BACK TO BASICS: WRITERS’ BOOT CAMP PART II

by Miko Johnston

In any story, the beginning sets up the problem that must be solved and the ending solves it. How that happens comprises the plot, which plays out in the middle chapters. A good plot is like a good EKG, with lines that zigzag up and down. When tension and stakes increase, the line climbs upward. You never want a flat line; in matters of the heart and story, it indicates death.

In my last post we reviewed the three basic ways to begin a story as well as some techniques to get those opening pages written. What if you’ve gotten that far but haven’t moved forward?

Many writers get stuck after writing the opening chapter. A common problem is trying to perfect that opening. As a bone fide Brooklynite, I can say fuhgeddaboudit.

Nothing will hang you up more than trying to go over and over that first chapter, endlessly fine-tuning it before moving on. You can’t. You shouldn’t. Put it aside and keep going. Finish your first draft. Once you know how the story unfolds, go back and figure out how to fix the beginning.

Do you have a beginning and an end in mind? Then build your story like a bridge – set down firm spans on both ends and connect them in the middle. I wrote my first novel that way, working the plot backward from the final chapters and forward from the earlier chapters. Mysteries often fall into this category; you know the crime (beginning) and whodunnit (the reveal at the end). Work your clues in both directions until they meet in the middle.

What if you don’t know where the story is going? Many writers prefer to wait for the muse to whisper in their ear rather than draft an outline. In that case, why not choose a path and follow it to its logical conclusion? Think of it like those maze puzzles – a path may lead to a dead end, but then you’ll know it’s a dead end and try another path, eventually finding the one that leads you in the right direction. Everything you write will help guide you to The End. Two caveats, though:

-If you have a beginning and only a vague idea of the end, you’ll want to have enough to get you well into the middle before you tackle a novel, otherwise you may never reach your destination. My second book took over four years to write; I meandered through two plots I ultimately discarded, then conceived a third one worth pursuing.

Some writers feel as soon as it’s on the page, it’s permanent. Not so. In my second novel I found a way to solve a plot problem with a birthday surprise for my heroine, but I’d already given her a different birth date in my first novel. How could I get away with that? It took a week to realize an easy solution: neither book had been published yet, so I could change the date in book one to fit my new development.

***************

Are you stuck in the middle?  Writing your middle chapters, but unsatisfied with them? Fortunately, sit-ups and planks aren’t required.

Ways to improve a weak middle:

1 – Always keep your genre and theme in mind.

Your genre can shape how your story unfolds. A humorous cozy should be light and fun. Noir should be steeped in atmosphere. Use your theme or log line as the foundation on which you build your plot, and a guide to move it along.

2 – Take advantage of the multiple uses of dialogue

It can move the story forward, briefly slow the pace, draw our focus to a plot point or clue like a camera close-up, inform us of character, or foreshadow a later development.  Dialogue tags like Jon said identify the speaker, but by using a bit of action – Jon tossed his keys on the table – you also add movement. Finally, consider how your characters speak and what they don’t say.

3 – Keep the plot, and your character, active.

Not enough action will bog down the pace, but action means more than shooting and fighting, or running after suspects. Action can be physical or mental. Action is your character DOING whatever it takes to reach her goal.

4 – Have at least one mid-point crisis.

A good story always launches with a crisis and climaxes with a bigger one. Crises generate tension, which keep the middle from sagging. Introduce sources of conflict, whether leads in the investigation that fall through, the death of a material witness or ally, or a setback in the hero’s goal. Just make sure the crisis fits the story’s momentum and doesn’t exceed your climax scene.

5 – Avoid dumping in too much backstory.

Whether you’re trying to bring your character to life or writing a sequel, you need some backstory, just not too much. What are you trying to accomplish with the information? Insight into the character’s past that would explain why she does what she does? A reminder in a sequel of an event in a previous book? Ask yourself three questions:

            Is this information necessary for this story?

            Does it help to define the character or support the plot?

            Does it move the story forward?

If no, leave it out. If yes, then keep it brief. I read a few series and find the best of them will remind readers of characters and events with a line rather than a paragraph.

6 – Watch out for repetition.

We all know best-selling authors of series who, after a dozen or more books, begin padding their sequels with repetition. Just like unnecessary detail will bog down your story, so will repeating events or dialogue over and over and over and….. If you’ve just written a scene where an action occurs, your character doesn’t have to repeat this information to another character in the following scene. She told him what happened or words to that effect will suffice. If we need a reminder of what transpired later in the story, keep it brief.

7 – Reward and surprise us.

What’s worse, a story that’s totally depressing or totally predictable? Trick question; it’s a tie. Even the most dystopic stories must have moments of lightness. Whatever your character’s goal is – trying to solve the murder, find true love, succeed in business or win the battle – mete out some successes along with the setbacks. Lace in enough twists and surprises to hint how the story might end without giving the ending away.

This is particularly true in mysteries. Setting up a good red herring can be tricky since readers expect them. They’re delicious when they surprise us, but like all fish, if they’re mishandled they stink. As much as I enjoyed Girl On A Train, it was obvious who the murderer was a hundred pages before the book’s conclusion. Nothing’s more disappointing than knowing without a doubt exactly how the book will end. You presume the detective will solve the murder, but still want the pleasure of discovering HOW it happens, especially if the manner is unexpected. Just make sure that the reward or surprise is rooted in the story. Don’t plop something in for convenience. Weave a subtle thread back to earlier chapters to set up the surprise properly, or base the reward on something she wants or needs, even if she doesn’t know it.

8 – Keep the dialogue and prose in proportion.

Do you have enough dialogue? Too much? What about sensory detail, setting, character descriptions? There’s no magic formula but we don’t always consider the balancing act. Rereading your story, looking for something you don’t always consider, gets you looking at your pages in a different way. You may catch something that’s not working, even trigger an idea or solution. 

9 – Keep the middle in proportion.

I am not partial to using formulas for writing books (and have the luxury of not having to rely on them). However, if you’ve written several chapters and are unsure how the story is progressing, consider the percentage of pages dedicated to the middle versus the beginning and end. Although not a precise measurement, the opening, from Once upon a time to the inciting incident that launches your story, should comprise about a quarter of the total number of pages. So should the final act, from the climax scene to The End. That means the middle should be roughly half of the story. If your opening chapters comprise sixty pages and you’re up to page 300 but nowhere near the climax, your middle is probably bloated. If your middle is proportionally light, flesh it out or shorten the rest.

*          *          *

Still stuck? If you’re a visual person, try charting out your story, or as much of it as you know, on some kind of diagram. I’ve used line graphs, with peaks for crisis points and valleys for slower parts. I’ve used box charts, where I divide a sheet of paper into sixteen boxes – four for the beginning, eight for the middle and four for the end. In each box I briefly describe what’s happening at that point of the story. This shows me how the plot is developing as well as the balance between the acts. Since I write historical fiction, I also parallel historical events with my characters’ lives. If you write mysteries or thrillers, especially the cat and mouse variety, you can chart your hero’s progress against your villain’s actions.

If you’ve conceived some scenes but not an entire chapter, write it in chunks and assemble it later. If you prefer working with a hard copy, write the individual scenes, conversations or actions, leaving ample white space between them. Print them, cut them into sections and assemble them as you think works best. Move everything around until you have the order you want, and insert blank paper between the sections that need connecting. Pencil in notes about what you need to connect the passages. Use this to guide you through completing the chapter, or flesh out other chapters. It moves you forward. If you don’t like the direction, at least you’ll know another dead end to avoid. This can be done on the computer if you prefer working that way.   

Another technique that has proven helpful is to change ‘jobs’; instead of writing prose, think of yourself as a movie director. Can you visualize the scene you’re trying to create? How would you direct your characters? If there’s something missing in the scene, get input from the set dresser or wardrobe coordinator. As authors we tend to see our work from on high. Peering at it from a different angle gives us another perspective. Even closing your eyes and envisioning the words you’ve written (or listening to them being read) will make them pop and come alive, or hint at why they don’t.

Consider writing free-form dialogue, which I’ve described in this earlier post. This gives your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves. Sort of like the director asking the actors to ad lib their lines. If that doesn’t work, you may not know your characters well enough to ‘speak’ for them. In that case:

-Play the “who would I cast as…?” game – think of people, either famous or those you’ve known, and match them with your characters. Consider why you chose that person to help you flesh the character out.

-Try to describe your key characters in a word or brief phrase, then look for signs of commonality and discord between them.

-Define them with an image. For example, think of type fonts as a logo. If you were to assign a different font for each of your characters, which would represent them best?  

————————–

Once you’ve written an attention-grabbing beginning and a turn-the-page middle, you need to reward the reader with a satisfying ending. In the final installment, we’ll explore what that means and how to achieve it.

                                                                        #

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories. She is currently completing the fourth book in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Leftovers

This writing trail of thought started the other night when hubby and I watched the movie, How to Steal a Million, with Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn. We settled on this particular movie because I like looking at Peter, and hubby likes looking at Audrey. That being a point of enjoyment, I nonetheless snarkily(sp) commented several times during the movie that it was a stupid plot and the story moved far too slowly. Hubby didn’t complain at all—Audrey was quite striking, indeed!

Well, the next morning I woke up with a film-cut-like  picture of Peter and Audrey, contorted together in the broom closet(a classic scene in movie history I think). And I wondered why I had that picture in my mind, given I’d complained about the movie?

Some background information about me is, for some of the best novels I’ve ever read, or movies I’ve seen, an actual photo-type image remains with me that I can call up into my mind’s eye. And often they popup when waking up. It’s more than scenery, or location, or character features, or clothes…but a real photography type snap. There have, of course, been many novels I’ve read, enjoyed, even loved, that did not have mental pictures associated with them. Some examples of ones that did are:

  • Murder on the Orient Express, book and movie(s) dénouement scenes in the dining car, and/or out in the snow. For me, these are classic pictures left behind—and my all time favorite one is of David Suchet.[i]
  • Several real-person pictures of Boo Radley—from the book and the movie To Kill a Mocking Bird. (of course, in the movie, the fantastic actor Robert Duvall may have had something to do with the leftover picture(smile))
  • And a great and fun-filled–even though there’s a murder–picture I can still see is Friendly Farm itself, in Murder at Friendly Farm by Jacqueline Vick, and then another picture from Friendly Farm of Santa in the corn maze ,
  • Miss Marple sitting in her drawing room,
  • The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer— a picture inside the New York Aquarium with Hildegarde Withers standing there remains quite vividly with me. (Even though I’ve forgotten “who” actually did the murder and I’ve never been to that aquarium…but what a vivid picture I still have)

These are all wonderful fiction novels and movies, so why after my snarkiness during How to Steal a Million, did I retain such a vivid picture? So I’m thinking there must be some storytelling reason(not just just eye-candy), why that picture from How to Steal a Million remains with me, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

But a more pertinent question remains with me—in my own writing, do I want a real snapshot like picture left behind as one of my goals? Or does that just happen given the nature of the story? Or, or? And all the time? Can you even make leftovers happen?

Despite my advanced age(smile), I am still Pollyannaish[ii] at heart, especially in my reading and movie watching inclinations. As a kid, I hated fairytales with bad endings(which were many it seemed)—and after seeing Bambi at the movie theater as a child, never knowingly watched a children’s Disney film again. Further, if it seems like a dog is going to get killed–won’t read, watch, or finish a book or movie if started. Indeed, hope, happiness, the world goes on unharmed, and bad guys get it in the end (even if in an ironic way) are my cup of tea.

So, after writing all these thoughts out—my answer is YES—I want to leave endearing leftovers. Not just thoughts or emotions, but real snaps that bring a smile to the reader’s face. [iii] Hmmm.

Definitely interested in your thoughts…

Happy Writing Trails!


[i] Just downloaded latest Hercule Poirot by Sophie Hannah, and looking forward to visiting the picture of Hercule(probably David Suchet) in my mind’s eye. FYI from Ecosia search—The Killings at Kingfisher Hill the latest Hercule by Sophie Hannah https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie_Hannah She’s written 4 so far https://sophiehannah.com/

[ii] Pollyanna is a 1913 novel by American author Eleanor H. Porter, considered a classic of children’s literature. (again, per my search engine Ecosia)

[iii] Back to another review of Never Forgotten to see if maybe there are some leftovers!

What to Write When the (Ink) Well is Dry.

That is where I am right now.

Oh, sure, I’m writing every day: checks to pay bills, answers to emails and texts, posts on Facebook and Instagram, birthday cards to put in the mail that day, a grocery list, a “to do” list, a note to Hubby about an errand I need to do and when I’ll be back.

But creative writing? Um, no. Unless you count a quick book review I pound out in fifteen minutes, knowing that unless I do it today, it will be late, and then I’ll feel awful. Too bad I only skimmed the last two chapters… but you don’t mention how books end anyway, do you? And then I still felt awful, because I’ve always determined to finish a book – every word – before writing a review. Boo-hoo.

Oh, I do write curriculum for my third (used to be fourth) to sixth grade class* at church every week. That can be fun. The delivery can be somewhat creative, but not the text of course. It’s the Bible, after all.

In one point in last week’s lesson I was teaching how that precious Word of God is called “the sword of the Spirit” in the Bible. “Sharper than any two-edged sword, able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” I’d been teaching them the first sermon preached by Peter, the fisherman-turned-apostle, when I came to its conclusion. (It’s a doozy!) I pictured a duel between forces of good and evil, raised my imaginary sword and did a bit of fencing (pantomime, of course), ending up with my opponent on the floor, my sword tip on his chest. The phrase “coup de grace” came to my mind, and still holding my imaginary position with opponent pinned down, explained the French phrase. “The final blow,” I said, looking at the fifteen kids slowly. “The thrust that pierces the heart,” I said. And then I jabbed my sword right to the floor… holding for a few seconds before looking up. Then I jerked it free, held it high, then slipped it into my imaginary sheath at my left hip.

There was quietness for a few seconds, then I had the kids read verse 37 of Acts chapter 2, which was the response of the crowd to the strong finish of Peter’s sermon. It reads, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” Peter’s inspired use of Scripture had brought instant conviction.

But that was “creative” thinking and teaching, not writing. So what do you do when your ink well is dry?

  1. Read in the genre you want to write. Read for pleasure (maybe even some old favorites). Read those authors who inspire you. Read, read, read.
  2. Go online to the sites that list daily (a month at a time) story prompts or story ideas. Here’s one I sometimes use. (Click farther on the site for other ideas.) https://mailchi.mp/writerswrite/daily-writing-links-29-september-2020?e=befa474c79
  3. Start (or start up again) a daily or weekly journal. I have to admit that when we returned from our (fantastic) cruise and a week later faced the monster that became Covid-19, I quit journaling. (Crazy huh? What a “ripe” season of lockdowns, scary bar graphs, no one working, everything closed, ghost freeways, that I could have used in stories. Sigh!) Well, it’s not too late. Maybe begin with a “to do” list, and comment on your doings and feelings during that day. Or… you choose.
  4. Study books by writers that give instruction. A few weeks ago we had Sara Rosett as a guest blogger. She wrote about she used lots of things for Research in her historical mysteries. But she also mentioned a couple “How To ” books she has written. “How To Outline A Cozy Mystery” and “How to Write a Series.” Both are easily found on Amazon. (I recently bought them both and am eager to dig in, for at least a chapter a day.) Look for books on short story writing by our own The Writers In Residence, G. B. Pool.
  5. Take note of those weird dreams. Hey, maybe your creative muse is locked down inside your head, and wants to safely, with some social distancing via dreams, give your mind some help.
  6. Look at a calendar. Upcoming holidays are always good for getting the juices or muses working. Think back to fond memories. Think forward with some Sci-Fi or Fantasy weirdness. Let the seasons inspire.

Do whatever it takes, even acting out some scenes from your favorite book in front of your spouse, dog or cat, or the mirror. The movements, actions, even words may lead to some nice black… or maybe purple… INK in your writing well.

###

*I used to teach a class of 4th to 6th graders, but now that all must wear a face covering in class, I have inherited the 3rd graders as well. (They used to be together with 1st and 2nd grade.) According to the “order,” all students in 3rd grade and up must wear masks etc. Second grade and below do not have to. The Children’s Ministry leader felt it would be hard on some in a class that have to wear them while others didn’t. But, on the fun side, I’ve discovered that those third graders are pretty sharp too and I only need a little tweaking of the lesson that I prepare for the older kids. (PS: I wear a face shield, so the kids can see me better.)

How Much of YOU is in Your Writing?

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

 

People 5

Okay, let’s get down to the basics… If you happen to be writing a memoir, use as much of yourself as you want. But if you’re writing fiction you might want to rethink how much of YOU you put in your story.

I don’t mean your sense of humor or sarcasm or even little bits of happiness or sadness that has been part of your life, but you can take your PLOT or your CHARACTERS on the wrong path if you aren’t careful. Not that you aren’t the most interesting person in the world… but maybe, just maybe, your beliefs, passions, or politics might be the things that take your great story off the tracks. And remember, in ten years things may change, trends, ideas, even your beliefs. When that happens your story will look dated. But some things never change.

Let me explain.

I have been a huge fan of E. Phillips Oppenheim, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Anna Katharine Green. They wrote a hundred years ago. That’s 1918! Their stories are still readable. Sometimes you’d swear they were written last week. It’s the STORY that withstands the test of time. Stick with it. Don’t head down a road that half your audience might not want to go down with you.

I have watched some of my writer friends on Facebook mention that they will use the recent unpleasantness (AKA: the pandemic, the corona virus, the China virus, the Wuhan virus… whatever you call it) in their work.

Okay. It’s your call.

Writer Lady 2People used World War II, the Vietnam War, the Depression, -insert disaster here-, in their work. The memorable stories didn’t dwell on the event itself per se. They used it as a backdrop and then showed how their characters’ personalities dealt with the event.

Not that your characters might not do what you would do, but sometimes the story “sounds” like preaching instead of a fascinating character study or a unique story.

I once wrote a scene featuring one of my main characters when she recalled losing one of her beloved dogs. I wrote a rather long sub-story featuring everything I felt at the time of that loss. Funny thing was my character was driving home while thinking of this event. During an edit I came to that scene and realized that particular detour took my character off in another direction – a dead end. It had nothing to do with the main story and it didn’t necessarily enhance her character even though it might have been touching. It showed how hard it was losing that wonderful dog, but it really didn’t fit the spy novel I was writing. I cut it.

I do use people I know as characters, at least a slice here and there. Often I change their name. I do that mostly because I don’t want to embarrass them or anger them – lawsuits, you know. But I never make fools of them… period. And I never use someone I don’t like in a book. Why waste the ink?

I have used all our pets as minor characters in different stories. My wonderful husband, Richard, is definitely the basis of Fred Caulfield in my Gin Caulfield mysteries. I enjoyed using his strong personality so much, he will become a partner in her detective firm in upcoming books. But that is the extent of the similarity. I want Fred to be his own person.

Pencil 2As for myself showing up in the books I write, a little of me is here, a little is there, but I actually like to have my characters be themselves. I might like them because we are compatible, but not identical twins. And I definitely don’t want us to be Siamese twins joined forever, never having a life of our own. That wouldn’t be fair to my characters, after all, they are like one’s own children in a way. You might want to instill some values in them, but you really have to let them be themselves. Think of your friends, you like them because you have something in common, but if you try to change them, I bet you won’t have them as friends anymore.

So I let my characters be themselves, and as almost every writer I know has said: These people take on a personality of their own. If you as a writer just sit back and let them talk, you might just find they have a terrific voice. So shut up and let them do the talking for a while. We’ll get who you are by the story you tell. Trust me. Write on!

Typewriter 3

How I Use Nonfiction and Fiction for Research and Inspiration

By Guest Author,  Sara Rosett

Some writers can sit down at their computer with no idea of what they will write about and launch into the first draft of their book. They find the blank screen and the infinite possibilities exciting and inspiring. I’m not one of those writers. I must have an idea of where the story is going before I begin writing. Otherwise, the blank screen paralyzes me. Before I begin a book, I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the story. I’ve discovered that both nonfiction and fiction inspire different aspects of the story for me.

Nonfiction

I like to dig into nonfiction as I brainstorm my historical mystery plots. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found most helpful:

Newspaper Archives—My historical series is set in early 1920s England, so the online British Newspaper Archive has been an invaluable resource. I scoured the Positions Available section, what we’d call the Help Wanted section today, which gave me an insight into the jobs were available, the qualifications required, and the salaries that were paid. The British Newspaper Archive has magazines in addition to newspapers, and those are wonderful for getting a feel for what people read in their leisure time. One delightful surprise came as I flipped through an issue of the Sketch. I came across the first publication of Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb with Poirot and Hastings.

Magazine and newspaper advertisements are also helpful for researching clothing and fashion as well as helping me keep in mind the attitudes of the time. Ads for fur coats and smoking tobacco seem a bit jarring to me as a modern reader, but browsing the ads helps me keep in mind the typical mindset of someone who lived in the early 1920s.

Nonfiction books—Once I have a general idea of the direction of the story, I search out nonfiction books related to the theme of the novel. I’ve read all sorts of books—everything from books on the English country house to code breaking during World War I. I find nonfiction is an excellent source for clues and red herrings. Nonfiction books have even inspired a complete plot. The second book in my historical series is about an author who keeps her gender secret from everyone—including her publisher. A real-life author who did the same thing inspired that story idea.

While researching the Egyptomania that gripped the world after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, I ran across a story of a British nobleman who had been connected to the excavation and committed suicide. That incident became the jumping off point for the third book in my series, The Egyptian Antiquities Murder.

Memoirs—One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for getting inside the heads of my historical characters are memoirs and biographies. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were a prolific and literary bunch. It’s easy to find information about them, and reading about their midnight scavenger hunts and paper chases across London as well as their extravagant themed parties meant that I had plenty of ideas for a book set in London among the high society set when it came time to write An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. In addition to story ideas, I also cull clues in red herrings from memoirs. I note down the things that people hid from their families or feared would become public knowledge.

Video clips—I didn’t realize how much video is available from the early 1920s. YouTube and stock image sites have quite a bit from that time. I’ve watched videos of people strolling in Trafalgar Square, dancing in nightclubs, as well as an informational video from the 1920s on how the brakes work on an early motorcar, which was critical when plotting how a certain murder was committed.

Vintage clothing auction sites—My readers want to imagine the characters wearing flapper dresses and elegant evening gowns. I need to know about the fabric, cut, and embellishments of the dresses. With multiple images of individual clothing items, auction listings of vintage clothes are a good source of detailed information about the materials and construction of the clothes of the era. Another great source for clothing details and inspiration is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with its extensive online collection.

Fiction

I was a fan of Golden Age mysteries, but I’d always read them for pleasure, not research. When I decided to write a historical mystery, I began reading and rereading my old favorites as well as seeking out new authors from the era. I read the books in a different way and found that they gave me a first-hand view of day-to-day life in the time. I used my fiction-reading to glean small details that gave my stories the feel of the time.

Dialogue—Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing a High Society Lady Detective series. Much of the verbiage is inspired by my reading of Golden age fiction. Terms like old bean, old thing, topping, and that’s not cricket are common in Golden Age mysteries. The posh set was fond of their adjectives and adverbs, so I use those types of words in conversation in my historical books in a way that I wouldn’t do in a contemporary novel. Everything was ghastly, frightful or screamingly. I sprinkle those terms throughout conversation to give it a feel of the 1920s.

Culture—As I read Golden Age fiction, I made mental notes of how the characters’ lifestyles: the size of their houses, whether or not they had telephones, what they ate for meals, as well as what types of cars they drove—even if they had a car. Another thing I noticed was the formality of conversation and address. People rarely used their first names when they spoke to each other unless they were well acquainted. I fold all those details into my stories.

I’ve learned to allow some time to delve into research before I begin a book. I gather these all these details and ideas, then let them brew in my mind for a while. By the time I sit down to actually begin writing, I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go and some of the clues and red herrings I’ll use. If I take the time to absorb ideas from both nonfiction and fiction that blank screen isn’t as intimating and my writing goes much faster.

 

###

Sara Rosett Author Photo 2016 Headshot 1500 copyUSA Today bestselling author Sara Rosett writes lighthearted mysteries for readers who enjoy atmospheric settings, fun characters, and puzzling whodunits. She loves reading Golden Age mysteries, watching Jane Austen adaptions, and travel. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “enchanting,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”

She is the author of the High Society Lady Detective historical mystery series as well as three contemporary cozy series: the Murder on Location series, the On the Run series, and the Ellie Avery series. Sara also teaches an online course, How to Outline A Cozy Mystery, and is the author of How to Write a Series. Sara’s latest release is An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. Find out more at SaraRosett.com.

Social Media Links:

 

 

###

 

This article was posted for Sara Rosett by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Getting together

By Linda O. Johnston

 I’ve mentioned here before that I used to attend a lot of writers’ meetings and conferences, including monthly lunches with my wonderful Writers in Residence friends. 

Well, we still get together monthly for a “lunch” – one that’s online on Facebook. It’s definitely enjoyable.  And that’s kind of how all my get-togethers with writer friends are going these days.

 I miss seeing them in person! 

Yes, writing is a solitary existence.  We generally sit in front of our computers and let whatever’s on our mind spill out onto the keyboard so we can read it on our screen.  And edit it.  And add to it.  

And it’s not like we can no longer run ideas by our writer friends.  Thank heavens for the internet and text messages and, yes, phones. 

Still, it’s different these days. 

But hey, thanks to my wonderful husband, who added a camera and microphone to my new computer, I can now attend Zoom meetings and be seen and heard. Not that I always want the others in a meeting to be able to see all my expressions, and I have to use a false background to prevent the windows in my actual home background from letting light in to blind anyone who looks at my frame.  But I can always pick up one of my dogs and let whoever I’m talking with see them, too! And I’ve also been interviewed on Zoom for an upcoming YouTube program, where I’ll be talking about cozy mysteries. 

I’ve always recognized that people are versatile–and these days we have to be especially versatile. And wise, hopefully. I don’t appreciate people who get together in large groups now, particularly without facemasks and not staying a decent distance apart. That can be dangerous not only for them, but for others, too.

 But I appreciate how resourcefully we’ve come up with ways to communicate with others, including other writers.  I look forward to when we can do it safely in person again.  Meanwhile, a virtual hi to all of you out there. Stay safe!

This article is posted for Linda O. Johnston by Jackie Houchin.

PERFICK!

By ROSEMARY LORD

Just Rosie 2

I’m trying not to be – perfect.

Or ‘perfick’ – as H.E. Bates had Pop saying in The Darling Buds of May. For Pop, each day and everything around him was – ‘perfick.’

And that’s what I have always aimed for.

I’m very much a ‘Pollyanna,’ and always seek the best in every circumstance and find positive outcomes for the most dire situation. When someone tells me ‘No, you can’t do that. It’s not possible…” My reaction is always: “I’ll find a way!”

I have also been my harshest critic. Until a friend recently said, “Rosemary, you don’t have to be perfect. You are too hard on yourself. And you expect everyone around you to have those same high standards. They don’t. So don’t beat yourself up about it.”

Hmm. Food for thought.

Life has been a challenge for everyone in the last few months.

At first, I found the lock-down a sort of blessing. An opportunity for us all to take a collective breath and count our many blessings, reassess our lives, and think about what is really important for each of us. Find what it is we really want to do with our lives.

heartofhwd-wch-sketch-6_orig   It certainly gave me time to sort out a lot of Woman’s Club files, paperwork and organization. That makes it easier for me to delegate and hand over the reigns, so I can focus full-time on my writing once more.

And, working on the WCH from home, I was able to squeeze in writing time. I found more and more new writing ideas and goals and decided it was time to put my own life first. To make writing my full time work again. Sooner, rather than later. That’s the plan – and I’m getting closer!

As the Brazilian author of The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho, said, “There are moments when troubles enter our lives and we can do nothing to avoid them. But they are there for a reason. Only when we have overcome them, will we understand why they were there.” Paulo’s parents committed him to a Mental Institution when he was seventeen, after he told them he wanted to become a writer! “Not to punish me, but to save me from that life,” he later said. They failed. Today he is a highly successful author.

Mercy! Makes us appreciate our own parents, doesn’t it? Thank you, Mum and Dad, for being you!

file3171299616544         But after weeks of world-wide shut-downs and no travel permitted, I also saw how small some of our lives had become. Often out of fear. When we do something out of fear – we cease to think rationally, boldly. Our courage leaves us. Some never get it back, especially as we get older.

We did as we were told and stayed home, closed down businesses, gave up jobs we liked, cancelled vacations and celebrations. We stopped going to the gym, too. And having our hair cut. (Well, that’s my excuse for my temporary extra pounds and my ‘mop’ of hair!)

 

Internet Friends World

But all was not lost, as many people became very resourceful and creative. They shone through this adversity. They found new ways to keep small businesses going, create sideline businesses, found new ways to communicate, and celebrate. Not worrying about being perfect, they just got the job done. People offered help to their neighbors and strangers, and acknowledged gratitude to those who continued daily schedules in the community as ‘essential workers.’ So, the Covid shut-downs had also brought out the best in some people.

But life had been put on hold.

Meanwhile, I have spent long hours at my computer, at home, on Woman’s Club matters. I’ve accomplished much in working through these months, including resolving a complicated, year-long IRS Audit. But I wished I could be speedier with that very work. I wished I could work faster and do shorter days. I wished I were more technology-minded and that I could work more quickly in these areas. I wished I could do more for the club with online events. But I don’t know how – and felt a failure in those areas. I chastised myself for not doing better.

Remember school reports? “Rosemary could do better. She could try harder.”

So that stuck with me. I could never do well enough for me. And that’s where my friend pointed out my frustrating perfectionism. I had created my own fear – of having to do everything to perfection. Are there any other perfectionists out there? It’s a disease, I tell you!

So, I have taken a deep breath and let go of some of it. Or I’m trying to… They say old habits die hard. And it’s really tough, sometimes!

Lady Typing 2   In my former writer-life I spent many solitary hours writing. I was oblivious of the world around me. I forgot to eat. Not good when you had a husband hoping for dinner, after returning from a long day’s work! But Rick was very patient and sometimes cooked for us, and a plate of food would appear in front of me, on top of my typed pages. “You haven’t eaten in hours. You’ve GOT to eat…” he would grin and return to listening to his music through headphones, so as not to disturb me. But I loved what I was doing. He knew that, so he was happy.

And I’d lost that joy since he’s been gone.

So, after losing Rick, I took on the responsibility of saving the Woman’s Club, as a way of  escaping or forgetting, I guess. But it was such a different challenge. So much administrative work I’d never dealt with before. But I made myself learn. How hard could it be. Ugh! But I felt I must do a perfect job – in order to succeed.

I changed, I later realized. I rather lost my sense of humor. I was NOT amused by the battle I had to fight. The corruption. The thievery! I gritted my teeth and battled on through horrendous episodes. I had taken on a responsibility and I was not going to give up.

But I lost my writing along the way. And that wasn’t all. I’d lost spending time with good friends; friendships neglected. Life was whizzing by neglected and unlived.

These months working alone again at home I realized that, yes, I was a perfectionist where the WCH was concerned. Although no-one else seemed to notice. After my friend pointed this out, I realized I was being too tough on myself. I wasn’t having any fun – and I’d lost my sparkle. A girl has to have some sparkle. And I don’t know where I’d left mine.

So, I began to turn my attention to life around me again. Little by little. Now, new people have appeared to take some of the responsibility of the Club from my shoulders. And if they are not doing it as perfectly as I would like, that’s okay. It’s good enough. Gets the job done. They’re champing at the bit to get back out there. Back to work. Organize fun, interesting events. Escape from the Zoom Room. They are energized, brimming with ideas. And they think it’s fun!! What a relief.

06694-rosemaryatburbanklibraryjpg So I am becoming a happy writer, once more. I’ll be even happier once we’re allowed to travel, too. Even if I’m not going anywhere, at least I like to know that I could if I wanted to. I’m a dreamer, too.

So, my less-than-perfect writing schedule is coming along. With my less-than-perfect editing in my less-than-perfect office space – also known as a messy desk. And my definitely less-than-perfect filing system works just fine.

I’m remembering to eat, most of the time. Sometimes it’s a late-night dark- chocolate bar. And so my girlish figure is less-than- perfect. But that’s okay too. I still occasionally mutter, “I promise to do better.” But now that makes me giggle, instead.

I LOVE what I’m writing, and can’t wait to sit in front of my computer and create – or grab my pad and scribble notes.

writer Lady 3

Mark Twain once said “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow-lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Sounds wonderful to me…

Just perfick!

 

 

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.

*          *          *

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.

*          *          *

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.

###

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

 

###

 

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