet? Why was I writing it, and who will read it? I thought of Jacomena’s words—perhaps I’ll just do it for myself and for the pleasure of honoring her life. 

For many of us, the beauty of being in our winter years is that we do not have to rush through our days. I often think about how Jacomena organized her days. She kept a daily journal throughout her seventies and eighties which helped me understand her challenges. She was adamant about doing “outside work” daily—clearing brush, trimming trees, or making a railing out of branches for her “wobbly friends.”

. . . .

Having a serious project to look forward to every day, has brought me great joy. Some days it was like solving a puzzle – finding the right piece for the space. 

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

How to Create an Authentic Setting from a Place You’ve Never Been

From Writer Unboxed:

What do a cup of Wawa coffee, a bottle of Yuengling lager, and a bag of Herr’s potato chips have in common? They are a few of the many of subtle details that bring the fictional Philadelphia suburb of Easttown to life in HBO’s new crime drama miniseries, Mare of Easttown, starring Kate Winslet.

Having grown up in a nearby town, spotting these little details was like seeing a childhood friend on TV—“Hey, I know that coffee cup!” From Mare’s North Penn High School T-shirt to the blue, white, and yellow license plate on her SUV to her character’s Delaware County pronunciation of “water” (wooder), these little details came together to create an authentic sense of place.

The series creator Brad Ingelsby is a native of nearby Berwyn, Pennsylvania, so it’s no wonder he got these details right. He grew up living and breathing (and eating and drinking) them. But as I watched Mare save a man’s life at the “Lehigh River” and talk with her partner beneath the Commodore Barry Bridge overlooking the Delaware River, my inner fiction writer was contemplating what it takes to bring a place to life. Specifically, how to accomplish this if you’ve never stepped foot there.

This question is timely for me as I’ve been considering setting my next novel in a place I’ve never been. I reached out to the ever-wise Writer Unboxed community to see if anyone else has encountered this issue and learn how they’ve approached it (you can join our conversation thread here). Today, I’m sharing ideas and tips for planning a virtual research trip based on what I’ve learned.

Experience the place through your characters’ eyes.

Creating an authentic sense of place is about more than getting the details right, it’s about experiencing the place as your character would.

Fellow WUer Deb Peterson begins her research with a virtual visit via Google maps. She uses the satellite view to study its topography and terrain, street view for an on-the-ground perspective, and the measuring tool to calculate distances to ensure her characters are walking (and horseback riding) between places in a realistic amount of time.

Historical fiction writer Claire Greer casts a wide research net, seeking out photographs, personal accounts, historical newspapers, artwork by people who were there at the time, as well as old photos and maps. “I’m chasing a visual sense of the place—in three dimensions and with all five senses,” says Greer. “I want to know just how high the cliff was at Gallipoli when the first Australian troops landed there in 1915. I want to know how long it took to get from the base at Etaples to the frontline trenches, on a train, by truck, by cart, by horse, and by foot in 1916. I want to know what the weather felt like on a particular September day in Belgium in 1917.” (Fun fact: Claire dug so deeply into her WWI setting she end up doing a PhD in history!)

Travel back in time.

Understanding how a place has evolved over time adds subtle authenticity. Butch Wilson relies on Google Earth’s Timelapse function to see how places have changed over the past 30 years. This helps ensure his characters don’t end up in a building or on a road that did not exist at that time.

Mystery writer Laura Seeber is a former geologist and environmental inspector whose job required her to be a “real estate detective,” researching the history of properties to determine if there were any problems with them. She dug up clues by researching old maps, exploring the land, and interviewing neighbors and local officials. Coincidentally, she uses many of the same tools to infuse her story settings with historically accurate details. They include:

Fire insurance maps – Dating back to the late 1800s, these detailed city maps were originally created to help fire insurance companies assess their liability in urbanized areas. They can help a writer reconstruct the past by offering unique insight into the life of a city, including its water distribution system, the types of construction materials used in its structures, and special buildings that contributed to the community’s economic and social landscape. You can find archives of U.S. fire insurance maps through the Library of Congress or by searching the University of Central Florida’s collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps by state.
Topographic maps – These maps use elevation contour lines to provide details about the shape of the Earth’s surface. They include information about geographic features, like roads, railroads, rivers, streams, lakes, boundaries, mountains, and changes in elevation over time. They can show you how a town or landscape has evolved. The U.S. Geological Survey has a searchable database. For locations outside the U.S., OpenTopoMap is billed as the largest crowd-sourced topographic map project in the world.
Plat maps – Also known as “plats,” these maps illustrate how tracts of land are divided and record the land’s size, boundary locations, nearby streets, flood zones, and any easements or rights of way. Title search records can fill in additional details, like who has occupied the land and who owns it and can hint at their financial struggles or triumphs. Plat maps can be found on the public records websites for the appropriate towns and counties. You may also access them at the town or city hall.
Historical fiction writer John J Kelley studied photos and read first-person accounts of France in WWI—in both Paris and on the front—when researching his novel, The Fallen Snow. Kelley placed his protagonist, an infantry sniper, in a specific division and used the history of that unit to plot his likely path from training to landing in France to his destination on the front via troop train and into the battle that left him maimed. For the train scenes that took place both stateside and in France, John dug up old train schedules, including one for a line in Virginia that shut down decades ago, and historical photos of train stations in France. “It felt crucially important to me to find an actual route that my protagonist could have taken in the period,” explains Kelley. “It gave me a sense of reality to know someone, perhaps a young man like my protagonist, might have been sitting in a real railcar in that very same month a century earlier.”

Speak to the senses.

While sites like TripAdvisor can tell you a lot about local attractions and provide feedback about visitors’ firsthand experiences, biblical fiction writer Natalie Hart turns to YouTube to flesh out the sensory details. Once she knows the places, activities, and businesses she wants to learn about, she searches YouTube to see if someone has posted a video about it. Considering that more than 720,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day, according to TubeFilter, the odds are in our favor. Hart opts for video because “it offers a similar view that you would have if you were there, so there’s a chance to notice details that fact-driven research can’t give you.”

One thing video can’t provide is smell. Since smell is such an evocative sense to share with the reader, Hart posts requests on social media, asking people who have been to destinations she’s writing about to share what they smelled like.

Romantic suspense writer and Scrivener expert Gwen Hernandez seeks the “local perspective” by searching for blog posts from people who live in the area she’s researching. She’s also found children’s books to offer interesting insights and a unique perspective.

As you research your setting, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. What would you want to know and experience? Science fiction writer John E. Simpson is setting his novel on an asteroid turned spaceship traveling through space. To bring this imaginative setting to life in a realistic way, John began with a list of questions he’d need to answer to gain the reader’s trust. How big does the asteroid need to be? How many people could live on it? What propels it? How does it communicate?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

PG notes that the title of the OP may include a typo, substituting “Belief” for “Disbelief”. That said, “A Willing Suspension of Belief” is an interesting concept to consider, but perhaps, the whole thing is too subtle for PG to understand. UPDATE: PG has been corrected. It is a willing suspension of Disbelief after all. Sometimes his fingers on the keyboard outpace the brain in his head.

From Daily Writing Tips:

The origin of this expression lies in literary criticism. The term represents a contract between reader and writer.

In recent years, however, the phrase has escaped from literary criticism and is used in a variety of contexts that have little to do with the original meaning. A web search brings up numerous examples in which the term seems to serve only as a round-about way of saying that something is unbelievable.

. . . .

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his two-volume autobiographical and critical work, Biographia Literaria (1817). The term originates in his discussion of the poetry collection he published with William Wordsworth in 1798.

The collection, called Lyrical Ballads, is credited with ushering in the Romantic era of English literature. The previous era, the Age of Enlightenment, elevated Reason and Skepticism above unquestioning belief. Religion, the supernatural, sentimentality, and excessive emotion were special targets of intellectual contempt.

Coleridge, with his penchant for high emotion and the supernatural, recognized that in order to draw an “enlightened” reader into his fantastic fictional world, he needed to employ a certain technique. His goal was to create a level of human interest and believability in his characters that would inspire his readers with a “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

One of the poems included in Lyrical Ballads is “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I learned and loved in high school, but which doesn’t seem to be taught much anymore. Looking it up for this post, I found that it still gives me goosebumps.

Coleridge immediately places the reader in a recognizable situation. A man on his way to a wedding has his arm grabbed by a ragged old man who could be a beggar. The wedding guest, all dressed up for the occasion, is understandably annoyed and shakes him off, but the old man, a sailor, holds him with his “glittering eye” and launches into his eerie tale. Coleridge has hooked his readers and, by interweaving realistic physical descriptions with the supernatural elements, enables us to believe in the reality of the old man’s harrowing tale.

. . . .

Apparently, according to psychologists, when we give ourselves up to a narrative, we turn off the part of our brain that assesses reality in the ordinary way. We react to what we are seeing—on the screen or in our mind’s eye as if it were really happening. We are acting on “poetic faith.”

As long as the writer doesn’t introduce something jarring, something that would wake the brain’s critical thinking systems, readers can ignore the fact that what is happening to provoke our emotions is not really happening at all.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

On Not Letting Ambition Take Over

From Writer Unboxed:

When I was young, writing didn’t feel mysterious or difficult. I wasn’t curious about other writers’ processes, or searching for the “best” way to develop a story. Writing was just putting pen to paper and seeing what came out. It was a way to pass the time contentedly. It was a way to explore my own mind — what I was curious about, what I remembered, what I longed for.

As I grew older, writing started to feel more Important, both for better and for worse. Writing became a source of pride, because pretty much everyone said I was good at it. But it also became a goal, transforming into a sort of ideal, something farther away and less concrete. Like the difference between the air I had always breathed, and the blue sky way above me, out of reach. Supposedly they were both made of the same stuff, but they felt so distant and different from each other. Suddenly I had to look up and strive.

Put another way: the writing I was doing at the moment didn’t seem to matter as much as the writing I would do in the future, and what that writing could mean. Not mean to me, so much as mean for me. Or mean to other people. Would they like it? Would they think I was talented? Would they pay me for it? Could I build a career? Could I even — dare I say it, dare I dream it — become rich and/or famous?

Ambition can be a powerful motivation, but it can also be a vise, squeezing out passion and creativity. The key, as usual, is to find the right balance for yourself.

So my journey over the past several years has been one of going back in order to better go forward. More and more, I’m trying to return to the girl I once was, sitting in a quiet corner of my parents’ office, scribbling stories for myself. Using the page and my imagination to explore the world around me, as well as the world within.

Because there are the feelings we put in our writing, and then there are the feelings we have when we’re writing. When I was young, I took the latter for granted. I didn’t realize how valuable that inner state was to me, or to the creative process, until it had turned so feeble, so vulnerable. So tortured by all the ambitions I hadn’t managed to fulfill that I could barely appreciate the ones I had.

. . . .

This is part of why I think it’s important to have a good support network. And to check in with yourself periodically. Write a mission statement or a vision statement. Keep a journal. Stick post-it notes on the wall in front of your desk. Set reminders on your phone. Whatever it takes to redirect your energy away from outcomes that you can’t control (such as fame or fortune) and keep you rooted in creativity — in exploration and connection.

Connection in particular has been a strong grounding force for me in recent times. Since becoming a mother, and then living through this pandemic, much of the writing that has been most meaningful to me is the writing I’ve done privately, in service of the bonds between myself and my friends and family. A personal blog to chronicle the ups and downs and all-arounds of my two children’s lives. A note of love and support to a colleague battling cancer. A fun little card to someone I’ve known peripherally for many years but am finally becoming closer to. A heartfelt message to an old friend after the passing of his mother.

Despite the small audience — or perhaps in part because of the intimacy? — the way I feel when writing these things is like a light leading me back to my purest self. 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Catch Those Repetitious Redundancies and Pleonasms

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

Hello there. How are you today? Are you ready to test out your redundancy eye?

You might ask, “Why should I care about redundancies?”

Before we begin, I’ll answer that question.

Redundancies are superfluous words or phrases also known as pleonasms: the use of more words than are necessary to express an idea.

Pleonasm is an unfamiliar term to some people, which is why I and other writers often refer to unnecessary words as redundancies.

Rather than augment writing, these extra words slow down action scenes and increase word count — without adding helpful details.

Did you notice the strikeouts in the previous paragraphs? Each strikeout represents a redundancy. If I were intentionally bloating this post, I might leave them in. However, they’re just useless padding.

Oh, wait. I guess I did leave them in, and that means they still count as words. Oops, sorry, Anne, I needed them to illustrate my point.

A Few Words About the Quiz

Below you’ll find fourteen sentences that contain redundancies, and fourteen suggested solutions. They’re revised examples from books, news, social media, television shows, and conversations.

Scrutinize the examples and try to find the pleonasms. Will you score 100%?

Welcome to the Promenade of Useless Redundancies

  1. The village was home to a community of people with many diverse talents.
  2. The thick clouds entirely obliterated the sun and darkened the sky.
  3. If the pump doesn’t perform as expected, you’ll be eligible for a full refund of the money that you paid for it.
  4. They couldn’t have been more different. They were total polar opposites.
  5. A hunter picked up the lion’s scent spoor and tracks fortuitously by accident.
  6. The writer tried various different phrases, but none of them seemed to fit the context.
  7. The most quintessential obsession of Pauline’s existence was the consumption of coffee, coffee, COFFEE.
  8. The new scanner reads UPC codes much faster than the old one.
  9. The toddler threw a noisy temper tantrum when his mother took away the toy.
  10. They had reached a critical juncture — which of the options should they choose?
  11. They didn’t have the same resources now that they used to have before.
  12. Just to be on the safe side, Bryan decided to cram a medical kit into his bulging knapsack.
  13. We need more information about exactly what that means.
  14. The both of them knew that they were in for a severe trouncing.

Suggested Edits

Edit #1:

The village was home to a community of people with many diverse talents.

community: a group of people who live in the same place or share particular characteristics

diverse: many different types of people or things

Note how the definitions embrace the meanings of the deleted words.

Alternative edit: The village was home to many people with diverse talents.

Choose the connotation that matches your storyline.

Edit #2:

The thick clouds entirely obliterated the sun and darkened the sky.

obliterate: make invisible by obscuring

If something is invisible, can it be partially invisible? If not, we don’t need to mention that it’s entirely invisible.

When readers visualize the sun obliterated by thick clouds, they’ll imagine a dark sky. We don’t need to mention the darkness.

Other phrases to beware:

  • entirely by chance
  • entirely decimated
  • entirely inappropriate
  • entirely natural
  • entirely surrounded
  • entirely [fill in the blank]

Whenever you encounter entirely or one of its synonyms, question its necessity.

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

6 Key Strategies for Emotionally Affecting Fiction

From Jane Friedman:

People sometimes talk about emotion in fiction like it’s some discrete quantity you can just dial up in your prose—like perhaps if your novel is too plot-heavy, or too cerebral, you can just turn a few knobs here and there and wind up with an emotionally affecting story.

The most obvious indicators of emotion are found in scene, so this is where newer writers tend to focus in their quest, interlarding their scenes with the body language associated with emotion—the pounding hearts, the sweaty hands, the chills up the spine—along with overt statements of emotion (“walking into the meeting, he felt nervous”) and a preponderance of adverbs (“she snarled angrily”).

The body language of emotion is important—and certainly, there are times when overt statements of emotion are called for. And personally speaking, I’m not in the “no adverbs” camp (though I do think they tend to backfire in the hands of less experienced writers). But these are just the most obvious techniques for generating emotion in fiction, and relying too heavily on them tends to have the opposite of the intended effect, coming across as cartoonish, exaggerated, forced.

There are techniques that are subtler, less obvious, and they work best in tandem with one another. Because the truth is, emotion is an emergent property of fiction, a sort of alchemical magic generated by the synergy between multiple elements of the story; to create it in your fiction, you need to approach the challenge from more than one angle.

1. What’s at stake?

When we talk about what’s at stake in a story, we’re talking about what the protagonist stands to gain or lose, and in stories with strong emotions, both of these possibilities hold a real emotional charge for that character.

What does your protagonist stand to gain if they achieve their goal? If it’s a large sum of money, for example, that goal will have more emotional stakes if the protagonist is on the verge of dropping out of college because she can barely afford her tuition.

And if failing to achieve that goal means not only losing that large sum of money, it means losing her scholarship to her dream college, the one her folks were so proud she got into? So much the better.

When you up the stakes in your story, you dial up the emotions involved.

2. How close is the relationship?

Interpersonal conflicts are one of the hallmarks of effective fiction. But conflicts with friends matter more than conflicts with strangers; conflicts with close friends matter more than conflicts with acquaintances; and conflicts with family members tend to matter most of all.

If you find yourself struggling with how to strengthen the emotional quotient of your story, take a look at the primary relationships in it. Is there a way you can make one or more of those relationships closer?

Sometimes it’s just a matter of making a friend an old friend—one who was there for the protagonist at one of the toughest moments of her life. Maybe the neighbor lady, the one who’s dying of cancer, is actually the nanny who helped to raise the protagonist. And maybe that conversation with the old man in the park should actually be a conversation with the protagonist’s dad.

When the relationships are closer, the emotions involved tend to be stronger.

3. What’s the backstory?

Backstory is a big part of the emotional power conflicts hold in a story, because it’s a big part of what those conflicts mean for the characters going through them. Backstory also helps the reader put herself in the character’s place, giving her the background info necessary to understand and sympathize with those strong emotions.

For instance: A conflict between a mother and her teen daughter will be more powerful if the mother had strong conflicts with her own mother as a girl. A conflict between two brothers will be more powerful if one of them has always dominated the other. And a conflict between two friends over a new love interest will hold a lot more charge if the one who’s fallen in love has a history of falling for abusive men.

For any given scenario, emotionally charged backstory will increase the emotional quotient—so a key strategy for generating the sort of emotion you’re looking for in any given scene or conflict is to first set up the backstory to support it.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Stop Being So Hard on Yourself

From The Harvard Business Review:

One of my clients, Ben, a research and development director at a pharmaceutical company, arrived at our coaching session feeling distraught. “A situation happened at work today that I can’t get out of my head,” he said. It turned out that Ben had spent hours preparing for an all-hands meeting with colleagues across the globe. He reviewed the agenda, drafted his talking points, and logged on to the conference software ready to contribute.

Then, things went askew. Ben struggled to be heard above more dominant colleagues, and when he did get an opportunity to speak, he felt flustered and flubbed his words. Afterwards, Ben was preoccupied by the incident. He couldn’t quit beating himself up. Why hadn’t he spoken up earlier or been more assertive? Why did he over explain and blabber on instead of sticking to his talking points?

Ben is what I call a sensitive striver — a high-achiever who is also highly sensitive. He is driven and demands excellence from himself at all times. But when he falls short of those impossibly high expectations, his innate sensitivity and thoughtfulness cause him to spiral into self-recrimination. If you can relate to Ben’s reaction, then you also may be too hard on yourself. This can take the form of harsh, punitive judgements, overanalyzing your shortcomings, rumination over minor missteps, worry, and assuming fault.

Perhaps you have thought that self-criticism is what keeps you sharp. Sensitive strivers like Ben often use it as a form of motivation, hoping that if they’re tough enough on themselves, they’ll be compelled to perform. But research shows that self-criticism is a poor strategy. When used excessively, it is consistently associated with less motivation, worse self-control, and greater procrastination. In fact, self-criticism shifts the brain into a state of inhibition, which prevents you from taking action to reach your goals.

Being hard on yourself may be ineffective, but it is also a hard pattern to break. It requires consistent attention and practice. Here are a few strategies I shared with Ben that can set you on the path to taking a more balanced, emotionally equanimous approach to your performance.

Name your inner critic.

Create psychological distance from self-criticism by personifying it. For example, choose a silly name or a character from a movie or a book. Mine is called Bozo, but you might name yours “the little monster” or “gremlin.” I once had a client who called his Darth Vader (of Star Wars fame). He purchased a small Darth Vader action figure for his desk, which reminded him to keep the critical voice in check.

Naming your inner critic leverages cognitive defusion — a process by which you separate yourself from your thoughts. Defusion is shown to reduce discomfort, believability, and the stress of negative thoughts. It also promotes psychological flexibility, or the capacity to steady your mind, manage your emotions, and be aware, open, and adaptive to changing demands.

Avoid generalization.

When I pressed Ben for details about the all-hands meeting, it became clear that no one noticed he was flustered. In fact, the COO later told Ben she thought his comments were the only moment of clarity in the conversation. This shocked Ben since it did not match his impression. It was a clear example of the spotlight effect — a tendency in which you misjudge and overestimate how much attention others pay to your behavior.

To combat the spotlight effect, consider your performance on aggregate versus zeroing in on a singular negative event. Think of a bell curve: you’ll likely perform average or higher than average most days. Some days will be below average, and that’s normal. Keep an eye on the bigger picture. Ben realized that while the all-hands wasn’t his best showing, he was only paralyzing himself further by taking this one unfavorable meeting and generalizing it to an ongoing pattern. Specifically, I coached him to avoid using extreme statements like “I always mess up,” “I’ll never get my voice heard,” and “This happens every time.”

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

Another “Kryptonite” Issue: who vs whom

From Daily Writing Tips:

For all practical purposes, the pronoun form whom is ready to go the way of ye, an old form of the pronoun you.

Ideally, speakers who do not understand that who is a subject form and whom is an object form would simply stop using whom altogether. The forms are so similar that we can get along just fine by using who for both. Millions of English speakers already do.

Speakers who have mastered the grammar concepts transitive verb and object pronoun are free to use both forms until a generation arises that knows not whom.

That time may be delayed, however, by a segment of English speakers who do not understand the object function of whom, but who have decided that whom must be a more elegant way of saying who.

The forms who and whom function like the other pronouns, such as he and himshe and her, and I and me. The first form in each pair is used as the subject of a verb. The second form is used as the object of a verb or preposition.

Admittedly, the subject/object forms of the personal pronouns are under siege from speakers who use subject forms as objects and vice versa, as in these examples from the web:

Me and my friends are in class.
This trip proved to my husband and I that we can still travel.

CORRECT: My friends and I are in class.
CORRECT: This trip proved to my husband and me that we can still travel.

Nevertheless, I/m, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them have not yet reached the state of confusion that exists with who/whom.

Who as the subject of a verb
Who is that masked man? (Who is the subject of the verb is.)

Garett Morgan is the man who invented the yellow traffic light. (Who is the subject of invented.)

Whom as the object of a verb
The first employee they hired was Jeff Johnson, whom Knight had met at Stanford. (Whom is the object of had met.)

Whom do you prefer in this election? (Whom is the object of do prefer.)

Whom as the object of a preposition
Figure out how much you owe, to whom and on what terms, and start paying it off. (Whom is the object of the preposition to.)

The Daniels have five children, three of whom are adopted. (Whom is the object of the preposition of.)

Incorrect uses of whom (These examples are from printed sources.)

They were aware of students participating whom had not participated in the past.

. . . a detained Palestinian whom, according to police, stabbed two people in a supermarket.

Springdale police are searching for this man whom they say robbed an Arvest Bank branch Thursday.

CORRECT: They were aware of students participating who had not participated in the past. (Who is the subject of had participated.)

CORRECT: a detained Palestinian who, according to police, stabbed two people in a supermarket . . . (Who is the subject of stabbed. Beware of intervening phrases like “according to.”)

CORRECT: Springdale police are searching for this man who they say robbed an Arvest Bank branch Thursday. (Who is the subject of robbed. “They say” intervenes between the subject and verb of a relative clause.)

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

PG doesn’t think he has a problem with who and whom (although his mother did work hard with him on the proper usage), but can’t say he has a strong opinion on the question of whether whom should be sent to the language dump.

Discovery Writing

From The Creative Penn:

Joanna: Patricia McLinn is the award-winning and multi-USA Today bestselling author of over 50 books across mystery, contemporary, and historical romance, women’s fiction, and nonfiction. Today we’re talking about discovery writing and the Survival Kit for Writers Who Don’t Write Right

. . . .

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.

Patricia: I was one of those kids who read everything I could get my hands on. I haunted the Helen M. Plum Memorial Library, and I loved it. Her husband was Colonel Plum. We actually had a Colonel Plum and they donated their house and garden to my town, and that was the library.

I thought everybody had stories in their head. It was a real shock to me to find out that people didn’t. As I was reading and growing up, I can remember specifically going down to the kitchen to my mother and reading her this passage from Dickens when he describes Uriah Heep as unctuous. I got the shiver down my spine and I told her, ‘I want to do that to people.’

And then I discovered, it seemed to me, Dickens was so far away over there, a different century, a different country, a different world. And what really struck me was when I found out that a woman named Marguerite Henry who wrote horse books, as somebody said, girl-meets-horse stories, Misty of Chincoteague and Sea Star.

I had read these and I was fascinated. She lived in the same county I did. And it was like, ‘Holy moly, real people writing books. This is a possibility.’ So, that probably really sparked the dream to do it someday.

Understandably, my parents thought something more practical would be a good idea. So I went into journalism. Not totally practical, I went into sports, especially at a time when women didn’t do it.

The last part of that career in journalism was 23 years editing at ‘The Washington Post.‘ And in that time I started really writing, because I had been goofing around with writing before that but I could never get past the first couple of chapters.

I would send them off to my sister-in-law who babysat for me when I was six because she and my brother were high school sweethearts. And she’d say, ‘This is great. Now what happens?’ ‘I don’t know.’ She said, ‘No more. Send me no more until you’ve finished it. I can’t stand it. I get invested in these people and then you just leave them.’

I got involved with the Washington Romance Writers and I got into traditional publishing. As I said, my first book was out in 1990, did 27 books in 25 years of traditional. Kept being told I was pushing the envelope, never felt like that to me, but it wasn’t a great fit.

When indie came along, I was more than ready to explore that. And I was hybrid for a while, and then in 2015 I went a hundred percent indie, and it has been a ride. It’s been terrific. All-encompassing in some ways, as you know, we can work all the hours, right?

As I said, 27 books in 25 years in traditional, and now I’m pushing, or I may be over 60, I don’t keep real close track, but I’ve done a lot more books indie in a shorter span than I did traditional.

. . . .

For people who might not be clear, what is a pantser or a discovery writer? What do you mean by those terms?

Patricia: What I mean primarily is that I don’t plot ahead of time. I dive into the book, writing whatever I know at the time. And for me, most of the times the books start with almost like I’m eavesdropping on two people in a restaurant.

I hear voices, Joanna, and I just start taking down what they’re saying. I don’t know their names, I don’t know their situations a lot of time. I have this feeling and I’m hearing them talk.

I can say specifically with my first book, it started with an argument on a basketball court between the heroine and the hero, and there was this back and forth, and that’s what I started with. And then I had to think, ‘Who are these people? Where did they come from? How did they get to this point? Where are they going to go from here?’ And then you play the what-ifs.

One of the ways I think of it is that, I did a talk with a really good friend who writes totally differently, and our talk was writing from the inside-out or the outside-in. So I think of it as writing, the way I do it is writing from this feel and hearing who the characters are and then writing out to structure.

Where plotters tend to start from structure, they know the story, they know the events that are going to happen, and they write into the guts of the character. You have to have both to have a really good book. But it doesn’t matter which way.

Joanna: You mention that your friend who writes totally differently. Even within the broad pantser and discovery writing to the plotter, there are different people within that.

For example, you’re talking now about almost taking dictation, some people call it, and they hear those voices. My mum who writes as Penny Appleton does exactly the same. And it’s so funny when she gave me the first draft of her first novel it was totally talking heads in an empty white room. It was a conversation between two people with no setting, no nothing.

It’s like she just heard the conversation. Whereas I don’t hear that at all. I don’t hear any voices. I’m a discovery writer, but I usually start with an object, or a thing, or a myth. But that isn’t the story that I’m getting to, or a place. For me, dialogue is one of the last things that happens.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

5 Quick Dialogue Tips

From Writers in the Storm:

1. Minimize dialogue tags.

Sometimes you need a “he said” or “she asked,” but oftentimes you don’t need a dialogue tag at all. You can show who’s speaking by having the character do or feel something before or after the part in quotes.

Before

“There she is!” my father announced, and my family exploded with excitement.

“Faye!” they all greeted me, and my two nieces, seven and four years old, dropped their Candy Land game and surged toward me. They hugged my torso with exclamations of “Auntie Faye!”

I was glad to see everyone, but suspicious too. Why were they here?

“Hey, girls!” I scooped each niece into a cozy embrace, and their soft curls tickled my nose.

“For our guest of honor,” my mother said, handing me a crystal chalice.

After

My father stood front and center. “There she is!”

“Faye!” My name reached the rafters in a chorus of excitement.

My two nieces dropped their Candy Land game, surged toward me, and hugged my waist. “Auntie Faye! Auntie Faye!”

I was glad to see everyone, but suspicious too. Why was my entire family here?

“Hey, girls!” I scooped each niece into a cozy embrace, and their soft curls tickled my nose.

My mother handed me a crystal chalice. “For our guest of honor.”

. . . .

Avoiding tags when possible is a better use of your word count, helps with flow, and deepens POV.

2. Use body language, tone, and internal thought for subtext.

The spots outside and around quotation marks are prime real estate for deepening character and plot. After all, what do we do when we’re in conversation with others? We mentally process our thoughts and their words. We have visceral reactions to the content, tone, and body language of others. We give background for why we’re perceiving things as we do.

Before

“It’s got to be better than before, when it was impossible to live up to the Nickie Gold Standard,” Karyn says.

“Nickie sucks out every bit of energy my parents have,” I answer. “They barely know I’m alive.”

“So no perks? Nothing?” Karyn fishes for a way to spark my optimism or at least my snark.

“Well,” I say, “Nickie did tell me I can take just about anything from her old wardrobe.”

After

“It’s got to be better than before, when it was impossible to live up to the Nickie Gold Standard.” Karyn air-quotes those last words, like they’re a brand.

Actually, the way things were before sounds pretty good. “Nickie sucks out every bit of energy my parents have. They barely know I’m alive.”

“So no perks? Nothing?” Karyn fishes for a way to spark my optimism or at least my snark. I feel for her. This wilting version of me isn’t exactly a TARDIS-full of fun.

“Well,” I say, looking for any silver lining, no matter how tarnished. “Nickie did tell me I can take just about anything from her old wardrobe.”

. . . .

Create tension and help the reader learn more about your characters with subtext—the unspoken part of the conversation.

3. Make sure the reader knows who’s talking!

When I’m copyediting, one of the most common comments I add in the margin is “Who’s talking here?” Without proper cues, it’s easy to lose track of who the speaker is. That’s even more likely to become an issue when dialogue goes back and forth for a while between or among speakers.

Before

DeDe strolled into sight, sporting a tangerine bikini on her tanned body. “Yeah, good thing you were there,” she drolled. “Can we get back in the pool now?” Her mother pursed her lips and cocked her head. A show of disapproval.
“I’m glad you’re okay. Justin was really worried when he first brought you in.”

As if she’d filled her obligation, she turned back to her mom, raised her eyebrows in question, and received a curt nod of dismissal. And permission apparently, because she sashayed out of the room and I heard the sliding door to the backyard open and close.

“Don’t mind DeDe. She’s trying to make new friends. New kid on the block, you know?”

After

DeDe strolled into sight, sporting a tangerine bikini on her tanned body. “Yeah, good thing you were there,” she drawled. “Can we get back in the pool now?”¶

Her mother pursed her lips and cocked her head. A show of disapproval.¶

DeDe forced a smile onto her face and turned to me. “I’m glad you’re okay. Justin was really worried when he first brought you in.”

As if she’d filled her obligation, she turned back to her mom, raised her eyebrows in question, and received a curt nod of dismissal. And permission apparently, because she sashayed out of the room and I heard the sliding door to the backyard open and close.

“Don’t mind my sister.” Justin gestured toward her exit with his head. “She’s trying to make new friends. New kid on the block, you know?”

. . . .

Make sure the speaker’s identity is clear by ensuring the character’s names or pronouns are periodically mentioned, by giving characters distinct voices, and by creating a new paragraph each time the speaking stick is passed, so to speak.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Novel Writing Tips

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

For me, novel writing is a process of decision-making. I begin with an idea, and from that idea, the characters and plot slowly emerge. 

What I’ve learned along the way – 

  1. Love your idea. If you love your idea you’ll want to spend time with it, and through spending time with it, you’ll see a spectrum of possibilities for your plot. There’s a great deal of thinking and imagining involved in writing a novel. You need to ask yourself questions – for example, my seventh novel, A Lie For A Lie, is about a school nurse who is accused of hitting a child. I asked myself over one hundred questions along the lines of: Where does this story take place? Who is my nurse? Why is she accused? Who is her accuser? When does this happen? What are the repercussions? 

Each of these questions were expanded into a further set of questions as I drilled deeper and deeper into the heart of the story. 

  1. Spend time in your main character’s head. And if you’re going to spend time there then you need to make her interesting. The most important question you will ask her is: What do you want? 

She might tell you she wants to get revenge or find a husband, have a baby or walk the length of the British Isles. Or she might tell you she wants to keep the status quo. 

Do you – and therefore readers’ – identify with whatever it is she wants? What motivates her? Is she different from you? In what ways is she different?

Do the work. Get under her skin. The more you get under her skin the easier it is to make decisions as the story progresses.

  1. Who, or what, is in your main character’s way? You need a strong antagonist, someone or something that will push your protagonist to the very limits. If your antagonist falls at the first hurdle then that will make it very easy for your protagonist to get what she wants, and there’s no story in that. I have learnt that the harder I push the antagonist, the harder I have to push my protagonist. That makes for a story with shocks and revelations, twists and turns.
  2. So, what does your main character want? 

Yes, really. I’m repeating this because it can become lost as the story progresses. I have post-it notes on my wall to remind me of this otherwise my focus slips.

  1. Where is your story set? Setting adds atmosphere, context and imagery. Do you want your setting to help or hinder your character in some way? How will you use your setting to highlight and inform certain aspects of the plot? Make it work for you.

6. Find your first few plot points. 

There are writers who plan before beginning to write and there are writers who have an idea and dive in. I am somewhere in between. When I know toughly what my novel will be about, I plan Act One, and about halfway through the writing, ideas for Act Two begin to take shape.

I believe plot grows from character. The more work I’ve done with my protagonist, the less likely I am to be sitting thinking – what’s she going to do now? Is she the sort of person who would do X, Y or Z?

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

Unapologetic Characterization

From Writer Unboxed:

“I’m sorry.”

These two words are like a thick blanket someone will toss over whatever unknown coals might be scorching a valued relationship. The words do not acknowledge the harm that was done—they simply allow the wrongdoer to avoid looking at his or her behavior so the relationship can move on unchanged.

Unchanged? Hmm, that doesn’t sound like good story, does it.

Even so, a character’s blanket apology is a dialogue default I’ve noticed repeatedly over my years of reading client manuscripts. I’ve been thinking about it more since bingeing on 13 seasons of Heartland last December. For me, the Canadian accent (“I’m SOH-ree”) drew attention to how many times per episode it was used. (This is the one and only thing I will criticize about this show, so don’t start with me, because I’ll fight back and I will not apologize!).

If the longest-running one-hour drama in Canadian history can get away with blanket apology, why do the words “I’m sorry” bother me as a reader—especially when I’m a fan of their lavish use in everyday life?  It’s because in many cases, they gloss over the real, relatable, and often gritty conflicts the author has strived to build into their story. Yes, we humans must still get along even after hurting one another, or when differing goals or ideologies create chasms between us. But if your characters truly believe they are doing the right thing, should we yank the rug from beneath their empowerment by having them apologize for what they said or did? If they really meant to take the action but feel bad that the other person had to suffer for it, are they really sorry for this?

Let’s say your character is frustrated as to why her children are suffering an ongoing illness of unknown origin. Meanwhile, she discovers that the factory where she works has been covering up flagrant EPA violations. She turns in her findings. She is certainly sorry it has come to this, as it will impact not only her work environment, which is about to turn hostile, but has personally impacted her next-door neighbor, the plant manager who mentored her and who refuses to answer her questions about his children’s health. In the resulting financial restructuring, he’s been laid off, requiring him to sell his home and move his kids to a less desirable school district. Is she really sorry that he has to pay a steep personal price for turning a blind eye toward his company’s practices for so long, if the pollutants have been making her own children sick—and perhaps his as well?

There are consequences for inaction and there are consequences for action—these are your story’s stakes, that you’ve foreshadowed since the beginning of the novel—and in this example, it seems the whistleblower’s “I’m sorry” would feel like back-pedaling. Your character must engage with the stakes or the energy of your story will drain away.

Her inner conflict might be better shown by having her standing in her driveway, hugging her kids to her as they wave goodbye to their friends, as the father—her mentor—averts his eyes. A tear rolling down her face might say more about the situation’s emotional complexity, which will feel more powerful and true than any apology. (One might even argue that he’s the one whose actions beg an apology, but if you’ve written the story right, he’s had good reasons for doing what he’s done.)

Skipping the apology can be hard for some of us women to pull off. A dad might chastise his son for fighting in school while turning away to hide a proud smile—but when his daughter is caught in a dustup, he’ll demand she apologize because girls shouldn’t act that way. In her May 3 newsletter, Whole30 co-founder Melissa Urban wrote:

It’s been ingrained in women, especially in moms, that we have to apologize for everything. Saying no at work, not taking on every extra household or child-related task, even just existing makes us feel like we need to apologize.

Urban’s words brought to mind a visual from an essay I’d read long ago in O, The Oprah Magazine, written by a woman who was taking Tae Kwon Do for self-defense. She described herself in an aggressive stance, wearing her stiff white uniform, yelling “kee-yahp” as she practiced the kinds of punches that could disable an attacker. Afterwards, the instructor said to her, “You know you don’t have to smile while you’re throwing punches.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Power of Quirky-Smirky Assonance and Alluring Alliteration

From Writers in the Storm:

The rhyming vowel sounds of assonance aren’t always quirky-smirky. But I wanted to grab your attention. It must have worked. You’re here!

Assonance:

Rhyming vowel sounds are as cool as a school of dolphins.

As smart as a cart full of bestselling authors.

As right as your brightest writing.

I’m having fun with you all. Hope this style made you smile.

Assonance and alliteration can carry a subtle power or an in-your-face power. We’ll do a deep dive into both.

Alliteration and Assonance:

You all may know alliteration and assonance, but do you choose to use, or do those rhetorical devices fall on the page on their own?

Alliteration and assonance support the soundtrack for our words. They can be serious or silly, whimsical or witty.

Hmm… Notice the last six words and where they’re placed in that sentence.

…serious or silly

…whimsical or witty

Deep Edit Analysis: 

           Structural parallelism

          The number of beats matches – 3, 1, 2, and 3, 1, 2

Double Alliteration – s, s, w, w

          Assonance – silly, witty

The first sentence has double alliteration too — a, a, s, s.

And the paragraph sounds cool. Right?

Wrong. Almost right.

Read it out loud:

Alliteration and assonance support the soundtrack for our words. They can be serious or silly, whimsical or witty.

I hear the beats in a missing third sentence.

How about:

Alliteration and assonance support the soundtrack for our words. They can be serious or silly, whimsical or witty. But only if you write them well.

Just a little teachy-preachy. 

Ha! I could become an assonance addict. But that sentence carried a truth.

Which segues into two important teaching points.

Alliteration and assonance are cool writing tools, but beware:

1. You could overuse, but I’m betting you wouldn’t. I’ve never seen them overused.

2. The words you choose must be the right fit. They need to fit the scene, fit the character, fit the style.

Did you notice I just used the rhetorical devices anaphora (Triple Beginnings) and asyndeton (The No And)?

Why use rhetorical devices like alliteration and assonance and others?

  • Add power.
  • Set the mood.
  • Enhance your voice.
  • Provide a stylistic boost.
  • Treat the reader, provide an uplift.
  • Help you stand out in a talented way.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

(Writing) Each Book Is A Different Story

From Women Writers Women’s Books:

I have written three novels over twelve years: one which got me an agent (as yet unpublished); my debut Paris Mon Amour (2016) and my new novel, Scent.  Each has been a unique experience and part of a learning curve which will never end. I now work with other writers on their manuscripts and in a world where ‘writing tips’ abound (often more anxiety-inducing than constructive), the only thing that matters is what works for you.

For most writers, that’s an ongoing process which develops with each project, just as our real lives do in the background (don’t get me started on that). An open mind and willingness to try new things are traits you’d hope for in a creative writer and they’re as important to process as any other aspect of storytelling.

It’s a weird and wonderful thought that some people are reading Paris Mon Amour and Scent almost back-to-back when they were published five years apart (PMA has just been reissued). Both are set in France and occupy my home territory of midlife and female sexuality but the way the two novels emerged was different.  Some of that was inevitable, some deliberate, as I experimented with new ways to deliver my vision for Scent and (less pretentiously) to make my job easier. 

Long story short: some of my old habits didn’t need changing after all.  Some of my new approaches worked, some didn’t.  These were the biggest revelations:  

First draft – words mount up whether you count them or not

I enjoy every phase of writing novels apart from first drafts. I love having something to work with, develop and improve but generating it in the first place is a real challenge especially as I’m not a fast or wordy writer. With PMA, I set myself a weekly target of 3,500 words to produce a first draft in six months. Many writers do find wordcount goals motivating but for me it made the whole thing feel like a chore. Sure, it’s nice to see the numbers creeping up, but as I discovered when I took a different tack with Scent, that happens anyway if you keep showing up.  Instead of setting myself word count targets, I sat down to write for two hours at a time. Things progressed at the same rate but I enjoyed it so much more.

To edit or not to edit as you go

With my debut I felt I wasted a lot of time re-reading and polishing the text even in the early stages – we all know how much a manuscript changes from first to final draft. But when I stopped doing this, I lost my connection with the characters and the belief that Scent would ever amount to something worth reading. Far from being a pointless waste of time, I realised that editing as I go along is an integral part of my writing process.  Trying new methods and deciding the old ones actually serve you is also a valuable outcome. 

Re-type draft

My most dramatic experiment, both in terms of results and the horror and disbelief it inspired in other people!  I got the idea at a workshop led by Andrew Wille just after receiving constructive and helpful feedback on the first draft of Scent from my agent and closest writing partner. The latter’s observation that the novel wasn’t, as I’d been thinking, about a failing marriage but a love story between two women instantly made me see it in a different light.  Retyping the entire 90K word draft (from scratch not from memory) to capture this new slant was the most exciting and transformative thing I’ve done as a writer. Now I can’t imagine writing a novel without this step – my post about it is one of the most viewed on my Literary Sofa blog.

Link to the rest at Women Writers Women’s Books

How to Make Aliens and Robots Fight Better

From SWFA:

Human martial arts styles are biased: they’re specifically designed to fight other humans. Of course, watching Neo trade Kung Fu blows with Agent Smith is awesome, but perhaps our focus on human fighting systems in sci-fi affects our imagining of alien/robot bodies. Put simply, it makes composing fight scenes easier. By designing human-shaped Chitauri, we can then storyboard the stupendous Battle of New York with relative ease: a human Avenger like Black Widow can use the same techniques against a Chitauri that she’d use against the average street thug.

The prevalence of human-to-humanlike alien combat in sci-fi has even been lampooned in Star Trek: Lower Decks, where First Officer Jack Ransom needs only his barrel roll and double-handed swinging-fist to throw down–good-natured pokes at the limited repertoire Captain Kirk demonstrates when fighting an anthropomorphic Gorn (TOS, “Arena”) Yet people in the speculative fiction galaxy aren’t cookie-cutter humanoid, and their fighting styles shouldn’t be either.

Enter: Spec-Fic-Fu—the art of using martial philosophy to create enhanced sci-fi battles.

Primary Targets

First, consider an attacker’s primary targets. What must be protected? What should be attacked? Do your alien characters have the equivalent of Kung Fu paralysis points? Is your robot’s CPU located in its abdomen, making that a primary area to attack?

Breaking a human’s nose makes the eyes water, compromising vision and fighting effectiveness. Breaking a person’s xiphoid process could cause internal bleeding—death. 

Imagine a Klingon dueling a Starship Troopers arachnid. The bug bashes the Klingon’s nose! But the Klingon doesn’t cry—they don’t have tear ducts. The Klingon severs an insectoid leg with his bat’leth! Yet as stated in the film’s “Know Your Foe” PSA, a bug’s still “86% combat effective” with a missing leg. Instead, we should “aim for the nerve stem” to “put it down for good.”

Video game boss fights are actually master classes in attacking primary targets. Consider Samus Aran vs. Ridley. The player-as-Samus utilizes a fight sequence to expose Ridley’s critical areas. This sequence of movements is a technique—like those human martial artists drill in ordered rows. Techniques are algorithms for exposing an opponent’s primary targets. A jab-cross might dislodge the opponent’s guards, so a swinging roundhouse can strike the cartilaginous temple. 

What techniques do your alien or robot protagonists use to exploit an enemy’s vulnerabilities–especially enemies of differing physical morphologies?

Physicality:

Differing bodies mean differing fighting behaviors. In The Mandalorian, IG-11 rotates torso and arms to shoot in all directions. He doesn’t block or dodge gunfire. General Grievous uses four arms to wield gyrating lightsabers until Obi Wan severs two hands, forcing Grievous to adapt. 

Consider bodily modalities. The Decepticon Starscream charges the enemy in jet-form, then transforms into a robot, letting forward momentum add to his attack. Conversely, he leaps away in jet-mode, blasting opponents with his backdraft.

Also consider what’s expendable. An alien with one heart and three lungs might, on being forced onto a spike, try to fall so a lung is punctured yet the heart is spared. An octopus-alien with regenerating limbs might charge a lightsaber with abandon, regrowing whatever’s lopped off. If your robot warrior is T-1000-like—i.e., modular—it might form separate fighting components. 

Even animalistic beings like Godzilla or Mothra fight according to physicality. Earth bulls lock horns; pythons entwine and squeeze. 

Link to the rest at SWFA

The difference between children’s and adult books

From Nathan Bransford:

Authors often get into trouble when they’re writing books for children or adults and end up blending the two in an awkward way. I’m here to clear up confusion around the differences between children’s books and adult books.

Particularly when authors write “coming of age” novels or fictionalized versions of their childhood, they sometimes end up writing novels that feel like they’re not quite for adults and not quite for children. Others set out to write crossover novels that appeal to both adults and children that wind up feeling like strange mishmashes.

While some children’s novels do indeed become popular with adults and become crossover successes like The Hunger Games and The Hate U Give, novels need to have a base readership. There aren’t really crossover publishers, just adult publishers and children’s publishers, with some “new adult” sprinkled in. And even if you’re self- or hybrid publishing, it’s very helpful to know your genre.

If you twist yourself into knots trying to make your novel appeal to everyone it might end up appealing to no one. If you’re writing for adults, write for adults. If you’re writing for children, write for children. If it crosses over, that’s great.

So what’s the difference between a children’s novel and an adult novel, and how do you avoid writing a novel that’s not quite for adults and not quite for children? How do you figure out what kind of a novel you’re really writing if you’re currently straddling these lines? What do you do if parts of your novel are from a child’s POV but it’s adult on the whole?

I’m here to help.

It’s not about the protagonist’s age

A common misconception about what makes a novel an adult or children’s book is that it’s ultimately about the age of the protagonist. Not the case!

There are plenty of novels featuring young protagonists that really feel more like adult novels, whether that’s Catcher in the Rye, Carrie, or the opening of Where the Crawdads Sing. Just because you have a child at the center of the events doesn’t necessarily mean you have written a children’s novel.

This can also happen in reverse, particularly in novels that start adult but then flash back to a character’s childhood. A novel that started off feeling like an adult novel can quickly start feeling like it veers into being a children’s book and might confuse a reader about what exactly they’re reading.

So set aside the age of the protagonist. Here’s what matters.

What’s the lens?

The first element to consider is the “lens.” Is the overall voice of the novel a child’s voice experiencing childhood in the moment or is it an adult looking back on childhood from a more mature distance?

Even authors who are explicitly setting out to write a children’s novel sometimes get tripped up on this. They end up inserting accidental adult viewpoints along the lines of “I would learn much later just how important this was.” Think of this as the “Wonder Years” effect, where it’s an adult narrating a child’s experiences.

Other authors might write their child characters the way they see children from their now-adult vantage point rather than writing for the way children see themselves.

So again, set aside the protagonist’s age and think about the lens. If it feels like an adult’s viewpoint it will feel like an adult novel, even/especially if it’s an adult looking back on childhood, and if it feels like a child’s vantage point it will feel more like a children’s novel.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: In-laws

From Writers Helping Writers:

Description: an in-law relationship occurs when a marriage or like-union occurs, bringing two families together. The partners in the relationship join the family of their other half and a bond of respect, tolerance, and (hopefully) love comes about. But while the partners choose one another, their family members “come with the package” so to speak, meaning personality or ideological clashes can often cause friction.

Relationship Dynamics:
Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.

Showing genuine interest in the other’s passions, likes, beliefs, etc.

Engaging in polite conversation

Complimenting the other (on house improvements, a garden, a choice of car, etc.)

Asking about the other’s family members, job, vacations, activities

Pitching in to help when asked (childcare, helping with a move or repair)

Avoiding contentious topics to keep the peace

Offering advice, encouragement, and praise

Asking the other for their opinion or to weigh in with experience

Offering help without expectation or strings

Sharing stories about the loved one in common

Gentle information-gathering about possible changes, or areas of concern

Telling jokes or sharing funny stories

Discussing current events, politics, popular movies, books, or pop culture

Celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and other family events together

Sharing meals or enjoying an outing together

Talking about kids (if there are any)

Prying into the other’s business

Offering unsolicited or unwelcome advice

Being judged by the in laws and feeling that one doesn’t measure up

Suspecting the other is holding back information (or lying) due to a grudge

Believing the other is trying to drive a wedge between the character and the loved one in common (a husband and wife, a mother and daughter, etc.)

Guilt trips: You never come to visit, Sarah’s other grandparents always get her for Christmas and we never do; Why do you always stay at Bill’s house and never ours when you come to town; If you loved me, you’d invite me along on the trip, etc.

Reminding the other of their mistakes or bringing up a past embarrassment

Snide remarks, haughtiness, talking down to the other, arguments

Pushing or shaming the other to adopt beliefs about religion, politics, or ideology

Forcing other relatives to take sides

Asking for something that’s inappropriate (money, to lie for them, etc.)

Going behind the other’s back and then lying about it

Interfering with how the character raises their kids

Thinking the other’s rules are stupid and so refusing to respect them

Making the other feel small (only begrudgingly offering aid or financial support, etc.)

Making demands and ultimatums: If you want to see your grandchildren ever again…

Ignoring the other’s boundaries

Voicing disappointments to make the other feel bad

Sharing gossip about the other to purposely lower their esteem and cause rifts

Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship

A parent who doesn’t like their child’s spouse seeding discord in hopes they break up
Believing the other is a threat, which leads to constant friction

Control issues (over how children are raised, how the other lives, choices that affect family members in common)

The in laws wanting to have a say in everything and the character wishing for autonomy

Disagreements over where to settle down (in laws wanting the couple close when the couple doesn’t share this desire)

Clashing Personality Trait Combinations: Controlling and Independent, judgmental and oversensitive, stingy and generous, proper and rebellious, inflexible and spontaneous, nosy and private, gullible and intelligent

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Seven Habits of Successful Writers

From Writer Unboxed:

  1. Write every day. The more you write, the better you’ll get.
  2. Go to a prestigious creative writing program. These programs are competitive and costly, but you’ll get to hone your craft and make connections that will benefit you your life long.
  3. Get rich and famous before you start writing. Having the finances and social capital to quit your job will free up so much of your mental energy. Having the financial freedom to take exotic vacations and party like it’s 1999 will give you so many stories to tell.
  4. Cultivate a love of reading when you’re still a child. This one will be more difficult for those of us who are already adults, but some of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten was that if something is important to you, you’ll figure out a way to make it happen. If you first fell in love with the written word when you were ten, see if you can make it happen by age nine.
  5. Have at least one parent who is a successful author. Our parents are our first mentors, teaching us life lessons and passing on the benefits of their wisdom without the pain of their mistakes. If your parents are famous authors themselves, that will give you a huge advantage in your own career. Talk to your folks about their literary aspirations and see if they’d consider changing careers from motel manager or retiree to having been a literary darling since age twenty-six.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The OP is a little snotty, but it’s definitely not conventional advice.

The State of the Crime Novel in 2021: Writing During the Pandemic

From CrimeReads, the Mystery Writers of America nominees for the 75th annual Edgar Awards discuss the state of crime fiction in 2021:

Elsa Hart (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne): Fundamentally. Do you know how fantasy novels usually start with a map of the world? If I could represent my writing self as one of these, it would show me wandering around in a completely different zone than I was a year ago. It’s all still me. I’m just exploring different corners of my imagination.

Nev March (nominated for Best First Novel – Murder in Old Bombay): It was so difficult to concentrate! Living in the midst of a real crisis makes any fictional world recede. It felt like living through a war, changed how we shopped, went out, and interacted with people. For two months I stopped writing to sew 460 cloth face masks for home healthcare workers, friends and neighbors. My first bit of writing after that was a comedic article about making masks on an unwilling sewing machine! It normalized the new, bizarre reality and re-energized my writing.

June Hur (nominated for Best Young Adult – The Silence of Bones): As a mom of a toddler, my writing schedule hasn’t changed too much. I write when my daughter naps and when she’s asleep. I suppose, the only difference is, I’m a bit more exhausted at the end of the day since I’m stuck at home with my daughter all day, trying to figure out how to keep her entertained (rather than going out on playdates, etc). So it takes me a bit longer to get into the writing zone.

. . . .

Ivy Pochoda (nominated for Best Novel – These Women): Well it’s certainly made me more efficient and less of a baby about the whole thing. I used to have a large chunk of the day to myself. But now I’m pretty immersed in brushing up on my kindergarten skills—phonics, addition, social and emotional learning. Which leaves me roughly two and a half hours to write in the late afternoon and that has never been a great time for me to get “creative.” But you know what—I’m doing it. I’m writing in those hours—if I can—and I’m being super easy on myself. A great day is 500 words. (Don’t laugh, you book a year people!) And 500 words is enough for now. I’m not putting too much pressure on myself to be super prolific. Just a few words feels major.

Heather Young (nominated for Best Novel – The Distant Dead): Having my husband and son working and studying from home did disrupt my writing process, but the pandemic hasn’t changed my writing. My work in progress is set in 1943, so I don’t have to worry about COViD-19 in my narrative. In fact, it’s been oddly comforting to spend my writing time in an era when the world confronted threats far more existential than the coronavirus.

Mariah Fredericks (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – Death of an American Beauty): I don’t know if it’s changed my writing. It has made me very grateful that I have a job that allows me to escape into other people’s heads and a different time altogether. And that I have my own workspace, where I can physically escape. Much as I love my family.

Taryn Souders (nominated for Best Juvenile – Coop Knows The Scoop): In the past, I found myself being very distracted at home with laundry, or kids, or pets, or anything really. I would often go to a coffee shop to write. With the pandemic though, those options were no longer available. It forced me to write at home. My preference is definitely the coffee shops! I haven’t been nearly as productive as I would like but I’m getting there!

Christina Lane (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock): Well, I don’t write in the public library anymore, which has slowed my roll. The pandemic has opened up more free time and provided time to explore. I began experimenting at turning my latest book into a mystery-based video game, teaching myself the basics of game-writing. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, if only to experiment with directions of storytelling.

. . . .

David Heska Wanbli Weiden (nominated for Best First Novel – Winter Counts): I write in bursts now. I’ve got my five-a.m. shift, before everyone wakes up, then my mid-morning time, and then an evening stint, if I’m not too exhausted. I really, really miss coffee shops, where I used to do most of my writing. Not only the massive infusion of caffeine, but the buzz and hum of customers and the chance to eavesdrop on random conversations. Having said that, I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of writing short stories again, after grappling with a novel for several years. Not sure if the enforced isolation of the pandemic had anything to do with this, but it’s been an interesting change.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

Five Writing Tips We Love to Hate

From Writers in the Storm:

While perusing the Twitterverse recently, I happened upon a question that caught my interest. Author Jeff Richards asked, “What is your LEAST favorite common writing tip?”

We all have that one piece of advice that makes us roll our eyes when someone feels the need to impart that particular kernel of wisdom. Below, I’ve collected some of the most popular responses from Mr. Richards’ query. Everyone has their own interpretation as to the meaning of these gems. Let’s take a deeper look and I’ll give you my opinion (I’m full of them).

Write Every Day

“Write every day” is the one I hear most often and was also high on the Twitter list. The most common complaints about this piece of advice involve finding the time and/or the inspiration. Both can be quite difficult at times. You need to write consistently, but that may not mean every day in your particular life situation. I like to approach this tip more as, “Make time in your schedule for writing and stick to it.”

The truth is life doesn’t always give us a choice, so do your best and don’t kick yourself to hard when you stumble and miss a day or two (or in my case sometimes weeks). There are times you need to give yourself permission to say, “It ain’t happening today…”

. . . .

Don’t Use Prologues

I have to admit “Don’t use prologues” used to be one of my favorite pieces of advice. I always felt the need for a prologue meant you were starting your story in the wrong place. I also found a good number of the prologues I encountered were simply data dumps of back story that could have easily been woven into the fabric of the narrative or eliminated completely.

I’ve flipped my opinion on this one a little. Sometimes a prologue can set the proper mood for a piece or help the reader get anchored in an unfamiliar setting, especially when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. I think the key is to keep it short and don’t overload the reader with details you can work into the story when they are necessary. A lot of back story can be implied by context and world-building done by your character’s interactions with their surroundings.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

The Secret To This Romance Author’s Success? Breaking All The Rules.

From Amazon Author Insights:

I can safely say that every time I’ve been asked to speak to aspiring writers, afterward, I’ve had not one, but several come up to me and say, “I can’t believe you did what you said you did. I was told never to do that. I was told never to break that rule.” This does not surprise me, but it saddens me. When I started writing, I too had a set of rules for writing romance (my genre) that I was under the impression were unbreakable. And I wrote within the confines of those rules.

It was only when publishing house after publishing house, agent after agent had rejected my submissions, and I’d decided that no one was ever going to read my books, that I threw the rules out the window. I then simply wrote what I wanted to write, wrote how the stories came to me, was true to them and my characters.

Then I published myself … And I’ve sold more than two and a half million books.

What are the rules I broke? First, I didn’t write what I thought people wanted to read. I didn’t research what might be popular — what might sell — and write that. I wrote stories that felt personal to me, that I enjoyed completely from writing to reading. The first book that I did this with was Rock Chick, and with it and the Rock Chick series, I broke all the rules:

I wrote in first person, and at that time, romance novels in first person were available, but not customary.

I wrote my heroine’s thoughts in a stream of consciousness. I had paragraphs — many of them — that were just one word. I put myself, and what would eventually be my readers, in the mind of my heroine, Indy. Not describing what she was thinking, but thinking what she was thinking as she was thinking it. It’s important to note that not everyone could get into that, and that’s understandable, even expected. It’s also important to note that the ones who did, really did.

. . . .

I didn’t censor my characters or their behavior. I didn’t think, “Oh, that might make her unlikeable, I need to switch that up, make her perfect.” I didn’t water down my aggressive, but loving heroes. I let them be them — real, imperfect, sometimes annoying, more times endearing (I hoped). They were great friends and good people, but they could (and often did) do stupid things (like we all do).

And my Rock Chicks were — and still are — hugely successful.

Once I let myself be free, my writing took off — not only in that people were reading it, but that I felt at liberty to create how I needed to create. To be true to what I was doing. It wasn’t about stepping out of bounds for the sake of it. It was about opening a cage and giving myself the freedom to fly.

In other words, I broke the rules for the sake of the stories. And I didn’t play it safe after my books started selling; I had to stay true to that process. I needed to keep spreading my wings, doing this for me, but also to give my readers something new and fresh, a story I was passionate about so they could enjoy it right along with me. 

Link to the rest at Amazon Author Insights

3 Key Tactics for Crafting Powerful Scenes

From Jane Friedman:

It’s one of the things we love most about fiction, the illusion that we’re not just reading a story about this character, we actually are this character.

Brain science tells us that when we read about a character doing or experiencing something, our brains light up in much the same way as if we were doing or experiencing that thing for ourselves—and nowhere is this illusion more complete than in scene.

Scene is where the pace of the story slows to “real time,” and we’re privy to every word, gesture, and sensory detail. Not only does this allow us to inhabit the story in a visceral way, it sends a clear message that what’s happening here is important—important enough that it cannot simply be narrated. Listen, the author is saying. You really just have to experience this for yourself.

Scene is also where the emotions of the story are at their most intense—the place where, to paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin, the reader leans forward and bites her lip. Scene is the place in the story where we find tears welling up in our eyes, or find ourselves scowling at the antagonist’s unconscionable cruelty.

That’s because, no matter how much the author tells us about the characters, scene is where characters show us who they really are. And in doing so, they’re often unpredictable—which of course only adds to the appeal. When we read scenes where the characters surprise us, we want to keep reading, to see what wild thing they’re going to do next.

Powerful scenes make for powerful stories, and as both a writer and book coach, I’ve found that these are three key tactics for achieving them.

1. Dramatize turning points

To articulate means to give shape or expression to something, such as a theme or concept—it also means to unite by means of a joint. Maybe that’s why dramatizing the turning points of a story, its joints, is one of the strongest ways to give shape and expression to the story as a whole.

Situating scenes at the turning points of your story also ensures that something will actually occur in these scenes, beyond sharing the basic exposition, characterization, and conflicts. Which is to say, situating your scenes this way helps to ensure that there will be a major development within that scene that moves the story forward.

Often, writers have no real intentionality about where they place their scenes, or what work they’ll actually perform for the story. They write scenes to explore a situation or setting, to get a sense for the dynamics between the characters, to explore the conflicts between them—and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially in an early draft.

But powerhouse scenes are made of stronger stuff: they do all of this while also dramatizing the story’s major developments, and articulating its contours as a whole.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Why Was My Protagonist So Prickly?

From Writer Unboxed:

You know how it is when someone points out a jarring aspect of your writing, and you to go great lengths to explain why it’s absolutely purposeful and necessary? And then someone else points out the same element in a completely different manuscript … and then someone else in a third one …

When that happened to me, I thought it was just a tic in my writing. Then I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t about my writing, but about me—because we put features and feelings into our characters that reflect who we are and how we see the world. In my case, it was a tendency to make my protagonist brittle and defensive. Someone with a chip on her shoulder, a snarky edge.

I told myself that I needed her to be that way so I could show an arc of transformation into someone kinder and more generous. You have to have a before in order to show a contrasting after, right? That was the point—an emotional journey, through inner and outer challenges, to a better self.

Yet something began to nag at me, and I wondered why I always chose this particular kind of before, and whether it was helpful to my writing.

These are two separate but related questions. One was what this tendency implied about me, as a person. The other was whether it was the best choice for my stories. Since this isn’t a confessional website—and I’m a very nice person, really!—I decided to ponder the second question and see if it might shed light on the first.

I asked myself: Couldn’t there be a compelling story about the emotional journey of someone who starts out a little bit good, struggles, is tested, does something extraordinary, and ends up being “more good” than she was at the beginning? Why does the protagonist have to start out angry and selfish in order to have an epiphany, pivot, and moment of redemption? After all, why would readers want to spend the first fifty pages of a novel with someone they wouldn’t want to spend fifty minutes with in real life?

Insert head-smacking emoji—because that was exactly the problem with the early versions of my recent novel.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Naming Fictional Characters: 10 Tips to Avoid Pitfalls

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

The old-school advice for naming fictional characters was to comb the obituaries. But not a lot of people get newspapers these days, so we need other sources of inspiration.

For me, spam is turning out to be one of the best places to find unique names. Every week I cull a few from my email and blog spam folders. I can always perk up a story by subjecting my heroine to a nasty boss named Hieronymus Weatherwax or a blind date with Snively Hassan. And I love the creativity of the three-first-names catfishers who try to friend me on Facebook. I’m using the catfisher name “Brownie David Jack” in my current WIP, Catfishing in America.

This week the loverboys who woo me on FB Messenger have come up with a new way to approximate American names. They’ve discovered the suffix “son” and gone to town with it. I found several messages from suitors named things like Kevinson Paulson, Ericson Peterson and Johnson Phillipson. Who knows? One of those names might work for some awful rich frat boy from your heroine’s past.

. . . .

1. Always Google your Characters’ Names!

I once wanted to name a porn star Peter McHugh until a Google search showed a local politician with that name. I don’t suppose he would have welcomed one more off-color joke.

And you want to make sure there’s not a real Galveston Ngyen, or you might find yourself in an embarrassing situation.

Sometimes failing to Google a name can lead to more than embarrassment. A few years ago author Jake Arnott created a thoroughly villainous character who was a London cabaret singer in the 1960s. He gave him the name Tony Rocco. Unfortunately, it turned out there was a real Tony Rocco who had been a cabaret singer in London in the 1960s. Lawsuits ensued.

2. Choose Names that Fit the Character

Would Jack Reacher be such a phenomenon if Lee Child had named him Phillidus Frogmore? Would Miss Marple have been able to do all that surreptitious investigating if Agatha Christie had called her Fifi LaRue?

Inappropriate and misleading character names are what prompted this post. You don’t want to give a character a name that sets up the wrong expectation in your readers. If you need to give your protagonist a name that goes against type, explain why as close to the opener as possible.

This week I tried to read a mystery with a sleuth named something like Fatty. Somewhere in the third chapter we were told he was tall, blonde and athletic. But because of his name, I already had a picture of the guy in my head…and that wasn’t it. If he got his name before a successful stint on The Biggest Loser, I needed to know that sooner.

Sometimes a name shows up on the page and we don’t even know where it came from. Those can be unique and inspired. But don’t commit to the name if it doesn’t fit the character,

And although you want your characters to have a memorable names that fit their personalities, beware getting too Dickensian. Unless you’re writing humor, names as outrageous as Dickens’ Master Bates, Wackford Squeers or Serjeant Buzfuz may take your reader out of the story.

3. Choose Names that Begin with Different Letters

It’s best to vary the length as well. You want to choose names that look different from each other on the page. Names that begin with the same letter will always confuse the reader. So don’t give your heroine rival boyfriends named Tim and Tom unless she can’t tell them apart either.

This gets tougher as you move along in a series. If you carefully name the villain du jour something that’s not at all similar to your recurring characters, you may end up with villains’ names that sound too much alike instead. If the bad guy is named Vincenzo in Book 3, Victoria in book 4, and Vidor in Book 5 you’ll confuse your series readers. (Or telegraph who-done-it too soon.)

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

How Much Does It Cost to Self-Publish a Book in 2021?

From ReedsyBlog:

Writing and publishing a book is one of the most rewarding things you can do in life. As an author, you create something beautiful and unique that readers will cherish forever. But once you finish writing, you might be curious how to get your book out into the world — and perhaps more importantly, how much will it cost to publish?

Luckily, this post is dedicated to answering that very query. Here we’ve broken down the cost of self-publishing by type and quality of service, so you can know exactly what you’re getting for your money.

. . . .

How much does it cost to publish a book?

The cost to publish a book depends on a) the length of the book and b) the level of quality you want. Most authors spend $2,000-$4,000 to self-publish their books — this includes editing, cover design, formatting, and marketing services.

Of course, if you just want to get your book out there, you can always format it for free and use Amazon’s self-publishing platform to make it available within 72 hours! For many people, writing the book is the greatest reward, and publishing is more of a formality.

But if you want to actually sell your book, you’ll need to invest in some high-quality services — otherwise, you have no chance of competing with traditionally published books. Yes, you can pick and choose which services to splurge on, but you can’t deny that certain things (like a strong cover design) are absolutely essential to book sales.

Link to the rest at ReedsyBlog

Based on a handful of reports, PG believes that Reedsy and the people who work there are straight-shooters and provide real value to many indie authors.

That said, one of Reedsy’s principle services is connecting professional editors, cover designers, etc., with authors who need their services.

Indie authors, just like any other group, vary in their levels of competence and talent. While there is definitely something to be said for getting third-party input when writing a book, at least some indie authors may be able to acquire the third-party help they require from friends and relatives without hiring a professional to assist.

As an additional point, regarding sow’s ears and silk purses, no amount of editorial work will save a manuscript if the author is unable to tell a compelling story in writing.

Top Two Anathemas

From Daily Writing Tips:

On National Grammar Day, the AP Stylebook editors tweeted a question for their readers:

What grammar rule do you find yourself getting wrong no matter how many times you look it up? Tell us your grammar kryptonite.

The feed I saw had 72 Quote Tweets. If “Quote Tweets” means “responses,” then I read them all. I did not take the time to count the repetitions, but I did note some clear winners. I’d say that the top two were these:

affect vs effect
lay/lie and all their tenses

It’s not as if the people who responded to the AP quiz haven’t been trying. They have looked up these bêtes noires numerous times in the AP Stylebook. The bitter truth remains that for some of us, some points of grammar and usage just won’t stick in our brains. Lack of grammar instruction in the early grades accounts for some persistent errors, but not all. Sometimes our brains are just blind to the reasoning behind the rule.

In this post, I’ll address the top two “kryptonite” examples given in the Twitter thread.

affect and effect
Although spelled differently, these two sound identical in speech, so it’s not surprising that speakers stumble when putting them into written form. It doesn’t help that effect functions as both noun and verb. As for affect, its most common use is an action verb, but psychologists sometimes use affect as a noun. Here are examples of correct usage of affect and effect:

We hope that the pandemic will not permanently affect social interaction. (verb)

What is the effect of gamma rays on Man-in-the-Moon marigolds? (noun)

The new law will effect a much needed change in wetland protections. (verb)

Often, the patient’s affect changes with his environment. (noun, in the sense of “feeling, emotion, mood”)

TIP: When used as a noun, effect will usually have an article in front of it: the effectan effectthe uncertainty effectto have an effect, etc. A clue to the use of effect and affect as verbs is the presence of a helping verb in front of them: will effectmay affect.

lay and lie
Sorting out the usage of this family of verbs requires a mastery of the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs. I don’t think that young people are being taught this concept anymore. Plus, so many speakers and writers now use the words interchangeably—even in professional contexts— I believe that attempting to maintain the distinction is a lost cause. While writing this post, I glanced at a news item in the Daily Mail, in which I read that a person shot a man and “then approached him while he was still laying on the ground.” I’ve seen lay used for lie in The New York Times and in The Washington Post. It’s a dead horse, folks.

Nevertheless, I’ll provide examples of preferred usage.

The verb lay, meaning, “to place” or “to put”
The verb forms are lay, laid, have laid, laying

Lay the book on the table. (Lay is transitive here. Its object is “the book.”)

My father is laying tile in the basement. (Laying is the present participle of lay. The object is “tile.”)

I think I laid my keys on the kitchen counter. (Laid is the past of lay. The object is “my keys.”

TIP: When the verb lay (to put or to place) is used correctly, it will be followed by a word that answers “what?” Lay what? “the book.” Is laying what? “the tile.” Laid what? “my keys.”

The verb lie, meaning, “to recline”
This verb is intransitive. It does not take an object. There is no word that answers “what?” after it.
The forms are lie/lies, lay, have lain, lying

He lies in bed until noon. (Third person present singular)

lie in bed until seven. (First person present singular)

The man was lying in the parking lot. (Lying is the present participle of to lie (to recline))

The dog lay in the shade. (Lay is the past tense of to lie (to recline).

We have lain on the beach since dawn. (Lain is the past participle of to lie (to recline)

TIP: I can’t think of a universally helpful tip for this one. The problem is that both verbs, the one for “to place” and the one for “to recline” share a form spelled lay. The speaker who is unable to remember the difference between present tense lay—place or put—and past tense lay—reclined—will continue to use them incorrectly. The best tip I can think of requires a person to understand the concept of verbs that have objects. Lay in the sense of “to put” needs an object and lie in the sense of “to recline” does not.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Sarah Moss’s Anxiety Chronicles

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

MOST NOVELISTS WHO want to embed sophisticated ideas in their fiction resort to long stretches of dialogue. In the traditional philosophical novel, loquacious characters are the vehicles for politics or principles. Sarah Moss is different. She favors realism and interiority. In each of her stylish, cerebral novels, ideas are thought, not declared.

Moss writes fiction of unusual philosophical and emotional density, often by focusing on the inner life of academics. Thankfully though, she abstains from writing campus novels. The lectern and the classroom stay out of sight. In her debut, Cold Earth (2009), five archaeologists and a literary scholar are excavating the remains of a Norse colony in Greenland when they realize that a pandemic is ravaging the rest of the world. In her second novel, Night Waking (2011), a historian is on a remote island in the Hebrides when one of her two young sons discovers an infant skeleton. In The Tidal Zone (2016), another historian spends days in an NHS hospital after his daughter mysteriously collapses. These, we could say, are off-campus novels.

After a decade studying 19th-century literature at Oxford, Moss, who is Scottish-born and Manchester-raised, started writing fiction of her own. With the publication of each of her first five novels between 2009 and 2016, Moss offered new evidence that she was one of the most versatile and talented writers working today. Yet, although these novels quietly garnered admiration, she remained, somewhat incomprehensibly, underappreciated in the United Kingdom. In America, she was practically unknown.

That changed with Ghost Wall (2018), a riveting gut punch of a novel that received universally rave reviews in almost every major publication on both sides of the Atlantic. In it, Moss trained her attention on a teenage girl from a working-class family who, along with her abusive father and abused mother, joins a professor and his students in a forest in Northumberland to reenact life in Iron Age Britain as part of an “experimental archaeology” course. Ghost Wall is a coming-of-age, state-of-the-nation thriller that manages to both shine a spotlight on the kind of nationalistic nostalgia that delivered Brexit and sensitively attend to the psychological damage of domestic violence. It has the quality of parable, yet never loses sight of the fragile but fierce young girl at its center. It is an extraordinary novel. And it is only 130 pages.

By populating her novels with literary scholars, archaeologists, and historians, Moss is able to contemplate topics as wide-ranging as lost Viking settlements, theories of childhood development, neonatal tetanus, the Highland Clearances, the Nazi bombing of Coventry, Victorian philanthropy, and the living practices of the pre-Roman British. Yet, for all this, Moss avoids pretension. Partly because she shows these highly educated, highly intelligent men and women not delivering lectures or engaging in lofty intellectual debates but rather cooking, cleaning, and thinking about doing the laundry.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Cut the Cost of a Professional Editor

From Writer Unboxed:

As an author, you want your novel to be the best it can be. A top quality product means good reviews, word of mouth recommendations, which lead to increased sales. But just a few typos and grammatical errors will put readers off. Before they’ve even fallen over your plot holes, they’re filling message boards with mocking remarks about a couple of innocently misplaced hyphens or an occasional dangling modifier.

Most writers know this, and they diligently take time to search for editors who can check their manuscript for errors. But often a glance at the editor’s price list is enough to send an author clicking back to more fun ways to procrastinate. Suddenly, those increased sales seem a little too far down the line to justify the investment.

But you needn’t be intimidated by those price lists. In fact, there are many ways to cut the cost of a professional editor. Consider these five before you decide to stick with your potentially flaw-filled manuscript

  1. Don’t send your first draft

Don’t even send your second or third draft. Wait until you feel you can do no more with your story beyond changing that comma to a full stop and back again. It’s at that moment, when you feel you’re ready to publish your novel or send it to an agent, when you should, in fact, send your manuscript to a professional editor.

Unless you’ve been through a revision process with a story consultant or writing coach, then your first contact with an editor is likely to be for a developmental edit where you’ll get help with plot, structure, character development and flow, among other things. If these story elements aren’t already well established, you’ll be basically paying for the editor to help you rewrite, which will be time and money consuming. Revise as much as possible first, and you’ll definitely save on editing costs.

. . . .

3. Go for quality

There’s more to finding an editor than looking around for the cheapest. You’ve worked many long hours on your story, and there’s a lot of personal investment in every word. You need someone to handle that manuscript, and you, with care. And you want them to get it right first time. The last thing you need is to have to employ another editor to undo the previous one’s bad work.

Look around for editors that suit your maximum budget and ask them for a sample edit. You don’t need to send the whole manuscript. I’ve found that the first 1500 words (about five double-spaced pages) is enough for author and editor to make a good assessment of the other’s work. So, look for an editor that fits both your budget and your style.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Imaginary Friend and Child

From Writers Helping Writers:

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite—derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth—or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

. . . .

Up to sixty percent of children construct an imaginary friend, either by assigning a personality and attributes to a stationary object (like a stuffed animal, doll, or action figure) or by creating an invisible one from the fabric of their imagination, so this can be a good element to being into your story. The child’s behavior and relationship dynamics between the character and this imaginary other is different in each case. A tangible object friend tends to become something they care for and protect (a parental or caregiving relationship) while an invisible friend is a companion the child treats as an equal. This latter type can be a person, animal, or something else the child dreams up. Imaginary friends are a healthy source of entertainment, friendship, support, and will allow your child character to explore ideas, gain confidence and competency, and practice social interactions in a safe way.

. . . .

Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
In this case, the relationship is one-sided and the child’s desires are being acted out, but even these can conflict. An over-active imagination might lead to:
The imaginary friend’s personality taking over (being disruptive, refusing to do as they are told, etc.), which causes the child to get angry because they aren’t in the mood for this
The imaginary friend “hiding” or showing up late, when the family is going somewhere, causing delays that or problems the child will get in trouble over

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Make your Protagonist an Actor

From Writer Unboxed:

Establishing “agency”—proving to your reader that your protagonist is equal to the journey ahead—is a craft element worthy of fresh consideration each time you begin a new project. This is especially true if you spend a good deal of your initial word count probing the protagonist’s memories and thoughts so you’ll understand the inner conflict that will drive their story.

That’s called “starting to write,” not “opening a novel”—but writers often conflate the two.

Reality is, you-as-author are the one who needs early access to that interiority. Your reader might not. Any reader who has met with an unreliable narrator will know that a character’s actions will speak louder than anything s/he is willing to tell us anyway. In order to earn your reader’s faith and investment, your protagonist must be willing to act.

This craft is based on physical law. As early as 1687, storytelling guru Sir Isaac Newton hinted at the necessity of getting your protagonist off his duff with his principle of inertia, which (sort of) states:

A protagonist at rest will stay at rest, and a protagonist in motion will stay in motion until his story problem is resolved, unless acted on by an external force.

Before submitting your manuscript to publishers, consider having your story open with your character already taking an action that suggests the nature of the journey ahead.

. . . .

Action—not thought—inspires the kind of external conflict that will pressure your character to engage with an inner arc of change.

Action—not thought—will show the character’s agency.

. . . .

Even a dazed woman wandering through a forest is different from one sitting on a stump thinking about how lost she is: the wanderer is looking for a way out.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Novelty and the Novel

From Writer Unboxed:

Chattering teeth.  Wind them up, set them down, and instantly those plastic choppers are clack-clacking away faster than a jackhammer, skittering around in circles on a Formica table top.  For a boy in the early 1960’s, there was nothing better.

Well, except maybe for X-Ray spectacles, trick handcuffs, a dribble glass, rocket kits, coin tricks, ant farms, muscle builders, hypno-coins, two-way radios, snake-in-a-can, joy buzzers, invisible ink or fake vomit.  These mail-away delights could be found in the classified ads in comic books and Mad Magazine, to which I was devoted.

Most of those items were manufactured by the estimable S.S. Adams company of New Jersey.  They knew their market and worked tirelessly to improve their products.  (Itch powder was particularly difficult to get right.)  To get these necessities, you had to send away.  In those days there was no Amazon offering expedited delivery.  You had to wait for weeks, tingling with anticipation so long that you almost forgot what you’d ordered so that when the package eventually was stuffed into your curbside mailbox, it was Christmas in July.

Chattering teeth belonged to a category of goods called novelties.  Novel.  Ties.  Yes, it makes one think of water-squirting neckties but it also, for us, recalls the story form that is the unifying topic of this blog site.  Novels.  Surely that shared root word is not an accident?

The Roots of Novelty

The word novel derives from the Old French nouvel, meaning young, fresh, or recent, and comes from the even older Latin novellus, which meant the same thing, and which was diminutive of the Latin novus, meaning new and novella meaning new things.

The use of novel to mean a fictional prose narrative began in Italy in the Sixteenth Century, originally referring to short stories in a collection (as, say, by Boccaccio), then in the Seventeenth Century began to describe longer prose tales.  (Before that such a story would have been called a romance.)  The root word gave rise to other English words too, such as announce, need, neon, newborn, news, pronounce and renew.

The need for novelty is hard-wired into our brains.  When we encounter what is different than expected, dopamine is released.  It arouses our interest and drives us to seek the reward of exploring and learning.  I’ll spare you the math behind Bayesian Surprise, but suffice it to say that substantia nigral/ventral segmental area (SN/VTA) in our brains lights up when we try a new route, travel to new places, try on new clothes, try a new approach, get a makeover, redecorate, meet someone interesting, see new things, encounter the unexpected or discover something we didn’t know before.

. . . .

Novelty as Practical Craft

In practical terms, how is novelty introduced into contemporary fiction?  Science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian, paranormal, slipstream, fables and altered reality tales might seem automatically a novelty banquet.  Realistic novels, on the other hand, might seem inherently to be novelty-starved.

Neither proposition is necessarily true.  Spec fiction can lean on dull, familiar tropes and lack novelty.  Realistic fiction can play with curious, exciting, amusing and unlikely characters and events and provide us with great novelty.  There’s no inherent advantage or pitfall in your type of story, whatever that may be, it’s all in how you approach it.

Here are some ideas for providing novelty in your novel:

  • Pick a character in your novel to make eccentric. How can this character’s behavior be odd?  How can he or she behave in ways that are outside social norms, conventions or propriety?  Who can be a rebel?  Who can have a notorious past?
  • Which character could be rigid, fussy, dogmatic, shrill, convention-bound, old-fashioned, judgmental, or set in his or her ways? What’s the greatest length to which this character will go to resist change?  What can this character do to surprise us?
  • Who can have an unusual profession? Who can do a common job in an uncommon way?  Who can be the most unlikely math genius, orator, emergency responder, drunk, chess demon, nude dancer, travel guide, fashion icon, philosopher or cheat? [Note: check the website TV Tropes for over-used stock characters.]
  • Who can come to the door unexpectedly? Who can make an uncharacteristic choice?  What decision can be a shocker?  Who can fall in love when it’s least likely?  What’s an unexpected reversal of fortune?  Where’s the place we don’t expect a monster to hide?  Whom can suddenly drop deadIntroduce a random variable. Roll the dice.  Pick a card from the deck of chance.  Throw a dart at a list of archetypes. Turn a plot template on its head.  Have an argument with your genre.  Break a rule with panache.  Do something in your novel that no writer has ever done before.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Importance of Character Development

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Most fiction readers fall in love with a book because of the characters. I’m no exception. As a person who reads an average of seventy-five books per year, it’s my experience that characters are the most important element in a story. Without believable characters, nothing else holds together.

Think of Gollum, for instance. There aren’t many of us who don’t immediately picture a wizened old man with a few wispy strands of hair on his head, wearing a loincloth, rubbing his hands together, and whispering, “My Precious.” When it comes to character development, JRR Tolkien had the Midas touch.

There are primary characters (main characters), secondary characters (characters who get a decent amount of page time but aren’t the main characters), and peripheral characters (mail carrier, doctor, neighbor). All three types of characters are vital because it lends diversity and contrast to the storyline. And with that, we get non-plot-specific conflict.

Regarding diversity, the Sean McPherson novels take place at a fictional writing retreat in the Pacific Northwest called Pines & Quill. One of the four writer-in-residence cottages is wheelchair-friendly. One way I take care not to offend a sometimes stereotyped demographic—differently abled people—is to use a sensitivity reader to ensure that I write accurately on behalf of those characters.

Writers, myself included, jump through many hoops when creating well-rounded, believable characters. For instance, nailing a character’s appearance is vital. Once I establish what they look like in my mind’s eye, I transfer that idea to a “character template” that I developed. I use that tool to play God and fully flesh them out as human beings—people readers relate with and want to learn more about.

I note physical characteristics such as height, weight, hair color, and eye color in my character template. Then comes their nationality. For example, in the Sean McPherson novels, the protagonist is Irish.

The character template is where I also note details about their childhood (good or bad), their parents (or whoever raised them), their siblings, and their childhood friends. I also note if they have any allergies. Why? As a suspense/thriller writer, I might be able to use this to their disadvantage.

As an author creates characters, it’s essential to ask if they’ve survived trauma, either physical or emotional. For example, are they a survivor of cancer, rape, domestic violence? Do they have PTSD—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Do they suffer from depression, an eating disorder, or anxiety? If yes, how does their experience factor into their current life? Realism adds to the storyline making it much more convincing because readers can relate.

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

Writing Rules vs. Writing Fashion: Should Writers Follow Fashion Trends?

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

Fashion. It sounds frivolous, but it has serious effects on us all.

Right now, women are getting beard-burn from kissing men who sport the fashionable romantic-hero three-day stubble. And mothers are stifling their disappointment when their golden-haired boys get the fashion-victim shaved-sides hairdo that makes them look like a cross between Kim Jong Un and the Last of the Mohicans.

And have pity on the people over 40 who are hunched over their computers trying to decipher text from the latest fashion in web design: a tiny, palest-gray font on a white background.

Alas, fashion favors the young.

Writing fashion is hard on us too. Fashion dictates a good deal of what gets published these days, and it’s constantly changing. Write like Thackery, Kipling, or Walter Scott and you’re unlikely to find a publisher or an audience. That’s because writing fashions have radically changed in the last two hundred years, even though the language itself has not.

The truth is that a great many of the “rules” that writers learn in workshops, critique groups, and classes are not actual rules of the English language. They may not even represent correct grammar. But they’re the “way we do things now.”

In other words:  They’re what’s in fashion.

Why Follow Fashion?

If you read a lot of classics and not much contemporary fiction, you may not realize how many changes have transpired in fiction writing in the past few decades.

Writing has become leaner and less descriptive. Maybe we can blame Elmore Leonard, who wrote in his Ten Rules for Writing in 2007, “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

This doesn’t mean that classic books are “wrong,” but it does mean that your writing will seem old-fashioned if you follow an older, more lush, descriptive style.

This can work FOR you if you’re writing epic fantasy (hello, George R.R. Martin) or historical fiction, but it won’t please readers who expect a contemporary style.

Submitting a manuscript that’s written in an older style is like showing up to a job interview wearing a bustle or doublet and hose. It can make an impact, but not always in a good way.

A brilliant story may be rejected because the style is unfashionable. Is that unfair? Probably. But business isn’t always fair. Alas, publishers only acquire stuff they think will sell, and an old-fashioned style doesn’t always jump off the shelves.

You’ll notice the difference in writing fashion if you read a bunch of contemporary novels and then pick up a classic.

I did this recently with a collection of Dorothy L. Sayers stories. Almost every line of dialogue had a tag that included a dreaded adverb.

“I’ll have a champagne cocktail, said Montague Egg urbanely.”

Obviously, adverbs were not as dreaded in the 1920s.

Dialogue Tags

Fashion in dialogue tags has changed in the past few decades. I had a crash course in this from my UK publisher. I was asked to change about 50% of the tags in my novel The Best Revenge.

Here are three ways a writer often identifies the speaker in dialogue.

1) “Never let them see you sweat,” Serena advised the visibly nervous lacrosse team.

2) “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Serena removed her damp, aromatic socks while addressing the team.

3) “Team? I don’t know about any team,” I sweated as I blocked the door to the dungeon where Serena had incarcerated the lacrosse players.

#1 and #2 are both correct. But #3, not so much. (Not just because it’s not nice to lock lacrosse players in a dungeon.) But people can’t sweat words.

However, #2 is more fashionable in contemporary fiction. Writing fashion tells us to drop the dialogue tag altogether and identify the speaker by adding action. Yes, I know that can sometimes lead to reader confusion, so don’t do it so often it leaves readers scratching their heads.

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

Stranger Than Fiction: Bigamy, Jealosy, and Foul Play From the Annals of True Crime

From CrimeReads:

“Well, that was fun, but it wasn’t at all realistic!” is an often shared opinion by readers after snapping closed an engrossing though twisty thriller. I always find those kind of assessments amusing because:

  1. Don’t we read fiction to escape reality?
  2. No matter how far-fetched the plot, I bet I could find a real-life example that is even more outlandish because “Truth is stranger than fiction,” as Mark Twain once said.

When I decided to begin researching for my book The Three Mrs. Greys—a novel about Cyrus Grey, a conman who marries three different women and lies unconscious in the hospital room while his wives are left to unravel his secrets and solve his attempted murder—I quickly stumbled upon plenty of real-life inspiration. It wasn’t hard to find true crime examples of bigamy, jealousy, and foul play with plotlines that would leave even readers shocked by the twists and turns.

A Wealthy Doctor, His Two Wives, and a Murder Plot

Like Cyrus, Dr. Jean-Claude Dominique’s house of lies crumbled in April 1999 in a hospital room when it was revealed that he had married two women and had two different families—one in his native Haiti and the other, in New Jersey. While Dr. Dominique lay dying in his hospital bed after a hit-and-run accident, his first wife, Eliette Dominique, and his second wife, Betsy Dominique, met in-person for the very first time.

After Dr. Dominique’s death, Eliette and Betsy were left to wrestle over his estate. A New Jersey judge ruled in Eliette’s favor, accepting the argument that she’d married him first and Dr. Dominique was only able to marry his second wife, Betsy, due to a forged divorce decree.

The judge’s ruling seemed like it would have been the logical end to Dr. Dominique’s story: A doctor’s long-held secrets are revealed, wives spar in court, and both families go their separate ways and try to rebuild their lives. But like all twisty thrillers, the story continued, taking an unexpected turn when Dr. Dominique’s brother, Aly, came on to page and decided to get involved. According to reports, Aly believed Betsy was the rightful heir to Dr. Dominique’s estate—but this belief may have been motivated by some self-interest: Police suspected that Aly thought he could gain access and control of his late-brother’s estate through Betsy, an alleged childhood friend.

From there, Aly hatched a plot to eliminate Eliette. With $10,000, he hired two hitmen to murder her, and in October 2000, the hitmen, Marvin Geden and Alexander Exama, ambushed Eliette as she left for work from her home in New York. Though seriously injured, Eliette managed to survive the shooting, and Geden and Exama were soon arrested.

Like his brother’s lies, Aly’s plans quickly unraveled. Geden and Exama pointed to him as the grand orchestrator of the murder plot, and in July 2002, Aly was found guilty of second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy in the second-degree. He was sentenced to eight to 25 years in prison, Geden received 19 years, and Exama got a 12-year prison sentence.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

10 Stories about Self-Destructive Women

From Electric Lit:

One of the greatest thrills of reading a first-person story is in the tension between what the narrator understands about themself and what we, the readers, understand about the narrator. But in these first-person stories of self-destructive women, the lies are so thin, the self-delusion and denial so absurd, the jokes so dark or so dead-pan or so sarcastic, that we get the sense the narrators, at least on some level, know they’re wreaking havoc on their own lives. Perhaps the obfuscation isn’t about how they’re making messes of their lives, but why, what pain those messes hide.

Many of the narrators in my short story collection Girls of a Certain Age behave self-destructively as a means of coping with circumstances beyond their control. In “First Aid,” the main character makes a case for self-injury. In “Human Bonding,” a college student is thrilled to be punched in the face. In “None of These Will Bring Disaster,” an unemployed binge drinker purposefully picks up smoking and keeps finding herself in unfulfilling relationships. “If you keep stepping in the same ditch over and over,” she says, “people stop feeling sorry for you because you’re either an idiot or a masochist.”

Maybe I’m the idiot or the masochist, because no matter what the women in these stories and novels do—no matter how blatantly they lie, how many mind-altering substances they consume, how easily they turn on their loved ones—I find I am rooting for them, holding out hope that they might change.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

What’s the Difference Between a Thriller and a Mystery? Pacing.

From CrimeReads:

Reading has always been a great escape in my life. Books gave me joy, taught me much, but mostly, they were entertainment.

. . . .

My childhood favorites are similar to many writers in my genre: Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew; Agatha Christie and Lois Duncan. I graduated at age thirteen to Stephen King, and never looked back. I remember reading The Odyssey when was in 8th grade, not for school but for pleasure. And it was a completely eye-opener for me—the intense battles, the epic hero’s journey, the monsters and villains.

In high school, I devoured my mother’s shelves of crime fiction: Ed McBain and Lillian O’Donnell; Marcia Muller and Joseph Wambaugh. By the time I grew up, had a family, and was thinking of finally writing the book I’d always wanted to write, I was filling my shelves with Lisa Gardner and Iris Johansen, and realized that there had been a slight shift in my reading focus. I went from mysteries and horror and epic suspense to thrillers. I realized that while I still love the rich, deep, epic tales like The Stand by Stephen King, I preferred the quick, energizing reads of thrillers.

. . . .

What’s the difference, you might ask? Why is Lisa Gardner and Lee Child more “thriller” and Tess Gerritsen and JD Robb more “mystery?”

It’s all about the pacing.

Thrillers in particular provide a rich backdrop to entertain readers of all ages. Great heroes and villains; race-against-time storylines; classic, universal stories of good versus evil. They are a great escape as well as speak to our need for people to root for. We want the hero to succeed and the bad guy to be defeated. We want balance to be restored to the world through justice, a constant theme in the thrillers I gravitate toward.

I’m often asked to teach workshops or speak at writers groups, so I’ve thought a lot about what makes a thriller “thrilling.”

There are a few obvious checkpoints, which are actually important to all great books: character, for example. Most readers want a character they can root for. This person doesn’t have to be perfect, in fact, imperfect characters that reflect our own imperfections and struggles make the most compelling and interesting heroes who we want to succeed. Likewise, great villains are rarely just bad. They are as complex as the hero, with understandable motivations—even if their actions are immoral or evil.

But the key to a great thriller is pacing: how the story is told.

There will be ups and downs. You can’t maintain 100% kinetic energy, never slowing, never giving time for the characters to breathe (and therefore, your reader to breathe.) But in thrillers, any relaxation will be brief; it’ll be filled with tension and anticipation, with readers asking themselves, what will happen next?

. . . .

How do you speed up pacing?

Thrillers are, by definition, fast-paced stories, whether they are crime thrillers, international thrillers, romantic, medical, or legal thrillers.

  • Shorter chapters: Short, crisp chapters focused on one scene or even part of a scene, especially when they are close together, signal to the reader that a lot of stuff is happening at the same time.
  • Short chapters interspersed between longer chapters: Sometimes, having a short 1-3 page chapter in the middle of standard-length chapters (10-20 pages) helps to pick up the pace. The chapter stands out and propels the reader to keep reading.
  • Well-executed cliffhangers. (Avoid overuse, but cliffhangers at the end of the occasional chapter works well.)
  • Shorter sentences, interspersed with fragments. No wasted words.
  • Crisp dialogue with less introspection. Use character action instead of dialogue tags to keep the scene moving.
  • Action verbs.
  • Less description or minimal description. One rule: identify three key visuals for your readers through the character’s eyes to set the scene rather than paragraphs of setting.
  • CAVEAT: avoid too many “fast-paced” or high-action scenes in a row—you need to give your reader a breather, even if it’s brief. Example from Die Hard: After a whole bunch of action, our hero John McClane sits down high up in Nakatomi Plaza and talks on the radio to his ally Sergeant Al Powell, while smoking one of the bad guys’ cigarettes. It’s a short scene, shares information and character, but also gives viewers a short breather before the action continues at even higher levels. In books, including a scene where a character is taking a hot shower after an intense sequence, or going for a run while thinking over the case, visiting an elderly mentor, or having sex with their significant other are all good ways to give everyone a “time out” before putting them into action again.

How do you slow pacing?

Yes, sometimes pacing can be TOO fast or TOO intense, and you need to find a way to slow it down. Some ideas:

  • More narrative—longer descriptions, more introspection. Let the reader know how the character reacts to the conflict and stakes. Take more time to set the scene or use descriptive phrases instead of single adjectives.
  • Some people balk at flashbacks, but when done right they heighten suspense while simultaneously slowing the story.
  • Layer details, use longer sentences/paragraphs, choose words that soothe or evoke a feeling of calm. One example: use setting strategically to create a sense of foreboding and disquiet. One of the best writers today who uses setting as character in suspense fiction is J.T. Ellison.
  • Conversations between characters with deep introspection; “quiet” action (like at a restaurant, pillow talk, driving in a car. Just make sure the conversation is relevant to the story and advances the plot—not just filler!)
  • CAVEAT: avoid adding too much narrative or description in the middle of intense action. Once you’re in that high-action scene, you want to keep spiraling up until you reach a place where you can organically take a break.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

When Everything Changes – Capturing Profound Character Moments

From Writer Unboxed:

A few weeks ago, coinciding with the anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic, several newspapers published accounts on the early days of the crisis as drawn from the lives of everyday Americans. Essentially the reports were a contemporary take on a person-on-the-street story focused on a singular question – What was the moment you realized your world had changed as a result of Covid-19?

I approached the articles with a tinge of curiosity and, not surprisingly, with a writer’s eye. I knew my own experience, of course. In the months since, I have recounted to friends the surreal visit to see my Mom in Florida, which happened to coincide with the week everything began to shut down, including ultimately her assisted living facility. I recall feeling lucky to be in her company during those last days of seeming normalcy, even while waking to the fact that we had no idea when it might be safe to return. Only later did my partner and I acknowledge our shared yet unspoken fear at the time, that perhaps we had already been exposed and might have unknowingly brought illness with us (fortunately we had not). Saying our goodbyes was especially hard, one of those times you see the fragility of life, deeply and starkly.

Reading the recent articles reawakened those feelings. The anecdotes recounted were often simple – an exhausted nurse sitting in her car, knowing the long shift she had just completed was merely a precursor of what was to come; a worried parent in their new “remote office,” fretting over how they could possibly manage their children’s online schooling when they could barely master a Zoom meeting; a grocery clerk receiving a mask and safety briefing from their store manager for the first time. But the emotions they shared were complex and compelling, genuine expressions of the anxiety we all felt to one degree or another this past year.

All of which has left me pondering how moments of profound change for characters are captured in stories. When do those scenes work, elevating the narrative? And perhaps just as important, what causes them sometimes to fall short? Admittedly I have only begun to scratch the surface of what could be a lengthy course of study. But I have a few opening thoughts, which may stir your own instincts. So, let’s dive right in, shall we?

Stories Need Pivotal Moments 

It may seem an obvious point, but a good entry to understanding what makes a scene of profound change work is acknowledging the need for such scenes from the start. As Lisa Cron explains in her amazing book of craft Wired for Story, humans are drawn to stories because our evolution as a species springs from our ability to imagine a future and then to build it. Stories provide a means to explore possibilities and to learn from mistakes without actually having to make them in real life. In short, stories teach us how to change, how to grow.

For this reason, when we pick up a book or sit down to watch a production, we engage the parts of our brain that hunger for stories. From the first page or opening scene we begin to gather information, seeking clues and patterns, trying to understand motives of the characters. If given good reason (i.e., a worthy hook), we quickly bond with the protagonist, slipping into their lives and adopting their problems as our own, at least mentally.

But to keep us engaged, we need moments when the protagonist, faulted though they may be, takes stock of their situation. Or, if not the reflective sort, the protagonist must at times be forced to face an ugly reality they’d much rather ignore. For as the journey hardens, lessons from those moments will prove key to unlocking the true objective in ways the protagonist of page one might not even be able to fathom.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

50-Cent Words Are No Bargain

From The Wall Street Journal:

Those of us who take an interest in changes in contemporary language are in a condition not unlike that of the village idiot of Frampol, a shtetl in Poland. He was assigned the job of waiting at the gates for the Messiah and was told: The pay is low but the work is steady.

Thus with three minutes left in a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, LeBron James hits a 3-pointer, causing the announcer to note that “the score is 89-85, a 4-point differential.” But is it a “differential”? Cars have differentials and some equations are differentials, but do basketball or other sports scores have differentials? Why not instead use the simple word “difference?” What attracts this announcer, and lots of other sports announcers, to the word “differential”?

The same thing, I suppose, that attracts television news anchors and newspaper journalists to the word “replicate,” when duplicate or copy will do nicely. The same people are also likely to reach for replicate’s hazy neighbor “recalibrate,” when what they have in mind is usually nothing more than “reconsider.” While I’m at it, when did the word “multiple” come to replace the simpler words “several” or “many”? Perhaps, my guess is, around the time that “definitively,” a word meaning decisively and authoritatively, was mistakenly thought to be merely a more emphatic version of “definitely.”

Another semantic casualty is the useful word “disinterested,” meaning impartial, above faction, fair-minded—long confused with “uninterested.” The loss here, though not intentional, is serious. With the true meaning of the word disinterested lost, so is the worthy ideal, and soon, too, those rare men and women who wish to embody it.

H.L. Mencken mocked Warren Harding for promising a return to “normalcy,” when normal or normality would have worked, but apparently more than mockery was needed to put this awkwardly pretentious word out of use. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought “normalcy” back with a relentlessness that ought to put a cringe on the face of the whole human race.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Finding Your Way to the End

From Jane Friedman:

“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye.”

—Bob Wells in Nomadland

Sound familiar? The quote is from the promotional campaign for the new film, Nomadland. Winner of the 2021 Golden Globe for Best Picture Drama, Nomadland documents the itinerant lifestyle of thousands of older Americans who refer to themselves as “vandwellers.” Bob Wells serves as a shaman of sorts to these wanderers. Rather than say goodbye, possibly for good, Wells prefers an upbeat, “See you down the road!“

Given that many of us sidestep endings in real life, it should not be surprising that writers have trouble concluding book projects. If you are one of those struggling to find an ending for your novel, your novella, or your memoir, take a deep breath then take heart. Concluding takes a lot out of us. Even happy endings are hard to eke out.

I love what Jane Smiley says about finishing the rough draft of a novel in her excellent tome, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel:

…To write through to the end of the rough draft, in spite of time constraints, second thoughts, self-doubts, and judgments of all kinds, is an act of faith that is invariably rewarded—the rough draft of a novel is the absolute paradigm of something that comes from nothing.

Use a placeholder for your ending

So, as you approach the end, try not to worry about finding finality. Don’t press for profundity or go back to the beginning and start revising. Don’t leave the ending for later. Instead, settle for a placeholder this time around.

What’s a placeholder? Just what it sounds like: someone or something that takes up space until Mr. Right comes along. (Yes, it’s true. Occasionally, the placeholder morphs into Mr. Right. And if that’s the case for you, count yourself as one of the lucky ones.)

For now, aim for an okay ending. A placeholder will help you see the outlines of your story, and it will give you bragging rights: “I finished my draft!” Because you’re going to be revising, right? Of course, you are. So, trust that when you reach the end again, you will be older, more mature, and ever-so-much-more knowledgeable. Then, you can aim for a satisfying ending but not a perfect one. In truth, there is no such thing as perfect. Perfect is an absolute, like unique. Trying to be unique or perfect is the ruination of anything good. As Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.“

Pleasing yourself is paramount

What’s okay or good enough, then? Something that serves the story and, secondarily, pleases you as a reader. Pleasing yourself is paramount because in doing so, you are likely to interest a select group of others, those whose reading preferences are like yours. And, finally, writing is something you do for one person. Most often, that person is yourself. John Steinbeck said it this way:

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike in the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

The Preposition “Amid”

From Daily Writing Tips:

This post was prompted by a headline in the Washington Post:

US deports former Nazi guard whose wartime role was noted on card found amid sunken ship

The phrase “amid sunken ship” struck me as peculiar usage—not because an article was missing— it is a headline, after all—but because I couldn’t understand why the headline-writer didn’t choose to use the simpler preposition, in.

Nothing in the article below the headline specified where in the ship the card was found. I saw nothing to indicate that the card had been found amidships, that is, “in the middle of a ship.”

Amid has had a very long run in English. It descends from Old English on middan, “in the middle of.” Its current uptick in newspaper headlines is owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. The word soared in use at the end of February 2020, when journalists made it the preposition of choice to use with the pandemic and matters relating to it. Previously more poetic than workaday, the word began to figure in numerous Google searches, spiking on March 1, 2020.

Now firmly established in the vocabulary of bad things happening, amid, plus a noun that denotes unpleasant things or circumstances, brings up millions of hits in a Google search:

amid the pandemic—about 294,000,000 results
amid lockdowns—about 21,300,000 results
amid virus—about 223,000,000 results
amid false claims— About 105,000,000 results
amid fears of more— About 101,000,000 results

The OED offers four definitions of amid as a preposition.

1. In the middle or center of. Originally with a genitive. Now only poetic.
Ex. “And all amid them [other trees] stood the Tree of Life.” Milton, Paradise Lost.

2. Of two things: Between. Obsolete
Ex. Leste heo thes deofles quarreaus habbe amidden then eien
Lest she have the devil’s arrows between her eyes. Ancrene Riwle.

3. More loosely, near the middle of a place, surrounded on all sides by objects. Chiefly poetic.

. . . .

4. In relation to the circumstances which surround an action.
a. with singular noun, (indicating state or condition).
Ex. My spirit sleeps amid the calm.

b. with plural noun (indicating actions or events).
Ex. Amid general shouts of dissent.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

How To Write A Cozy Mystery

From The Creative Penn:

Excerpts from an interview with cozy mystery author Debbie Young:

Debbie: That’s the way to be, isn’t it, especially at the moment? You want to be upbeat and look for the bright side of things. Definitely the ‘glass half full’ person.

I’ve always been quite jolly and upbeat and cheerful, and I like reading happy books with happy endings. They have to be convincing happy endings, not just sort of neat and happy for the sake of it. So, it was fairly natural for me to go into writing upbeat fiction.

I’m also ever so suggestible. I scare very easily, have nightmares at scary things on the telly. I’ve got a teenaged daughter, and for some years now we’ve had role reversal, where she’s told me when to look away from the screen so I don’t get frightened, or get too sad. And, I like cheerful things.

I’ve always loved writing, since I was a child. Spent a career in journalism and PR, writing business-y things. And when I decided, some time ago, to start focusing more on writing fiction and writing what I’d really wanted to write when I grew up, I started writing short stories, and found myself writing mostly humorous ones, funny ones. I do like a laugh. I like a joke. I like jolly things. I’m interested in eccentric and unusual characters, as well.

As I built up my confidence, and competence, I suppose, as well, in writing funny short stories, I decided that I really wanted to move onto novels. And, because I’ve always loved upbeat, traditional mysteries, which I guess you would call cozy mysteries now, the Agatha Christie kind.

Cozy mysteries is more of a newcomer as a category, compared to the golden age of mysteries, when my heroes, like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham were writing. So, it was quite natural for me to sort of go in that direction.

Also, this is about, 10 or 11 years ago I was deciding what I should be writing long term, and at that point, I had lived in my little Cotswold village for 20 years. I’ve now lived here over 30 years. Been part of village life, really from day one.

I’ve served on just about every committee in the village. My daughter’s been through the village school. I’m now in the church choir. I’ve joined the bell ringers. Been on the village show committee, all this sort of this thing.

So, there’s endless amounts of material there, but also, I love community life. I love this village life. Having grown up in a London suburb, where you didn’t know all your neighbors, you didn’t speak to all your neighbors, here, where everybody knows everybody else, it’s a lovely way to live. It suits me. It wouldn’t suit everybody, but it suits me very well. And, I wanted to celebrate that in my fiction.

We’ve never had any murders here…we have the odd mystery, but no murders. I’ve been found out. So, it was natural that I choose that setting for my first series of novels, which are the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. Writing about somewhere that you know very well, that you’re very fond of, and that you like very much, I think makes the whole thing more enjoyable and easier. And, I think it should be enjoyable.

When I came to diversify into a second series, which is set in the same parish as the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, but just up the road in a private girls’ boarding school, quite an eccentric boarding school, I drew on the 13 years’ experience I had working in the offices of a girls’ boarding school. So, that was another community that I knew very well.

Now, with both of these kinds of communities, with both the village and with the boarding school, they are classic settings, really, for a cozy mystery, and you’ve got a clearly identifiable little world of its own. So, you can do a lot of world building.

You’ve got finite borders, really, to that world, so you’ve got your cast of characters, pretty much staying put. So, there’s almost something sort of theatrical and stagey about it, you’ve got your own little world, that makes a very good setting for this kind of book.

So, I felt that I had two very good sets of experiences which would allow me to make those worlds. I’ve got another one that I’m thinking of doing later on, when I’m a bit further down the road with my second series, which will be set in the world of commerce.

I worked for PR consultancies for a few years, and they are also a very interesting setting. So, that’s another one, but that might not be quite as cozy. I haven’t quite decided.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

Twenty Authors Talk About the Second Time Around

From Writer Unboxed:

This is a continuation of my report on the experience of launching a second novel.  If you missed the first part, no worries! You can read it here.  To recap:

Everyone loves a debut. A new star bursts on the scene, with a world of possibilities still ahead. A friend publishes her first book and has her dream come true. The second book? Not so much.

I’d heard about the “sophomore slump”—the letdown and lack of media interest in a second novel. I’d also heard that a second book is easier because the process isn’t so unknown; experience can bring clarity, confidence, and manageable emotions.

Both descriptions of the sophomore novel made sense to me. Since I was about to launch my own second book, I was curious to know what others had to say—writers who had “gone before me” and could reflect back on what it was like. I reached out to authors I knew whose second books had come out fairly recently and asked three questions:

  • How was the second book different for you, externally?  That is, did you approach it differently in terms of promotion, strategy, finances, and so on?
  • How was it different for you, internally?  That is, were there differences in your expectations, attitude, emotions, personal experience?
  • Were there ways in which the two experiences were similar?

. . . .

A more secure identity as a writer 

When I was a college professor, I taught a course on dissertation design to PhD students. What I remember most about that course wasn’t on the syllabus; it was the “identity work” that the students had to undertake—the empowering-but-scary transition from the identity as a learner (a consumer of knowledge) to the identity as a scholar (a creator of knowledge).

Writing one’s first book reminds me of that. It’s a transition to a new identity, from writer (a person who writes) to author (a person whose writing is public). “Owning” that identity is both thrilling and frightening. As one person put it:

On the first go-around, I didn’t think I deserved to take up space in the writing world. Who was I to think I could publish a book? I was so afraid to say, I AM A WRITER. This time, I’m done with imposter syndrome. I have a small but loyal following and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I deserve that space!

Crossing that threshold, in itself, can be just as important as how many copies the book sold, how many accolades or reviews it receives. As several people put it: “I was just happy to be published; it was a lifelong dream come true.”

Along with that thrill, for many, came a sense of anxiety and vulnerability. The second time around, in contrast, brought greater confidence and relaxation. It was less intense, less seismic. For those of us who are parents, it’s a bit like the arrival of a second child.

The first time around I didn’t know what to expect, so I was extremely nervous about everything from the launch to trade reviews to what my family would think. It was all so new and exciting, but also terrifying, and that was hard to manage at times.

Knowing what to expect—at least in general—helped to mitigate the emotional roller-coaster of launching a book, and to keep it from hijacking one’s entire sense of self-worth.

Overall, the process was a lot less painful. I’m not sure if I’d say the process was less emotional, but perhaps less tied to my general self-worth and self-esteem.

I did have more confidence the second time, since I had been through it and knew it was possible, knew there were readers out there. It was also a better book.

With greater self-confidence came a willingness to take more risks, not only in aspects of marketing like public speaking, but in the writing itself.

Overall, I had much more confidence with the second one, which allowed me to take some risks.  I knew, now, that I had it in me to write and publish a book.  And then with the second one, I knew I wasn’t just a “one book wonder.”

With my second novel, I felt more confident to take on a story that had been in the back of my mind for over a decade. I definitely took more risks with that novel.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG notes that Mrs. PG is currently doing final proofing for what she believes is her 40th book (she’s not obsessive about counting, just about writing).

He’s not certain whether the author of the OP will work her way through this series for the third, fourth, fifth, etc., book for long enough to contact Mrs. PG.

Find the Ending Before You Return to the Beginning

From Jane Friedman:

The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written. —Joyce Carol Oates

When I taught my first graduate fiction workshop in 1994 at the University of New Mexico, I did as my teachers had done: I distributed a calendar, students signed up, and we agreed on a plan for distributing short stories or chapters from novels-in-progress. 

A Scandinavian woman in her early seventies got us started with the opening chapter of her novel-in-progress. It introduced an immigrant family embarking on an ocean voyage to America. I made my comments then invited others to offer their perspectives.

After students began speaking, I realized some of them were already acquainted—with each other as well as the chapter under discussion. Later, the author told me that she presented Chapter One each time she started a new workshop, both to familiarize class members with the story and because she had yet to work out the kinks in her opening pages. Her goal, she told me after class, was to publish at least this one novel in her lifetime.

I don’t know whether my student ever finished her book and saw it to print because she was a community member, not someone working toward a degree. But, all these years later, I recognize that my class was more likely a hindrance than a help to her. I say this because I know now that chapters are a different animal than stories. Whereas short stories stand alone, chapters depend for their meaning on what comes before and after.

Like stones in a wall, chapters are parts of something larger, so assessing them in isolation is at best a waste of time and at worst injurious to the work as a whole.

Remember that great Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”? In it, Frost describes the yearly task of repairing the wall, which amounts to restacking stones that have been dislodged. Some are “loaves” and some are “balls” and getting them to fit together and stay in place is difficult.

We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’

It’s a balancing act, with boulders and with chapters, and we can only judge them after we put them in place and stand back to see whether the fit is a good one.

The Going-Back-to-the Beginning Syndrome

Because we are anxious and insecure, we tell ourselves that a better beginning will give us the momentum we need to reach the end. But it won’t. It doesn’t. In her book The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, Martha Alderson lays out the four challenges writers face when they sit down to write. The first one she lists is procrastination. The fourth is “The Going-Back-to-the-Beginning Syndrome.”

Alderson cites various reasons (read rationalizations) that writers use for going back to the beginning instead of proceeding into the messy middle (also known as the rising action) or sneaking up on the end. It’s comforting to return to the beginning, the status quo, when things weren’t falling apart. It’s harder to enter your house when you know the people inside are unhappy—liable to lose their tempers and throw things. Some of us are conflict averse, and what we have to learn is that we aren’t just conflict averse in our real lives. We are also conflict averse in our fiction.

Fight or Flight

During the revision process of my first novel, my editor Carla Riccio made an interesting observation: Every time your characters get into an argument, one of them leaves the room. We were on the phone, and I burst out laughing because I recognized the problem immediately. Leaving is my first impulse in a situation I find uncomfortable: Hightail it. Make like a tree and leave. My husband the psychologist has nailed me on it countless times. Over the years, I have managed to better monitor and modify my behavior. That said, I had no idea the problem had followed me onto the page.

You probably recognize the term “fight or flight.” It refers to the physiological response we humans have to perceived threats, whether those be mastodons, marital muddles, or the messy middle of a manuscript. Regardless of the risk, some of us are more apt to fight than flee. Others, like me, want to run away, back to the safety of the beginning. Fleeing doesn’t solve anything. Don’t go back to the comfort of the beginning; stay in the messy middle and fight. (And let your characters duke it out, too.)

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman