Focus: For Writers

Starting Your Novel, With or Without Zombies

I’m sure there are authors who decide to write a series of novels who know the plot of each book in the series before beginning page one of book one. Anyone who knows me knows I am not among those authors. I simply cannot be that organized. Given the fluid nature of the publishing world, I’m not certain that’s always the best approach. After all, I might need to introduce a zombie in my next book.zombies

Just kidding. I shall stay true to my characters and my genre and write not to the market, but where my passion lies and what works for me. That’s a topic for another post.

As I begin book three in my series of humorous suspense novels, I’ve been reading and re-reading some great books on writing, including James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel, a few by James Scott Bell, and Write Away by Elizabeth George. I’ve also found a couple of books to help me get started faster.

The first is Novel Shortcuts, Ten Techniques that Ensure a Great First Draft, by Laura Whitcomb. Another useful one is How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat.20150713_103833

  1. Write with the end in mind. Figure out at least in a rough, written sketch how the book will end, who will triumph, who will be whumped on, who will laugh last.
    2. The essence of good fiction is conflict. Through conflict, characters and situations change. Write a character arc for the protagonist, the antagonist and any major secondary characters. What does the character want? Why? (Motivation) How hard will she try for it? Will she achieve it? What will she give up to achieve this desire?
    3. What’s the overall conflict in the book? Who opposes the protagonist’s achieving his or her goal?
    4. Every chapter and every scene must have a purpose or it shouldn’t be there. It must contain conflict and emotion and it must result in a change, in the main character or in the plot conflict or in a character’s plot arc (preferably in all of these).

Whitcomb recommends writing a three-part, one pager for each scene or chapter. First describe what will happen (narrative, Joe Friday style, “just the facts, ma’am”). Next, jot down some nuggets of dialog that fit the scene. Then use what Whitcomb terms “heartstorming” to come up with the emotions and the emotional transition that takes place in the chapter. The one-pager can be single spaced, with different fonts or boldface to distinguish the parts.
You might also mind-map each chapter, with the central event at the hub, with emotions, dialog nuggets and clues on the spokes.
Whatever your approach, include notes not just on the plot, but on the characters’ emotional states and how they change through the book.

Once you have these, start writing. I believe you’ll find that having a map before you go will shorten the process, improve the end product and preserve your sanity.

What have you found (books, techniques, tips) to help you launch your books?

Know Your Audience and Write for Them  

What do Janet Evanovich and Dan Kennedy have in common?

They both sell a  LOT of books.

I once heard Janet Evanovich speak about writing on a CD from the Mystery Writers of America. She mentioned that the success of her Stephanie Plum humorous mystery series is due in part to the fact that she understands who her readers are, and what they expect.

Dan Kennedy is an incredibly successful direct marketing and sales guru who has helped thousands improve their marketing messages and increase sales.

They both know the importance of studying their target market and writing for that market.

They know that if you create an expectation in your audience, and then you change the rules, you will disappoint that audience. The result is a drop in readership or sales.

Meet Their Expectations

Janet Evanovich knows that her readers expect Stephanie Plum to get into trouble and to lose at least one vehicle, they expect Lula to be hungry and Grandma Mazur to … well, be totally off the wall.exploding car

Dan Kennedy tells us that the more you know about your market, the better your message will address their needs. It can surprise them, make them laugh, move them, but it had better be something they can relate to. If not, they’ll stop reading.

Bloggers are also told to determine who their audience is and then write for our audience. To answer the questions we think our readers will have.

When I spoke at a Toastmasters district conference some years back about working wonders with words, the first point I made was to know who your audience is, and then speak to them. Their language, their needs, their expectations. Then you’ll have…their ears. They’ll sit up and pay attention.20150524_192603_001

So it pays to have in mind that “ideal reader,” as you sit down to write and as you edit.

Keep Your Reader in Mind

The point is to keep that reader in mind as you write, and strive to meet their expectations. Don’t cheat by creating an expectation for a frothy, humorous romp and moving into a serious, gut-wrenching diatribe. Don’t switch from language that’s direct and clear to elevated vocabulary and over-inflated sentences. You’ll lose your readers and you’ll lose their respect.

Worst of all, don’t drone on and on and on. And on.

How do you figure out who your ideal reader is?

 

 

New Book Shares Writing Tips, Lessons Learned

In nature, we sometimes find an incredible blossom springing from something ungainly and almost ugly. The same can be said for our writing. “Shitty first drafts,” a term made popular by Anne Lamott, can turn into word works of art.

20150504_080319 20150504_080312 (1024x576)Nature’s gift takes no effort on our part save the breath we gasp out in wonder and perhaps the minimal effort to snap a photograph. The flower in the photo sprang from a cactus I thought dead or at best struggling to survive in our garden.

To transform those first drafts into words others will read and on occasion gasp at takes persistence, the willingness and ability to learn, creativity, and at times, inspiration. Often it requires the help of writer friends or professional editors.

Romance and Mystery Authors on Writing is a fantastic little e-book that synthesizes lessons learned about the writing process, publishing and marketing from fifteen published authors. Royalties will be donated to public libraries. I contributed to the book. I also have learned a lot reading the contributions of the other authors.

Topics include dialogue, characters, story structure, editing, tips on finding an agent, editor or publisher, tips on promoting your book, light-bulb moments and lessons learned. Thanks go to J.Q. Rose for compiling and organizing our random thoughts.

I shared advice I heard years ago from Ridley Pearson (and since from many other successful authors), advice I wish I’d be more diligent about following. In essence, if you want to write, get your butt in the chair and write. Earlier this year I heard Ridley speak at the Tucson Festival of Books. The man has followed his own advice. He is now writing two series for children and a suspense novel or two a year! He writes from 7 a.m. until 5 every day in addition to going on book tours. He has written more than 48 novels and reports that he still gets a thrill when each new book comes out. Plus he somehow finds time to sing and play with The Rock Bottom Remainders, a group of writers who donate proceeds from their concerts to literacy. I attended their concert at the Tucson Festival of Books, and it was an absolute hoot!

Spend time each day writing. Editing time counts as writing. I think you also need to spend time filling the well of creativity. Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” So too is writing. But I advise taking time to find inspiration in whatever ways move you—a visit to the art museum, a walk in the wilderness (a brief one!), listening to music, gardening, cooking.

IMG951830My creative and talented daughter turned mundane and tired metal trellises I gave her into works of art, painted a sparkly blue. If you want your words to sparkle, practice discipline, fill the well of creativity, and learn from others.

How do you fill your well? What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing? Oh, and if you know what that cactus flower above is, please share!

Wordslaying: How to Omit Unnecessary Words

Friends are generally surprised when I tell them I used to be a bird hunter. Using a .410 (small gauge) shotgun, I’d often limit oPheasantsut on doves before grown men using 12 gauge (larger pellets) shotguns.

My parents were avid bird hunters. After they died, I gave up hunting.

Now, especially recently, I’m a word killer rather than a bird killer. I’ve been slaying herds of words in an effort to create a leaner, meaner, funnier, faster-paced novel. Woo hoo! When you’re cutting words, there’s no limit.

However, it does involve pain. You’d think I was at the wrong end of the pellet gun for the agony caused by killing off my precious babies.

So how can we make the slimming down process less painful and most valuable?

To use bird hunting as my metaphor (for at least as long as I can stretch it), begin with your heavy 12 gauge, getting rid of the big stuff.

    • Can you eliminate entire chapters that are perhaps unnecessary?
      • Make a note of a couple of things about each scene/chapter: who your point of view character is, what she or he needs to get out of the chapter (objective or goal), the obstacle to be overcome, and (almost always or your book threatens to be dull) why/how that objective is thwarted. I also make note of the character’s emotions and what surprising emotion I might slip in.
      • Is the scene essential to the plot? Can you combine it with another, more interesting scene or chapter?
      • Does it advance your story AND develop your character/s?
      • If it is backstory, is it essential, repeat, essential information that cannot be sprinkled into other chapters (after the first 50 or so pages that should RARELY contain backstory)?
      • Is it a dream? If so, give it a blast with both barrels. I hate dream scenes. (Okay, that’s a personal bias)
      • Is it a traveling scene or a description of setting that is ONLY that? Even travel and setting description should reveal something about the plot and the characters living it.

1-IMG_8400After you’ve used the big guns, use a smaller gauge or perhaps a rifle to focus on sentences and words that can be cut. Again, your standard is whether or not the phrase or the word moves the plot forward, creates the tension and emotional conflict that keeps the reader reading, or develops character.

Some easy words that you can pop off with a pea gun (or a Word search):  very, much, almost, just, a bit, somewhat, sort of, probably, possibly.

Wordslaying  works best once you’ve gained a little distance from them. Wait for a second or third  draft before you aim to kill. By that time you may be less attached to each gem.

My best trick in convincing myself to cut unnecessary scenes is to save them in a file of cut stuff that I may use in another novel or be able to rework into a short story. Some people call that file, the Dead File or the Morgue. Recently, I’ve named it Basura (Spanish for trash)

Reality is, I likely won’t use these words again, but it sure makes the act of pulling the trigger easier. And saving them helps, too, in case it’s just one of those days when I think NOTHING works and I should use an Uzi on the whole dang thing. When reality and straight thinking return, I merely copy and paste them back in.

Another trick that helps me eliminate useless scenes, pages, words, is to work with a critique partner who can gently advise me that I’ve already established that my protagonist is nervous or jealous or whatever.

Try becoming your reader: which part would you skip? Cut it. Which part reveals the author’s brilliance with language (“Oh, what a lovely choice of words.”) instead of simply moving the story ahead?

Cut it.

I’d love to know your ideas for killing your precious words. And I’d also love to hear your opinions of dream scenes, and of those who hate them.

Show Don’t Tell Holds for Dialog as Well

Good dialog illuminates character, advances the plot, and holds readers’ interest.drawing people talking

Dialog and narration will accomplish those missions better through telling, not showing. I read a novel recently that reminded me how easy it is to slip into telling instead of showing in dialog. Each time the characters met up, one would chat away for two or three paragraphs about what she’d discovered as an amateur sleuth. Then her boyfriend the cop (a convenient device that works for many experienced writers) would regale her with what the coroner discovered and why it wasn’t safe for her to investigate on her own.

Just because you get your characters talking doesn’t mean you can’t slip into that good old explanation mode.

“Carla,” Nell said in an exasperated tone, as soon as her roommate had poured her first cup of coffee, “You look like something the cat dragged in. It’s so exasperating to me that you spend half the night drinking with your friends, coming in and making all that noise, without a thought for those of us who are trying to sleep, especially when you know I have that important interview this morning.”

Dialog combined with appropriate action can show us the character’s emotion far better than she can tell us.

Nell pulled the milk and eggs out, slammed the refrigerator door and stomped to the cupboard.
Carla slumped in her chair.
“Eggs?” Nell asked. “Bacon?”
Carla shook her head.
“I suppose not. Just coffee and toast, your usual. Or is it hair of the dog today? Some of us need our strength for things like, say, job interviews.” She broke three eggs into a bowl and whisked them. “Not salsa dancing into the wee hours.”

Sometimes you do need to use telling, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s useful when you need to provide information that isn’t crucial to your plot. It helps speed the pace, set the scene, get your characters where you want them, provide necessary information.

Just be sure when you need to convey something important to the plot or to your character development, that you show, don’t tell.

Want a book about dialog? You could try Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella, or any of dozens on the subject.

Some people think writing dialog is easy-peasy, others find it a chore. How about you?

Context and Perspective Matter

Earlier this week I went to lunch with fifteen other writers, thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of Ethel Lee-Miller. It was great fun. Someone brought up the topic of point of view. One person suggested that point of view can be demonstrated through a character’s actions and movements. So true and so helpful. Characters also see life from different perspectives.

On a research trip to North Idaho some time back, I considered the different ways my characters would see the images (1)countryside. One character might see the color starting to turn on the deciduous trees, another the slash piles amongst the pines, another the golden, harvested wheat fields between the trees, another the lone parking space at a roadhouse next to the highway.

Later that day we went to a posh restaurant in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at the recommendation of a nice man at the Visitor Center. “Ask for the daily special,” he said. “You’ll get a discount, and the views are terrific from the 7th floor.”

The view of the lake was indeed terrific. So was the wine list, and the menu looked enticing. Our server was welcoming and friendly. Until we asked for the “specials.” “Yeah,” it’s on the menu. “Fish and chips, $8.95.”

We looked at the menu. For the regular price of $11.95, it’s called halibut tempura, until you ask for the lunch special, when it becomes good old fish and chips. Talk about different perspectives.

What about context? Consider this: since we decided to move to Tucson, I have been overwhelmed by all the clutter my husband and I have accumulated throughout (and before) our marriage. When I passed a bus bench advertisement for Mr. Pack Rat, I thought I’d found the answer to my clutter problem. Turns out, he runs an exterminating service!pack rat2

From my point of view, pack rats meant clutter, from someone else’s, a pest. Both need elimination, but the methods might vary.pack rat

Readers may also be coming at your work from a different frame of reference than yours, so it’s important to consider that when editing. It’s also why good critique partners can be helpful (“When I read this, I thought you meant … and it took me a while to figure out you didn’t.”)

How about you, readers? Has anything hit you recently that you took out of context, or looked at from a unique perspective?

 

Lethal, Fatal or Deadly?

Happy-New-Year-2015-Fireworks-Clipart-Image (1)As 2014 is preparing to pass from existence, I thought about the various synonyms for deadly and the gradations between them.

Are lethal and fatal the same? What about mortal? Or terminal? Deadly?

Although the words are close in definition, there are distinctions. If a weapon is lethal, it is capable of inflicting death. If it is fatal, it has been successful. The fatal blow is the killer. If the blow is only lethal, the victim might yet survive. Mortal means nearly the same as lethal, destructive of life, capable of inflicting death. Mort comes from Middle French mort, death. If something (namely, us) is mortal, then it is capable of death or dying. Deadly weapons tend to (and are meant to) kill, but the result isn’t inevitable.

However, should a Scot tell you someone is mortal, it is most likely to mean that person has imbibed too much and is dead drunk.

In writing a murder mystery, it is correct to say she drank a lethal poison and survived to tell the story. Deadly works there, as well. However, if the poison was fatal, she won’t be the one to talk about it later. If you use it that way, your reader may laugh about it.

Terminal means (among many definitions) coming to the end or leading to the end of life. A terminal patient is in the final stages of a fatal disease.

If I don’t stop now, 2014 will also be at an end and I won’t have the opportunity to wish you a productive, peaceful, joyful, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

 

 

Cinnamon Pecans Recipe and a Confession from a Real Nut

I’m guest posting today at the blog of the gracious, generous and prolific writer, Conda Douglas. Head on over there for my post on Believable Lies and a recipe for pumpkin granola. Conda writes in several genres. Check her out! Then come back for a nutty recipe here.

I confess: moving to a whole new town, then launching a remodeling project that didn’t seem horrendous before we started, can be classified as nuts! My boxes have been moved around so many times the cardboard’s starting to crumble. And I nearly crumbled a few times — when contractors didn’t show or others damaged the work another had just finished, or when one contractor left a trailer filled with junk in our driveway so long I told him the only way he could leave it a day longer was to cover it in Christmas lights.

But the trailer is gone and most of the work (by others) is done. Now it’s time to empty the boxes and put belongings in their final resting place.

And welcome guests who arrive the day after Christmas.

So I am truly nuts. And here’s a recipe for yummy Cinnamon Pecans.

By the way, my first book in the Havoc in Hancock series, Mustard’s Last Stand, is on sale today (8:00 a.m. PST) through 12/26 at 1:00 pm. at Amazon for 99Book Cover cents! Some may call that nuts, but it’s part of the Amazon countdown sale. On the 26th it goes to $1.99, and on the 28th …$2.99. It returns to its original list of $3.99 on the 31st.

 

CINNAMON PECANS

2 egg whites
1 c. sugar
2 Tbsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 lb. pecan halves

Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
Beat egg whites until foamy but not stiff. Stir in sugar, cinnamon, and salt.
Stir in pecan halves.  Spread on greased cookie sheet.

Bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour, stirring 3 or 4 times.

Makes 1 pound of delicious Cinnamon Pecans.

 

 

 

Have a Problem with That?

People are often confused about the use of which or that. I hope to clear that up in today’s post.

That or Which?

That introduces restrictive or essential clauses. Which generally introduces non-restrictive or non-essential clauses. A restrictive clause is part of the sentence that describes a noun. Without it, the meaning of the sentence would change.  “The restaurant that my cousin opened closed yesterday.”

Without the words “that my cousin opened,” the sentence could refer to any restaurant. Thus, that my cousin opened is essential to the meaning of the sentence and does not have commas surrounding it.

“The restaurant next door, which always serves excellent soup, added pies to its menu last week.” This sentence can make it on its own without the clause “which always serves excellent soup.” Remove it and the sentence still makes sense. That makes the clause non-essential or non-restrictive. Surround it with commas.

A sunrise scene that is one reason I moved to Tucson.
A sunrise scene that is one reason I moved to Tucson.
The dog who stole our hearts! Or the dog that stole our hearts.

Of course exceptions abound. Instead of introducing more confusion, I suggest following the guidelines above.  Or go for the simplest choice and leave that out altogether:

Instead of, “The restaurant that my cousin opened closed yesterday,” opt for “The restaurant my cousin opened closed yesterday.”

However, you may not use that in a non-essential clause. “My ailing laptop, that I have always hated, will soon be replaced.” Nope. You have to use which in that clause. Or change the sentence entirely if it is too confusing: “My ailing and long hated laptop will soon be replaced.”

If you’ve already used this, that, these or those to introduce an essential clause, you may use which to introduce the next clause.

“That is a problem which many supervisors must face at evaluation time.”

“Those cartons, which should have arrived yesterday, can be stacked in my office.”

Consider streamlining your sentence by leaving out which or by revising your sentence.

“That is a problem many supervisors must face at evaluation time.”

“The cartons that should have arrived yesterday can be stacked in my office.”

Our objectives are clarity first, conciseness next. Avoiding unintentional silliness is also a good idea. “That Charlie. He doesn’t have the guts that it takes to get that business going.” Get rid of them all. “Charlie doesn’t have the guts to get a business going.”
One more point about that. That is used to refer to things or groups, who to people. “Melissa is the woman who shares my cubicle.” “She belongs to an organization that supports animal rights.”

Being a person who is fond of animals, I often refer to my pets using who. You may decide which you will use.

The purpose of grammar is to make our meaning clear. Remember that, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grammar Dilemmas for the Holidays … Plus Scones!

 

Christmas Past
Christmas Past

Now that we’re deep into the holiday season, we’re faced with that age-old dilemma: “What should I bring to the neighbors’ party?” I’d suggest better grammar! The question should be, “What should I take to the party?” Take is used when something is being moved away from the speaker and bring when something is being moved toward the speaker.

Dr. Seuss got it right. Remember what the Grinch told little Cindy-Lou Who when she asked him why he was taking their Christmas tree? “There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.”

If you are coming to my home, you may bring whatever you choose, as long as it’s tasty!

The holidays bring to mind another word challenge: sit, set, sat. Sit means to be seated. I sit at my computer. Yesterday I sat far too long. I have sat here many hours. Set (to place) needs an object. He sets the turkey on the table. Yesterday he set a turkey casserole in front of me. He has set it there every year, and it is always yummy. 

Speaking of tasty food, I’ve included a recipe for scones served at the (fictional, alas) Blind Chukar Café in Hancock, Idaho. The Chukar is a gathering place for the characters in my novel Mustard’s Last Stand.

Cranberry-Orange Scones

 1 tsp. cinnamon                                    ½ cup butter or margarine (1 stick)
Sugar (1 T, ¼ cup)                                ½ cup dried cranberries or raisins,                                                                             chopped
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour              ¼ cup sour cream
1 ½ tsp. baking powder                    ¼ cup orange juice
½ tsp. salt                                                 2 tsp. grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 400°. Grease cookie sheet or use parchment paper. Mix cinnamon and 1 T sugar, set aside.

Mix flour, baking powder, salt and ¼ cup sugar. With pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Stir in dried cranberries, sour cream, orange juice and orange peel just until ingredients are blended.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Roll to ½ inch thickness.

Cut out scones with 3-inch cookie cutter (use a star for holidays) Place two inches apart on cookie sheet. Press trimmings together and roll and cut as above. (Use a light touch!)

Sprinkle scones with cinnamon/sugar mixture.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes until golden. Serve warm or cool on wire rack.

 

I’m a big fan of scones (okay, of lots of pastries). Include a favorite in your comments!