Dec 9, 2015

An Unbending Honesty

In my previous post about finding what’s wrong in your work, I said that I think writers need to understand the structure of a scene to identify what’s wrong with a scene.

Another thing I strongly believe a writer needs is an unbending honesty with himself. This means you have to tell yourself the truth, not what you want to hear. This is tough to do, especially if we’re in the habit of smoothing our own ruffled feathers in other aspects of our lives. If we’ve learned how to pat ourselves on the head and make ourselves feel better over real-life issues, we should at least suspect that we’re capable of doing the same thing when it comes to our writing.

If you want to strive for excellence, you need to be honest—both about what’s wrong with your work and what’s right. No running yourself down relentlessly, indulging in false modesty and refusing to acknowledge your strengths. No glossing over your weaknesses.

One thing I clearly remember from my early days as a writer was making the decision to read the work in hard copy rather than on the screen when I’m revising. I think doing that is one of my subconscious triggers. As long as it’s on the screen, it’s “mine.” Once it’s printed on the page, I find it easier to distance myself from it. To read it as if someone else wrote it. Unless I do that, I can’t honestly determine whether I’ve hit the bar I’ve set for myself.

The first time I sat down to read a manuscript I wrote from beginning to end, I talked to myself long and hard about forgetting that I’d written it so I could approach it with some detachment. I believe this is another key element in being able to identify what’s wrong. As long as we remember that it’s our work, we retain a deep personal attachment to every word, to every scene, to every idea on the page.

When you sit down to read something you’ve written—whether it’s a page, a scene, a chapter, or an entire manuscript—remind yourself that nothing is sacred. Absolutely nothing.

It doesn’t matter how long or hard you’ve worked on a scene, how much you like a particular description or phrase—if it doesn’t fit, if it doesn’t feel right, it needs to go.

If a character or a location isn’t working, he goes, she goes, or it goes. Absolutely nothing is sacred. Absolutely nothing is safe.

If you’re approaching your work feeling protective in some way, determined to preserve, to fix, to keep what you’ve written, you are automatically shutting down some of the internal voices that will help you identify problem areas before you even begin.

To find the flaws in what you’ve written, you have to remain logical. Logic and sentiment don’t work well together. Sentiment will allow you to keep contrived and unbelievable situations because you like them or you don’t want to work as hard as you need to in order to fix them.

If you’re a discriminating reader, logic will pinpoint those problem areas immediately. You’ll know what works and what doesn’t. And that’s when you need to remember that ideas are just ideas. Words are only words.

Much as we like to talk about pouring our blood and our souls into our work, ideas are still just ideas. No matter how often we wax eloquent about the “book of my heart,” words are still just words.

When you’re looking at a scene, a chapter, or an entire manuscript and trying to figure out what’s wrong with it, remember that you’re looking at the whole picture, not just a single element. If you’re focused on a beautifully written sentence, for example, you might not be able to sense that it’s actually making your character seem weak or ineffective, or that it’s making a character behave out of character. You might not recognize that the character’s motivation is weak, or that the emotion you’ve written for her is contrived.

Remember also that an idea doesn’t make a plot. Ideas are everywhere. Some ideas can be spun into plots, but ideas and situations are not plots all by themselves.

Plots have—here comes that word again—structure.

If you don’t fully understand what your plot should be doing, it will be very difficult to identify when your plot isn’t doing it.

Does your plot have an inciting incident that’s big enough to drive the plot forward? Are your characters sufficiently motivated to keep them moving when things get tough? Does your scene contain actual conflict, or is it full of anticipated or remembered conflict?

Is your character spending too much time thinking about what just happened or what’s going to happen? It’s possible that too much time in his own head will make him feel self-centered and selfish, and that you’re losing sympathy for him without even realizing it?

Is he falling in love with a weak character or one who is TSTL (Too Stupid to Live?) Is the antagonist he’s facing too weak to present a challenge that will keep readers engaged? Are you relying on an unrealistic coincidence to either move your plot forward or bring it to a conclusion?

Do you have actual turning points, or is your plot plodding along on a predictable path? How many times has your protagonist thought about his or her goal, motivation and conflicts? Are you presenting new information to the reader, or are you rehashing stuff they already know?

Be honest with yourself. Don’t ignore those flickers of doubt. Don’t automatically assume the doubt is justified, either. But at least give it some honest consideration before you duck and run.

If you feel that something’s wrong with your story, but you don’t know what it is, ask yourself when you last felt that the story was absolutely right. Go back to that point and read what you’ve written to see if you’ve taken a wrong turn.

Have you forced a character to follow a pre-determined path just because you once decided that’s what needed to happen? Should you have listened to the character when he said that’s not how he felt and wanted to go in another direction?

Another big question I would have for anyone who has trouble identifying what’s wrong in their own work is: How much do you read?

I’ve said this before, and I’m certainly not alone. Reading is not optional if you want to be a writer.

Are you reading at least one book a week?

When you read, what are you reading? Are you reading the work of authors who are where you want to be? Are you reading outside your chosen genre? Are you opening yourself to ideas beyond what other authors in your genre have used? Even if you're writing sweet contemporary romance, you can learn a lot from someone who writes fantasy or action/adventure or mystery, or even (gasp!) literary fiction.

If all you ever read are books from one genre, how will you identify if you're relying on genre cliches to carry your work?

Are you constantly and consistently studying the medium in which you’re trying to work, or do you put off reading, (the necessary study of your craft) because there are other things to do?

Do you write consistently and regularly? When you sit down to write is there any discipline involved in what you’re doing?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, then I have one more question for you—how do you expect to understand what’s wrong with your work?

If you’re not working at your craft—and I mean really working, not playing, not talking about it—if you’re not actively trying to improve your understanding of the craft and practicing what you’ve learned, and stretching yourself a little more every day.

If you’re not studying by immersing yourself in the work of other authors who are where you want to be, then how do you expect to know when you get there?

As I said before, you need to clearly understand where you’re heading before you’ll even have a clue whether or not you hit the mark.

You need to earn the understanding you’re looking for. No one can hand it to you. You can’t learn it from reading a book--or even this workshop. The best teacher in the world, the best critique partner in the world, the best how-to book in the world can’t do a thing to help you if you’re not willing to help yourself.

And willing doesn’t mean intentions. Willing means action.

Yes, we can learn from others. I wouldn’t write this blog or offer workshops if I didn’t believe that. But ultimately, we learn from doing. We learn by write by writing. By trying someone else’s technique or suggestions, seeing if it works for us, and either keeping it or discarding it.

We learn by trying new techniques and perfecting the old.

So go.

Write things!

Dec 3, 2015

Identifying What's Wrong in Your Work

We all know that creating is an art, but editing is absolutely a science. Unless you understand the tools of your craft, the scientific part of what we do as writers, I’m not sure a person can ever really identify what’s wrong with something they've written. 

A writer must know what should be happening in the work, in literary terms, in dramatic terms, in terms of structure, before he can identify what’s missing.

We can’t necessarily command the artistic part of what we do. Nobody can truly control art. But we can command the rest. Write like a wood sprite in a meadow if that's what works for you--but then pull out your tools and get to work making all those pretty words into something solid. 

No matter how exciting we may think a story idea sounds, it’s not going to rise to the level of excellence if we aren’t in command of the craft while we write it. We must know the tools of our trade. We must have a clear understanding of the structure of a scene and how all the components fit together before we can identify when one of those components is missing or weak.

Simply reading about scene- or plot-structure isn’t going to cut it. The only way I know to truly learn anything in this business is by doing it. Not just once. Not just 10 times. Not just 100 times. But over and over and over again.

If you’re having trouble identifying what’s wrong in your own work, stop and think about this honestly—how many scenes have you crafted, being true to the “science” of scene structure? How many times have you clearly identified your character’s goals and then made absolutely certain to keep your characters moving toward those goals as the scene progresses?

Like any other artistic endeavor, writing takes practice. Most adults can string words together to make a sentence, but being a writer is much more than that. So if you’re approaching your scenes haphazardly, writing whatever seems kind of right, “kind of” understanding goals, but not really. Kind of moving toward them—but usually not . . . 

Or moving toward them only by accident, then it’s going to take a whole lot of luck to figure out what’s wrong when they don’t work right.

Intending to use scene structure one of these days or to get structure into your scene by osmosis isn't the same as identifying where the support beams go and making sure the load-bearing walls of your scene are in place. Thinking is not the same as doing. 

Thinking about it or talking about it won't give you the same level of skill that you’d get if you actually worked at learning scene structure, worked at writing scenes using it, and worked at polishing and revising those scenes again and again until you knew, deep in your own gut, that you had it right.

If you’re trying, then abandoning it because it’s hard, or because you don’t get it, or because it takes too long—or for whatever reason you may be deciding not to use it, then I don’t know what to tell you about how to find what’s wrong in your work.

Because the structure that I follow—that I believe in absolutely—is how I find what’s wrong in my own work.

And it’s how I identify what to do to fix it.

If you’re approaching a scene that you feel is weak and rambling, then the only thing I can suggest is to look at the scene’s structure. Does your viewpoint character have a clear goal?

Do your non-viewpoint characters have clear goals that are in opposition to that of the point-of-view character? Does the viewpoint character move steadily and relentlessly toward achieving that goal? Do the non-viewpoint characters move steadily and relentlessly toward achieving their goals?

Is the conflict clear? Is it interesting? Does it move the story forward or is it repetitive action—just more of the same thing we’ve already seen? Is it real, active conflict, or is it anticipated conflict (a character thinking about what might go wrong) or remembered conflict (a character thinking about what did go wrong)?

Are you deep enough in the character’s head and heart to convey clear emotion? Is that emotion real, or is it merely convenient for you, the author, so you can move your characters to the next place you’ve decided they should be?

Do you understand the character’s motivation? Is it believable? I mean really believable, not conveniently believable, or I-don’t-have-time-to-rewrite-it believable, or genre-cliché believable. If you were in that character’s shoes in the same set of circumstances, would you do the same thing? Or are you trying to force characters to do things simply because they sound good for the plot you’ve made up?

How much do you understand about the “science” of characterization? How much do you understand about the science of conflict and motivation? How did you come by that understanding? From working relentlessly on your own work or from reading what somebody else says about it?

Do you know absolutely, on a gut level, what comprises a strong scene? The pacing you should be following in the book you’re writing? Do you have a clear, working understanding about the layers of conflict and how best to weave them together? Because if you don’t know what’s right, how can you expect to figure out what’s wrong?

A doctor can’t diagnose congested lungs unless she knows what clear lungs look and sound like. A mechanic can’t diagnose a dead battery unless he knows what’s supposed to happen when the battery is working right. A musician can’t diagnose music being played off-key or in the wrong rhythm unless she knows what the key is supposed to sound like or understands the rhythm as it’s supposed to be.

Bottom line: An author can’t identify what her scenes aren’t doing unless he knows what they’re supposed to do in the first place. Putting the magic in fiction takes a lot of hard, gritty, realistic work. 

Nov 20, 2015

More Thoughts on Focus

Continuing from yesterday's article on staying focused ... 

Do I do anything special to jog my brain into writing mode before I start writing? 

My answer at the time: 

Well, I used to. One of the things I've realized recently is that when I became a full-time writer, I lost some of the unconscious cues I gave myself that used to work so well. I used to get up every morning and go to work. Then I came home and spent time with my children until 9:00. 

At 9:00, they were on their own to get ready for bed and I began to write. They were not to interrupt me for anything that didn't include blood, but they could come in to kiss me good-night. They pushed the envelope at first -- after all, my youngest was only 5. But that was old enough, and she quickly learned that I meant what I said. 

I got up every Saturday and Sunday morning at 5:00 and wrote until the kids woke up and needed my attention. Note that I said woke up AND needed my attention because waking up did not automatically mean they needed my attention immediately. Like I said, my youngest was 5 then. She was old enough to watch cartoons for a little while and she could even fix herself a bowl of cereal (as long as the milk carton wasn't full.) 

My oldest was much older, and very self-sufficient, so if she ever woke up before the little one lost interest in cartoons, she could help entertain her sister. Not that she did. My oldest loved to sleep and the little one didn't, so I encouraged my youngest to become more self-sufficient. 

Anyway, that gave me at least four uninterrupted hours every Saturday and Sunday morning, and sometimes more. I did not allow myself to clean house, etc., until after my writing hours were over. There was plenty of time to mop the floor, but there wasn't plenty of quiet time to write. 

Once I began to write full-time, I must have unconsciously believed that I had unlimited writing time, even though I knew logically that I didn't, so I let guilt begin to niggle at me because it started feeling mean to tell the kids they couldn't interrupt me when I was working. Time wasn't so precious anymore, I guess. 

Little by little, I let the distractions creep in, so I'm just now in the process of developing habits again and mind-cues to let myself know it's time to work. I still get up at 5:00, and I spend at least one hour working on things for the writing classes I teach. 

After that, I allow myself an hour for RWA things (I was serving on the board of directors at the time). After that, I spend 30 minutes on my spiritual well-being. Then I know it's time to work. If I don't time myself on the class and RWA stuff, though, it can easily get away from me. 

It's 11:00 now and that's obviously not RWA time. Shame on me!!! Proof positive that I don't have it down to a science yet! But do I light candles and things like that? No. I've tried doing that, but it doesn't seem to send any signals to my brain except fear that the cats will knock over the candle and start the apartment on fire! Music helps. I do try to do that because it does help set the mood. 

My answer now

I'm still struggling to create a schedule I can stick to. Just when I think I've got it, something real life happens and it's impossible to stick to the schedule. Recently, I spent three weeks in Missouri taking care of my grandchildren while my youngest daughter was out of town for a wedding and I realized all over again how difficult it is to make and stick to a schedule with small children around. 

For the past two weeks, I've had to take three hours out of every work day to shuttle my daughter to and from work. We live in an area where there's no mass transit, so when her car broke down, mom taxi became the only option.  

On the plus side, getting up and dressed and out the door at a certain time every morning has made me focus on what I need to do when I get home again, so I've accomplished almost as much in my shorter work day as I usually do when I have all sorts of time stretched out in front of me. 

The difference has been so marked, in fact, that I have decided to create a daily commitment to get up and dressed and a commute for myself on work days once I'm no longer playing taxi. I'm hoping that a drive to the local convenience store and the purchase of a beverage of my choice every morning will help my brain click into work mode as I drive back home. 

As appealing as the concept of working in my pajamas may be in theory, my brain, accustomed to being in the work force for more than half my lifetime, reacts to pajamas at home as a day off. I can frequently glance at the clock and realize I've frittered away the entire morning without realizing it. 

Music is no longer a help to me. Since my youngest daughter had a frightening bout with depression during her senior year in high school, music makes me nervous and fidgety, so it doesn't help me write anymore. 

For a while, thanks to health concerns, it was almost physically impossible to focus, and that's a whole different set of challenges, especially when you have contractual obligations to be creative. 

I guess the thing is, focus is something we'll all have to struggle with and the struggle will take on new and different shapes in different seasons of our lives. Sometimes it may be a case of mind over matter, and giving yourself physical cues that it's time to work, like turning on the music or moving into your special writing space, may do the trick. 

Oh Winter, let's get married via photopin (license)
If you don't currently have a space dedicated to writing, think about creating one. Not everyone has the luxury of space for a home office, but moving to the same corner of the dining room table at the same time every day could help your mind realize it's time to create. 

When physical health issues aren't a problem, try not to let your muse dictate when you write. You'll always be able to find excuses for not writing. Those are much easier to come by than the determination to write. Get words on the page, even if they're stupid words you know you'll delete or revise later. 

Sometimes simple discipline, or BICHOK (Butt in chair, hands on keyboard) is the answer.  

Nov 19, 2015

On Staying Focused...

A few years ago, I was asked this question in one of my workshops: 

So my question is: I know you make a living by writing. So what are some tricks you've learned to help you schedule in the time to write and do you do anything before you start to write that helps you to be able to focus on your story and the characters?
My Answer

I think that being able to focus on writing is something that will probably haunt me as long as I'm pursuing a career in writing. Maybe it's that way for all of us. You may struggle for a while to focus, then hit a few years where it's relatively easy to focus, and then swerve off track again and find yourself struggling. 

We all know that many factors can affect our ability to focus - small children, teenage children, adult children, demanding husbands, people who think they need to eat three meals a day, friends with troubles they need to talk about, friends who unwittingly sabotage you, neighbors who don't understand, neighbors with noisy dogs, aging parents, personal illness, family tragedies, national tragedies, finances..... It's hard to keep focused, as we all know. 

A few years ago, I was tremendously focused. I wrote through major surgery--not the surgery itself, of course, but the recovery--without batting an eye. I just put pillows over my incision and a laptop on top of that, and I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. 

I wrote through several moves. I wrote in spite of family illnesses, deaths and funerals. I was focused because I knew where I was going, and I knew what I needed to do to get there. 

For the past few years, I've been struggling through a period of almost equally tremendous lack of focus--and that's one reason this topic appealed to me so much. Maybe because it's so important, and maybe just because I've been thinking about it so much and trying to figure out how to get my focus back. 

I think the main thing that helps with me focus is to clearly identify my goals--goals, not dreams. We all know what our dreams are, but for most of us dreams are things we can't control. You can't set a goal of becoming published with a traditional publisher because you can't accomplish that alone. But you can set a goal of being a writer because you make yourself into a writer, regardless of what anyone does with what you write. 

My first clear goal was to finish that first manuscript because I was very successful at beginning stories and a dismal failure at finishing. I decided that I would write to the end of one book, no matter what. No matter if it smelled like rotten fish guts in a hot sun, I was going to finish the stupid thing. And it did, but I remained true to my goal and I finished. I wrote it by hand because I didn't have a typewriter or a computer, but I finished it, by gum!

And suddenly, just knowing I could do that gave me a whole lot more focus. 

Maybe it seems silly to some people, but it took me a LONG time to really know in my heart that wishing I was a writer and talking about being a writer didn't make me one. Writing made me a writer. Persevering made me a writer. Learning my craft made me a writer. 

I also realized that nobody was going to knock on my door, announce that they'd heard I was a writer, and offer to buy books I hadn't written. Starting and never finishing wasn't going to get me where I wanted to go. 

I also had to learn in my heart (not in my head, that's the easy part) the difference between dreams and goals, the difference between those who want and those who do, the difference between those who wait for things to happen and those who make things happen. Maybe it's possible for some people to stay focused without a clear goal in mind, but it isn't possible for me. I know because I've tried -- over and over and over again. It just doesn't work, no matter how much I try to delude myself into believing that it does -- and I DO try. 

You have to know where you're going so you can plan how to get there. Specific goals divided into pieces I can accomplish with just a little will-power and discipline is an absolute must for me. 

Discipline is a biggie. I was talking to my daughter's drama teacher at parent-teacher conferences last week, and she talked at length about how she focuses on teaching the discipline because until you know the discipline of your art--whatever that art may be--you can't be free to express the art. 

That struck a real chord with me and I've thought about it a lot since then. I've known for a long time that discipline is one of the biggest factors that used to keep me so focused back when I was writing three or four 350-page novels every year. It's true of any art. The discipline comes first; the freedom of expression comes after that. 

And let's face facts. If you can't find the discipline to write when there's no pressure except what you create for yourself, you're going to have a tough time finding it when you're facing the pressure of writing a book under contract. Until you face that hurdle, you can't even imagine how much pressure it is. 

I froze for months after I sold my first mystery and my first romance and suddenly had to write under contract. Signing those contracts didn't fill me with the self-confidence I'd expected it to. Instead, I turned to stone. I found myself terrified that everyone would now realize what a fraud I really was. 

So discipline. Anyone who wants a career as an author must learn how to write in spite of life because life will never slow down, give you a break, or become easier. Identify what distracts you and then figure out how to eliminate or minimize the distractions. If e-mail (or social media) is a distraction (she said looking guilty) then find a way to reduce the distraction. Don't allow yourself to log on until after you've produced pages. 

If the TV is a distraction, find a way to turn it off (there's this little thing called a remote....) or figure out a place to write where you can't hear it. If kids are a distraction, bribe them. If the phone is a distraction, turn off the ringtone or set up a signal your children and spouse can give you so you know it's them calling and train yourself to ignore any ring that isn't them.

Figure out exactly how important writing is to you. If all these other things (like e-mail and TV shows) continually get in the way, then have a really stern talk with yourself and figure out what you really want. Do you want to be a writer? Really? Are you ready to do everything that means? 

Or do you just want to have written a book? 

Because if you want to be a writer, then the act of actually writing must become a priority in your life and you must train yourself and the people around you to accept that, even if they don't understand it. 

If, on the other hand, you want to have written a book but the act of actually writing it holds no appeal--well, that's something you need to know.


Since writing that original answer, I've encountered more road blocks and more speed bumps, and I've had more of a struggle with staying focused than ever before. 

Once I thought it was all a case of mind over matter. 

Now I know that some things in life are way too big to think your way around. Sometimes you have to let your mind grapple with survival--your own or that of a loved one--and there may be no room for writing or creating when that happens. 

Now I know that if you're battling an illness yourself, your mind may not be able to get around even the simplest matter, like where you put your keys or how to find a mechanic to work on your car, much less creating an entire world out of nothing. 

Now I know that sometimes it's not enough to want something desperately. Sometimes, you need to take a step back and let yourself heal. 

If you're there, you know it. Don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Be kind to yourself. Be patient. Be gentle until the crisis has passed. 

If your health is good and you haven't just gone through an internal, emotional earthquake, and you're still having trouble writing, consider the possibility that you’re approaching your work from the wrong angle. Wrong characters? Wrong plot? Wrong location? Is the motivation strong enough? Is the conflict realistic? 

Consider the possibility that you’ve made everybody too nice and you’re boring yourself. It can happen. Trust me. Or maybe you're making your characters too unrealistically awful, without any redeeming social value. 

Consider the possibility that your characters aren't emotionally invested in the plot you've created, even if it seems like a perfectly good plot to you. Remember that absolutely nothing you've planned is so wonderful you can't afford to toss it and replace it with something that works. 

Consider the possibility that you're letting fear get the best of you. In that case, put your head down and get to work. 

(See tomorrow's blog post for more on this subject)

Nov 5, 2015

Four Books I Must Have at All Times

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

This was the first book that made me really, really want to be a writer. Before I read this book, I kinda, sorta wanted to write, but Brenda Ueland left me feeling that I actually could be a writer, and that feeling did more than anything else to give me the courage to actually give it a try. 

For years, I've shared quotes from this book with people who have taken my workshops on writing. 

“The imagination needs moodling,--long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering. ” ― Brenda Ueland

It was this quote, more than probably any other, that made me believe, suddenly and with great awe and wonder, that I might be able to actually do the thing I wanted to do more than anything else: 
"This is what I learned: that everybody is talented, original and has something important to say." --Brenda Ueland
I think that anyone with the creative spirit should read this book once every few years. It's time for me to read it again. 

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I'm going to confess here that I have never read a work of fiction by Stephen King, although after reading his book On Writing, I can't say why. His book about the craft of writing is so brilliant, I'm quite sure I'd appreciate his other work. King is unfailingly honest and realistic, sometimes uncomfortably so. This isn't a how to write book, it's straight-forward advice about how to approach your career.  
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”  ― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ― Stephen King 
This is another book I think we should all read again and again. 

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain 

When I began my writing career, I'd been an aspiring, hopeful, wannabe writer for years. I'd started and not finished more novels than I can possibly count. It wasn't until someone recommended that I read this book that I understood the basics of storytelling well enough to actually craft a story worth reading. 

Over the years, many people have given us their spin on what Swain has to say, but for my money, this book trumps them all. Yes, some of the examples are a bit dated, but that doesn't matter. They hold up. They stand the test of time. 
 “A story is the record of how somebody deals with danger.” ― Dwight V. SwainTechniques of the Selling Writer
"I cannot give you the formula for success,” says Herbert Bayard Swope, “but I can give you the formula for failure: Try to please everybody.” ― Dwight V. SwainTechniques of the Selling Writer
This book is an absolute must on my bookshelf. It's one I refer back to time and time again. 

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

I think I would have to give up my writer's card if I left this book off the list. Yes, it was written a long time ago. Yes, the language is sometimes difficult for some to read and understand. Deal with it. The advice is sound. It has stood the test of time. If you aspire to be a storyteller of note, you'll buy this one, read it, and keep it handy at all times.  
“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” ― William Strunk Jr.The Elements of Style
“Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write: Charles's friend, Burns's poems, the witch's malice. ... The pronomial possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and ours have no apostrophe. Indefinite pronouns, however, use the apostrophe to show possession: one's rights, somebody else's umbrella. A common error is to write it's for its, or vice versa. The first is a contraction, meaning "it is". The second is a possessive. It's a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.”  ― Strunk Jr., WilliamThe Elements of Style
 I own many more books on writing. My shelves are filled with them, and some of them are very fine books. I've learned much from many people and I'm grateful to each of them for sharing what they've learned and how they learned it. I could fill endless blog posts with all the great books on writing I've run across over the years, and I may do a follow-up post later and do just that -- but if you want to know the books I must have on my shelf, on my e-reader, and near at hand at all times, these are the four that top that list. 

If you haven't read them, I encourage you to do so now. You won't regret it. 

Oct 28, 2015

So You Want to Plot

To create a plot that will hold the reader’s attention from beginning to end, we need to begin at the tip of the iceberg, not at the summit, not on the downhill slope. We begin at the tip and then force out characters to go up, over and across the iceberg, not around it where the going is easy.

We make them face every dangerous moment as they traverse the obstacle that’s in their way. We don’t lessen the danger. We don’t send help. We don’t toss them a rope or put a ladder under their feet.

Start with what each of the characters in your story wants. Make sure it’s something they can’t achieve or acquire easily. It should be something they can’t ask another person for and can’t run out and buy. It took me a long, long time to realize that a character who doesn’t really want something—and want it badly—is next to impossible to motivate in difficult situations. As a result, I ended up putting those characters into contrived situations, and then wrote myself into very deep corners I had trouble getting out of.

To avoid my mistake, make sure your character wants something so badly he’ll do almost anything to get it. Make it something he aches for or something upon which his future, or the future of others, depends. The character’s motivation must be strong enough to propel the story forward, even when you’ve boxed him into a corner.

Does that concept make you recoil? Do you think it’s too extreme?

You want to write about simpler things. Stakes that aren’t quite so high. Passion that’s a little less ... passionate. Wants that are less earth-shaking, less life-altering.

But do you really?

If the people you’re writing about aren’t one-hundred percent committed to pursuing their goals, willingly or not, they’re going to be too easily discouraged when things get rough. They’re more likely to back down, turn away, give up, move on, shift goals, and go after something else until things get rough.

Once you give a character an out, he’ll probably take it. If he doesn’t, what comes next may feel contrived.

To write really compelling fiction, you must write about people who are completely committed. Passionate people who are willing to fight for what they want and keep going after it in the face of obstacles, right or wrong, wise or foolish. Just keep your idea in view, your motivation appropriate, and the people in your story behaving in character.

A word of warning (another lesson learned by doing it the other way): Characters who want to achieve a negative goal, to avoid something, to prevent something, to run from something, also make for unworkable (or very tough) fiction.

If you create a man who wants, for example, specifically, not to fall in love, anything you put into your plot that makes him fall in love is likely to feel forced. Why would a person who truly wants to avoid the opposite sex open the door, even a little, for that perky Heroine you’ve just shoved under his nose?

People who want negative goals (who want to avoid creating something new in their lives) don’t have to actually do anything to accomplish their goal. In fact, all they really have to do is keep doing the same thing they’re doing now. Creating a character arc for someone with a negative goal is difficult and painful because making that character move and change requires you, the author, to lie, Readers can always, always, always feel a lie, even if they can’t identify it as one.

Books about people who don’t change, move, grow, or step outside their comfort zones are generally not well received. Books about people who make changes, move, grow and step outside their comfort zones unrealistically also get a lackluster response from the reading public.

We want to read about someone with a problem he can’t avoid, a plan for getting around it, and the courage to take active steps toward succeeding with the plan.

Instead of having your romance hero wake up in the morning vowing never to fall in love again, let him want something instead—something that gets him moving forward. He’s accepted the fact that he won’t find love again, but he wants desperately to regain the respect he once had from people in his chosen field. Because he wants a positive (respect) rather than a negative (to not fall in love) he may reluctantly open the door for that perky Heroine he views as a negative because she offers the means to the end he seeks.

Thinking about your plot in those terms can give you goals for your characters, motivation that keeps the story moving, and believable conflict all in one! 

Oct 15, 2015

Thoughts From a First-Time Conference Attendee

While sorting through some files on my computer, I came across an article I wrote 20 years ago after attending my first-ever Bouchercon. I was a newly published author, venturing into the world of other published authors for the first time. I'd never been to any large writer's conference at the time, so the whole thing was a new experience to me. 

In the years since, I've been to several large writer's conferences and even presided over one during my year as President of Romance Writers of America. I've written 30-something books and seen many of them published around the world. I'm pleased to say that most of my observations have stood the test of time. And so, here they are, seeing the light of day for the first time in two decades: 

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Seattle.  This was my first national convention of any kind, and I don't mind admitting the idea of attending this convention of over 1600 authors, agents, editors and fans--of which I knew not one living soul--made me a little nervous. But I'd spent a lot of money on airline tickets and hotel reservations, and I decided not to let it go to waste. 

As I battled my fear of the unknown, I realized that unless I brought something back, the trip would be a waste. So I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath, and acted like a big girl. 

I had a wonderful time. I spent a lot of time watching others, much energy meeting new people, many hours smiling--and even more money. I met Marcia Muller in the Dealers' Room. I met Tony Hillerman in the lobby. I met my agent, my publisher, and several editors from my publishing house. I smiled for pictures, ate too much for dinner, plugged my book and admired the view from various places. 

I met wonderful, exciting new authors who've written wonderful, interesting books. And I started a list. Things I want to remember. Things I'll do differently next time. One or two things I'll do the same. In case you're interested, I'll share my list with you:


Register early enough to get a room at the conference hotel.

Always Wear Your Name Tag

Use Your Pseudonym. That's the name you want people to remember. 

Writers who have achieved true success don't talk about how well-liked they are or how talented they are or how well-liked their books are.

Many writers who haven't, achieved real success do talk about those things--a lot..
Even million-sellers are insecure about their work.

Many authors refuse to show their work to anyone except a spouse or significant other. (At the time, I thought it was because they were afraid someone would tell them their plotting or characterization was weak. That might be the case with some authors, but having gone through several different seasons in my own work, it may also just be that they are in a place with their career where they need to pull back and keep their work to themselves.

Editors are anxious to find good books. 

Nobody can clearly define what a "good book" is. 

Published authors don't attend many workshop sessions. 

Work the Dealers' Room. (Or whatever they call the bookseller area of your conference. Meet the people who will be selling your books.

Be on a panel (or give a workshop. Like anything else in life, ultimately you'll get out of the experience just what you put in.)

Go to everything your publisher sponsors--they'll usually notice if you're not there.

Don't believe anyone who tries to convince you otherwise.

Don't tell editors how nice it is to discover they're "real people". They don't seem to like this much. 

Read everything your publisher puts out in your line.

Make friends with writers who are at the same stage of their career as you are. (Don't try to crash the "big kid" table. Just like school, if you stick with it, one day you and your colleagues will be the big kids.)

Don't be shy. (Yes, I know that most of us are introverts and it's often painful to act extroverted, but being a wallflower won't accomplish anything. Show an interest in other people. Don't waste so much time thinking about yourself. It's not all about you.

Don't be pushy. (It's still not all about you.)

Invest time and effort in your career.  Arrange signings, attend conferences, accept speaking engagements. 

Mystery writers can't agree on technique or style any more than any other group of writers can.

The private parties are the best.

Make an appearance everywhere. Your editors will be looking for you.

Readers and most unpublished authors are willing to listen to anyone speak. They'll listen to you, too. They're anxious for tips, insight into the writer's world, and in technique.

Published authors only really listen to authors who sell more books than they do.

And even then they don't pay much attention--they've got an editor who likes their work and they're not real anxious to fix what's not broken.

The people at your publishing house want your books to sell as much as you do.

I heard a vicious rumor that some publishing houses are going start to requiring video tapes of potential authors to see how promotable you are. (I don't know if anyone ever did this, but being promotable is still a thing

People judge your work by the image you project.

Be approachable and accessible. People will remember you next time.

Be familiar with other peoples' work. (Again, not all about you.

Spend time in the hospitality suite.

Sell yourself -- tastefully.

Remember names!

Send thank you cards to everyone.


Have I followed every bit of this advice over the years? No, but I still think most of it is valid and I'll review it before I go to my next conference. So there it is for you, whatever it's worth.

Oct 8, 2015

Bringing Characters to Life Through Emotion

To bring a scene to life, your characters need to come fully to life. One thing that will kill a scene faster than almost anything is an author so obviously intent on getting the characters to pose here, say that, and do the other the characters never become real people and never actually connect with each other. Characters that don’t connect with each other on the page have very little chance of connecting with the reader.

Don’t let yourself get so caught up in the need to drop witty one-liners, a piece of research, or an exciting fight sequence onto the page that you keep your characters from reacting honestly. Don’t be so concerned about getting a line of dialogue into a scene that you write cardboard characters who talk at each other rather than real people who talk to one another.

Forgetting that our characters are supposed to be in the same room engaging in conversation with one another is a common mistake. It's actually a form of telling rather than showing because the author is so focused on her own part in the story that she’s not letting the characters live the story. As a result, the reader ends up wading through several paragraphs or pages of narrative explanation or paragraphs full of uninteresting dialogue when what she really wants is to get on with the story.

Getting the mix of emotion right isn’t easy. If it were, none of us would struggle with it. While we want to make sure we include enough emotion, there are times when less is more.

Be careful not to confuse emotion with sentimentality. Sentimentality is simplistic, surface emotion. It’s clichéd, affected emotion, which shows only the surface without foundation. Editors are looking for real emotion, even if—especially if—it’s raw and painful. With the increase in technology, I think more people are writing and submitting today than ever before. Years ago, only the most dedicated writers were willing to mess around with carbon paper and typewriter erasers. Now that we can all point and click, cut and paste, the competition has exploded.

Your characters’ emotions are one of the few things that will make them stand out in that vast sea of similar characters out there. In the past two months, I’ve judged two contests for published writers. I’ve read 16 books for the two contests, all of which obviously made it past slush-pile readers, onto an editor’s desk, and through the editorial process.

Of those 16 books, 10 had plots so similar it would boggle your minds. (It still boggles mine.) Luckily, the books for one contest were final round picks, so they were above-the-norm when it came to the writing, the plotting, the motivation, and conflict, but those elements were also very similar. The only thing that set the books apart from one another were the different casts of characters in each book. Unfortunately, since the books were also eerily similar, their perspectives on life—their emotions—were the one true thing that made the characters unique in each book. 

For that reason, it's imperative to dig deep and discover what your characters really feel about their situations. Not what you think they might feel, or what similar characters usually feel by page ... whatever ... of your genre-specific work-in-progress, but what that unique individual you're writing about feels based on his background, his belief system, and the kind of day he's having.

Once you can tap into a character's genuine emotions, he or she will truly begin to come to life on the page of your manuscript. 

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Oct 1, 2015

To Plot or Not to Plot

No doubt you’ve heard (and probably participated in) debates over which is best—plotting in advance, or writing off into the mist. I have no doubt that you have a preference, because just about everyone does. 

Although we can sometimes get into heated debates, we all know that there really is no right or wrong way. No one-size-fits-all solution to the question of how to get from the beginning to the end of your novel. The important thing is to achieve the desired effect, to pull readers into our stories and keep them hooked from the first page to the last.

Whether you plot before you begin to write, as you begin each section of the book, or sit down every day with no conscious idea where your book will be going that day, we all plot. Even those who write into the mist plot in some way at some time, either consciously or unconsciously, or they wouldn’t end up with a story.

But let’s begin at the beginning.... What is plot? 

Plot is probably the most often-heard term when writers get together to discuss fiction. Most people consider it the essence of fiction. Without plot, there is no story. While some people begin with plot and then look for characters to enact that plot, others begin with interesting people and discover their plot by looking into the characters’ lives. Either way, plot is story.

There are many definitions of plot floating around out there. Plot is
  • an ordered structure of significant events;
  • the story of strong forces meeting and one of them triumphing over the other for better or worse;
  • a record of change.

 An ordered structure of significant events. Okay, I guess that’s true. If I’m describing my plot to an editor, an agent, or a potential reader, I’ll want to give an ordered structure of story’s significant events, so yeah. That describes plot as I know it. 

Plot is the record of strong forces meeting and one triumphing over the other, for better or worse. I agree with that, too. Plot is all about the conflict, about a person who wants something, meeting strong forces that keep him from getting what he wants, and his eventual triumph over or defeat by those forces. 

Plot is a record of change. I agree with that, too. Change alters people’s fortunes, their thoughts, and their beliefs—even if it’s only long-held beliefs about themselves. Change is what readers come to the book to find. I doubt you’ll ever run into a reader who picks up a book hoping for 400 pages in which everything in the characters’ lives remains exactly as it was on page 1.

Plot is also a force upon the people in your story, often called narrative drive. This drive is the relentless forward movement of events, and the details related to those events, that pile up until the whole teetering tower collapses into the final conflict—those climactic scenes that make the story worthwhile.

We need that force working on the people in our stories because, again, readers don’t come to the book to find out what happens in the life of someone who never experiences something beyond their control, never ends up with their back against the wall, or never has to fight their way out of a bad situation. So change isn’t enough. It needs to be a change that challenges the character to climb higher, dig deeper than s/he ever has before.

It’s a rare person who will stick with a book about nice people to whom nice things happen repeatedly until the story ends. As an author, I wouldn’t know when to stop writing if the people in my book had nothing to conquer or nothing to concede defeat to by the end. 

Readers need plot—that relentless forward movement—to keep them hooked. Authors need plot to know when and where to begin, and when and where to stop. 

In the past, I've worked with many confused writers who had no clear idea of how and when to begin the book they want to write, no clear idea where they’re going, and no clue where to end. This is a horrible feeling. It leaves a writer feeling unequal to the task they’re facing, which might be okay if they weren’t driven to face that task, tackle the book, and conquer it—a mini-plot in itself!

We’re all terribly afraid that our plots won’t work and worried that we are the rare thing among writers—the one and only author who can’t come up with a perfect plot.

Rest assured that there is no such thing as a perfect plot, but in Plotting the Organic Way, we'll focus on creating plots that are as close to perfect as humans are capable of creating—and, more importantly, plots that work.

To quote author Stella Cameron,
 “What doesn’t work in a plot is what doesn’t work. If the reader stops, frowns, re‑reads, and stops again—there’s something very wrong.”
There may be different causes that bring about the pause. Perhaps the inadvertent loss of viewpoint control throws the reader for a loop, or maybe it’s a slip in chronology, or maybe the author’s failure to create a setting the reader can see and feel. Maybe it’s an illogical or unbelievable reaction by one of the characters, or a decision no sane person would ever make. Or it could be a reaction, a situation, or a decision that was obviously contrived for the convenience of the author but which has nothing to do with reality. All too often it’s an inconsistency in plot ... which we'll have to discuss later. 

I've discovered that I'm neither plotter nor "pantser." My style falls somewhere in the middle, a plot style I like to call organic. What kind of plotter are you? 

Plotting the Organic Way: A Dancing on Coals Workshop for the Fiction Writer coming soon to a Kindle near you! 

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