Category Archives: writing workshop

Deborah Ratliff: I Went to this Writing Seminar

Writing is an endless learning quest.  In search of answers to our questions about grammar, structure, point of view, and all the components of writing, we join writing groups or search the internet for answers. We also attend writing seminars.

One would think that with assembling a collection of “experts” on writing it would be highly informative. However, remember the old idiom, “Never judge a book by its cover.” That phrase is very telling when attending a writers’ conference.

My expectations are always high when I attend seminars. I admit to being one of those people who love to learn regardless of the subject matter. With my passion for writing, attending a writing conference is an inspiring event for me.

Until I go.

Don’t get me wrong, I always enjoy attending, but I often come away feeling very short-changed. I expect, especially if I have paid money, to be informed, engaged, and to a point, entertained by the speakers. I am not so naïve that I expect all speakers to be entertaining. I do expect them to be informed and organized when giving their talk.

In another article, we discussed what to expect when you search the internet for answers to your writing questions and how to judge the information given. There are considerable differences of opinion because much advice is subjective. Writing is a craft, not a science, and even the most rigid component of writing—grammar—has rules that can be bent. Our perception of what is correct when writing comes from our likes and dislikes within the general framework of the “rules.”

Which brings me back to the subject of seminar presentations. I do not expect to agree with the opinions or objectives of each presenter, nor do I expect to learn new things—a review of knowledge is as valuable as exposure to new ideas. What I do expect is that the presenter is organized, professional, and informative.

What happens in reality?  Some presenters, especially those at smaller seminars, tend to be unprepared. A recent workshop I attended opened with an author who entitled her presentation as one subject. Then after a rambling introduction, off-topic and incoherent, she announced she was only discussing a portion of her announced topic. The presentation went downhill from there.

Another presentation was a frantic attempt to generate interaction with the attendees about creating characters. The presenters assembled the audience into small teams and assigned a task. The exercise was “describe a character” and their first question, “What color are his eyes?”

While the color of your character’s eyes can be an essential part of your plot, most of us are rather adept at giving a physical description of a character. We also know the pitfalls of providing that description in a tell-versus-show manner. In a group presentation, wouldn’t delving into the deeper attributes of character development be a more challenging and informative exercise? I tend to think so.

As authors, we should relish the opportunity to share our knowledge as well as promote our brand by speaking before diverse groups of people. While the opportunity to talk to fellow authors may arise more often, we should seek out presentations before non-writing-related groups to broaden our audience.

Before speaking in public, you need to prepare. Let’s look at the steps you should take to develop a presentation.

Steps to the Perfect Presentation:

Who is your audience? 

  • Determine the demographics of those who will be listening to your talk. If writers, how skilled are they or will there be a mix of novice and experienced writers? Is this a group of genre writers as in a mystery or romance writing group?
  • When speaking before a community group, be confident that you understand the focus of the organization. Tying your message about your writing and your novels to their interests will strengthen the connection between you and your audience.
  • For instance, if you are speaking to a community club with a charitable focus, mention their efforts and provide a book or two for their next fundraising event. If possible, tie your theme into their work. Keep it short and straightforward but make the connection. If it’s a group of entrepreneurs or a corporate audience, you can talk about the business side of writing or the process of writing as opposed to the nuances of creating a story.
  • The goal is to give your audience what they need to hear.

What is the subject of your talk?   

  • Choose your subject based on your audience demographics. Your topic should be interesting to your target audience and appropriate to the event where you are speaking. Discuss your intended topic with the event planner so that you don’t replicate someone else’s presentation. You can complement another speaker but not imitate.
  • You should stay within the framework that you have expertise in. If you do not write in deep-POV, don’t talk about it unless you do extensive research and understand it.
  • Audiences ask questions. You do not have to have all the answers, but you should be prepared enough to know when you don’t know and say so. You can follow up with the questioner later.

Develop Content.

  • Preparation is the key to a successful presentation.
  • Use the 4-1 rule—spend four hours on every one hour that you are presenting. Most of us will rarely be giving a talk that lasts more than an hour, most will have approximately twenty to forty-five minutes. Regardless, spend the hours needed to gather the information you need.
  • If presenting to fellow writers, keep in mind, most know the basics. Think of your talk in the framework of what obstacles writers commonly encounter and how to overcome them. Be personal, share your issues and how you resolved them.
  • Collect the data relevant to your points and then prepare your presentation.

The Script.

  • Think of your talk as a script.
  • Your goal is to be prepared and not leave out important points.
  • Start with your main points, then fill in the finer points you want to emphasize.
  • Keep your content clear, concise, and focused on the subject. Provide an introduction, your message, and a conclusion.
  • Include anecdotes of your own experiences and examples of your points.
  • Do not attempt to do your presentation without notes. Have your script with you in whatever format you feel comfortable using. If you use multiple pages or the infamous index cards, number them in case you drop them. It happens.

The Visuals.

  • Technology is a beautiful tool to use when presenting. PowerPoint presentations add color and focus to your message. Do consider attention spans when preparing slides. Keep your slides simple and easy to read.
  • A successful venture capitalist by the name of Guy Kawasaki developed a plan for doing PowerPoint in his talks called the 10/20/30 rule. “…A PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.” It is not necessary to follow this rule explicitly, but it is a great reminder to keep your slides to a minimum and be readable.
  • You should use visuals as an asset to your message but not to convey the message.
  • Create handouts to accompany your talk. Whether the full outline of your speech or bulleted points of the highlights, a handout can provide information and you can also brand with your website and other contact information.
  • If possible, print your handouts in color for impact.
  • Determine the number of people who will be present and print enough copies plus extras. Do not interrupt the flow of your talk to distribute handouts. Give the handouts to the audience at the beginning or end of the presentation.
  • Remember—technology fails. Be prepared to give your talk without technical support.

The Presentation.

  • Be yourself, do not try to adopt a persona that doesn’t match your personality.
  • Dress professionally. Casual meeting? Dress in business casual. Image is important.
  • Speak clearly and slowly. Nervousness causes rapid speech.
  • Humor is an excellent way to connect with an audience. If you have an amusing anecdote about your writing, tell it if appropriate to the topic you have chosen.
  • Make eye contact with the audience.
  • Move around a bit—wander the “stage” area if not tethered by a microphone. Movement will help keep the audience from focusing on one spot, and they will be more relaxed.
  • Take time for questions, and answer concisely. If you don’t know the answers, say so. Do not try to cover something you do not know.

While you may have a bit of stage fright or feel uncomfortable, if you are prepared, you will do well. Remember, you are talking to people, your writing peers and those who are interested in talking to you, so enjoy the experience.

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About the Author:

Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 43,700 + members from around the globe.

Resources:

https://www.slidegenius.com/blog/102030-rule-powerpoint-pr

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Writers Unite! Tips on Writing

WT - Editing

Patt O’Neil: The Submission Process For a Short Story or What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me (Part Two)

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Part Two: 

What are you looking for when you look at the publisher’s page?

Let’s stick with the children’s story theme, the publisher has a menu heading that says About which will tell you what type of magazine/journal they are and what type of story they are looking for. Unless you are already familiar with this publisher, you should read this over, as story submission takes time, so you want it to be a worthwhile investment of yours. The one you are looking at says their audience genre is YA or Young Adult, which usually means a high-school-aged audience. Don’t be discouraged, I’m sure your story, Conversations with Bingo, would be considered cute if the teen were babysitting a younger child, but I wouldn’t expect them to go out and purchase a copy for themselves.

Keep searching until you collect a list of publishers of stories for the appropriate audience. For example, you are given a list of twenty publishers, but only three meet your market type or criteria (let’s call them A1, B2, and C3). Let’s investigate those three: age appropriate, check; accepting submissions, check; genre appropriate, check; length, check. Okay, you have three possibilities, now what? This is where you dig deeper into their submission requirements/guidelines. Do they pay for stories they accept? What, you hadn’t thought about being paid for writing your story!? Don’t feel bad if that hadn’t crossed your mind OR if your intention is to make writing your sole career. Let’s work on the premise that you want to get paid for your work. Publisher A1 has a pay scale of $.06 per word (six cents) and B2’s pay scale is royalties only. Publisher C3 is a non-paying market type. Publisher A1 will pay you six cents a word for your 2,100-word story. Nice, that is a one-time upfront payment for the right to publish your story in their magazine/journal. Publisher B2 will pay you after their product has sold a few copies. This is usually an annual payment of an unspecified amount, paid equally to all the authors featured, typical of anthologies. Publishing with C3 will give you exposure but no monetary reward. This is not a bad thing–everybody has to start somewhere, and the chance to advertise that your work can be read in C3’s magazine/journal is a good thing, just not an immediately profitable one. For this example, you decide you want to be paid for your work, so good-bye C3.

Side note: Another thing to consider is the rights or ownership of the story. Some publishers will state their intention for the rights, others might wait until you are presented with a contract. I must admit I was uncomfortable at first, but this is a personal and important decision each writer must make. My advice is keep the rights, or make sure they return to you in the end.

Now what else does the publisher want? Electronic submissions, both A1 and B2 specify this mode only, but what does that mean? It means they do not want to receive a hard copy of your story. You send them anything through the postal service and they will just pitch it without even giving it a glance. There are several ways to submit a story electronically: cutting/pasting it into a box on their publisher’s website, attaching it to an electronic entry form through a submission service, or sending it as an attachment to a specified email address used just for that purpose. Some things to note about these methods: the first is the submission service. It is a good thing to register with this service, but use a passcode you can easily remember because it banks your information and saves time down the road with future submissions. Second, the cut/paste method. Be prepared to lose any formatting you might have had; spend the time to fix the paragraph spacing. Lastly, when it says an attachment to the email, be sure you present it as they specify: no PDF, .doc, .docx, or PDF. These can be deal breakers.

Already you are probably thinking this is just nit-picky stuff and you are right it is, but remember there are thousands, if not millions of writers out there competing for a spot in a publication that is only going to be accepting applications for a small amount of time, for a small amount of print space. So yes, they can afford to be picky–it weeds out many prospects, and the point of this exercise is to make you one of the select few who has a chance for consideration.

Other things the publishers will mention are Reprints, Multiple Submissions, and Simultaneous Submissions. Your eyes might be glossing over now, but don’t worry, here’s an explanation. Reprints means your work has been published elsewhere. A publisher can choose whether to accept a piece that has been featured elsewhere. You look at your work and think, “nope never been published.” But wait a minute, did you share it on a public Facebook writing page, or on a blog, or on a site like Wattpad? In the industry, these are considered previously published and therefore rejected. If you shared your story on your Facebook page under a private setting or in a closed group for review, it’s considered fresh and yet unpublished work. Multiple Submissions means you might/might not submit more than one story to this publisher during this submission period. Example would be if they are taking stories for the month of November but not again until January, then you may submit one in November but not another until January. Some say multiple submissions are accepted, but usually they will put a limit on how many. Simultaneous Submissions means you might not be able to submit your work elsewhere for consideration until it has been formally refused by this publisher. Most publishers will list how long to expect them to consider your story, and in fact, advise that you contact them if you think it has taken too long. The cons with not accepting simultaneous submissions is your story can be held captive by one publisher so long that you are missing other opportunities with others, and some have been known to take up to six months. That is your choice if you want to go that route. If a publisher does accept simultaneous submissions, it is not only polite, but standard practice to let a publisher know if it gets accepted elsewhere while under their consideration.

Side note: I set up a poll in a Facebook writing group asking if the members always adhered to this guideline; never adhered to this guideline; or did, but felt bad about it. They had only one choice to make. It was about 2:1 for adhering to the guideline and being true to one publisher at a time. Of those who responded, one-eighth admitted to having done it at least once.

So how does all this affect your decision to submit to A1 and B2 publishers? Well, this is your first, and only, work and other than your editor and friends, no one has read it. That takes care of reprints and multiple submissions, but what about simultaneous? Let’s go with A1 says yes, but B2 says no. What do you do? That will be up to you, but for this exercise, we will go with A1 from here on.

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Tomorrow:

Part Three:  How do you get story to the publisher and impress them to read it?

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(November 2017 All rights reserved)

Patt O’Neil: The Submission Process For a Short Story or What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me (Part One)

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Part One:

Since the written word has been offered to others for profit, there have been those seeking their work included in these publications. We, my brothers and sisters, come under the heading of the Seekers—writers of novels, songs, poems, essays, plays, and short stories. All are similar in how to go about getting published, like the way dogs, cats, babies, and drunken girlfriends all like to curl up on laps, but that is where the similarity ends. Each has their own criteria, demands, and audience. I’m going to discuss the what I have learned with regards to having a short story published. Business buzzwords will be bolded.

I started my career as a writer by penning a novel—silly me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good story, just not anywhere near ready for publication. I needed to know more about not only what makes for a good story, but the process involved with the publication of that story. After switching over to short stories, I was encouraged by friends to seek publication of what I had written. Little did I know what that entailed, and I wished someone would have explained the process to me in depth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they would have if I had asked the right questions. The purpose of this essay is to help explain the process.

Some generalizations about how written work gets published.

Anybody can set themselves up to become a publisher, all they need is a business plan, adequate capital, time, and connections. Anyone can also be a writer, you take an idea, put it to paper, and offer it to the publisher for their review and recompense. If the work is good–you will both win. If it’s great—they make money and you go on talk shows. To get your work before the publisher, many fields require an agent to act as a go-between the two parties. Agents are a valuable resource for a writer because they know which publisher is looking for work like yours, and for the publisher, because they act as a filter for all the manuscripts out there for consideration. There are some large market publishers that will accept non-agented submissions, but that is only during an advertised period (Harlequin usually open in the fall, like a goodwill gesture before the holidays).

Today’s electronic world has made self-publication an easy option. Skip the outside publisher and keep any profits earned for yourself. Unfortunately, this also means the writer also takes on all expenses the publisher, i.e. editing, formatting, printing, advertising, distribution … well, you get what I mean. Self-publishing is not at all a new concept, and the writer should not be discouraged by my description of the process. It is just not part of the process of having a short story published unless all the stories in the book belong to one writer, then it becomes a collection as opposed to an anthology. Notice I keep using the word writer instead of author. That is because the general concept is we are all writers, but we are not considered authors until we have had something published.

Practical steps prior to submission of a short story.

You’ve written a story and you think it special enough to want to share it with the world by having it published. You believe it is something of quality, something people are willing to spend their time, or even money, to read. Whether it is something that will make them laugh or cry, it needs to be well written.

First, you must know what the market genre or subject is. You don’t want to offer Erma Entices Eatonville to a publisher of children’s books, and vice versa. Know your audience. Have select members of that audience test read your work to see if the plot/message is being presented as you imagined. If this is done during while writing the story, they are known as Alpha readers. If they are reading it after you have finished writing the story, AND, reviewed it for errors (punctuation, spelling, etc.), they are called Beta readers. Take whatever comments these readers have to heart. You may not always agree with their remarks, but remember, the way they have processed your story will be how the publisher will as well. Make whatever changes, then submit it to an editor for another review.

You should never have to pay for an Alpha or a Beta reader. There are enough people around willing to read your work, just make sure they will comment without reservation. Your editor, on the other hand, is someone you should spend money on. Always send your editor the best version of your story, this person is a professional hired to bring your work up to industry and professional standards. There are line editors and content editors. Line editors will read your work, line by line, and correct any punctuation, grammatical, or continuity errors in your work. Think back to your English Composition class in high school and how your papers were returned with red ink notations by the teacher. This is what a line editor does. A content editor will do the same but also, with your permission, rewrite portions to give it more of an impact. They charge accordingly, the content charging more because they are being asked to do more work. You can find an editor just by asking, most authors have an editor they can recommend. It is appropriate to ask a potential editor what their rates are and their timeline for returning your work, do they give discounts if you have them take a second look, etc. Editors are your employees, your contract with them the same as you would a roofer or house painter, you wouldn’t take the first person who came along just because of convenience. Editor prices will vary, many of them charge less than a penny a word for work being asked. If they charge more, they had better provide more than just spilling red ink on your work.

Where can you submit a story for publication?

This varies from story to story, I know that sounds simplistic, but basically, that’s about it. If you write children’s stories, research who publishes children’s stories, magazines, journals, anthologies. Find out if they are accepting submissions. If it is a magazine, get an issue and look for the submission guidelines, if it not specific, send them an e-mail (I would say write but in this electronic age …) and ask, are you accepting and what are your guidelines. Better yet, go to their website and look for their submission guidelines there. Take note, those guidelines will be very specific and if not followed exactly can be the reason for rejection regardless of how good a story you have written.

If a publisher is accepting submissions, another consideration is whether your piece fits the size criteria, market type or length definition. Still working with the children’s magazine as an example, what if they are only accepting Flash Fiction pieces? Flash Fiction is any work 750-1,000 words or less. Count the total words of your story, minus the title and byline, for your word count. Is it less than that amount of words? If it is more, then it is a Short Story. Short stories measure up to 10,000 words, more than that it becomes a Novelette or Novella. A Novel is considered over 40,000 words. For the sake of example, yours measures 2,100 words which means you need to find somewhere else to submit it too.

If you don’t know where to look for open markets, try asking for recommendations or do some research to find out who has made a call for submissions. By reading this I know you belong to a Facebook writing group. Many of your fellow members will share information about who is accepting submissions. Another source is by subscribing to online resources like Duotrope of The (Submission) Grinder for referrals. These sites collect all the information I will mention here and periodically report what they know about these publishers. Another source is internet websites such as Writing Career, where like the two listed above, also list open markets and writing contests, both paid and unpaid. When you get one of these recommendations, go to that publisher’s website first to verify it is open, and second, to make sure your work fits within the parameters of their publication.

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Tomorrow:

Part Two: What are you looking for when looking at the publisher’s page?

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 (November 2017 All rights reserved)

Writers Unite! Tips on Writing: Story Foundation

Mystery Genre Workshop Part Four: Tips for Writing Mysteries

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The first three parts of the Mystery Genre Workshop covered plot, characters, and the importance of creating the story’s location. Let’s review a few tips you should keep in mind as you write.

Know Your Ending!  

This will help you focus as you write the story and not lose sight of your concept. You may take a detour or two along the way, but write to your ending.

Hook Your Reader!

Make that first line or paragraph attention-grabbing, intriguing. Open with an action scene, introducing either your sleuth or your villain.

Make Your Reader Empathetic!

The reader must identify and care about your hero and want the same goals the character does.

Plot Your Plan!

Carefully plan your story (outline or pantser—on paper or mentally). Knowing where to place strategic points and keep the action going is vital.

Pace, Pace, Pace!

Take your reader on an action-filled adventure, increasing the tension as the story builds to its final climax. You must also provide scenes with little action to provide a place for your reader to breathe. A great tool to build tension, pull it away, then create more tension increasingly until the story’s final climax.

 Perfect Characters!

Humans are not perfect in real life, do not create a perfect imaginary human. Give your character flaws, both physical and psychological. Keep them real, give them family issues, scars, phobias. We all have them!

 Plant Clues and Water Often!

As you plot your story, always remember you are engaging your reader in a puzzle to discover who committed the crime. Provide clues early, be subtle but truthful about the real clues, be matter-of-fact about certain things. Misdirect your readers’ attention with red herrings—false clues—but make certain they are plausible.

 Location, Location, Location!

Your setting, the world you build for your story should serve as another character to drive your plot. Whether a gritty, noir environment or a quaint, seaside village, use the location’s characteristics to frame your narrative.

Protagonist, Antagonist, and Minions!

The closer a character is to the realization of the Protagonist’s goal, the more developed they should be. Give them dialogue when appropriate, something that makes them unique—a hobby, an addiction, plays a sport on the weekend.

 Stay on Target!

Your goal is to take your Protagonist from desiring to achieving a goal. Keep the narrative focused on the target, and that is realizing their goal. Any extraneous scenes that creep in your writing need to be thrown out. The mystery and the clues to solve it are all you should be concerned about it.

 Have Fun!

As a mystery fan, diving into a “who done it” and trying to decipher the clues and guess the culprit is enjoyable. As a mystery writer, my pleasure is from writing those clues and hoping to stay ahead of the reader and shock them at the end.  How much fun is that? Enjoy the process and your reader will as well!

 (Also, don’t use exclamation points as I did here, no more than one per book.  They are fun though!)

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For Writers Who Love Worksheets: 

Some writers love worksheets for plotting, character development, and world building. I never do any of this, but in case you do, here are some representative worksheets for your use.

 

Plotting Your Story:

https://evernote.com/blog/12-creative-writing-templates/

 

Character Development:

https://thinkwritten.com/character-development-questions/

 

World Building:

https://nybookeditors.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/World-Building-Worksheet.pdf

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Mystery Genre Workshop Part Three: Scene of the Crime

 

The Importance of location

When fingertips touch the keyboard to write a story, a writer is beginning the process of building a new world. How mundane, ordinary, complex or exotic doesn’t matter, writers are world builders.

While the term usually conjures up alien civilizations or fantasy castles, the truth is when the screenwriters imagined Cabot Cove of Murder She Wrote or the author of Midsomer Murders borrowed the countryside of England near Oxford to use as the setting for her novel, they were building a world.

Designing a new world is complex. When writing a science fiction or fantasy story, you start with a blank slate, creating everything. If you choose a ‘ready-made’ location, much is already set in place, you only need to tweak locales to suit your plot needs.

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There are three types of world building. Let’s look at what is involved with each.

 The Created World

This the world most think about when hearing the term “world building.” The science fiction and fantasy genres where a writer’s imagination selects everything that exists.

  • Design the physical world: terrain (mountainous, desert, forest, coastal), atmosphere, location in the universe.
  • Create races of beings (keeping natural conditions in mind).
  • Culture including art, music, writing.
  • Government and military systems.
  • Infrastructure and city planning.
  • Education.
  • Agriculture.
  • Industry.
  • And everything else!

The Real World

This world is the one we know. Most stories are set in villages, towns or cities that we are familiar with or have a history to draw from. Historical fiction novels are set in a known past. All other genres, other than those of the created world, fall here.

Fictional locations can be written but do not deviate from what is known. A small town can be created for a cozy mystery novel, but it will have the same features as any small town.  The government, military, and the culture will be as we know it.

The Alternate Reality World

This is a world that we think we know, but it is not the same. The Alternate history genre tweaks the actual outcomes of significant events such as the ending of World War II and redirects history. The landscape and peoples may remain, but the government, military, culture, infrastructure, and perhaps agriculture may have been altered.

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The Mystery World

Mystery stories typically fall into the realm of the “Real World” although mysteries can be set in any imaginary world. There are some considerations to make as you develop your mystery world.

You must set a world conducive to a murder mystery. That is one where you do not reveal too much about the world where your detective or your killer resides. You must leave unanswered questions about the world.

Clues, both real and red herrings, must be set in the framework but again against a backdrop of mystery. If the murder happens in a room where there is a secret door, until the detective knows there is a secret door, the reader should not either. If the story is being told from the POV of the killer, then the door may be revealed to the reader but not the detective. Again, you have created your world, but you must keep it secret.

Someone must solve the crime. If you are writing crime fiction, a law enforcement officer will be your lead investigator. The agency the investigator works for, a local police department, the FBI or any other agency must be created.

Details should include:

  • Department structure: Who is in charge? What are your investigator’s rank and responsibilities?
  • Ancillary services: Is there a forensics department? A medical examiner? A video tech?

In a cozy fiction, the investigator is a civilian. It is essential to establish the plausibility that they can solve a crime.

Details should include:

  • Who is this amateur sleuth?
  • How did they become involved in the murder?
  • Who do they know? (family and friends)
  • What are the skills they possess that might assist them in solving a crime?
  • Do they know someone close to the official investigation that might have information to share? (police officer, medical examiner, prosecutor, reporter, etc.)

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Wait. Less World Building is Better?

There is a fallacy in the concept of world building. While crucial to the development of your story, it is the story that drives the world building, not the opposite.

Many authors, especially those who write science fiction and fantasy, revel in creating every minutia of the world they are writing about. That may be a satisfying exercise for the author but an unnecessary one. Despite the plethora of world building worksheets available, the process is considerably more straightforward than it appears.

The only world building you need is dictated by the story you write. Let’s assume that you are writing a science fiction story set on a spaceship. The most immediate world you should describe is the world your characters exist in, the spaceship. Description, origin, propulsion system, crew, food stores, destination, and reason for the mission are all crucial aspects of the world that need to be determined. A planet they stop on for only a short time requires less description, a planet where most of the action takes place needs more explanation.

Do not write your story around your world, but create the world around your story.

Mystery Genre Workshop Part One: Plot and Structure

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 Why Do We Love Mysteries?

Years ago, a new bookstore opened in the city where I was living. An avid mystery fan, I hurried to the store on opening day. The smell of new books mixed with incense filled the air, the wooden bookshelves were polished, and the blood-red carpet pristine. Except in one section where yellow tape outlined the shape of a body lying on the floor. I didn’t have to look for the section sign, I knew exactly where I was. I had arrived in the world of mystery novels.

What is the mystique about mysteries that draws us to them? There are several reasons. First, the concepts of good and evil and justice are recurring themes in mysteries. The most satisfying stories for many readers are the ones where good overcomes evil and justice is served.

We are given a real hero to cheer for, whether that hero is a police detective, a government agent, or a florist. The professional or amateur sleuth personifies the good we treasure and brings the evil villain to justice.

There is another draw that brings us into the world of mystery. The puzzle. As a story unfolds, the writer provides clues, misdirection, foreshadowing, all of which allow the reader to deduce the culprit along with the sleuth.

From Christie, Doyle, Chandler, Cornwell, Connelly, McDonald, Evanovich, and Grimes to the unknown authors of tomorrow, they have given us hours of enjoyment as we attempted to figure out—Who done it?

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Let’s look at how to write a mystery story. I am a pantser, I do not outline my story in advance, but I know vital points about my story before I type the first word. I know who my protagonist and antagonist are and whether my protagonist is a law enforcement official or a civilian. I know the crime. Most importantly, I know the ending, which provides a target to focus on as I write.  You may take a detour or two along the way, but you must arrive at your ending. Once you know these items, you can create your plot. divider-2

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Clues to Writing a Mystery

 Plot and Structure

The plot in a mystery is centered around crime, commonly murder but not always. (If you choose a murder mystery, make the first murder early in the story. Murder mystery fans get anxious for a victim!) The novel’s central conflict is between someone trying to solve the crime versus the criminal’s efforts to cover his or her tracks. At the same time, a mystery is often set up as a kind of puzzle or game for readers, who analyze clues and try to solve the mystery themselves. (Isn’t that the idea?)

To Develop Your Plot:

  • Know your ending. It’s difficult to write a mystery if you don’t know who the killer is and why they committed the crime.
  • Know your beginning. How you introduce your plot is as important as the ending.
  • Allow your reader the confidence that they can solve the mystery whether they do or not. It is essential for your detective to work through the process, follow the clues, and solve the crime logically, as the reader might do. Don’t spring a solution onto the reader at the last moment, that’s cheating, and it will ruin your story and your credibility.
  • As to clues, foreshadowing is your friend. You don’t want clues to be obvious, but they must show importance later. Leave clues, your reader needs to be engaged in the mystery. Be subtle in those clues you do give, and no one said you can’t throw a few red herrings in to get them off the trail. Surprise your reader with plot twists, keep them guessing.
  • Know your basics. Who are your detectives, police professional or civilian? Who was murdered and how were they murdered and why? Who are the suspects? What obstacles stand in the detective’s way? Who is the killer? Do your homework, know your method of murder—gun, knife, poison—and make your story plausible.

To Structure Your Plot:

Act One:

  • Introduce your protagonist.
  • Reveal the crime.
  • Establish your protagonist’s goals and desires.
  • Determine your setting (important for sub-genres).
  • Introduce other characters (one may be your antagonist).
  • Set up obstacles the protagonist must face to achieve the goal.
  • Create subplots (often about the protagonist’s career or private life).

Act Two:

  • Raise the level of obstacles the protagonist must confront to raise the suspense.
  • Reveal clues as the investigation intensifies, including a core clue.
  • If a murder mystery, add another murder.
  • Sub-plot deepens.
  • Introduce red herrings and take away a promising suspect.

Act Three:

  • Motives are revealed.
  • Misdirection regarding the main plot.
  • Main clue revealed.
  • Sub-plot resolved.
  • Stakes for the protagonist raised higher.
  • Climatic confrontation with the perpetrator.

Notes:

  • Hook your reader. The first sentence, sentences, or paragraph must draw your reader in. For a mystery story, it is best to begin with action of some type. The murder occurring or the protagonist doing their job (a detective at a crime scene, for instance).
  • Establish empathy with your protagonist early. Your reader must identify with them and the goal they seek.
  • As stated in plot development, give your reader a murder/crime early in the story. Introduce the plot focus within the first half (but no later than the end) of the first chapter.
  • As you develop your plot, begin to consider the development of your characters and the secondary characters.
  • Pace your story, include waxing and waning action and offer a couple of mini-action scenes, and a more significant action scene in the middle, building to the final climax with the antagonist.

 

Plot is always essential to any story but imperative to a mystery. Every nuance of the story needs to lead to the resolution of the protagonist’s goal. Many writing “experts” like to purport that novels are plot driven and some say character driven. I believe you can’t have one without the other. Tomorrow we will examine the importance of characters and how to develop them within a mystery story.

 

WRITERS UNITE! TIPS ON WRITING!

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Deborah Ratliff: We Just Click, Dude!

How a deep connection between characters engages your reader.

 
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”    ― Aristotle

A writer recently posted a question in a group discussion. What causes a reader to return to subsequent novels by an author? He wondered if the author and their writing style was the reason.

I have heard this question many times, and I think that while an author’s style is important to a reader, what brings a reader back repeatedly is how the author crafts characters.

Once at a meeting of a writing group, we were discussing the merits of writing a novel series and what would cause readers to continue to follow the books. A local playwright listened to this discussion before pounding the table. He declared that there was only one reason a reader came back: the characters. Provide a character that a reader can identify with, care about, connect to, and they will respond and read everything you write about that character.

This is true for me personally. The first author and character I became enamored with were John D. McDonald and the infamous Travis McGee. Everything about his books drew me in. The main setting, the coast of South Florida, remains a favorite to this day. Every detail, the ancient Rolls Royce McGee converted into a pick-up truck, the houseboat he won in a poker game, the marina where the boat docked, all characters within the novels. But that alone did not bring me back.

Travis McGee was larger than life. A man of honor with a strong moral center who, while he would bend the rules to accomplish his goals, never lost sight of the truth and what was right. He was reliable, counted on to help people when they had exhausted all other possibilities to undo a wrong. I think we all want that level of stability and strength in our lives.

McDonald didn’t stop with his main character. He created a world of characters that existed from novel to novel. McGee’s best friend, the economist Meyer, was unique, along with a cast of colorful and eccentric characters. From Chookie, who danced at a local club, to The Alabama Tiger, who held a constant floating party on his boat, these characters became old friends. The last Travis McGee novel may have been the saddest book I have ever read. My friends were gone. There would be no new adventures.

However, that instant connection I had with McGee and company will never leave. I read those books over often and feel nostalgia and peace simultaneously. Once you have felt that connection whether in real life or in your imaginary life that feeling will never leave.

The question then becomes this. How do writers craft characters that readers can connect with at the desired level? Let us examine what makes a character memorable.

 

Who is this person?

You must establish your main character as likable and relatable. They do not have to be perfect but do need to have characteristics the reader can identify with, or there will be no connection.

An important consideration is not to stereotype your character. Perfection is not the goal here, realism is. The reader wants to see someone who is strong and heroic but with flaws that they have themselves. Then they can project themselves into the action. Remember, Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.

Construct your character through show and tell, don’t provide a litany of characteristics. If your character is short (which I identify with) frame the description as “she stretched to reach the top shelf” not she was five-one. The reader will have experienced the reaching or watched someone who did and identify without an exact reference to the character’s height and create an image in their imagination.

Above all, reveal your character’s flaws. Are they afraid of new love because of hurt in the past? Are they devastated or angry because of a tragedy? Did they lose everything and have to start over? Show the fears they feel, the pain and anger. You should also give them a reason for hope—a faith that they will survive and reach their goal. Give them humor and confidence, even if you shake it from time to time. Let them laugh, cry, rant, and fight for what they want. Your reader should be cheering for your character to succeed with every word.

 

What are they seeking?

Establish your MC’s goal as soon as possible. What do they want? Once you have established the task before them, throw obstacles in their way. Create the need for the reader to become engaged in their quest. We have all wanted something we seemingly can’t have, and as problem after problem piles on, we think we will never reach our goal. Let the reader feel that frustration, fear, anger as they fight through the issues keeping them from their goals.

 

Who are their companions?

As with the Travis McGee series, secondary characters are significant to how your reader identifies with your main character and invests in the story. They need to be memorable as well.

I wrote a story where I introduced a character, a bartender in the New Orleans French Quarter, who was meant to be a vehicle for my protagonist to run into her former lover. Within two paragraphs, I had fallen for the bartender, and he morphed into a cousin and best friend of the former lover and became an integral part of the plot. The story became more vibrant with more depth because I added a character who had a vested interest in the outcome.

Create the friend, the mentor, the grandmother, the housekeeper, whatever character you need to help you present your MC’s human side. Someone who recognizes their flaws and is not afraid to tell them. Someone they can confess their thoughts to, someone they trust. With each interaction between these characters, the reader will become more attached to the main character.

 

What does this effort give you, the author?

Going back to our original question, why do readers return to a writer, they come back because they like the characters.

They “just click” with them. Standalone stories with great characters will bring readers back to an author. A series of novels with the same character succeeds because, while writing style may have allowed them to enjoy the first novel, readers will want to read the second and third and so on because you gave them a character who reflects their desires and one they can identify with time and again.

Never forget how it felt to instantly connect to someone important in your life. A good author will give that incredible emotion to their readers. Those readers will be back for more.

 

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Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 43,000 + members from around the globe.

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Resources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/18077-what-is-a-friend-a-single-soul-dwelling-in-two

https://www.goodreads.com/series/52264-travis-mcgee

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082971/