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

11 Techniques for Transforming Clichéd Phrasings

From Writers Helping Writers:

One of the things that pumps me up the most when I’m reading a book is when the author phrases things in a way I’ve never seen before. It could be a familiar concept or image—red hair, an urban street, fear—but when it’s written differently, I’m able to visualize that thing in a new way, as if I’m seeing it from a new angle.

. . . .

This idea of turning tired phrases into new and interesting ones has intrigued me for a while—so much so that I have a notebook full of samples I’ve found in various books. When I get stuck trying to describe something in my own writing, I study those passages to see how the author was able to put a new twist on a well-used phrase. As a result, I’ve figured out a couple of tricks for how we can amp up our descriptions for both fiction and nonfiction works.

The beauty of these techniques is that they work for settings, physical features, character emotion—all kinds of descriptions.

1) Ask Questions to Drill Down and Find the Perfect Phrase

Writing is hard work. Sometimes, when we get hung up on a certain passage, it’s easiest to fall back on the phrasings that are most comfortable: butterflies in the stomach, snow that sparkles like diamonds, a peaches-and-cream complexion, etc. To move beyond these clichés, focus on one aspect of the description and experiment with new ways to describe it. Take this sentence, for instance:

Her eyes are like the lit end of a cigarette, burning into me.
~Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko

What a great way to express an angry gaze. You can almost imagine the author’s brainstorming process: How do the eyes burn? What do they look like as they’re burning? What description could I use that expresses both the anger in her eyes and the way they make the viewpoint character feel? This is a great example of how a potentially clichéd phrase can be freshened up with a little extra thought and effort.

2) Mix Up The Senses

Oftentimes, our passages fall flat because they’re described with the most obvious senses: objects have visual descriptors, and sounds are given auditory comparisons. But mixing the senses can often create a fuller, more layered description.

Their voices were loud and rough and had the sharp edges of crushed-up beer cans. ~Breadcrumbs, Anne Ursu

Here, two of the senses are employed to show us how the voices sound: auditory (loud and rough) and textural (the sharp edges of beer cans). Mixing the senses not only makes for unexpected descriptions, it’s also a great way to add dimension and draw readers a bit more into the story.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Does Your Novel Have a Problem? (It Should)

From Writers in the Storm:

I’ve always been drawn to writing science fiction and fantasy, which means that I’ve written a lot of first drafts based on “cool ideas” but no real conflict. Sure, I had a sense of what the problems were, and maybe even a few key scenes unfolding in my mind, but the books were about the idea, not characters with specific problems. 

No surprise, those drafts never got beyond the first draft.

Many a novel has been started with a vague idea and a lot of pages that explain why that idea is so cool. They’re even well-written novels, but in the end, they fail because there’s no point to them and no problem driving the plot.

. . . .

Take a look at your current manuscript. What’s the problem of the novel? Is it a specific, concrete problem to solve (such as catch a killer, find the money to save the farm, defeat the evil wizard before she enslaves the realm) or is it a vague issue (such as find love, learn to rely on yourself, show how X came to pass)?

If the point of the novel is a vague issue, odds are you’re going to have trouble writing the first draft, because there’s nothing for the protagonist to do. Without a problem to solve, there’s no plot. 

. . . .

Here is a template to help you evaluate. Test your novel and fill in the [bracketed information] of this statement:

My novel is about [the protagonist] who [has a problem], because [the reason the problem exists]. To fix it, [the protagonist] must [risk something of value] and [specific action that has to be done to resolve the problem] or [what happens if they fail].

For example:

My novel is about [Lisa] who [is part of a government experiment], because [she was born with a special gene that allows her to sense emotions]. To fix it, [Lisa] must [risk her life and defy her government] and [make people aware of what’s being done to people like her] or [they’ll kill her].

Can you tell what this book is about?

There’s a general sense, but the specific plot isn’t there, because “defy her government” is a vague idea, not a problem to resolve. Her “problem” is also that she was born with a special gene. There’s nothing here that says how that’s affecting her life or what problem she has because of that gene.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

We might not like the idea that we lie to ourselves every day. But our penchant for self-deception may have hidden benefits.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Last December, PolitiFact called coronavirus denial the “lie of the year.” Arguably, it’s a lie many people told themselves—out of fear, convenience, ideology, economic interest or group loyalty. Such self-deception has cost many lives. And it sets a contrastive backdrop for “Useful Delusions,” a lively and digestible book from Shankar Vedantam, host of NPR’s “The Hidden Brain,” and science writer Bill Mesler on the benefits of lying to yourself.

Conventional wisdom has accepted the ubiquity of self-deception at least since Freud popularized the notion of repression. Cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely have probed the phenomenon in bestselling books. Some scholars believe our biases and delusions are mere side effects of helpful heuristics, nuisance fines for mental expediency. But what if they have value in themselves?

In a single sentence tucked away in the foreword to Richard Dawkins’s 1976 book “The Selfish Gene,” the evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers offered a powerful idea: We’ve evolved to fool ourselves the better to keep “the subtle signs of self knowledge” from undermining our tall tales with tells. Messrs. Vedantam and Mesler mention the idea but don’t dwell on evolutionary mechanisms (while insisting that they’re there), focusing instead on effects.

Self-deception presents itself benignly in our casual interactions. We lie several times per day, or hour, depending on who’s counting. Little lies, about how interested we are in what you just said about your knitting. Do recipients question them? No, they let that oil drip into the fearsome gears of conversation. We gladly take politeness at face value, for our own good. One study found that receiving rude remarks decreased participants’ creativity and generosity. The book cites Barack Obama’s “Anger Translator,” played by the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who frankly articulated Mr. Obama’s subtext. It’s not that we can’t handle the truth. We’d just rather not.

Overconfidence, an evasion of reality distributed unequally among us, can lead to hubristic mistakes, but it can also do good. In one study, AIDS patients with unmoored optimism about their prognoses survived longer. Spells that supposedly imbue bulletproof protection have helped scrappy battalions stand up to larger armies.

Our willingness to participate in fictions makes storytelling a particularly powerful force. Messrs. Vedantam and Mesler suggest novels require a bit of belief to keep us enthralled, and advertising turns on our buying into brand narratives. Golfers performed better when told they had Nike clubs. More important, group cohesion flows from investment in origin stories, a belief that something unseen ties us together. Ceremonies and other rituals can make these tales visceral, and groups from college fraternities to nations—motley populations otherwise defined by little more than lines on a map—rely on fake-it-till-you-make-it solidarity to do things like land on the moon. Religions trade in the power of stories too: Evidence suggests fear of angry gods bootstrapped altruism toward strangers until we could put the modern state in place. Such suspensions of skepticism, the authors write, “are responsible for creating some of the crowning glories of human civilization.”

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

PG was reminded of some unreliable narrators.

From Reedsy Blog:

In literature, an unreliable narrator is a character who tells a story with a lack of credibility. There are different types of unreliable narrators (more on that later), and the presence of one can be revealed to readers in varying ways — sometimes immediately, sometimes gradually, and sometimes later in the story when a plot twist leaves us wondering if we’ve maybe been a little too trusting.

While the term “unreliable narrator” was first coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, it’s a literary device that writers have been putting to good use for much longer than the past 80 years. For example, “The Tell-Tale Heart” published by Edgar Allan Poe in 1843 utilizes this storytelling tool, as does Wuthering Heights, published in 1847.

But wait, is any narrator really reliable?

This discussion can lead us down a proverbial rabbit hole. In a sense, no, there aren’t any 100% completely reliable narrators. The “Rashomon Effect” tells us that our subjective perceptions prohibit us from ever having a totally clear memory of past events. If each person subjectively remembers something that happened, how do we know who is right? “Indeed, many writers have used the Rashomon Effect to tell stories from multiple first-person perspectives — leaving readers to determine whose record is most believable.” (Check out As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner for an example).

. . . .

Literary function of an unreliable narrator

Fiction that makes us question our own perceptions can be powerful. An unreliable narrator can create a lot of grey areas and blur the lines of reality, allowing us to come to our own conclusions.

Fallible storytellers can also create tension by keeping readers on their toes — wondering if there’s more under the surface, and reading between the lines to decipher what that is. Unreliable narrators can make for intriguing, complex characters: depending on the narrator’s motivation for clouding the truth, readers may also feel more compelled to keep reading to figure out why the narrator is hiding things.

Finally, all unreliable narrators are first-person: they live in the world of the story and will have an inherent bias or perhaps even an agenda. While you may find an unreliable narrator who’s written in the second-person or third-person point of view, this is generally rare.

. . . .

Types of unreliable narrators

Just like trying to classify every type of character would be an endless pursuit, so is trying to list every type of unreliable narrator. That said, we’ve divided these questionable raconteurs into three general types to better understand how they work as a literary device.

1) Deliberately Unreliable: Narrators who are aware of their deception

This type of narrator is intentionally lying to the reader because, well, they can. They have your attention, the point of view is theirs, and they’ll choose what to do with it, regardless of any “responsibility” they might have to the reader.

A quick note about this kind of narrator: people want to read about characters they can connect with or relate to. This is one of the tricky parts of writing this kind of narrator: the character has to be compelling enough that we’ll keep connecting with them even if we suspect we’re being misled. We don’t have to necessarily like them, but we need to understand them. For instance, even Alex from A Clockwork Orange has an underlying humanity: his desire for individual freedom above all. His flagrant lies are therefore an exercise of his freedom.

2) Evasively Unreliable: Narrators who unconsciously alter the truth

The motivations for this kind of narrator are often quite muddy — sometimes it’s simple self-preservation, other times it’s slightly more manipulative. Sometimes the narrator isn’t even aware they are twisting the truth until later in the book. Their unreliability often stems from the need to tell the story in a way that justifies something, and their stories are often embellished or watered down.

These kinds of contradictory characters whose mindsets aren’t clear can keep readers anxiously waiting for the narrator’s moment of clarity — drawing their own conclusions all the while.

3) Naively Unreliable: Narrators who are honest but lack all the information

Unlike the previous two types, this type of narrator is not unreliable on purpose — they simply lack a traditional, “greater understanding.” This kind of unreliability can allow the reader to view your story with fresh eyes. The narrator’s “unorthodox” interpretations might only provide us with partial explanations of what’s going on, forcing us to dig a little deeper and connect the dots. These naive narrators can also encourage readers to take more significant notice of things we might’ve taken for granted.

Craft tip: Don’t cheat the reader. Great novels inspire readers to come back and find new meaning and elements they hadn’t yet discovered the first time. This can be especially true of stories told by unreliable narrators. If you employ this literary device gradually throughout the novel, ensure you leave clues for your readers along the way. Drop hints that make us question the validity of our source and have us eagerly reading to find the next clue that will act as another part of the story-puzzle. If you suddenly reveal out of nowhere that the narrator hasn’t been giving us all the facts in an abrupt twist, readers will feel they have been cheated.

Link to the rest at Reedsy Blog

Focus on Short Fiction

From Writer Unboxed:

There are many bad reasons to focus on short fiction and one really good one…and both present their own problems. Stick with me as I show you how to adapt your writing to short fiction OR expand your short stories into novels.

Bad Reasons to Write Short Stories

Short stories are great for your career, they say. Start with short fiction, they say, to

  • Build your publication credits
  • Help new audiences find you
  • Let editors know you’re serious
  • Raise your profile by winning contests
  • Keep your novel fans happy in between books

The problem is not everyone loves short stories. I’m talking about readers and writers, here.

Writing short, while undeniably a useful skill, just isn’t something everyone loves. Maybe you’re in that group.

The bigger problem for you is that the mythical ‘they’ who tell you short stories are a great tool in your toolbox aren’t wrong.

But don’t worry, I’m going to explain some of the reasons you find it hard to write short, and I’m going to show you some techniques for stopping your story’s attempt to become an epic 14-part novel series.

Good Reasons To Keep It Short

If you love short fiction, that comes with its own set of problems:

  • Nobody has made a living selling short fiction since 1959. (OK, I made up that date, but do you know anyone your age who has earned a decent hourly wage for a short story?)
  • The majority of readers read novels, not short fiction.
  • When you show a story to your fellow writers, 98% of them say “this would be a great first chapter” or “I really want to know more.”
  • You feel like you ought to be writing novels (because that’s what most people read and buy), but the thought is terrifying: like the difference between the fun of decorating a single room vs. committing to building a whole house with underfloor heating, a solarium, and a bathroom for every guest. You have no idea how to get started and you’re not even sure you want to.
  • When you try to ‘add words’ you get the feeling you’re just adding words, not actually adding to the story.

Fear not: in this article I’m going to show you some of the ways short stories and novels differ so that, no matter which one you’re trying to build, you can read the blueprints and create something that stands on its own.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Because They Are Hard

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Last night, I spent an hour trying to find a word. Not because I’m having cognitive issues or because I’m being exceptionally picky. I was doing my Spanish homework. The professor gave us a definition for a word in the story we had read, and wanted us to find the word to go with the definition.

I understood the definition. I thought I understood every word in that story. Could I find the word she wanted? Hell, no. As you can tell, I’m still a bit frustrated by this.

And midway through that frustrating and ultimately futile search, I heard myself think, I’m 60 years old. Why am I putting myself through this?

That thought came up a lot yesterday. I’ve revamped my system so that I’m pushing myself in a couple of areas. I have set deadlines that I could have easily met once before in my life, but haven’t strived to do in years, partly because I had been so ill for so long. (See the recent post titled “Deadlines.”) I had gotten into the habit of thinking I can’t or I can only instead of why not try?

2021 has become the year for me to try. I’m working on revamping my thinking in a variety of areas, from what I’m capable of to what I want to do. It’s a whole different way of approaching life, one I haven’t had the ability to do for nearly thirty years.

. . . .

I sure understand now why so many adults want to coast. I could do so. I could let my professor give me a pass on a number of things, from my dyslexia to my lack of time. But I’m the one who chose to take the class as a student, not audit it, and I’m the anal doofus who still wants to get good grades, even though I know (at some point in some class) a good grade won’t be possible.

Hence the striving. The hour spent on a single word when I could have been doing something—anything—else.

. . . .

A friend of mine went back to school for his M.F.A a few years back (required to do so for a job he needed to get) and he cut every single corner he could. He got dual credit for the work he was doing as work and also for class. I suppose I could do that, in a variety of areas, if I wanted to.

I don’t want to. We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

I realized that’s kind of my mantra for life itself. I get very frustrated when a writing student of mine or a writer friend of mine complains that writing is “hard.” I get even more frustrated when they get angry and want to quit after a rejection.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Story Resolutions: Mastering the Happy-Sad Ending

From Writers Helping Writers:

It was 10pm, and I was trying to sleep when my door flew open and my sister came in, wailing like a wounded puppy. “Why did you kill him?”

I cleared the sleep from my eyes. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Michael! You killed Michael!”

At that, I couldn’t help myself from laughing. Not a nice thing, I know.

Curiously, she went ahead to profess love for the story—particularly the ending that made her cry. Fascinating, right? My story was able to create such a strong emotional reaction because it avoided the safety of a happy ending and the depression of a sad ending. Instead, it opted for the more fulfilling happy-sad resolution.

Why Happy-Sad Endings?

Before we answer the question of why, let’s explore the story endings that we commonly see. To put it bluntly,

  • A sad ending is when the story ends on an overwhelmingly negative emotion 
  • A happy ending is when the story ends on an overwhelmingly positive emotion 

In both instances, it’s clear what the final emotional beat of the story is. However, the third type of ending introduces a new kind of experience. 

In a happy-sad ending, the story ends on two opposite emotional beats, making it harder to pick one over the other and leaving the audience in a happy-sad state. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a perfect example. I wept like a child and I loved every bit of it. 

One reason these endings work is because they seem closer to real life than happy or sad ones. Life rarely has happily ever afters. There’s always a price to pay, and many times, the sacrifice is unexpected. When a story is able to reflect this familiar experience, it gains an extra philosophical depth. 

Secondly, if one emotion creates a desired effect, two will multiply that effect. Story is about emotional manipulation, and what is a grander act of manipulation than getting the audience to feel more than one emotion?

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Writing Locations as Characters

From Writers in the Storm:

Where we choose to set our stories is an important decision. It can inform everything that happens in the story, from plot points and character development to pacing and mood. For this reason, I like to treat my locations as I would the characters in my stories.

Just like people, locations can have certain traits that bring out their personalities and influence the way our characters interact with them. Each location we choose has its own unique set of physical characteristics as well as a general feeling or mood that it gives off.

. . . .

Character Traits of Locations

Setting Type

Setting type is the physical location where your story takes place. It can be a real location or a fantasy world. Maybe it’s all happening in your main character’s head, like a dream. Every location has its own personality. Even dream worlds have characteristics that impact the narrative and are often reflective of the person dreaming.

Another example might be an urban setting as opposed to rural. Both have their own obvious characteristics, such as population density, that sets them apart, but there are similarities as well. A big city might have a small-town feel, whereas a small town could be laid out to exude more of a big city attitude. The architecture and street layouts also lend character to a particular location. Narrow avenues with old-world cottages might add warmth and feel like an old friend, whereas tall glass-shrouded buildings and a maze of traffic clogged streets could feel cold, inducing stress and anxiety.

Terrain

The physical terrain of a story’s location can have a major influence on how the characters interact with it and with each other. If a character is familiar with the terrain, they may see it as an ally working to give them an advantage over an opponent. On the other hand, it may be a hindrance, throwing obstacles in the protagonist’s path. Sometimes the terrain itself is the antagonist and the thing that must be overcome to reach a satisfying ending.

Climate and Weather

Climate and weather may sound like the same thing, but they are different animals. Climate is the long-term average of the atmospheric behavior of a particular place, whereas weather is more isolated—it’s what’s happening right now. I like to think of climate as a location’s overall personality and weather as its current mood.

Most writers use weather almost instinctually. We all know how a raging storm, or a gentle rain can set a mood, but there are so many other things we can accomplish if we anthropomorphize things a little. Fighting an angry wind or beating back the cruel rays of the Sun breathe life into weather and set it up as an opponent that must be vanquished if our hero is to succeed. Weather can also be fickle and turn on a dime, lashing out like a scorned lover or throwing a tantrum like a three-year-old child who doesn’t want to take a nap.

Climate is a little trickier and requires more thought. The long-term nature of climate is what dictates things like flora, fauna, and seasons. It also sets expectations in the same way a parent might explain what to expect to a child before entering a museum or attending a funeral. Of course, we all know expectations and reality don’t always line up. It’s in that gap where the best stories are born.

Just like terrain, climate and weather can become the main antagonist. Look at Jack London, for example. In many of his stories the main character is fighting with the physical world rather than another person.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

The Art of Story Structures

From Write to Done:

Picture this: In a sudden burst of divine inspiration, you find yourself visited by the ancient Muse who bestows upon you the perfect idea for your very own novel. It’s every author (and aspiring author’s) dream. But once the initial adrenaline wears off, it can quickly morph into a nightmare. Between the scattered plot points and fuzzy technicalities, it’s difficult to imagine that any organized form of writing can come from this creative vision.

Enter the art of story structures.

. . . .

In essence, a story structure is the roadmap for your story.

At their best, story structures help you to visually align the events of your novel in an organized and logical sequence, making it easier to draft the story itself by defining the important plot points.

There are various kinds of story structures, each suited to a different type of writer, but all of them generally consist of:

  • a conflict
  • a climax
  • a resolution

Next, we’ll take a closer look at these common elements.

. . . .

Keeping in mind that there are multiple methods that authors use to structure and outline their stories, we’ll focus on some of the main aspects that remain the same throughout each technique.

  1. The Opener: This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of any story. In this portion, you identify both the protagonist and the driving force of the entire plot. Be it a quest, a problem, or a challenge, this force must be strong enough to propel your character through the entire story and compel your readers to stick around till the very end.
  2. The Catalyst: This is the event that gets the ball rolling. The catalyst is the moment where the problem becomes so undeniable that it finally forces the protagonist to act in order to avoid the worst possible result or consequence. The stakes should be high.
  3. The Tension Grows: With the stakes floating comfortably in the upper atmosphere, it’s time to take them to the stars. This portion of the story should involve a series of crises that fit logically into the plot while progressively getting worse. These are what motivates your protagonist to continue fighting the problem and working towards the desired solution.
  4. The Climax: Many people are tempted to mistake the climax for the end of the story, but it’s far from it! This is the point in the story where things have escalated to their absolute worst. Hopeless and faced with utter failure, this is a turning point for the protagonist; they must decide whether to continue on against all odds or to give up and accept the worst.
  5. The End: It all comes down to this. Using what they’ve learned along the way, your protagonist must act and either succeed or fail. Ideally, an ending will both satisfy the reader as they complete their journey with your protagonist and leave them wanting more.

Seven Story Structures

One: Dean Koontz’s Classic

This structure is simple enough to be ideal for writers who prefer a loose approach to outlining. It consists of only four steps:The sooner the trouble, the better. The moment the stakes are high enough to carry the plot of your novel, throw your character head-first into the thick of it. Before you take this high-dive, though, make sure you’ve developed your character into someone your readers are genuinely invested in.

It’s all downhill from here. Everything that your character does should inevitably make their dilemma even worse. It’s important to make sure that each problem proceeds logically from the one before it, but the deeper the trouble, the better.

Enter utter hopelessness. This is what your protagonist has been training for. Everything they learned in overcoming the previous obstacles should come into play here as the reader (and maybe even you yourself) wonder how the protagonist is ever going to escape the inevitable.

Success or failure, against all odds. Loyal readers expect an ending that neatly ties up the story. Whether that ending is one of victory or disappointment depends on the individual circumstances of each story; either way, this portion should provide a sense of closure for your readers and the protagonist.

Link to the rest at Write to Done

Opening Scenes: 3 Critical Elements

From Writers Helping Writers:

One of the most common questions I get as an editor is, “Am I starting my novel in the right place?” Let’s discuss how you can craft an opening that subtly shows you are, in fact, starting in the right place and feel confident about your choice.

We often think we need to open with a huge bang, something that’ll catch the reader’s attention and play out like a blockbuster movie. But here’s the thing about those high-powered opening scenes: readers don’t care because they don’t yet know the characters or the baggage they bring onto page one. Readers don’t know what the events mean for the characters, or what’s at stake for them.

There’s no doubt it’s difficult to balance establishing the protagonist’s ordinary world, or before, while hooking readers. Ordinary world sounds boring, right?

. . . .

But the trick to establishing your protagonist’s ordinary world and crafting a successful opening scene isn’t in impressing your reader as much as you think it is. The trick is in crafting an interesting event that somehow impresses your protagonist. To do that, we need enough of a glimpse of their before to understand how whatever happens toward the end of your opening will change their lives.

Think of your opening as having 3 parts:

  1. Let us meet your protagonist. We need a clear understanding of who they are and what they believe about their world when we meet them. Preferably, this is done through interesting action and dialogue. Meaningful action that will reveal something about their current beliefs and personality. Think of protagonist Katniss in The Hunger Games, waking up to find she’s alone in her bed when typically, her younger sister is beside her. Her immediate concern flares in the form of dialogue and action. We become acquainted with Katniss on a deep level before she steps foot into the arena, and all she’s done is wake up. No car chases. No mythical beings showing up. Just normality with an interesting twist.
  2. The primary external event toward the end of your opening scene leads to a noticeable turn. The “turn”— or the “opportunity,” as it’s called in the One Stop for Writers’ Story Mapping tool—is the moment the opening’s main event impacts the protagonist and leads to a decision of some sort. In light of establishing your character’s ordinary world, your reader will better understand the context and meaning of this new event. So going back to The Hunger Games, the turn is when Katniss’ younger sister’s name is called to become a tribute in the games. It’s the moment that forces Katniss to make some sort of a decision. By then, we know Katniss’ primary goal is to protect her sister (ordinary world) and that this “turn” will force her hand. And because we felt Katniss’ reaction to feeling that cold spot in the bed where her sister should have been, the event of having her name called has context. We already know what Katniss cares about and why, which makes the event far more engaging. 

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Using “He said.” in your dialogue?

From Dave Farland:

I don’t often give actual tips on how to compose stories. I tend to focus my lessons on storytelling to things that you can’t learn elsewhere.  Yet from time to time, it might be worthwhile to actually give a few technical tips. Today we will go over one on how to improve your dialogue. 

A few years ago, I listened to a bestselling writer give perhaps the worst advice on dialog tags that I’ve ever heard.  He told new writers, “Never use the word said.  It’s boring and repetitious.  Worst of all, it doesn’t really tell us much about the feeling behind what has been spoken.”

His advice was that you should “mix it up, and never repeat verbs that deal with speaking on the same page.  If you are forced to use the word said, he suggested that you add an adverb to it in order to define the quality of the words spoken.  

Given his advice, you might have a teen “mumble” one sentence:

“I don’t want to go to church,” she mumbled.

While the reply would use a different verb:

“Well you’re going to go, Missy,” Dad retorted.

The problem that arises is that we find ourselves using a lot of verbs that seem rather silly when put into a string of tags.  Thus, you might have people mumbling, shouting, profaning, teasing, snarling, squealing, averring, blaming, and so on in rapid succession.   

Do you see the problem?  When you handle dialog that way, you fall into a trap where your characters seem to be emotional butterflies, endlessly flitting from one powerful emotion to another.  Sometimes authors even fall into the trap of using unfortunate combinations:

“Why don’t you come over to my place?” she teased.

“Sure!” he ejaculated.

In reality, people don’t flit from one powerful emotion to another.  Each person that you meet has something of an emotional tone about them.  Some people are stern most of the time, while others might be thoughtful, pleasant, or excited.  So when you write about that person, you’ll most often be depicting that person with his or her natural tone. The link is to a lesson on common mistakes writers make in regards to tone. 

Many a literary writer would suggest that we use the words said or asked when we make our attributions.  Both of these words are neutral in tone.  This allows the writer to imply the tone through the content of the dialog.  If I write:

“Get your butt out of my chair,” he said. 

I don’t need to modify it with a verb like roared, shouted, fumed, and so on.  Nor do I really need to add an exclamation mark.  The tone of the speaker in this case is implied by the content of the sentence.

Another advantage of plain old said is that it’s invisible in your writing.  You can repeat the verb in every line of dialog in a short story, and no reader will ever complain.  (In the same way, character names don’t attract too much attention.  If you’re writing about the Wizard Wythian, you can repeat his name a dozen times on a page without the reader feeling that it is overused.)

But there are a couple of problems when using said.  Often a writer might modify the word for greater effect when a different verb would be more suitable.  For example, you might say “she said very softly,” when “she whispered” actually conveys the same information more concisely.

For this reason, many literary writers will tell you to “get rid of adverbs,” the words that end in –ly, and as a result they will search through a document during their editing process trying to get rid of as many –ly words as possible.

However, getting rid of all of your adverbs can lead to new problems.  If you’ve read a lot of authors from the past 70 years, you’ll find that their style is becoming increasingly homogeneous as they allow their writing to be informed by such strictures.  In short, too many a writer now writes in an abbreviated Hemingway-esque style that feels smooth and professional but which also sounds like the same voice as any of ten thousand other writers.  You can learn to write in that homogeneous tone by following a popular handbook, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  For this reason, I’ve heard authors complain that Strunk and White have stolen the voices from an entire generation of America’s young writers.  We sound like clones.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

PG notes in passing that, for him, using the term, “ejaculated,” in place of “said” has presented a mental speed-bump for some time. He has less of a problem if it is used in a period piece, but on occasions when female characters ejaculate, he finds the term to be a bit more off-putting.

But PG is ancient, quirky, opinionated and suffering from the severe effects of being socially isolated from many of his stabilizing and sanity-enhancing human resources other than Mrs. PG for an extended period of time, so his thoughts on this subject should likely be disregarded.

Is Your Novel Ready to Publish? 12 Signs You’re Still in the Learning Phase of Your Writing Career

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

If you’ve used the pandemic lockdown as a time to write that novel you always knew you had in you, congratulations! You’ve taken the depressing, horrific lemon that was 2020 and turned it into literary lemonade.

You deserve a great big “Congrats!” and several pats on the back. You are awesome.

But if you’re thinking of publishing that novel now that you’ve finished it, you might want to hold off for a bit. Especially if you’re hoping to make some money from it.

Even though you’ve typed that satisfying “the end” on that book, chances are good that it’s not ready to publish. Or even to go to an editor. 

Self-publishing has freed up a lot of writers and allowed them to express themselves without the restraints of corporate publishing. But just because you CAN publish that magnum opus with a minimum of fuss doesn’t mean you should—yet.

The truth is it takes a long time to learn to write well. Even if you were an English major. If you’ve only written one novel or memoir, you’re still in the learning phase. Keep writing and start something new. Write some short pieces and start sending them out to journals and contests. Work on your next book. Start a blog and learn to write for an online audience.

And read, read, read. Read books on craft and marketing as well as novels in your genre.

. . . .

Signs You Aren’t Ready to Publish

Here are some tell-tale signs that writers are still in the learning phase of their careers.

1) Wordiness

There’s a reason why agents are wary of long books. New writers tend to take 100 words to say what seasoned writers can say in 10. If your prose is weighty with adjectives and adverbs, or clogged with details and repetitive scenes, you’ll scare off readers as well.

2) Writerly Prose

This was a hard lesson for me to learn. It turns out those long, gorgeous descriptions that got so much praise from your English teacher and your college boyfriend can actually be a huge turn-off for the paying customer who’s searching for some kind of story in there.

We need to learn to use description to help the reader get oriented in the scene, not to show off.

3) Episodic Storytelling

I admit my own guilt on this one too. I could never end my first novel, because it didn’t actually have a plot. It was a series of related episodes—like a TV series. I will always be grateful to the agent who read my whole manuscript and told me I’d written a fine sitcom, but a novel needs one big, over-arching plot.

Learning to plot and pace a novel is way harder than it seems. Seasoned novelists make it seem effortless. You’ll learn, too. It took me a longer time than most, but I got it eventually.

Critique groups often don’t catch this problem, if each episode has a dramatic arc of its own.

4) A Hackneyed Opener

Beware overdone opening scenes. The most clichéd opener is the “alarm clock” scene—the one where your protagonist wakes up and gets ready for his day. Film teachers say, “78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off.”

Why? Because it’s an obvious place to start.

But obvious is not what we want. That’s what makes something into a cliché—a whole lot of people have used a phrase or situation before you. So if your opener is similar to one you’ve seen in a ton of movies, and read in lots of books, you’re probably going to want to change it. Try moving your story ahead a few scenes. Or behind. Do something new and different and creative.

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

The Hack’s Guide to Rewarding Yourself

From Writer Unboxed:

It seems like only yesterday you woke up with an idea. That idea metastasized in your mind into something grander, something that screamed to be written down lest it sit and fester inside your brain a moment longer. Each day, your book ruled your life, either by cracking the whip as you sat at your writing desk, or haunting you like a phantom on the days you dared take time to relax. You skipped parties, blew off friends, and alienated your family in service to your craft until one day you finally finished the book. After all that work, you’ve earned a small slice of cake!

Obviously, the ultimate reward for any author is to have your book turned into a prestige TV series. When does that day come, though? Writing is, at its core, an exercise in delayed gratification, with wide variation in the length of that delay and the quality of that gratification. Even the fastest writer can spend months pouring their heart and soul into a book that can be consumed in a matter of hours—a ratio that is, at best, a meditation on the nature of art, and at worst, an outright scam. For many writers, “After my book is finished…” has the same energy as “When the pandemic is over…” and “When Daddy gets back from the store with cigarettes…” When writing success always seems just over the horizon in perpetuity, it’s up to you to reward yourself for finishing a draft, a chapter, a single page if that’s what you need to keep going.

To tide you over until you sign your big publishing deal, here are a few ways you can reward yourself for meeting your writing goals.

  • More writing time! It’s a pandemic, so that means no dining out, no drinks at your favorite bar, no parties with friends. May as well reward yourself by getting a head start on your next draft. What fun!
  • Ice cream. Calories don’t count if they’re consumed within twelve hours of finishing a short story, forty-eight for a book. They also don’t count if consumed immediately after getting dumped for neglecting your relationship while you writing.
  • Read a book. Pick up a paperback and fill yourself with rage that such a terrible book got published while you toil in obscurity. For a change of pace, read a masterpiece and fill yourself with despair over how much time you spent writing a book so inferior.
  • Takeout food. Take a break from cooking and have food delivered from your second-favorite restaurant (your fave having unfortunately shut down during the pandemic). When your food arrives, strike up a conversation with the delivery driver about how nice it is to talk to another human being. You may have to speak up as they slowly back away.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Sarcastic vs. Sardonic vs. Facetious

From Daily Writing Tips:

Reader ApK has asked for a discussion of the words sarcastic, sardonic, and facetious
all examples of verbal irony.

verbal irony: the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Sarcastic derives from the noun sarcasm.

sarcasm: a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.

Both the noun and the adjective derive from a Greek verb that had the meanings “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.”

Among the usual synonyms for sarcastic and sardonic are words that conjure up hurt and pain: caustic, scathing, trenchant, cutting, biting, sharp, acerbic.

caustic: burning, corrosive, destructive of organic tissue
scathing: from the verb “to scathe”: to injure, hurt, damage
trenchant: having a sharp edge, for cutting
acerbic: bitter, sharp, cutting

Sardonic does not have a corresponding noun in modern English, but it does derive from a Latin noun, sardonius, a poisonous plant that grew on the island of Sardinia. This plant was said to produce facial convulsions resembling horrible laughter, usually followed by death.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

How Real Do You Want Your World to Be?

From Dave Farland:

When I approach creating a world for a story, I ask myself, “How real do I want this world to be?”

This might sound like a trite question, but it’s not. More than 400 years ago, William Shakespeare was born into a world where playwriting had become rigid and stagnant in its traditions. In his day, it was believed that a play should be set in the town where people lived. For example, if you lived in London, your plays should be set in London. Why? Because the local bumpkins wouldn’t be able to imagine anywhere else. And of course a story also needed to be set in the current day. Why? Because the hicks couldn’t imagine a story set ten years ago, or ten years in the future.

Shakespeare was a fantasist, of course, and a great one.

Of course Shakespeare couldn’t limit his stories that way.  He was all over the map, moving from Denmark to Italy to Rome on his locations, and even into fairytale settings.  And he set stories thousands of years in the past, hopping from one millennium to another. He couldn’t confine his work to the realistic tropes of his day.  He often wondered in print if he suffered from some sort of madness that forced him to write about such things, yet he also recognized that one man’s madness is another’s genius.

In the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare explored the role of fantasy in a story versus realism.  The play really has two storylines—one fantastical (about a man who is turned into an ass), and one that becomes hyper-realistic (about some gentlemen who hopes to win some money for writing a play).

What is interesting about the two plot lines is that the fantastic line ultimately fascinates the audience, but doesn’t really provide much in the way of emotional payoff.  It doesn’t jerk any tears.  Meanwhile, the realistic storyline actually becomes quite boring—but it does manage to evince powerful emotions. I believe that this is important.  The world that you create will function in much the same way.  The more fantastical it is, the more likely it will be to hold a reader’s interest. 

But for us to become emotionally invested in your world, you need to “bring it to life,” portray the world in a manner that convinces us that it is real.

In short, when you look at a world like Middle-earth, or the world of Avatar, our interest in the world is first piqued by its curious nature.  But our emotional investment in that place doesn’t occur until after the author brings it to life. The great world creators aren’t people who imagine strange places, they’re people who bring places to life by creating an illusion so substantial that the reader becomes engrossed.

I like to imagine that as I’m writing, there are little switches that I flip with each sentence.  The switches are like those old electrical switches that turn a charge on or off.  Your switch can move to on or off mode quickly.  The on mode might be considered “fantastical.”  The off mode might be called “realistic.”

As you’re writing, you might create the illusion of realism by embellishing fairly common details about your world. 

For example, you might have Frodo and his hobbits traveling through a marsh.  Anyone who has ever been stuck in a bog can relate to the problems the character will face—midges, mosquitoes, quick-mud, slogging through water up to your knees, feet sinking in the mire, the sweat on your face, leeches biting into your ankles, and so on.  Those are all realistic details.  We can relate as an audience.

But suddenly Tolkien would pull us out of the real world and tell us about ghostly faces peering up from the water, trying to suck Frodo down, down, and drown him.  That’s riveting stuff!  Right?  Tolkien flipped the switch from realism to fantasy, and grabbed our attention.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Fact or Fiction: “Flow” Improves the Writing Life

From Writers in the Storm:

1. Writer’s Block doesn’t really exist.  It’s only in your mind.

FACT

The parts of the brain that use to function daily can trip up our flow in many ways.  Research shows that we override our self-consciousness, worry and anxiety, and social expectations, we are more likely to experience Flow than when we sit at our desks with those thoughts competing for our mental bandwidth

2. Writers are creatures of habit and need a perfect writing space for optimal flow.

FICTION

According to the studies on Flow, it turns out that having the perfect setup isn’t as important as we may think. The way to get into Flow is to understand what makes your mind relax, focus, and find a balance between the task at hand and the skills you apply to it.

Some authors are very successful at catching a creative wave spontaneously and can tease out the words on the spot. But when a creative burst doesn’t drop out of the sky into our literary laps, we can and should intervene to create those circumstances. 

We all relate to when the words are just not flowing.  Consider this mini-checklist of common factors writers can use to optimize their chances of Getting into the Flow:

____ Healthy Snacks on hand

____ Warm or cold beverages near by

____ Slight caffeine boost

____ Ambient music or white noise

____ Sound cancelling headphones (a new favorite of mine)

____ A ‘do not disturb’ sign on the literal and digital door

3. When writers stick to one genre or type of writing, they experience more flow.

FACTION Yes, both. Let me explain! This can depend on a few factors.

FACT

There is a reason genre fiction writers seem more prolific than their literary counterparts.  Writing within the constraints, tropes, and requirements for the genre can free the writer’s mind of some of the heavy decision making.  The framework has been largely created for them and they are carefully constructing new stories from those rules.

Literary novelists, who by contrast may take years to produce works have more pieces of the creative puzzle to solve in order to create something new and palatable to readers.

In an article on Creative Blockages, assistant professor of Psychology, Baptiste Bardot, describes well-known authors and how prolific they are.  For example, horror writers like Stephen King and Anne Rice have limited choices as to themes, setting, and plot.  Their literary counterparts have fewer formatting constraints leading to more solutions to resolve in their novels.

FICTION

Creativity by definition is not just creating new ideas, but the novel creation of ideas that make sense. Creativity requires lateral thinking and when writers tackle new types of writing they approach the new rules and constructs in ways that expand their thinking.

This study by Arne Dietrich, dives into the types of thinking writers use.  They may be deliberate and follow prescribed steps or follow decisions made in a more spontaneous way. This may sound more familiar to those who consider themselves Plotters of Pantsers, since those preferences demonstrate a writer’s favored type of thinking.

The key to using flow to be more creative is to understand that writing lots of words does not equate creative output.  There are several computerized idea generators available to writers, but these apps cannot craft best sellers without the gifter authors who knit plots and characters into meaningful works of art.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Stand-Alone

From Publishers Weekly:

I never set out to be a series author. My very first thriller, The Perfect Husband, was inspired by infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. To catch my escaped killer/vengeful husband, I created an FBI profiler, Pierce Quincy, who became so popular with readers I ended up writing an entire FBI Profilers series. It was a pattern I then repeated with Boston detective D.D. Warren, victim-turned-vigilante Flora Dane, and, somewhere in between, private investigator Tessa Leoni. Pretty soon, it seemed there wasn’t any crime my fictional stable couldn’t handle. My writer’s attention would be grabbed by some stranger-than-fiction real-world wrongdoing, and the next book staffed itself.

Then one day I read an article on Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, an ordinary woman dedicated to doing the extraordinary: finding missing people the rest of the world has forgotten. And just like that, I knew the story I had to write: one that by definition couldn’t involve any of my previous series characters; one involving a very real, very everyday human, who wants to do the right thing.

I know life isn’t fair—that for every blue-eyed blonde whose disappearance grabs national headlines, there are thousands of other missing persons we never hear about. But I hadn’t understood the magnitude of the disparity: how children of color are much more likely to be classified as runaways, even when they’ve fallen victim to human traffickers, or how a kid can vanish from an economically disadvantaged neighborhood with no Amber Alert or media coverage.

For previous novels, I used federal resources such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for research. Now, I learned about the Black and Missing Foundation, whose database of cold cases makes for heartbreaking reading. These are the cases that fall through the cracks. These are the cases that, more and more, are being picked up by private crusaders eager to get the job done.

This initial background helped me create amateur sleuth Frankie Elkin, a recovering alcoholic whose life is short on belongings and long on regret. Stable job? White picket fence? Long-term relationships? She tried and failed. Now she leads a sort of “anti-life,” roaming from town to town in order to solve cold missing persons cases.

. . . .

So what do the Lissa Yellowbird-Chases bring to the fiction table? They bring good listening skills; real-world social engineering; and a willingness to make the effort to go out into the community and meet with family, friends, and neighbors and, person-by-person, learn about the victim. Most official investigative efforts start with general probabilities about who, what, when, where, why, and how. Amateur efforts, by definition, focus on individuality—this one person, this lone event, this singular disappearance. It’s an intriguing, and often impactful, difference.

Having said that, I quickly realized I couldn’t write an amateur-sleuth novel without conducting my traditional police interviews. This time, however, proper police procedure didn’t serve as plot points to drive my book forward but instead became the basis of my initial puzzle. For example, how does the average 15-year-old girl, armed with a cellphone and social media addiction, go missing from a dense urban environment filled with potential witnesses and constantly recording surveillance cameras? Then there’s license-plate-reading technology, which can be used to identify all vehicles in the area at the time of disappearance. Snapchat, “finstagram” accounts, and all the various other teen-centric communication methods used for secrecy—all can be recovered given enough time and effort. Meaning the more I spoke with experts, the deeper I disappeared down the rabbit hole. Forget how my amateur sleuth Frankie Elkin would find missing 15-year-old Angelique Badeau—how the hell had the girl disappeared in the first place?

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

John Le Carré Offered a Piece of Advice to a Struggling Novelist. She’ll Never Forget It.

From Crime Reads:

People say you should never meet your heroes. When, in 2011, I sat next to David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) I was more worried for my hero meeting me. As the bright-eyed 81-year old leapt, smiling, to his feet, a kink of snow-white hair kicking up over the collar of his dinner jacket I made a pact with myself: Under no circumstances should I bring up the crime novel I am struggling to plot.

Crime novels (including spy novels) are best known for their plots. Almost all reviews of successful crime novels will talk about plot before they mention character. Grisham’s plots are “intricate”, Agatha Christie’s are “ingenious”, Ruth Rendell’s are “twisting”. But le Carre, this ex-spy and son of a confidence trickster, had pulled off the greatest literary trick of all: his plots were knotty and thrilling, but his characters were uncompromised by them. On the contrary, they always drove the story. How was I, a writer more interested in character than plot, but also intent on writing the kind of story you couldn’t put down, to take a leaf out of his book? 

Heist movies, to my mind, epitomise the problem. They are well known for their plots—think The Thomas Crown AffairThe Italian JobThe Sting. The heist is brilliantly suited to the screen: the sleights of hand, the optical illusions, not to mention the car chases, all contribute to the thrilling ride of a clever story. But take a close look at the characters in them and you’ll see that, despite great acting, they rarely pass E.M. Forster’s test for “rounded characters”—rounded characters grow or change substantially during a story, flat characters do not. Perhaps this is why there are so few great “heist” novels. The book I was trying to write was not a heist, but its crime relied on several twists and tricks of the light. The problem was that they were bending my characters all out of shape.

“So when are going to ask me about your novel?” said David, twiddling his fork with a small smile. The creator of the great, flawed British spy George Smiley and of Karla, the silently watchful Soviet spymaster, had not been fooled by my prevarications around the journalism I had recently given up. I asked too many good questions, he told me dryly, to be a journalist.

So I confessed. I was working on a novel with a crime in it, but I had hit a wall. The characters had been living inside me for years now, and I had a premise, a good one I thought—but I was struggling to weave the kind of intriguing plot I admired in his writing without reducing the characters to pawns on a chessboard. Whenever I think of story, I lose the characters, I told him. And whenever I think of character, I lose my story.

“You need to remember this. The cat sat on the mat,” said David. “That’s not a story. But the cat sat on a dog’s mat. Now that’s a story.”

The following day I drew a small pen and ink line drawing and stuck it above my desk. Then I got to work. I started putting cats on mats. I pushed the crime into the wings and fleshed out the characters’ backstories. I thought about unsatisfied cats and reflected on dogs left out in the cold. I scribbled and wrote. When I stepped back the characters had tangled themselves into a cat’s cradle of a plot, born not just from story, but from what drove them.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads