Back To Basics: Writers’ Boot Camp

by Miko Johnston

Have you been writing? No? I hear you. We can’t seem to find the energy, or the creativity, to write. Even though we have a file full of ideas to play around with, or a started piece, or a half-finished manuscript. Even though we have plenty of time to write with no excuse other than the million other things we can be doing. Cleaning out the hall closet. Again. Thinking of a new way to use canned tuna.  Researching unfamiliar candidates on my primary ballot – maybe I would want the next governor of Washington to be Goodspaceguy* : )

I sympathize. It took me a few months to get inspired enough to write again (see my last post).  If you’re still stuck in neutral, I’m here to help get you in gear. And what better way than to get back to basics – how to write a story.

WHAT IS A STORY?

A story is a fully formed concept that has a beginning, middle, and end, plotted with characters, goals, conflict, and stakes. This applies whether you write short stories, screenplays, novellas or novels.

HOW TO BEGIN:    

When you consider buying a new book, you generally open it and read a few pages before you decide to take it or leave it – you can even do that online with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. If the book’s middle sags, or the ending isn’t satisfying, you won’t know that until after you’ve purchased it. However, if the beginning doesn’t grab you, it’s not going home with you. That’s how readers will react to your book. This is why the most important part of a story is the beginning.

A beginning has to serve many purposes. It must introduce us to the ‘who’ of the story, also some of the what, when, and why. The tone and genre should be apparent. It should also give us enough to pique our interest; too much bogs down the story and too little leaves us scratching our heads.

As authors, we really begin by sitting down and writing. Thinking, mulling, researching – all important, but they won’t get the words on the page. Once you’ve committed to writing, you need a way to begin. The possibilities might seem endless, but there are basically three ways to launch a story.

I           Mid-action

This is when you begin at the last possible minute to give the reader a sense that the story has already started and they’re joining it already in progress. This may seem counterintuitive, like walking into a movie after it’s begun, but it tends to get the reader curious about what’s going on, so they keep reading to find out.

A good example of this would be a murder mystery that opens with the detective arriving pre-dawn at the crime scene; a beat cop hands her a take-out coffee and reads his notes: “The vic is….”, which gives readers information simultaneously with the detective. We don’t need to be in her bedroom when she’s awakened by the precinct’s call, or watch her get dressed, fix breakfast and head out to her car. That would be like arriving at the movie theater before the commercials. With mid-action, you get the reader engaged right away and weave in the details as you go.

II         Setting a scene that’s about to change

This is when you open with a scene of normal everyday life. It could focus on a character, like a young woman celebrating her promotion with her office mates, then walking home alone. Or a place, like a military base in the Middle East, where soldiers are relaxing. Often the genre hints that the placid opening will be disrupted with a bang – maybe literally. If the book’s a mystery or a thriller, you know something is going to happen – that young woman will be murdered; the soldiers playing cards or tossing a football around will suddenly come under attack. If the genre doesn’t imply something will happen, hint at it in your opening paragraph or page.

The key to this method is to hold off the revelation long enough to generate tension. Change it too soon and it will be like shouting BOO; startling but not satisfying. Wait too long and the reader will lose patience as well as interest. It also must depend on the length of the manuscript. You can take more time with a novel than with a short story.

III        A statement or explanation

Common in many great classics, this type of beginning employs a form of narration:

            A nostalgic “I remember…” musing

            A “Let me introduce myself” statement

            A narrator’s observation

            An implied ‘bookend’

            An omniscient point of view.

Mysteries that open with the murderer observing his deed, such as Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, is one example, since the murderer is not the protagonist. Using an implied bookend, Lawrence Hill begins his engrossing novel,  Someone Knows My Name, with his elderly heroine ready to tell a packed audience her life story. The rest of the novel is told in flashback up to the climax, which brings us back to her about to go on stage.

Using this method addresses the reader in a direct way, which builds a bond. However, it introduces the plot slowly, in a cerebral rather than a dynamic manner, so it must intrigue us enough to keep reading. You can accomplish this with an opening sentence in a short story, but longer form fiction allows for more time.

Confused yet? Think of beginning a story like getting into a pool. Some just jump right in – method one. Others will dangle their feet in the water awhile, then slip in – method two. Others (me) will dip a toe in, complain about how cold it is, then slowly inch deeper into the pool until the water’s shoulder-high before gliding under – method three.

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Are you are having trouble starting your story? Consider writing three different versions using each of these methods, then see which best accomplishes the goal of an opening. Which will lead you in the direction you want to go? Even though you’ll reject two of the openings, you may keep a nugget from them to use elsewhere. Or, if you decide to use a bookend opening, you can convert one of your other versions into chapter two.

Have you begun your story but aren’t satisfied with it? Does it feel bloated with backstory? Does it convey enough to grab the reader’s interest? Which type of beginning did you use? Does it satisfy the goals of that method? If so, perhaps trying another method would be more effective, or it might suggest a fix for your original beginning.

Your opening should not only prod your readers to keep going, but you as well. Again, even outlining an opening using another method of beginning may prompt some questions or ideas that will move you forward. If you’re writing a sequel, try rereading your previous book, or go back to the beginning and reread them all. It may give you momentum, or you may find some detail that triggers an idea to follow up on.

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Have you gotten stuck after writing the opening and can’t seem to progress? Does your plot feel bogged down and going nowhere? In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to keep the middle from sagging or lagging.

*Spacemanguy` was an actual gubernatorial candidate in Washington state’s primary election. He lost.

Miko Johnston is the author of three novels in The Petal In The Wind series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

Mystery People

By Jill Amadio

As a Brit I put up with a lot of ribbing in America. Some friends take me to task for pronunciation. Well, I can’t help it if I have a very slight West Country accent as I am from Cornwall. To my amusement my accent is occasionally mistaken for Australian.

As a writer from over there, though, the ribbing can give me indigestion or at the very least depression for hours. The main problem is spelling. I am warned by colleagues that editors at U.S. publishing houses come down hard if you keep inserting a “u” into words like behaviour,  colour, and honour, or substitute a ”z’ for an “s”. Other minefields include using “ae” rather than “e,” as in “aeon” and “eon”.  Maybe it’s a matter simplicity. Americans pare as many ells from words as possible while Brits love double ells, such as “levelling” versus “leveling”.

My books are published here but habits die hard and I usually claim that Brits use the correct spellings. They only got chopped when unnecessary (to whom?) letters are summarily killed off. Flautists are called flutists, kerb is curb, and gaol is jail. Obviously what it comes down to is pronunciation, though. Americans spell words economically as they are spoken which is commendable although it escapes me why tyre is spelled tire. I think it has to do with the Boston Tea Party and wanting to be set apart from that awful king.

It’s a huge temptation to some authors who have leapt across the pond to use British spelling, perhaps as a sly signal to agents and publishers they are querying that the writer is a Brit – a sort of literary snobbism one occasionally encounters. In my first mystery I have my lead character admonish the British consul’s wife for this attitude which I did, in fact, actually encounter in Newport Beach.

Then there’s the grammar. Collective nouns in particular give me pause. Is a group, say, a government, singular or plural? Americans say it’s the former; Brits insist on the latter.  I have a page from the Associated Press Stylebook permanently stuck to my printer to remind me which to use.

Figuring out past particles is always fun. For instance, Brits say “pleaded” Yanks say “pled”. Oh, and the very, very worst word I hate to see changed is “hanged”. To my mind it should refer only to someone at the loop end of a rope, giving the action a far heftier meaning than the briefer word “hung”, as used here. People are not paintings.

What else? “Have” and “take” always flummox me. Am I going to take a bath? Or, am I going to have a bath? I read somewhere that this is an example of a delexical verb, which I’m not even going to touch.

While writing my mystery my beta readers caught another mistake. I wrote, “He drove her to hospital.” Wrong. I was told there should be a “the” in front of “hospital”.  I’m sure there’s some kind of diabolical rule about this but I think it is fine to give an in-house editor something to mark up to justify his/her salary.  As for tenses, the past participle in the U.S. for “got” is “gotten,” an ugly word that makes me shudder enough to want to write a thriller entitled “The Dangling Participle and the Dark, Dark Pluperfect”.

While writing the first in my crime series, whose amateur sleuth is a disgraced Cornish woman exiled by the palace for discovering a scandal (not sexual!), I had to learn the police rankings and figure out who was a sheriff and who was a police officer. Having worked with a reporter at the good old British rag, the Sunday Dispatch, I decided to have my sleuth simplify her confusion (and mine) by using British titles. When caught speeding she addresses a California Highway Patrol (CHiP) officer as Chief Superintendent, and calls the Chief of Police,  Constable.  I was very pleased to learn that sheriffs and policemen can be lumped into a group collectively referred to as “cops”.

When I mention a British pastime, such as nighthawking, no one has a clue as to its meaning. I was going to give the nasty habit to a character in my next book but I decided the explanation could be tedious unless you’re one yourself.

Even the four seasons can be a challenge. Seeking representation for my new book I scoured the agent lists and was rejected by 55 of them. I knew small presses can be approached directly and I found one with whose name I fell totally in love: Mainly Murder Press in Connecticut. However, the website declared, NO SUBMISSIONS UNTIL LATE SPRING!

Ha. I immediately sent in my query along with a note: “Dear MMP, I live in Southern California and although it is only January according to the calendar, and snowing where you are, it is already late spring here. You should see the roses!”

I received an email back within three hours, asking me to send chapters. Which I did. Obviously the publisher was not off in Tahiti but still on the snowy East Coast.” MMP published only 12-14 books a year and has now closed its doors but who can resist the name? So my advice is to go ahead and break the rules. Lay it on thick. Change the climate. Worked for me.

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Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep” and the second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead.”  The books are set in Newport, California.    http://www.jillamadio.com

 

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This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Two Little Paths…

AnotherRoadSignI’m sharing today two short blog writing-trails I’ve been down recently. As always, my hope is there’s something in my meanderings that might send you down helpful writing paths of your own.

My first little wandering, was instigated by a recent Paul D. Marks post[i] (Thanks, Paul…I think.(smile))

Paul posed the question to his readers of what would you do if you weren’t a writer. It was an intriguing question, and in thinking about my answer, my thoughts–after several professional considerations–led me BACK to writing. And you guessed it, ending up with ideas on how to improve my current writing. Here’s how the thinking trail went… Clipboard01Knowing what I know about my myself and where I am writing-wise——answering Paul’s question, I did arrive at being a Movie/TV Show Producer and/or Director (admittedly based only on outsider-knowledge of the professions). I do love movies and TV, and in my mind, producers and directors do all the great things in putting together a compelling story, like picking the  setting, lighting, color pallet, sequence of scenes, casting…

Then of course, it hit me—in my rewrites, editing, endless agonizing reviews—I could improve my WIPs with a heightened producer/director perspective. A couple posts ago I talked about BBC radio dramas that I listen to on audio-books, and what I learned from them. Well, I’m thinking carrying that learning experience forward to the big and little screen, should broaden my writing reviews.

Readers2I should backtrack a bit, and point out my prevailing approach and perspective on writing comes from reading. And especially from the golden age. Updated by P.D. James, of course! So, adding radio and movie profession perspectives, though it may be obvious to some, was not such a straight line for me.

So, in my “backup” career as a Producer/Director, I’m in the process of adding some touches to my latest WIP to expand my movie production “Vision.”[ii]

My second Little thing–is weighing egoism, good sense, advice taking, and the shortness of life. Items/thoughts which are a continuing balancing act for me–especially during the editing process.

With foolish bravado the other day, I decided to pull out some boxes from my writing dark-ages with the point to toss or save. This impulsive housework-like behavior lasted about an hour before I said “the heck with this” and pushed them back out of sight into the closet. But in that hour of attempted work, I found several short stories I supposedly wrote in the 80s. I say supposedly, because my name (actually pseudonym at the time MM LaCour is on them with submittal envelopes attached)—but I just don’t remember them. Whoever(smile) wrote them, evidently thought they should write however they wanted, convention be damned. Egoism, front and center.

Fortunately since then, I’ve been exposed to marvelous advice on writing. Indeed, so much about writing can be learned at conferences, seminars, from books, (plug) and especially here at “Writers in Residence.” Good Sense and Advice taking.

Paul’s post and the pulling out that box path-meanderings, have brought me here. All this “stuff” is excellent for thinking about, and to use for “how to.” But all important, is keeping in mind tomorrow is not promised. And all these thoughts and paths mean nothing–if I/you don’t write. Which has led me to the main thought I would like to pass on from these two little combined posts—–write as much, and as often as you can. AND most importantly, Enjoy the journey!

ThinkingHeadtoBook2Definitely interested in hearing your thoughts on Paul’s question(which I’m still thinking about), and what “perspectives” you might be using for your writing reviews. And here’s hoping, my ziggy/zaggy comments will help you make your next work “a stellar production.”



[i] I Write Therefore I Am by Paul D. Marks. https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2020/08/i-write-therefore-i-am.html?fbclid=IwAR2Bd1kSxrMyvgkFVS8AO3GcmU4ElEcYINye_-W8lOp84TJTim9emcmFoYY

[ii] Still working on a novella “Never Forgotten,” and in this period of having plenty of time, it’s much slower going than it should be. cover

Introducing Cynthia Naden, our Newest Writers In Residence Member.

Cynthia, we are so glad to have you in our Writers in Residence blog group. Tell us about yourself.

cynthia-nadenThank you, Jackie! I’m a native of California, I was born and raised in the Pasadena area.  My husband and I still live here, although we have talked about living elsewhere that is less expensive.  I have two adult sons and two adorable granddaughters.  We live in a condominium with two precious pups, Minnie, a mellow Maltese, and Mandy, a very precocious Terrier mix.  They keep us on our toes and give us hours of unconditional love and fun!

I bet they are cute!  When did you first get interested in writing?

I have been a writer since I was a child.  The first book I fell in love with was Pearl Buck’s Good Earth.  I subsequently read the rest of her tomes.  The first attempt at writing occurred when I was in the 4th grade and wrote about an imaginary trip I made to Australia aboard the SS Lurline.  What fun that was! Throughout my years in school, I always veered back to writing about Asia and when in college, studying for my Master’s in History found myself back in Asia but more specifically China.

Was History your only avenue of study?

No, besides my Master’s in history, I also have a Bachelor’s in English and Paralegal Studies, and a Master’s in Library and Information Science. But my writing career really took off following the completion of my last Masters.  I took a couple online writing courses and found myself writing a romantic suspense that is loosely based on a personal experience of my own.

You mean, the events in Cache Under the Stacks actually happened to you? That’s scary.

Well, some of the elements did, but not all. It is fiction. (smile)

A bookstore features prominently in the book. Do you have a favorite one?

I love bookstores. Whenever we travel my first stop is a bookstore. One of my favorites is Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara, but our own Vroman’s here in Pasadena is the best of the best.

What other writing interests do you have?

I’m interested in writing historical fiction and have a couple of novels started that take place during World War II – one in Europe and the other in the Pacific Theatre. And I would someday love to write about cooking or do restaurant reviews.  Always something that I am striving towards. But my one far-fetched desire is to own a boarding house for dogs with all the amenities!

I love it!  We have some dog-lovers in our group and among our readers. They would be happy about that aspiration.  I see you have many yummy recipes on your blog as well.  Cynthia’s blog recipes

Yes, and did you notice the SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE recipe at the end of Cache Under the Stacks?

I sure did! I plan to try it soon. I love Italian food.  So, what have you in the works right now?

Starting Over 41S6cFWnPxLCache Under the Stacks was published in August 2018and Starting Over was published December 2019. Both books I “pantsed,” but now I am trying to outline and it is not as easy for me.  I’m working on a sequel to Cache Under the Stacks and a sequel to Starting Over, a woman’s fiction that has evolved into a bit of a mystery.

How about those two WWII novels you were considering? 

One is set in the late 1930s New York and London. It is called Because of You. The other one set in Pearl Harbor, and is yet to be titled, although tentatively I call it Murder in Waimea.

What are you reading now?

Reading during this “lock down” time has not been as productive as I thought it would be. I have several books on my bedside table: Woman in the Shadows by Jane Thynne; Erik Larsen’s The Splendid and the Vile; The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan; and Landing by Moonlight by Ciji Ware.

How have you been managing during the “lock-down” time?

I thought I would have gotten a lot of writing done, but it has been hard to concentrate. If anyone has any suggestions, I would gladly like to know about how to overcome this. It has been a time of great distraction.

Do you have any dreams or goals?

My dream would be for Covid to be over and to travel to London, France, and Germany. I would like also like to publish at least one book a year and if possible, someday land a traditional publisher.

Thank you, Cynthia (Cyn), for sharing your past and your heart. We are so glad to have you here, and look forward to when you will be posting alongside us next year.

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Cache Under Stacks 51iDVwGVQML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_BOOK REVIEW: Cynthia (pen-name Claire Naden) published Cache Under the Stacks, A Cate Wagner Mystery, two years ago, and I have just found and read it. It’s a story about a divorced, empty-nester bookstore owner, living alone in a nice neighborhood with her sweet pup, Minnie.

But then, she begins to get threatening phone calls from an unknown person. It doesn’t matter if she is at home, at the bookstore, or 100 miles away, he seems to know just where she is and what she is doing.  For most of the book, this stalker only terrorizes by phone, but towards the climactic end, the calls and messages get more specific. And when strange packages and people begin to appear at her bookstore, she knows her life is in danger.

Fortunately for Cate, a handsome police detective enters her life and takes an interest in her case. As the threats escalate, their relationship begins to heat up. But he can’t be with her every minute. She is alone sometimes and the stalker knows it.

Advertised as Romantic Suspense, I can assure you the book is both.  From the first pages, you will feel an unease for the main character that quickly turns into unrelenting anxiety. It’s hard to stop reading even at chapter breaks, because you simply must find out who is terrorizing the heroine and why.

Naden writes simply but in great detail. Where another author might say “She went into the house and locked the door,” this author breaks down those movements into tiny increments (fumbling with the key, dropping it, her purse strap catching on the knob, preventing her from closing the door fast). You think it would be boring, but not so. It  holds you captive while it ratchets up the suspense. You “just KNOW” someone is in the house, in her bedroom, or right behind her…

PS: You only understand the title at the very end!