Sunday, February 28, 2010


Ad Nazarenko Landscape in Donetsk-1972 I took a quick trip to South Carolina Friday and Saturday to see my folks and talk to Mama’s book club.

On the way back home Saturday morning, I suddenly realized I needed to get gasoline…and was hungry. I pulled off the next highway exit into a small town that I’d passed on the interstate for years and never been to.

The highway sign had been misleading—yes, there was a Chick-fil-A fast food place there…three miles in. So I ended up driving through a good amount of the town’s main street.

The first thing that I noticed was the fact that I passed four payday loan businesses and a pawn shop on my three mile drive.

Once I noticed that, I also noticed vacant businesses and decrepit-looking buildings.

It all added up to a town in real economic trouble.

I think that’s the reason the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” was coined. If I’d stood in that town, whipped out my camera, and snapped a picture of the payday advance lender next to the pawn shop with the barred windows (and not gotten my city-slicker rear end kicked), everyone I showed it to would’ve gotten a split second impression.

I love little indicators that, like a picture, tell a lot more. That’s the show, don’t tell, doctrine. Don’t say the character is messy…have a banana peel fall out when they open their car door.

Since descriptions and I don’t get along well anyway, I keep a little notebook with scrawled quick impressions of people and places. I hope my small observations make a bigger statement about the character or setting.

How do you work on showing, not telling?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Developing Our Story

Okay, y’all know I don’t usually post a video. But this one, if you’re a writer, will put a smile on your face if you have the time (1:58 length) :

The video features an editor trying to get a writer to change his manuscript—and coming up with confusing and bizarre storylines for the author to develop. The hapless writer is trying to make connections between his plot and the outlandish ideas the editor is dreaming up.

I’ve never had an editor act this way, of course—they’re always super-professional and give helpful suggestions. But I frequently go through a similar process myself (although it doesn’t usually involve sharks, pebbles, or killing my protagonist in the first chapter.)

I do go through a “what-if” process of story development. I think most writers do, actually. Because our stories can take dramatically different turns with each scenario we’re considering.

I’ll usually think about it on the go—while running errands, or getting ready for the day. “What if Jenna were the victim and not Paul? Then that would mean that Clarice has more of a motive and opportunity. And Clarice is a stronger character than Jenna…Jenna is a better dead body. And then what if…?”

Even relatively minor shifts—maybe the protagonist’s occupation—can have a big impact on the story.

When you’re going through the what-if process, how do you decide which direction to go in? Do you write all the options down and weigh them? Do you let your characters determine story direction? Do you look at what sounds like the most fun to write?

Friday, February 26, 2010

On Revising

Today I’d like to welcome Bob Sanchez to the blog. Bob, a retired technical writer, has published two novels, When Pigs Fly and Getting Lucky. His blog is and is the webmaster and frequent reviewer for the Internet Review of Books at

bob_sanchez Elizabeth asked me for a post on revising—not necessarily how to do it, but how I do it. Writing and revising aren’t separate processes, but are closely bound together. Revising is writing. Before my fingers first hit the keyboard, a debate begins in my head about where to start. That doesn’t last long, because finding the right beginning and ending aren’t essential yet. It’s really okay to begin anywhere.

Yet this next paragraph comes slowly. For one thing, I am already second-guessing my opening sentences and wondering how to write this piece without overusing the first person singular pronoun. But after a few fixes it’s time to read it over, maybe even aloud, forcing me to notice every word. If the passage sounds okay for now, it’s time to move on.

Usually this messy approach continues throughout a rough draft—writing, proofing, reading, then writing some more. Commas become em dashes, typos disappear, words get shuffled or replaced. I’ll delete most adverbs and passive constructions.

Eventually, I have a series of paragraphs representing the bulk of the message. Now come a series of important questions:

  • Does the draft make the point I want to make? If not, I still have a lot of work to do.
  • Does it flow well? Maybe rearranging or adding paragraphs will make the sequence more logical.
  • Does everything fit? This may be the time to delete entire paragraphs.
  • Does the tone sound consistent and appropriate? The first draft of this essay had a joke that didn’t feel right, so it’s gone.
  • Does the piece have a strong lead and conclusion? If not, now is the time to write them.

Once a draft is complete, I try to set my work aside for awhile and come back to it later. Here’s an example of what can happen when you don’t. I’m an admin on a writing list and felt the need to send out an admonition. This is what I sent:

Okay gang, please remember that this list is all about the craft of writing. Please let's stick to that. The plight of your favorite bookstore, however interesting, is off topic.

And please note that the old "I know this is off topic, but..." ploy doesn't justify a post. If you know you shouldn't post, please don't.

Five sentences with four pleases? Oh, please. Here is a better version:

Okay gang, remember that this list is all about the craft of writing. The plight of your favorite bookstore, however interesting, is off topic.

Note also that the old "I know this is off topic, but..." ploy doesn't justify a post. If you know you shouldn't post, then don't.

There, that’s better. My early drafts may still contain infelicitous phrases, repeated words and ideas, clich├ęs, misspellings, passive constructions, and unclear pronoun references. Not to mention incomplete sentences. I once asked a good friend, who is an excellent writer, how he makes his work so smooth. He replied, “I just go over it and over it”—and that, I think, is the key.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Characters and Conflict

Manetti Lane by Glenn O. Coleman--1884 - 1932 My third grade daughter brought a children’s chapter book home from her school library a week ago. The book was about a fifth grader who decides that grades and standardized tests aren’t accurate assessments of children’s abilities and can make students feel stigmatized. The girl decides to make straight Ds on her report card.

I know…my eyebrows went up, too. :)

But she’d picked the book out herself, was excited about the novel, and was reading it carefully to take (ironically) a content test on it through the school’s accelerated reading program.

I read it, too, so I could quiz her on it and help her get prepped for her test.

After she finished the book, she said, “Mama, it was only about the report card. The whole thing! How the girl hated report cards, how she decided to fail her report card, how she had a meeting with her teacher and parents about the report card…then she had a meeting with the principal about the report card…”

She had a good point. The entire book dealt with the protagonist vs. her big conflict. Even the protagonist’s conversations with other characters were solely on the conflict.

And, obviously, that’s important. The whole point of the book is the main conflict facing the protagonist. It needs to create obstacles and confrontations for the character.

But we also need to view the protagonist in other ways:

How does he interact with other people? How does he deal with other conflicts and stresses? What’s he like in his downtime? To get a well-rounded view of a character, it really helps to view the character from other angles.

That’s tricky. You don’t need to go veering off the subject for long periods of time. But short subplots or bits of dialogue with characters on topics other than the main conflict are important to develop our characters.

My sleuths don’t talk about the murder the entire book. The murder is a main focus of the book—the whole reason for the book. But I think readers get a multi-dimensional view of my protagonists through other scenes, too—humorous scenes, scenes where they’re working on a different problem, etc.

If we don’t offer the reader glimpses of other sides to our character? We risk having the characters look flat and having our readers get bored.

How do you show other sides to your characters?

Please pop by tomorrow when Bob Sanchez will be guest blogging at Mystery Writing is Murder on his writing process.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Leopard--late 19th century Nigeria My husband’s sister and her husband live in Africa where they work as translators. My sister-in-law speaks French fluently and perfectly accented. Her husband speaks 5 or 6 languages, including Swahili.

For years they lived in Nairobi, Kenya. Life there; apart from election violence over a year ago, living in a guarded housing compound, and occasional run-ins with police (who aren’t like our police); was pretty tame compared to life in their current home in Bunia, Congo. Congo hasn’t historically been the calmest place on the globe to live.

Their day to day life is an adventure: for fresh water, reliable utilities, and even a safe place to live. Their country is exotic…the plants and wildlife are different, the language and customs are different.

In many ways, it’s the perfect place to write. But they’re not writers.

In contrast, I look at my life in suburban America. My adventures are pretty tame in comparison. Will I find my daughter’s missing library book before it becomes overdue? Will I make my deadline? Why is the washing machine making that strange noise?

Some of us write fantasy and sci-fi and the appeal there is completely clear—it’s the escape from reality for readers.

But what about those of us who write using everyday settings about everyday people? What’s the appeal there?

I think it must be that our readers can imagine themselves in the same circumstances. That we’ve made a connection with the ordinary reader. That we’ve either 1) created people like themselves who are suddenly facing extraordinary circumstances (they’re accused of murder, won the lottery, gotten lost in a snowstorm), or 2) we’ve created extraordinary people that our readers wish they could be, but aren’t.

My two protagonists both fall under the first category, I think…ordinary people who have been put in extraordinary situations.

What about you? Do your characters fall into either category? Both? Or do you write a genre where the extraordinary part is the escape from reality?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

BSP (Blatant Self-Promotion)

Delicious and Suspicious

My upcoming Delicious and Suspicious will be released July 6, 2010, under my pen name Riley Adams. Just in time for the backyard grilling season! Here's the back cover copy:

Welcome to Aunt Pat's barbeque restaurant--family run and located in the heart of Memphis, Tennessee. Named in honor of Lulu Taylor's great aunt, the restaurant is known for its ribs and spicy corn bread, but now the Taylor family will be known for murder--unless Lulu can clear their name... Rebecca Adrian came to Memphis to suss out the best local BBQ for a prominent Cooking Channel show. Trouble is, Rebecca doesn't live long enough to mention a bad review. A mystery ingredient has killed her--and now all fingers are pointing to Aunt Pat's restaurant. Horrified that her family is being accused of murder, Lulu fires up her investigative skills to solve the crime before someone else gets skewered...


I was thrilled yesterday when FedX dropped off my cover copies from Penguin. There’s just something about having a cover connected to your book to make it feel more real! I had a lot of fun writing this book and exploring characters that are different from my Myrtle Clover series. I can’t wait to share it with y’all in July! Oh…last bit of BSP. It is available for preordering from Amazon or your favorite independent bookseller. :)

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Bare Minimum

AN ANGLER IN A POLDER LANDSCAPE--Willem Bastiaan Tholen I get a lot of emails for different organizations that I either volunteer for or belong to. Sometimes I want to get out my highlighter and mark the information I need.

Frequently I’ll get a page-long email with only one sentence that was actually important.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with information overload.
On one hand, it’s wonderful to have so many writing resources and tips online.  When I was starting to seriously write (seven years ago), there wasn’t enough information online.  Now there’s so much that it can be hard to know where to start. 

The basics you should cover if you’re about to submit a finished manuscript:

Going pro?  You need to check out those agents and publishers before you submit.  There are some really wicked people out there that prey on writers (who are sometimes more creative than they are business-headed.) 

If you are submitting (and you’ve checked out your agent and editor and done your homework there), you really do need to make sure your manuscript has been proofed by a separate set of eyes.  You could go several ways with that: the free route (a really objective-minded friend or family member), a critique group (you can find them online if you’d rather say at home or have time constraints), or you can even pass it by a professional editor that you pay yourself.  You want your manuscript to be as clean as it can possibly be.

Review those industry guidelines:  You need to be really sure that you’re following agent and publisher guidelines when you submit. You can easily find guidelines online these days.  You’ll want to make sure you don’t send your thriller to a romance publisher, or make similar mistakes.

Have an email address.   I’m always surprised at who doesn’t have a professional email address. You can get one that’s separate from your family email through a free provider (Google Mail, Hotmail, Yahoo.)  Try a professional-sounding address like Your Name

Personal website or a blog that functions as your home base.  I could be argued out of the notion that this is a basic…but I really do believe it is. Even one page that  introduces you in a basic, professional way to an editor or agent works fine.   Blogger, through Google, offers free blogging, as do some other providers.  You could also go through WordPress, which can provide you with a blog that’s also a website (with a home page and other tabs.)  I have a separate website from my blog— I bought my domain name from GoDaddy (they have silly commercials, but they do have good deals). I designed my site with their program, “Website Tonite.”

What information should your website or blog contain? How to contact you (email), your genre, and what you’re working on now is probably good enough.  You can put up a friendly looking picture of yourself or an image related to your book and call yourself done.

What basic tips do you have to add that I’ve forgotten or left out?

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Henri Matisse - Mlle Matisse In A Scottish Plaid Coat, 1918, Mr. & Mrs. Albert Taubman Collection, Switzerland. I belong to a couple of Yahoo groups for cozy authors. One subject that’s been hot on the boards lately is the way some authors argue with their readers on (mostly) Amazon.

It’s almost like the social media phenomenon, which has resulted in a casual relationship with our readers via Facebook and Twitter, has gotten authors in the mood to fight back when a reader gives a negative review.

I think it’s a really bad idea.

Usually, if a reader doesn’t enjoy your book then they’re honestly writing a review of what they personally didn’t like. It’s almost a buyer-beware type post—a note to the reading community: “Hey, if you’re like me and you don’t like this particular thing in a novel, then you might not like this book either.”

Honest dialogue on your book should be happening.  You want people discussing your novel, good or bad. If people are talking about your book, then they’re reading it.

There is absolutely nothing gained, in my opinion, by trying to debate someone who doesn’t like your novel.  There are plenty of books that have been well-reviewed that I didn’t enjoy: maybe they were really graphically violent, or had lots of long, descriptive passages…whatever. People have a right to their opinion. Every book isn’t right for every reader.

And, yes, then you do have the other kind of reader.  They’re sometimes a little flaky. They might say things that don’t reflect an objective, professional-sounding review—they might even be downright mean.  They could say something really odd about how your book promotes a particular political bent (when it doesn’t) or that you had an environmental agenda or were anti-vegan, or whatever.

But these aren’t professional reviewers.  And they’re not expert readers/critics like book bloggers who review books daily.  They’re not writers who express themselves well. They’re regular readers.

And if you start arguing with these people about how your book doesn’t espouse any kind of an agenda, then you’re just going to look bad.  I can’t think of a time when it would be worth the author’s time to counterattack.

Because the reviewers will frequently write back to argue your points. And then you’ve pulled attention away from your book and made yourself look unprofessional to boot.

The worst case scenario is when an author really flips out…like Alice Hoffman did last year. She got so upset with a reviewer (and this was a professional newspaper reviewer) that she posted the critic’s phone number on Twitter and asked her readers to call the critic and complain about the negative review.

Of course authors feel very protective about their books. There’s so much of ourselves in every one of them, and we put many hours into books that can be read in a fraction of the time it took us to pen them.
I’ve seen quite a few authors jumping in to defend their novels.

But to me, when we enter into the fray, we’re drawing attention to the negative review, making ourselves look unprofessional, and certainly not convincing the reader to change their mind about the book.  What’s gained?

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Brassai LeChatBlanc 1938 PompidouCenter-Paris I have a subplot in my current WIP that wants to take over the world.

In the same WIP, I have a small subplot that stays meekly in its place.

Subplots are a lot of fun for me—I enjoy both reading them and writing them. It’s nice to have a short break from the main plot every once and a while and take a breather.

But problems pop up when subplots get ambitious and want to take over my novel.

They do have their uses, though. While the main plot of my books might be many chapters away from seeing resolution, my subplots usually show a steady progression toward a conclusion.

It's a fun way to focus on a side character. Or to play around with another genre (introduce a romantic element in a mystery, for example).

A good subplot can also help keep the reader motivated to continue reading.

But…I have to keep them in their place. There’s definitely a limit to the amount of time I can devote to a subplot.

The one in my current WIP that wants to stage a coup with the main plot? I’ve made a deal with it. If I tie it into the main plot so that it’s an integral part of the book's conclusion, then I’ll give it more screen time.

Do you have subplots that want to take over your books?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hiking Through A Quilted Garden: Metaphors For Writing Fiction by Kit Dunsmore

Photo by Dana Geary

Kit Dunsmore is a contemporary fantasy writer living in northern Colorado. She's currently working on a novel about a witch who tries to rescue her best friend from a necromancer without breaking her vow never to use harmful magic. You can find her at Kit's Home for Orphaned Armadillos.

KitOnTrail._crpd_smallMy first attempt at this post on how I write fiction talked about generating a series of drafts, grafting together the best of the material, and how much concentration each stage takes. It was boring. So I took a walk with my dog and tried to think of a metaphor for my writing process, something vivid and visual that would give depth to my dull description of draft writing.

Of course I couldn't think of one. I thought of three.

One for each stage of my writing process.

Writing a first draft of a scene or chapter is hiking into new territory. I go down a trail after looking at a map. I think I know where I'm going, and may have some idea of what there is to see along the way, like a lake or stream. But I really don't know what I'm going to encounter until I start walking. Then I discover all the little twists, muddy dips, tiny flowers, animal tracks, steep climbs, and unknown people the trail has to offer. I may turn off the path at any time to visit a tree or rock barely glimpsed through the leaves. I may go up a hill to see what's on the other side. Whether I'm hiking or writing, there's no telling if I'll find more of the same or something unexpected when I get there.

I've honed this exploratory method of draft writing for the last four Novembers by participating in National Novel Writing Month. Giving myself only 30 days to write 50,000 words has proven a great way to keep my feet moving. Desperate to hit my word count (1667 words a day), I will chase whatever shows up, whether it is a new idea for a scene or a character who has appeared out of nowhere. Anything goes. I try to ignore any thoughts I have about how stupid, crazy, or pointless something is and just run with it. After all, I'm dying to see what's on the other side of that hill, and there's only one satisfactory way I know to find out.

But hiking is only the beginning. After I've made my discoveries, good or bad, the time has come to pick through them and select the pieces that I think are most intriguing, most colorful, and stitch them together. Suddenly, I'm no longer hiking through the woods.

Now I'm quilting.

I take the pieces of draft writing I like best and turn them into a complete scene or chapter by stitching them together with more words. I’ve thought of it as stitching for years now. Sometimes the bits of draft I use are mere scraps – a sentence or two – so maybe that’s where the image comes from. Or maybe it’s the fact that I love what happens when I sew pieces of fabric together into something new and this stage of writing brings me that same joy. What looks like odd bits of fabric become a vibrant whole. Larger patterns begin to emerge, and yet each fabric contributes something unique. Making something greater, something new, from scraps is what the synthesis stage is all about for me.

Once the stitching is done, I have a whole piece, a block or a section of my fictional quilt. I step back to look at it anew, and think about its overall pattern and shape. And yet another shift happens. I am no longer sewing. Now I must weed and prune.

It's time to garden.

Editing can be brutal. Cutting out words, sentences, scenes can seem like slashing through vines in a jungle. But I prefer a more nurturing metaphor, that of a gardener who weeds and prunes for the good of the garden as a whole. An awkward limb can rub against other parts of a tree and damage it. Weeds can choke out the delicate flowers that are trying to grow next to them. But the good gardener steps in and lops off the limbs that are harming the tree, pulls up the weeds that are smothering the flowers.

And I think good editing is the same. I'm not slashing and destroying when I cut out a sentence or drop a scene. I'm shaping the whole, for the good of the whole, making the writing attractive, making room for better things to grow.

And what do I do when I put down my shears and take off my gardening gloves?

I start all over again.

I go hiking to discover new vistas to fill in the gaps in my story so that I can stitch them onto my existing quilt blocks and then prune away whatever is destructive or ugly. This cycle keeps repeating, and with each cycle, my draft improves, my story grows stronger, and I come closer to having written something that captures my imaginary world and the people who live there.

I really had hoped for a single metaphor to describe my writing process, but now I wonder why I thought that was possible. After all, nothing I know is quite like writing.

Thanks so much for guest posting today, Kit! I especially like your idea of the editing process being a nurturing one instead of a destructive one. That will make me feel better as I slash right and left. :)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brainstorming—by Kathy McIntosh.

Kathy McIntosh, Well Placed Words Today I’d like to welcome Kathy McIntosh to the blog. Kathy is an editor, PR expert, professional speaker, and professed word lover.


Whether you have a novel plotted in your head, or have a few simple thoughts about a character, an event, or a terrific action scene, the end product can benefit from a good initial brainstorming session with trusted writer colleagues.

Brainstorming is particularly useful if you’re both at the point of beginning a new novel.

Brainstorming allows you to dig deeper into ideas and find fresh dirt. When you’re seeking a word or a phrase, the first three are often trite. If you scribble down a few more, you get past the top of mind, often-used, dusty ones to something with sparkle.

The same holds true for your plot and characters. Having one or two trusted friends help you dig makes the work easier and faster, and you get the benefit of someone else’s creativity.

You also have the opportunity for fun with other scribblers, a rare treat for solitary writers.

Suggestions for better brainstorming: 1. Be certain you trust the person you’re sharing your precious ideas with. Although some would argue you risk having your ideas stolen, my concern is for your self-confidence, your fragile writer’s ego. Your team members need to be able to accept your ideas or challenge them, suggest adaptations and alterations, without ever attacking you as a writer (or as a person!). Of course, you need to remember not to take comments personally. This is work and the words and ideas are not you; they are words and ideas.

2. Have a flip chart with lots of paper for taking notes on ideas. Record everything! 3. Come to the brainstorming session with your ideas or problems in mind. No make that with notes on your ideas and problems. These thoughts will be the board you’ll jump from to brainstorm. (Would that then be brainswimming?) This can be just notes you’ve dashed down, stream of consciousness ideas or more structured, depending on your style. Some people even have drawings to stimulate their thinking.

4. Have yummy snacks and easily prepared meals. Do remember to take breaks, possibly a walk. Refresh your creative mind.

5. Spend time before you begin to set discussion parameters: Will one person who is a wiz at brainstorming lead all sessions or will each writer lead the discussion on his or her work? Decide how far you want to go. Some writers think they need only a bare bones idea and then will be able to run with it. Maybe so, but the purpose of brainstorming is to pick the brains of another writer. He or she might head in a different direction and you might LOVE that direction.

6. Follow the rules of brainstorming: No bad ideas, everything is written down. Don’t worry about repetition. The same thing said at a different time may spark new ideas. Don’t stop and discuss. Just record lots of ideas first and think about them later. Do ask for clarification. Be sure what you write down is not edited but is clear to all (a one word idea that’s perfectly clear in the morning may be meaningless by midnight) Before you start, set time guidelines and stay within them. Maybe 50 minutes on each person’s main plot problem and the ways things get worse; 20 minutes on each protagonist and each antagonist; 20 minutes on the secondary characters. If you’re really on a roll that you don’t want to stop, decide together how much more time to allocate to that topic. Think outside the box. If an idea comes to you, don’t let your internal editor tell you it’s silly. Speak up and share it. Trust that no one will belittle your contribution. (And if someone does, provide a gentle reminder of the guidelines)

7. Ways to Generate Ideas Try using the question “What if…” when considering your plot and your characters. What if your protagonist is a dwarf instead of an executive for a conglomerate? What if your villain has always wanted to be on Survivor? Use mind mapping or clustering, too! Start with a word (perhaps a description of your character) in a circle and branch out from there. I posted about mind mapping last year.

8. Be flexible. Get up and stretch from time to time. If one approach isn’t working to get ideas flowing, try another. There will be moments of silence, empty of ideas. Allow them.

Thanks so much for guest blogging today, Kathy! You can visit Kathy at her blog, Well Placed Words. I’m curious to find out everyone’s techniques for brainstorming—do you write it all down? Try to keep it in your head? What works for you?

And please join me tomorrow when Kit Dunsmore posts on Hiking Through A Quilted Garden: Metaphors For Writing Fiction.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Feeling Something is Wrong

Alphonse Charles Masson--1814-1898--Portrait of Alfred Cadart--Etching, 1874 All day on Monday, I had the feeling that something was wrong.

I’d set my writing goal for the day. I had a couple of errands that I needed to do.

But I felt completely lethargic. And I couldn’t think very well. I wrote some pages and looked at them with disbelief. I’d written this?

The kids came home from school. I started going through backpacks and getting supper ready…very sloooowwly.

Finally I realized—I needed to go to the doctor.

Sinus infection.

If I’d only paid attention to myself earlier, maybe I could have started on an antibiotic the day before.

Y’all know I’m a fan of editing after the first draft is finished. But sometimes there’s just something wrong with the manuscript—an underlying, bad feeling that you get when you sit down to work with it.

If you don’t address that feeling that something is wrong, you could get so frustrated with the manuscript that you give up on it.

Yesterday I focused on potholes in stories to be edited out at the end. Below are some big, content-type problems that sometimes need special attention—maybe even while writing the first draft.

Signs Something Isn’t Working:

  • You can’t logically explain what motivates the protagonist’s behavior.
  • Along the same lines, your character has completely changed with no reasonable explanation.
  • The plot is too derivative. You haven’t spun the old plot until it seems like something fresh.
  • You can’t get into the protagonist’s head. They seem flat. You can’t identify with them at all.
  • The plot limps along with no discernable conflict.
  • There’s too much conflict and it changes from one thing to another. There’s no primary focus. There’s no theme, just 'the world vs. John Smith.’
  • There’s no hook to the novel.
  • There’s only external conflict and no internal conflict for the main character.
  • The protagonist is unlikeable.
  • The protagonist isn’t interesting enough to carry a story.
  • The reader might not be able to tell who the protagonist is.
  • There’s no readily-identifiable antagonist. There’s just bad stuff that happens.
  • Your content is a mess with flashbacks, backstory, telling instead of showing, too many dialogue tags, and point of view issues.
  • Your characters aren’t original. They’re more like stock characters (the alcoholic cop, the snooty society lady, the shy librarian).

What do you do when you realize one or more of these things are happening? Some people start over from scratch. Some people will finish the manuscript and then do major revisions afterwards.

I like to just mark the point in the manuscript that I realized the problem with Microsoft Word’s highlighter…and start, at that point, writing differently for the rest of the book. I fix the original problem during revisions.

Have you run into these problems before? What do you do when you realize they’re happening?


Tomorrow, my guest at Mystery Writing is Murder will be Kathy McIntosh. She'll give us 7 tips for better brainstorming with her post "Get Drenched in Ideas." Please join us!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Cyclist in the Snow by Alan Lowndes --1921 - 1978 Potholes aren’t usually a problem here in Matthews, North Carolina.

That’s because we’ve been in a drought for years--there wasn’t any moisture on the roads to cause any potholes.

Now, of course, we’re caught in some crazy monsoon pattern and my simple suburban drive to the store is now a treacherous route embedded with potholes that seem to reach down to China. And somehow, I never realize they’re there until I’m in one.

My first drafts are just as susceptible to potholes.

Things I look out for when revising:

Character Issues: Are there any secondary characters that need more depth? Are the characters all clearly different from each other? Do they have realistic motivation? Do they stay in character?

Plot issues: Is the plot fairly linear? Does it make sense?

Conflict: Is the conflict strong enough to power the plot? Is the conflict major or is it just a minor misunderstanding that could easily be resolved? Is there both internal and external conflict?

Scenes: Are they necessary? Do the scenes impact the main plot or the subplot?

Mechanics: Check for word repetition (I know my favorite words that need to be cut.) I read aloud for sentence and word flow. Is something awkwardly constructed? I look for typos and spelling. Are the dialogue tags okay? (For me this means I might not have enough tags to attribute the speaker. For others it might mean that tags or adverbs should be cut.)

Pace: Is the story moving fast enough? Too fast?

Voice: Did I maintain it? Are there sections that sound flat?

Beginnings and endings: Will the beginning hook readers? Is the ending satisfying and have I tied up all the loose ends?

Timeline errors: Are the events of the story in order?

Continuity errors: Is someone wearing one outfit at the beginning of the scene and something different by the end of the scene (without changing clothes?) Does it change from day to night and back again in the course of a page?

One more thing about the potholes here in Matthews. They’re allowed to happen. There’s no road crew perched at the side of the road in an asphalt truck, filling holes as they appear.

Instead, the prevailing attitude here seems to be that they wait until the rainy spell is over and then they fill all the holes at once.

Either way, whether they're fixed as they open or after a whole minefield of them has sprung up, the potholes do all get filled.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Alexander Deineka---Young woman-- 1934 You wouldn’t think those three inches of snow we got Friday would make such a mess of the roads. The brine and the melting, muddy snow was tossed up on my car from cars and trucks and sent me off to the car wash Sunday.

As I do any time I’m waiting for longer than 5 minutes, I pulled out my notebook and started writing, right there in the car wash waiting room. I even had a handy dandy note to myself at the top of the page, to remind me where I needed to pick up the story.

A couple of minutes later, someone plopped down in the seat next to me. This was a little annoying to me, since the car wash waiting room had plenty of extra seats. But I’ve gotten really disciplined, so I kept writing without even looking up.

“Hi babe,” said this really odd voice. Oh great. I leaned way over to the right, away from the weird man and continued writing (although I was pretty sure I was writing complete crap by now.)

“Come here often?” asked the strange voice. “Whatcha writin’?”

I drew in a deep breath and looked up, scowling in a most discouraging, icy, and—I hoped—unattractive way.

And saw my husband grinning at me.

I could have wrung his neck. He’d done a great job disguising his voice and wasn’t supposed to be there—but he was getting his car inspected next door (North Carolina has annual emissions and equipment testing) and had seen me drive in, so he’d walked over.

We had a nice little conversation…although, technically, he was keeping me from my goal. My plan was to get some work done in the 15-20 minutes that it took to wash and vacuum my car. It was a very small hiccup in my plan to fit writing in on a chaotic Sunday, but I had been thwarted. In the nicest possible way, of course.

I realized, later, that I’ve written a lot of little hiccups in my plots, too. It doesn’t always have to be Lex Luthor armed with Kryptonite to temporarily keep a protagonist from their goal and create a little stress. Yes, I have a killer on the rampage, throwing up all kinds of roadblocks and determined to keep my sleuth from finding out his identity. But there are other small obstacles for discovering the truth.

It can be an ordinary or trivial thing that takes the day on a new path:

An unexpected visit by a well-meaning friend.

A long phone call.

Car trouble.

Power outage.

Computers that aren’t working.

Characters who discourage or doubt our protagonist’s abilities.

A broken alarm clock.

Poor health.

Lies our protagonist believes are truths (my suspects lie to my sleuth all the time.)

These are small things…but they make believable conflicts that can put our protagonist at the wrong place at the wrong time, send them off in an unproductive direction, or temporarily keep them from their goal.

You still have the main conflict going on in the background. We still need the Lex Luthors in the story. But it’s great to work in extra bits of conflict, delays, and distractions, too.

And the nice thing is that readers won’t even think our storyline hiccups farfetched.

Because our days are full of distractions.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Plot Patterns and Happy Endings

The Half Holiday, Alec home from school by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes 1859-1912 I have a hard time keeping my seventh grade son in books. It’s a nice problem to have.

After scouring some book blogs, I came up with four books that had been highly recommended by (admittedly) adults.

I put the books up in his room. After a few hours, he came out.

“Mom? I don’t mean anything by this…but I hate all those books you got me.”

I sat back in the chair and stared at him. “But they’re supposed to be good!”

“They’re depressing. I read the first four or five chapters of all of them. I feel like I know the characters and they’re in these hopeless situations and depressing things keep happening.”

“Well, but honey, I’m positive the books will end happily. They’re YA.”

He gave a short laugh. “No. They don’t end well. Because when I realized I’d never in a million years read these books all the way through, I read the endings. They all had these awful endings. And now I can’t get the stories out of my head!”

I’d spent a good hour researching books for him. I thought that at least one of the books would make the cut.

This made me realize that many books and movies that are critically acclaimed aren’t the happiest stories in the world. And they might not be right for everybody. I seemed to have wandered into the literary fiction area of YA.

My son seems to like stories of people in difficult circumstances that rise above them. He likes steps toward conflict resolution fairly early—with setbacks and challenges continuing. I see him as a fantasy/sci fi reader mainly.

The books he wasn't interested in seemed to have this sort of a pattern:

Opening crisis. Deepening crisis. More characters are introduced and they are sucked into the crisis, exacerbating the tension. The characters encounter setbacks as they struggle for conflict resolution. There is some hope offered in a couple of plotlines at the end of the book. But not for the main character at the end.

In fact, these books follow a Lord of the Flies pattern almost exactly.

My own stories seem to follow this pattern:

*Initial sunny, happy, quiet scene. (Apart from a foreshadowing prologue.) *Major conflict. (In my books, this is a violent death.) *The protagonist takes action to resolve the problem (whodunit). *A major setback. *More action by the protagonist. Some progress. *A confrontation. *A resolution.

Are your books heavy? Do they end with a happy resolution? Do you see patterns in your plots at all?

If you were following the discussion Friday on genre blending, pop over to the Mystery Lovers' Kitchen today where guest poster, Dead Air author, and clinical psychologist Mary Kennedy shares insights into developing her character’s personal life at

Saturday, February 13, 2010


A snow covered village by Nadezhda Stupina--20th--21st Century First of all, I wanted to mention that Cleo's interesting discussion on genre blending continued far into the comments section yesterday. She made some fascinating points about transitioning into a mainstream author if you're starting out as a genre writer. And why is some genre fiction published as mainstream fiction (for example, Janet Evanovich)? Find out in the comments: Genre Blending and Your Character's Love Life.

I have a feeling I’m not going to inspire pity in many of you when I say that it’s snowing here in Matthews, North Carolina. And we might even get five inches, y’all!

Snow here means an obligatory run to the store for bread and milk. My father says Southerners act like we’re preparing for the Siege of Leningrad when we get snow. I did make the pilgrimage to the store…but mainly because I was actually out of bread and milk and knew the shelves would be bare by 10 a.m. once news of the approaching snow leaked out.

Weather has just never been a focal point of my stories before. It’s always been a complement to the plot—I’m fond of hot, sticky, graveside funeral services in my books. Lots of people dressed up and sweating profusely, full of discomfort from the heat and humidity (and possibly because they murdered the dear deceased.)

This may have to change. Lately, I’ve felt assaulted by the weather. It hasn’t stayed in the background like it usually does. It’s been sassily sticking its tongue out at me. It’s making me pay attention.

So I’m mulling over my possibilities.

Weather could

Cut people off from other people. Leave them stranded. This might be a good way to create some conflict. If you are stranded with people? They might get on your nerves.

Cause accidents and health issues (heat stroke and heat exhaustion occur here in the South.)

Change plans. The weather could provide an avenue for changing the course of a story—a canceled flight. An impassable roadway.

Affect pace. Wonder why people in the American South move and talk so slowly? It’s the heat and humidity. It’s honestly even hard to think down here when things really get heated up. Life moves at a slower pace.

Create power outages. Which can be a real bummer. I can think of all kinds of problems power outages could trigger. For my fellow crime writers, blackouts could create the right opportunity for a murder or other crime.

Affect characters’ moods. Too much rain can make you down. Heat spells can result in fights breaking out and tempers flaring.

Be symbolic. Well, we’ve all seen the huge storm that symbolizes a character’s inner turmoil. But there are ways to turn trite symbols on their heads. Maybe the weather is determinedly sunny—like the character determined to plaster a smile on his face during his personal tragedy.

Does weather play a major role in your books, or is it relegated to the background as it normally is in mine?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Genre Blending and Your Character’s Love Life

French_Pressed-CleoCoyle A former journalist, Alice Alfonsi is a multi-published author in several genres and a New York Times best-selling media tie-in writer. Under the pen name Cleo Coyle, she pens two nationally bestselling mystery series for Penguin in collaboration with her husband, Marc Cerasini, the first of which, On What Grounds: A Coffeehouse Mystery, is now in its fourteenth printing. Her most current project under her own name is an adaptation of the screenplay for the upcoming feature film Tron: Legacy into a junior novel.

Genre Blending and Your Character’s Love Life

Cleo Coyle_CoffeehouseMysteries-color photo Differences in genres are sometimes easy to recognize and sometimes not so easy. A small percentage of bookstore customers may puzzle over why the trade markets something as a fantasy versus a mystery, especially when the fantasy has a mystery in it and the mystery has a fantasy element. Most of the reading public probably doesn’t care. They simply want to be told a good story.

To an author seeking to publish, however, the question of what defines a genre is not a casual one. Understanding why a publisher puts a book in one genre as opposed to another may mean the difference between an acceptance call and a rejection notice.

A short time ago, mystery author Mary Jane Maffini posed a question to a group of published mystery authors. She then conveyed our answers in a workshop for a group of aspiring writers. To paraphrase MJ’s question:

“What is the difference between a romance with a mystery and a mystery with a romance?”

As I typed out my answer for MJ, I realized it would make an informative opening for a blog post on genre blending. Given Sunday’s date, let’s start with romance…

What defines a romance?

In the most basic terms, the main plot of a novel in the romance genre focuses on the protagonist's love life. Countless permutations are possible in such a novel: small casts, epic tales, historical or contemporary settings. The style of the telling can be poetic, colloquial, melodramatic, stream of consciousness, epistolary. The couples involved may be straight or gay.

The protagonist in a romance may have other ongoing concerns. The book may feature additional subplots—a mystery or thriller element, a family drama, terminal illness, struggle for societal standing—but the love affair is the driving force. The engine of the plot is driven by encounters between the protagonist and his or her love.

Ultimately, what defines a romance is this primary plot question: Will the main character win or lose love? These days, romance novels almost always deliver a happily ever after ending for the reader.

What defines a mystery?

Again, in the most basic terms, the plot of a novel in the mystery genre focuses on the main character's quest to uncover the guilty party after a crime has taken place, usually a murder but not always. The engine of this plot is driven by the protagonist following clues toward the solution of the crime.

Many writers describe the ultimate goal of a mystery protagonist as finding justice, but I don’t think that’s the best way to define the genre for writers who are new to it. I’m not entirely sure that all mystery protagonists are out for justice, which can be a complex and subjective idea.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for example, Poirot reveals the murderers and allows them to walk away. Were the murderers executing justice upon the victim? Certainly that can be argued, especially given the lack of a defining jurisdiction on the train. From an objective viewpoint, however, one can also argue that killing a man in his sleep is closer to vengeance or vigilantism.

Antiheroes in the mystery genre may not seek justice in the traditional sense, either. What they will always seek in the course of the story is the truth. The mystery protagonist may be involved in other subplots and have other concerns, including a love affair, but the main desire line for the protagonist should be discovering the guilty party (or parties), uncovering the lies, untangling the schemes, and excavating the answers to any questions surrounding the crime.

Sex and the Human Condition

Every day when I sit down to work, I do so with the understanding that I am writing a novel in the mystery genre, but ultimately (regardless of the apparent rules and strictures of genre) I am writing a novel.

A work of parody or avant-garde surrealism may intentionally use caricatures and stereotypes with little depth. For the most part, however, today’s readers expect multidimensional characters in their novels. This is where genre blending has served me well.

As experienced writers know, in order to portray a character as dimensional (characters that feel real, if you will), we must create traits that humanize him or her. A character’s sexuality is a powerful way to convey your character’s humanity—certainly not the only way, but a compelling one for many readers.

Exploring your character’s sexuality does not mean your character is “sexy” or even that your character will engage in sex during the course of the story. For many authors, exploring a character’s sexuality (and the basis or “back story” for it) is simply a way to build dimension.

The protagonist of my first series (Clare Cosi) is a divorced single mother in her forties. Clare didn’t have much of a love life in the decade before the series began. For years, her main concern was raising her daughter, and she subverted her own needs to that end. As Clare’s newly adult daughter moves along with her own life, however, Clare begins to explore her post-forty sexuality, which is complicated to say the least. BTW…Age need not be a factor in the romantic arena: The Coffeehouse Mysteries also feature a lively but fickle octogenarian (Clare’s former mother-in-law) who is presently on her third beau.

Exploring Character, Building Depth

Even asexual characters can yield fascinating back stories when you explore the reasons for their human condition, for instance: aversion to being touched because of past abuse; a failed marriage with residual hostility toward the opposite sex; contented virginity; unbearable virginity; impotence; frigidity; an expression of religious belief.

In my second mystery series, my protagonist is a widow in her late thirties (Penelope Thornton-McClure). Pen has a young son and no sex life. My widow has sexuality. For various reasons, including her lousy marriage and husband’s suicide, it’s repressed.

What Pen does have is a fantasy life in the form of a ghost. At times she wonders whether the ghost is real. PI Jack Shepard seems to have stepped right out of the pages of the Black Mask-era hardboiled mysteries that she sells in her book store. Has Jack appeared in her life as an alter ego, a kind of imaginary friend who will express her deeply repressed thoughts and feelings and fulfill her acute psychological needs? Or is Jack a true manifestation of a paranormal phenomenon? With every new title in The Haunted Bookshop Mysteries, Pen and the reader must decide for themselves.

The Best of Both Genres

Finally, if you do decide to blend genres and unfurl a romantic subplot for the main character in your mystery, this storyline should not dampen your character’s burning desire to solve his or her crime. Nor should it take away from your painstaking plotting of the mystery. If you blend the genres correctly, your protagonist’s love life should simply be part of the creation of a dimensional character in a well written novel.

Do you blend genres in your writing? Do you enjoy it or find it problematic? Comments welcome or come join the discussion this Sunday when Dead Air author and clinical psychologist Mary Kennedy shares insights into developing her character’s personal life at

Text copyright © 2010 by Alice Alfonsi

Cleo, thanks so much for this terrific and helpful post. It makes me want to do some genre bending, too! So how about it—do y’all blend genres? How is it working for you?

Be sure to check out Cleo’s awesome website (I haven’t seen an author site to rival it). She blogs with me at Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen and her posts always POP with fun.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Just the Facts, Ma'am—by Margot Kinberg

Today I have the pleasure of having Margot Kinberg guest post on the blog. Margot is a mystery writer (her newest, B-Very Flat has just been released.) But Margot is also a mystery novel expert—and I don’t use that word lightly. If you check out her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, you’ll see what I mean.

Lab One of the first steps in writing, at least for me, is figuring out the major events in the plot. Since I write murder mysteries, that means deciding who is going to be the victim, who is going to be the murderer, and how and why the crime will be committed. Once I have those basics settled, I start adding detail and then I begin drafting what I write. One of the big advantages of planning this way is that it helps me figure out where I can use knowledge that I already have, and where I need expertise that I don’t have. Then, it’s time for me to do my preliminary research. That’s one thing I really enjoy about writing, because I always learn.

I call it “preliminary research” because I’ve found that I do research throughout the writing process. Probably the easiest way to explain how I do research and what I learn from it is to give you a look “behind the scenes” at the research I did for B-Very Flat, my newest novel. As soon as I’d decided who my victim was going to be and had thought about the kind of person she is, I decided she would die of anaphylactic shock caused by a violent allergic reaction to peanut dust. That meant I had to learn about anaphylaxis and peanut allergies. I was lucky in my research, because I have a close friend whose son is dangerously allergic to peanuts and peanut products. She was kind enough to give me lots of helpful information and some extremely useful web sites (e.g. Lesson learned here? Ask around. You probably know someone who has answers you need.

Then I realized that someone with such a severe allergy would probably not knowingly eat anything with peanuts in it, so I was going to have to figure out how the murderer would expose the victim. That led me to do some research on peanut flour. I found out some fascinating information, too. For instance, you may not realize it, but many, many products use peanut flour; ready-to-serve spaghetti sauce is just one example. There are some helpful online sources for this, too, as well as some online places where you can buy peanut flour. It’s more popular than I thought, too; many people like peanut flour because it’s high in protein.

I also realized that someone who’s seriously allergic would probably carry what’s often called an Epi-pen. It’s a dose of epinephrine, which counteracts the effects of a severe allergic attack. I didn’t know much about Epi-pens or other auto-injectors, so I visited several online websites that sell auto-injectors. Not only did I get the information I needed about how they work, but I also found some high-quality photos of them that allowed me to get a helpful mental picture. Lesson learned here? The better you know your characters, the better you’ll know the kind of research you need to do. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do any research on peanut flour or auto-injectors until I learned more about my victim.

Now I had the background I needed to start drafting my book, so I got busy with my writing. As the book progressed, though, I realized that my research wasn’t done. Not at all. So I also learned along the way that it’s important to be willing to stop at any point in a book and get your facts straight before going any further.

Here’s an example. Part of the evidence that points to the murderer in B-Very Flat comes from video surveillance film – the kind that stores use to prevent shoplifting. Well, my husband used to be a retail manager, but that was many years ago, and I knew that surveillance procedures have changed a great deal since then. So I visited a few local businesses and got some updated information about how they protect their premises and employees.

I faced a similar challenge when I was planning the part of my book where the murderer is brought in for questioning. I wanted to get my facts straight about exactly how that happens. So I visited our local police precinct. My visit there taught me a lot, and it was helpful to see how a station is laid out. Again, I got a mental picture that made writing that part of the novel easier.

My local research was a very positive experience. Several helpful people took the time to answer my questions, tell me a little about their work, and set me straight where I was wrong. For that, I’m grateful. Lesson learned here? Don’t be afraid to tap local businesses and other community resources. Go. Visit. Ask. Most people are flattered at your interest in their expertise, and are only too happy to give you answers. Especially if you tell them you’re a writer who’s doing some research.

Margot Kinberg--B-Very Flat So how did I benefit from doing the research for B-Very Flat? The plot got stronger. For instance, once I learned about peanut flour and how and where to buy it, I was able to develop a whole set of scenes and action sequences that I hadn’t thought of adding. I was also able to include a few characters that I think add to the flavor of the book.

I also got unexpected opportunities to tell people about my writing. That’s sometimes quite a challenge for a writer, especially a writer who’s not a “household name.” But I found that when I told people why I wanted the information I asked for, they got interested in what I do. “Oh, you’re a writer? What do you write? Is it on Amazon?” Lesson learned here? It is really worth the time and effort to do some research when you write. The plot gets stronger and more believable, and you get the chance to spread the word. On, and carry some business cards or a flyer about your book(s) when you go out to “get the facts.” People pass those things around.

Doing research for a book can be time-consuming. It can also feel as though one’s not really making any progress. After all, making progress on a book means writing, right? Not driving around, interviewing people, looking up things on the Internet or going to the local police station. But the fact is, research helps make a book richer and more real. It teaches one a lot, and helps one make lots of important connections.

Thanks so much for guest blogging today, Margot! And for the excellent reminders on researching—and the promotional opportunities it can afford, too.

Tomorrow, the talented Cleo Coyle will be guest blogging a special Valentine’s Day-related post: Genre Blending and Your Character’s Love Life. What defines a mystery? A romance? What should you consider when blending genres? Please pop by and join us.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Literary Snobbery—Dealing With It

Dreams-- by Vittorio Matteo Corcos --1859-1933Literary snobbery has been a topic on a couple of blogs lately. So today, I’m blogging at A Good Blog is Hard to Find about how writers can handle encounters with book snobs. I hope you’ll pop over and visit me there.

Also, I’ve got all kinds of excitement coming down the pike this week here on Mystery Writing is Murder. Thursday, the wonderful Margot Kinberg will be guest blogging for me on Prewriting and Research. Margot gives us a glimpse at how research can make our novels stronger.

Friday, the talented Cleo Coyle will be guest blogging a special Valentine’s Day-related post: Genre Blending and Your Character’s Love Life. What defines a mystery? A romance? What should you consider when blending genres?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Slips of the Tongue

Blue Dress Paris--Jean Franck Baudoin-1870-1961 I was in—as usual—the grocery store on Saturday afternoon. As soon as I walked in the door, I was greeted with a big smile by a couple of men at a table. I did a mental groan—they wanted me to do something. Sure enough, it was time to update that plastic discount card the grocery store assigns us.

I was at the deli counter getting some ham and trying to put the little loyalty card on my keychain. One of the deli workers said, “So you got your card updated?”

And I said. “Mm-hmm. Last time I came in I just pretended I didn’t see them.” Then I’m sure I looked really cross because I don’t say things like that, I think things like that. Some evil sprite possessed me and made me say something rude.

The counter guy just laughed. “Yeah, you were probably ignoring me. Because I’ve been working that table until tonight.”

Which made me even more cross at myself.

It also made me think that frequently we’re our own worst enemies.

Writing cozy mysteries, I really like to do things on a small scale. Because of the nature of the books, I’m not doing any Hollywoodesque car crashes, explosions, or chase scenes.

I don’t have cataclysmic events in my books—no natural disasters, terrorism, or ghastly epidemics. Although I really enjoy reading books like these, they just don’t fit my genre.

A horrific day in my books? Someone’s slip of the tongue results in their murder. They knew too much.

Think of all the uses faux pas can have. Because we’ve all said things that came out wrong or that people took the wrong way.

A slip of the tongue could result in someone really getting furious with an in-law or other family member. Maybe it represented the last straw for the person—the one that made them decide to end a relationship.

Faux pas can end friendships. Maybe a friend blabbed about the protagonist’s secret. Maybe the slip is viewed as a betrayal by another character.

A slip of the tongue could result in someone getting fired. Maybe someone leaked something that their office wanted to keep strictly confidential.

Military men and women who accidentally disclose too much information involving location during a war, you’re actually endangering lives.

Think of all the politicians who end up saying, “I misspoke.” So many have said thoughtless things, or uttered racially insensitive statements when “misspeaking.”

There are so many different ways to plot around someone sticking their foot in their mouth. And the reader? They won’t think the results are unbelievable at all. Because we all make our little faux pas.

Monday, February 8, 2010


Guido Marussig-1885-1972--The Fan and the Eyes I’ve gotten to that point in my manuscript where it’s time to include some secrets.

I love secrets in books. They work really well for mysteries—in fact, it’s fun for all of the suspects to have a secret they’re trying to protect.

Then the reader and sleuth are aware the suspect is throwing up some roadblocks. They’re just not sure why it’s happening. Are they covering up the murder they committed? Or are they just trying to conceal a personal secret from the investigators?

Secrets are great for a variety of genres and, to me, are really fun to create and include.

Who has a secret?

Protagonist—Has a secret that affects him…usually negatively. Ordinarily, this is a secret that’s an integral part of his past that’s hampering his future. Positive secrets? I haven’t seen so many of those. Maybe a few storylines involving characters who are secretly wealthy (won the lottery, whatever) and keep it under cover so friends won’t treat them differently.

Someone close to the protagonist has a secret that affects their relationship with the main character. This can propel the protagonist through the plot.

The antagonist has a game-changing secret. Darth Vadarish.

There’s an external secret—a historical mystery, a secret from the past (like the book The Photograph, etc.) that the protagonist is trying to uncover.

What are secrets good for?

Internal conflict. The protagonist at war with himself over a secret in his past that’s holding him back.

Interesting subplot. This could be a minor secret that’s something fun, revealed at the end of the book.

Cool plot twist. You mean he’s not dead?

Roadblocks (conflict) for the main character. Other characters present obstacles for the protagonist as he’s trying to reach his goals.

Does your character have a secret? Does he know someone who does?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

When You’re Not Inspired

Portrait of the Artist's Wife-- 1917--Leon de Smet I’m one of those writers who doggedly writes each day, no matter what.

Frequently? I’m not inspired.

I think that’s the dirty little secret of a lot of writers. We may get ideas. We may implement those ideas. But we may not be flying through books on waves of inspiration.

I do write every day. But I really have to write every day so I won’t fall behind on my deadlines. Plus, if I skip even one day, going back later is even tougher. It’s like a muscle that needs to be exercised daily or else it just doesn’t work as well.

Even on days where I know I’m writing stuff that’s definitely not going to make it into the final cut, I mush on.

But there is one area I do better in when I’m not feeling creative.

Making lists:

I don’t like outlines, but I really like making lists. I’ve got a program, Microsoft’s One Note that came with my Office 2007. I like the software because I can make a “notebook” named after my book title, then create a bunch of “pages” to go in that notebook. So it looks sort of like this:

One note

Actually, it looks exactly like that because I did a capture picture of the screen. Although I do really like the software, you can do the same thing in a regular notebook with dividers.

On days where I seem to be creatively-challenged, I’ve found that I’m particularly good at making lists or at writing short bits that can be woven in later.

So I might make a list of the characters and what they look like.

I might jot down ideas for upcoming scenes.

I might make a list of things I need to research—this could be as simple as going to a name-generator site and picking out some good last names, or it could be more complicated—learning more information about police procedure in particular crimes.

I’ll make lists of favorite Southern foods for the Memphis series—along with ideas for where to include them.

Things to fix—that’s a fun one. I don’t stop and fix things that are wrong as I go—I’ll either highlight the problem with Word’s “highlighter,” or I’ll jot down a note in this section as to what needs correcting.

Short Sniping Snippets? That’s very specific to Memphis BBQ book 2 that I’m currently writing, so I guess I shouldn’t elaborate too much on that. :)

I can even do brain dumps to come up with possible subplots, clues, red herrings, short segments to develop particular characters, etc…those things seem to somehow come easier when I’m feeling more left-brained than usual.

If I make a lot of these planning lists? The writing goes a lot smoother the next day. It can even re-energize my creativity.

What do you do when you’re not inspired?


Pop over to the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen for a guest post by my fellow Midnight Inker, Lisa Bork (For Better, For Murder.)

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Grand Hiver by Cuno Amiet--1868 - 1961 One reason I don’t look back over the previous day’s writing is because I know what I’ll usually see:

Blah, blah, blah.

When I get an idea or have characters in a conversation, I can just milk the scene to death. Oh, I have my plan for the chapter (my mini outline.) I have a sense of how long my chapters are, although I don’t put in chapter breaks for the first draft.

But I will just keep on going. I know I’ll be editing out a ton for the second draft, anyway. And who knows what bits I’ll like best? So I’ll overwrite.

When I was a kid, essays had to be a certain number of words. I remember bloating my writing with all kinds of junk just to hit my word count.

I’m thinking that today’s kids really know the art of brevity. Texting encourages it, and so does Twitter. Oh, and Facebook status updates can only be so long, too.

When my son came home sick from school a couple of weeks ago, I got a text from him: Help me.

What’s wrong?!? I texted back, with some alarm.


And he did have the flu (again!), so it was genuine. But he knew how to rope me in and get me over to the school office pronto.

There was no rambling plea to be picked up, no over-the-top descriptions of fever, chills, or muscle weakness…nothing. The starkness of the message was enough to get me in my minivan and over to the school.

I think some scenes do well with a minimalistic approach:

Action scenes are great places to put short, choppy sentences and very little description.

Scenes where you’re including a shock or surprise to a scene.

Scenes that play a very functional, set-up purpose. (And you might want to analyze whether you need a whole set-up scene to begin with.)

Descriptive scenes (which I’m not all that crazy about to begin with.) It’s a little boring when an author waxes poetic in their basic descriptions of weather, a spring day, a pretty lady, etc. Short and sweet and clear, I’m thinking.

Do you write sparsely the first time around or do you edit out the bloat later?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Historical Research—a Guest Post by Charlotte Bowen

Fictionette--Where Your Writing Takes Flight

First of all, thanks to my guest blogger, Charlotte Bowen today! Charlotte blogs at, is revising her first novel and writing her second. She’s on Twitter at @acbowen.


Historical Research.

Those two simple words can strike fear into the heart of any writer, be she ever so mettlesome otherwise. For those without much knowledge of a piece’s era, research often seems an insurmountable task.

The notions that research is difficult or intimidating and that historical fiction requires 100% authenticity (or else don’t bother) is perpetuated by academics, historical researchers, and -- to be frank -- novelists who can't be bothered or are too frightened themselves to do research. These people have a lot invested in maintaining that untenable attitude. The academics and researchers are looking to put their profession (a noble one, admittedly) on a pedestal, and the novelists want to justify their laziness or pass on the fear others have instilled in them.

Don't let them dissuade you from research.

The truth is that there is really only one reason to include authentic detail in your pieces: To strengthen and clarify the mental image your prose calls forth in your readers. Any advice you take and any detail you include in your pieces should be directed toward that end.

"Enough" Authenticity?

Writers perpetuating historical myths make knowledgeable people cry. If I ever again read that people in the Middle Ages bathed only once a year, for example, I might go postal.

Bad history throws your readers out of the text. If you call your Renaissance Venetian character Jennifer instead of the more authentic Ginevra, for example, many readers will shudder every time they read the name. Eventually these infelicities compound upon themselves to totally frustrate readers, leaving them less able to engage with your story and characters.

Take the time to get the basics right. Names, dates, and places should be nailed down first, as should titles if your book concerns the military, nobility, or holy orders. Branch out from there as far as your taste or plot calls for. Details of dress, occupations, and language are good places to go once the basics are in place.

How Authentic is Too Authentic?

Don't respond by going the other way, however. While obsessive authenticity might allow you to pack a lot of interesting facts into your novel, facts without a purpose actually detract from your story by bogging readers down in endless descriptive window-dressing.

While it's interesting that Constantinople's cisterns were constructed with columns taken from ancient temples, turned upside down so that the Medusa's heads lie submerged in feet of black water -- for example -- 10 pages of detail with the exact genus and species details of the mosses growing in the cistern is not.

This goes for details of language, as well. While a few sprinkled "good morrows" lend a pleasant historical air to your writing, having your hero cry "Thou dost me sle!" when his lady spurns him for another is simply overwrought -- even if that is authentic straight-outta-Chaucer Middle English.

Historical facts are like movie special effects. They can really spice up the visuals when done well, but are too often used as whiz-bang puffery to showcase the director's technical capabilities or (worse) to hide gaping plot holes. Don't do that to yourself, your readers, or your characters.

Drawing the Line

The "sweet spot" between rampant anachronism and pedantry is different for every piece. The best advice (as with any other piece, historical or not) is to focus on your characters, your plot, and your storytelling. If the interesting tidbits you've found will advance one of these three things, use them. If not, don’t. Let the work tell you what it needs.

This attitude also makes it much easier to compile a list of things to begin researching. Create a basic plot outline and work from there. If the denouement of your novel involves a sword fight in a chapel, for example, you should research the date and layout of possible chapels, swords from the era, and sword fighting technique. These are still broad categories, but it's easier to work with these than something even broader, like "Scotland, 1543."

Breaking the research down into manageable parts reduces overwhelm and leaves you with a better finished product.

Where To Start

Art - This is one of the easiest ways to get a feel for an era. Not only do paintings, drawings, and photographs give you an idea of what people wore and how they lived, but each era has a certain spirit that comes alive in the artwork.

Period literature - Even in translation, period literature can provide a wealth of information on social customs and mores, clothing, decor, and -- of course -- language. Look for poetry, novels, and (especially) letters from your era at the local library or online. Since most period literature (and the Victorian-era translations thereof) is in the public domain, you should have little trouble finding something that suits your purpose.

Other historical novels - Some authors include a selected bibliography at the back of their books, or on their website. Other authors -- Dorothy Dunnett, for example -- have spawned reference books of their own. If there is a living author you particularly admire, seek him out. He might be able to point you in the right direction. Novelists with extreme attention to authenticity and detail (like Dunnett and Patrick O'Brien) are also your best models for how to incorporate into a compelling narrative all the facts you do find.

Historical research societies - Find these through Google or the phone book. These research societies tend to focus on one place, time, or thing. For example, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts is a fantastic resource on swords and sword fighting in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Academy of St. Gabriel helps historical re-enactors to choose authentic Medieval names. Even if your topic is obscure, it probably has some enthusiasts or associations dedicated to its study.

Colleges/Universities - See if your local college will let you audit a class on your era of interest. Not only will you learn a lot but you’ll also get access to the college library, which will have a greater number and quality of research resources than any public library, and to other professors who, by and large, will be thrilled to go on with you at length about their favorite subjects.

Online mailing lists - Google Groups and Yahoo Groups host many historical research mailing lists aimed at re-enactors. Re-enactors are a fantastic resource for writers. Not only do they have a good overview of the available research literature -- they've actually done and eaten and worn some of the things you'll be writing about. Don't be afraid to approach a mailing list with some of your questions or search the archived messages for relevant material.

eBay and Etsy - There's nothing quite like holding a piece of history in your hand. If your piece falls somewhere after the 1810s, there's a good chance that you'll be able to find old photos, clothing, and household items on these websites. Even if you don't purchase anything, the auction pictures and descriptions will give you a feel for what real people saw and wore every day.


Thanks so much for such an informative post on researching, Charlotte! I have a historical saga in my head for “someday,” (when I don’t have kids at home, probably!) and will definitely cut and file your tips for researching.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bad Guys

Elena Zolotnisky--Dorian Gray series 2008 Our antagonists sure do like to cause a lot of trouble.

They’re working against our main characters at every opportunity, trying to make sure they don’t reach their goals.

My antagonists sometimes even like to kill people. I have others that discourage my protagonists, send them off on tangents, or divert their focus.

They keep stories from getting too pat by creating conflict and standing between our protagonist and their goals.

What makes a good bad guy?

Attitude—These folks are usually brash, not shy. Intelligence—No idiots need apply. Opposing Goals—They don’t share the protagonist’s worldview.

Drive—They’re not ones to just drop their vendetta ten pages into the book. No, they’re going to try to get the best of our protagonist, or trip him up, through most of the novel.

Deviousness—They might lie or cheat--or kill--to reach their goal.

Limited contact with the protagonist—I could be persuaded otherwise for the right circumstances….but it’s awfully fun to have the antagonist be a person of mystery. An ominous force working against our main character.

And…ultimately? It’s someone who makes mistakes.—Unless we want our protagonist to fail, or have a less-than-happy ending, our protagonist should be able to trump our antagonist by the end of the novel.

Got a good bad guy? What makes the bad guy so good?


Hope y’all will drop by guest will be Charlotte Bowen from the Fictionette blog, with an interesting post on the research side of the writing process with her post on “Historical Research.”

And—it’s Super Bowl time! I don’t care for football, but I do like some of the things that make up the party. Pop by the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen for my look at beer. :)