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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.

 

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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/

Writers Unite! Tips on Writing

WT - Write Daily

Deborah Ratliff: Rules. Rules. There Are Too Many Rules!

Have you seen them? The myriad of articles posted on the Internet explaining all the things you must do to write the perfect story. Perhaps, you have seen the equally extensive list of articles telling you what you should not do. The problem? Not every article agrees on what is the correct or incorrect way to write.

What is a writer to do? How do we decide?

After years of writing business-related manuals concerning policy and training, newsletters, and research papers, I decided to return to writing fiction. My story construction skills were rusty, as was my grammar. In the corporate world, I was fortunate to have an assistant who proofed my writing. I was not so lucky in the private world. I knew I needed to hone my craft, and what better tool to use than the internet. I fired up Google and began to search for everything I could find on writing, and well, it was overwhelming. No matter the topic — how to write an opening line, how to create memorable characters, when to use effect and affect — the results of my search returned more articles than I expected. Faced with so much information, I wondered how I would manage to wade through and find what I needed to write “the great American novel.”

I am not alone. A member of Writers Unite! posted the following after receiving conflicting advice on how to write:

“Help! I’m a new author and have been networking with writers and editors. I’ve become so confused by all the different pieces of advice, I’m struggling to write a simple sentence. In the recent past, I’ve been told so many rules that I can barely keep them straight.”

The member went on to list examples of the rules as they have been explained to her.

  • Do not use descriptions
  • Show versus tell
  • Never make any cultural references
  • Do not give backstory on characters
  • Vary sentence length
  • Do not use adverbs.

Let us examine these rules.

 

Do not use descriptions.

Descriptions are the soul of writing. Not limited to location or characters, descriptive writing should include the five senses. Written images of a room may not be as crucial as whether it was hot or cold, what aromas did the character smell, did light spill into the room, or was it dark and eerie. A writer can easily bore their reader by droning on about the wallpaper or the carpet fiber or the tea cozy, but there are times when it is imperative to set a mood. How a person lives or the environment around them can be very telling as to who the character is and provides a great deal of depth.

The key here is to not overdo. Pay attention to what your story needs and nothing else. If you do write descriptively, pare down those words to include only what you need.

Avoid a litany of characteristics. “She was young, her hair long and blond, athletic build…” Instead, weave those characteristics into the story, “Preparing for her run, she pulled her blond hair into a ponytail…” and be certain that her “run” was essential to the plot.

 

Show versus tell.

The bane of every writer’s existence is this rule. Writing “experts” pound this rule into us at every opportunity. The fact is, it is a great rule and one that I fully believe in following. Anton Chekhov’s famous quote is the quintessential example: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

This rule harkens back to being descriptive. Allow your reader to feel, taste, hear, smell, and see, so they become fully immersed in the world you have created for them.

Should you always show versus tell? Yes, however, there are times when it is acceptable to move your story along and tell the action, instead of showing it. Remember to keep those moments very rare. “Jack, his face reddened, hands clenched, spun and left the room, slamming the door behind him.” You have set up that Jack is angry, describing the sound of the door slamming is not necessary.

 

Never make any cultural references.

Ask someone writing historical fiction not to make a cultural reference, and they will laugh at you. This is a specific rule. If you are setting your story within an exact timeframe, then cultural references of the era are vitally important to the credibility of your work.

The obvious reason for this rule is a cultural reference will date your work. Again, you need to keep the context of your story in mind. There may be times when a cultural reference is integral to the plot. I think the mention of social media, cell phones, or Instagram, among other references is acceptable providing they remain general.

 

Do not give backstory on characters.

Really? Exactly how do we bring depth to our stories if we do not provide pertinent backstory? Once again, this rule harkens back to the use of descriptive prose and show vs. tell. Do not write copious paragraphs about your character’s backstory but show by intertwining the information within the events and dialogue.

 

Vary sentence length.

Again, I agree with this rule in general. You need to vary the length of sentences and paragraphs to keep your reader from being bored and to maintain the pace of the story.  Sentences that are too long can cause your reader to lose interest. Short sentences can make your work seem rushed and choppy.

However—and there is always a however—when writing a scene with high tension, short sentences convey that sensation to your reader. Short, powerful sentences describing fight scenes mimic the action. Longer sentences express your character’s thoughts and reflections and help slow the pace of the story when necessary. While this rule is one I believe writers should adhere to, it is also one to suspend when the story calls for it.

 

Do not use adverbs.

Short of a lesson on the use of adverbs, which could be extensive, let’s agree that too many adverbs are not a good thing. According to my go-to grammar guru, Grammar Girl, verb modifiers are often “redundant or awkwardly placed.” She quotes master writer Stephen King who complains about them in his book On Writing, saying, “’I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops,’ but he doesn’t shout it loudly. He likens adverbs to dandelions. When one unwanted weed sprouts up, more follow.”

Grammar Girl suggests that you use adverbs in dialogue if appropriate to how the character speaks. Otherwise, she proposes to “use them wisely and only occasionally.”

 

I return to the original question. What is a writer to do?

As I worked my way through the copious amounts of advice I came across, I began to focus on the advice of only a few “experts ” and to rely on grammar references like The Chicago Manual of Style and Grammar Girl for practical advice. Listening to too many voices will create chaos and fail to provide direction.

The reality is that these rules are guidelines. They can be bent or broken depending on the creative needs of the author. As you write, keep the “rules” in mind, they are designed to keep your work coherent and consistent but do not be afraid to go against the experts. Only you know what your story needs.

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. A few of her short stories appear in the Writers Unite! anthology Realm of Magic, published on August 1, 2018.

Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing group, Writers Unite! which has 42,000 + members from around the globe.

Sources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/16383-don-t-tell-me-the-moon-is-shining-show-me-the

https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html

Guest Blog: Write What You Know — David Reiss

Once upon a time–when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I was still in high school–I had a wonderful English teacher who treated his students as peers and insisted that we all call him by his first name; his enthusiasm for literature and drama was outright contagious. He convinced me to read outside my preferred genres, and he pushed me to write, write and write some more. A tremendously harsh critic, he somehow managed to be supportive even while delivering the most ruthless dissections of my prose. I was a bitter and catastrophically depressed teenager who approached each school day with apprehensive dread, but for his classes, I held a genuine anticipation.

Until one lecture when he insisted that creating compelling fiction required that we ‘write what we know,’ and all my enthusiasm burned away into ash.

At the time, I thought that he meant that our prose should be limited to our experiences and our areas of expertise. I couldn’t imagine any subject less interesting or worthy of consideration. How could the experiences of a morose, sheltered and awkward kid be relevant to the life of an inhuman denizen of a fantasy dungeon? I wanted to write about dragons and laser pistols, camaraderie and adventure!

I occasionally wish for a time machine so that I could leap across the years and smack my younger self on the back of the head. Because the truth is every experience is something you can learn from. I may not have ever soared above a battlefield then folded my wings to drop into combat like the gryphon protagonist from one of my short stories…but I knew the feel of wind against my face and could add that sensation to describe my gryphon’s flight. I knew what it looked like when a hawk stooped towards its prey. I knew what anger felt like, and fear, and hope, and sadness.

To ‘write what you know’ doesn’t mean to write about yourself. It means to use your personal experiences to lend the power of authenticity to your prose.

There is a secondary meaning as well, and it is one that I try to take to heart more as an adult author: Research, knowledge and the acquisition of new sensory memories can make your writing more compelling. It’s tempting to feel content that having swung a baseball bat is sufficient experience to write a scene in which an armored knight wields a mace, and it is true that being able to evoke the memory of how your grip strained or how your shoulder shook at the moment of impact is important. But spending time researching how maces were used historically can help create a more powerful scene. Look up how much real maces weighed. Research the kinds of wounds that a mace caused. If you can, make a mace and create new sensory memories by beating up an old tire. Interview experts and NEVER rely on anything you saw in a Hollywood blockbuster movie because Hollywood is a lying liar who lies.

Try new things! Get your hands dirty in the garden, take a lesson in welding, bungee jump, hang-glide. Eat exotic foods and learn to mix cocktails. Live.

So, my advice to an aspiring author is this: Write what you know because you know much more than you think. And never, ever stop learning because who knows what you’re going to want to write about tomorrow?

About the Author:

While growing up, David Reiss was that weird kid with his nose in a book and his head in the clouds. He was the table-top role-playing game geek, the comic-book nerd, the story-teller, and dreamer.
Fortunately, he hasn’t changed much.

David is a software engineer by trade and a long-time sci-fi and fantasy devotee by passion, and he lives in Silicon Valley with his partner of twenty-six years. Until recently, he also shared his life with a disturbingly spoiled cat named Freya.

(Farewell, little huntress. You were loved. You are missed.)

David’s first book, Fid’s Crusade, has just recently been published; this was his first novel-length project, but it certainly won’t be his last—he’s having far too much fun!

Mr. Price’s Dinner Table – Deborah Ratliff

 

Location, location, location.

How many time have you heard that a business’s location is essential to its success? It is. The same is true for the site of your story. Choosing a small town, an urban environment, or an alien world instantly sets the mood, the culture, and the anticipation for your story. Choose wisely, and the location becomes another character in your writing, adding depth and complexity to your plot.

Why we choose a location varies from our own experiences to the genres that we write.  I set my stories in the world that I know best, the Southern United States and often in New Orleans. To explain how I decide, I need to take you on a journey to my childhood.

I am a Southerner and quite proud of my roots. Growing up in South Carolina I was fortunate to have parents who saw no color differences in their fellow man. People from all walks of life and cultures visited our home.

Memories of my childhood remain clear today. The mimosa tree that I played under in our yard. Houses where all doorways, windows, and chimneys were trimmed in blue to ward off evil spirits. The dime bags of boiled peanuts sold on the street. The ‘air-conditioned tree’ at the Herlong Orchard peach stand where the temperature was twenty degrees cooler in the shade and the water stored in a metal canteen was ice cold. While there was a horrible undercurrent of division and anger in this place I love so much, there was also a goodness of soul. Family, friends, food, and good times existed as well.

My father worked at the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, South Carolina where at the time hydrogen bombs were being made. With workers from all over the world employed there, as a child I met a variety of people. One of my father’s best friends was a bear of a man, a Navaho by the name of Jess Brown. His wife Athea, a small, plump woman who might have been a better cook than my grandmothers, was like an aunt to me. I am about one-sixteenth Cherokee and Jess, and Athea gave me a sense of what being Native American meant. Proud, hard-working, gentle people.

Another friend of my parents impacted my life more than I realized. Mr. Price. Honestly, I am not sure what his first name was, my parents never called him anything but Mr. Price. He was older, a slight man, regal in bearing, with snow-white hair and a thick Southern accent that held a lilt of his mother’s heritage. She was a Cajun from southwest Louisiana, and it was his reminisces about his mother’s upbringing that fueled my love of the Cajun culture.

Mr. Price was called a ‘bachelor.’ In the South in those days, an unmarried man of means, a patron of the arts was referred to in that manner. Anyone who has read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt will recognize who Mr. Price was. Polite society did not mention the word homosexual as that wouldn’t be gracious and respectful.

We often had Sunday dinner at Mr. Price’s home, a large two-story house near downtown Aiken. I remember the opulent crimson flocked wallpaper in the parlor, the glittering crystal chandelier in the dining room, and fresh flowers everywhere. While I loved to have dinner in the dining room,  if the weather cooperated, we would often eat on the back terrace surrounded by a formal garden.

Dinner? Not what you might expect for a South Carolina gentleman. While on occasion we might have shrimp and grits or barbecued chicken, we often feasted on shrimp etouffee or jambalaya, dishes Mr. Price’s mother made when he was small. At age ten, I had my first taste of that Cajun chicory coffee at his dinner table.

I was mesmerized as he would tell us of his parent’s home in Lake Charles, and his grandparents’ house in the country nearby. He would spin tales of fun in the bayou, and I was hooked for life. While I loved South Carolina, my heart drifted toward Cajun Louisiana. His memories stirred emotions in me that I have kept to this day.

When I began to write fiction again a few years ago, I knew I would set my stories in the South. While I have never sugar-coated the problems the area has, which are no different from any other part of the United States, there is an ambiance and tone about the South, the southern coast especially, that is alluring. When I began to write it was Louisiana that I set my first novel in, New Orleans specifically.

Having visited New Orleans a few times as an adult, I discovered that my writing muse was a resident of the French Quarter. New Orleans, the bayou, the jazz, the beignets, the sultry weather, all characters in themselves and ones I find creeping into my writing.

On a recent Sunday, I watched one of Anthony Bourdain’s final “Parts Unknown” episodes. We lost a unique individual with Bourdain’s death. A talented essayist on life and culture and how food is intrinsic to our existence, not only for sustenance but for our soula. This show centered on Cajun Mardi Gras as celebrated in Southwest Louisiana.

We know of Mardi Gras as a glitzy party of drunken revelry, resplendent with cheap shiny beads, gaudy costumes, and over the top parades, as well as – well – fun. Bourdain showed us a Mardi Gras few outsiders know,  celebrated away from the French Quarter. Equally as gaudy and drunken but steeped in tradition and meaning.

Despite the commercial decadence of the more popular party in the French Quarter or the more traditional decadence of Cajun Mardi Gras, the spirit of the Cajun people, their passion for life, food, and even voodoo fuel my imagination and my soul.

I realized how ingrained the Cajun world was to my writing when I recently started writing a short story for a romance anthology. I struggled with setting and story until my muse left the jazz bar in the Quarter and reminded me, I was a mystery writer. I knew where I belonged. My story is now a romance between a TV reporter and a detective brought together over a dead body.  The location you ask? The French Quarter.

There is something about the tenor and vibe New Orleans that touches me.  A city steeped in tradition and like Anthony Bourdain, unique.

After writing my first novel, Crescent City Lies, a mystery set in New Orleans, I realize that the Cajun culture remains embedded within me, sparked so many years ago at Mr. Price’s dinner table.

Location, location, location.

(photo from https://www.visitaikensc.com/groups)

Guest Blog: The 9 Perils of Writerhood – Rosanna Bates

The 9 Perils of Writerhood

By Rosanna Bates

Thinking about taking up writing? As a hobby, or maybe a career? Well, be warned. You are about to pursue a perilous occupation. A vortex of chaos, creativity and solitude that will suck you into its inescapable depths. Writing is not for the faint-hearted.

On your journey you will encounter submission guidelines, internet trolls and *gasp* reading fees. If you are lucky enough to get away from them unscathed, you are still destined to fall victim to the countless dangers of writing. Although for the sake of time-saving let’s say there are nine.

 

The Curse of the Grammar Nazi

With proficiency in the written word comes an impulse to correct people’s grammar and spelling—a practice that is universally frowned upon. In no small part because it’s a little bit condescending even if it does clear up some outrageous uses of the English language.

As the rest of the world demands you keep your mouth shut, you will be forced to stew in your exasperation for eternity. Although, where the internet’s prying eyes cannot see, you will be safe to unleash your new curse. The household shopping lists will be impeccable, one way or another.

 

Demonic Possession

Short of floating out of bed and babbling in tongues, you wouldn’t believe you were being possessed at all. That’s what the Demons want you to think.

We believe the characters we create and grow to love are under our control. But they get under our skin, into our heads, and control our thoughts. Whilst innocently daydreaming some dialogue for your new imaginary friends, their words will come tumbling out of your mouth quite without your permission. At dinner, on the tube, at the library, in the middle of an important interview. At every conceivable inconvenient movement. So don’t be surprised if you come home to an intervention one day with a demonologist and a priest siting in.

 

Imagination Fatigue

The adrenaline rush of an idea grabbing you and running away is like nothing else. Your wedding day or that big promotion all pale in comparison to this thrill. Spending several hours on a whirlwind adventure in your own brain and putting it to paper is an excitement that has lured many a writer into its eternal clutches. However, after any epic high, there is an inevitable crash. When you’re finished with that flash of productivity, your brain will feel like an exploded water balloon. You’ll be lucky if you can think up what to have for dinner.

 

Legal Trouble

Writers research everything. How else are you supposed to craft realistic crime dramas and historical romances? Nobody’s that confident in their estimations of an autopsy to start writing about it without looking it up in a search engine first. Those Google searches are not for the squeamish.

As a result of your curiosity, your internet histories become weird and wonderful collections of web pages you’ve clicked on in the pursuit of piecing your work together realistically. They also become article one in your murder trials if your enemies are vengeful enough.

Whilst at the time your search on the world’s deadliest poisons was perfectly innocent, it may not look that way when there’s a dead body in your living room with all the signs of cyanide poisoning. Moral of the story, don’t be a writer. If you really must be a writer, then be sure to make no enemies who might be motivated enough to frame you for murder. As our next point explains, that may not be a problem anyway.

 

Dying a Social Death

Writing isn’t merely a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. It gets into every nook and cranny of your life, including the social sector. Coffees with friends make way for editor’s deadlines. Brainstorming sessions instead of hosting the parents. Losing your mind perfecting a scene instead of sleeping.

Your friends and family begin to question whether you ever existed or if you were just a figment of their imaginations. Until one day you finally show up to a birthday party and dole out a few heart attacks.

 

Keyboard Burn

When inspiration hits, you won’t be able to get the words down fast enough. So beware when speed typing, for your fingertips may burn on the red-hot keys. That best-seller in the making will gather dust at the back of your hard-drive whilst you enjoy the delight that is hospital food.

 

Irritable Scowl Syndrome

Writing takes peace and quiet. But the quietest times are the best until someone bursts into your study exclaiming that they need their dry cleaning done, there are no jam tarts left, or the house is on fire. Sigh.

Be warned, the first interruption will not be the last because when it’s OK to barge in once, it’s always OK. Such is the logic of serial interrupters. You will begin to develop a fearsome scowl upon hearing the words “Just before you sit down…” or “Are you busy?” that will send any enquirers scurrying in the other direction.

As these interruptions happen more and more (and rest assured, they will) this scowl will become your default expression for anything you even remotely disapprove of. Your reputation will be forever tainted and you will be remembered as a terrifying individual. Or perhaps that’s what you were aiming for.

 

Repetitive Name Injury

There’s names you like, and names you don’t. The names you give your characters you often love. That’s why it’s difficult to give these beloved names to only one character. Where does the injury come in? When you’re bashing your head against the wall trying to think of new ones that sound just as good.

 

Addiction

Drugs are bad, kids, and writing is one of the hardest highs out there. It starts out innocent, just a short story or two in the privacy of your home, but it doesn’t take long for this to escalate. You’ll start holing yourself up in your study penning novels and sketching settings. Soon enough, you’ll be writing on the train to work, and in the car waiting for your kids to get out of school. Write long enough and no rehab on Earth can help you return to the way things used to be.

 

 

About the Author

Rosanna Bates was born in Worcester, England at the height of baggy jeans and boy band popularity. Her childhood was spent reading and writing stories she was too embarrassed to show anyone. To date, she has had short stories and flash fiction published by The Fiction Pool, Ariel Chart, Anti-Heroin Chic, the Manawaker Studios podcast and Otter Libris. While she prepares her debut novel for publication, she also manages a book blog The Secret Library and regularly contributes to the online millennial lifestyle magazine, Unwritten.

 

Guest Blog: Dusty Grein – Why A Bad Review Can Be A Blessing

They All Love Me!

When I first published my book, The Sleeping Giant, I anticipated the glowing reviews that I was sure would happen. After all, I loved my story, how could anyone not feel the same?

Ah, the naiveté of the beginning novelist.

The Reality

Let me preface this by saying that in all fairness, my book has been very well received. It has been purchased and/or read by thousands of customers, and most of them have been extremely satisfied with the story, the characters and the style with which I wrote it. After more than forty reviews, it has a solid and respectable 4.4 star average, and over two thirds have been of the five star variety.

Those aren’t the ones I want to talk about here though. I learned far more about myself, and my writing, from the bad reviews, and I’d like to express my gratitude for the negative ones — even the lone 1-star thrashing of my endeavor.

When I got my first 3-star review, I felt like I had actually made it.

I had arrived!

The reviewer said “This is a good read, However the focus of the story, a soon to erupt volcano, ends up with only a few pages at the end. Needs a part 2.” It made me smile – my first critical review was that I needed to write another book!

My next 3-star said simply “needed more character development,” and was countered soon after by a pair of 5-stars that said “It’s interesting, the characters are well created” and “The characters were developed and the plot moved at a rapid pace.”

Different strokes and all that. The truth is you just can’t please everyone, so you have to just grin and shake your head.

Then it happened.

The Bad News

Someone gave me a 1-star BAD review! They not only gave it a single star, but in the review subject line, they said “SAVE YOUR MONEY…PASS ON THIS BOOK!” I was shocked!

I felt like I had been sucker-punched and immediately became defensive. I had to walk away from the computer. It hurt that someone felt compelled to not only attack my little story, but to tell others not to bother reading it! After I calmed down, I sat down and read the review in earnest – and I’m glad I did. Here is what this reviewer wrote:

“Poorly written attempt at a first novel. First couple of chapters are an absolute non-stop info dump, which totally stalls the story. The author hasn’t yet learned how to work this info into the story in a way that it doesn’t bring everything to an absolute standstill. It turned me off as a reader. Author started his novel too far before from the beginning of the actual action and takes way too long to get there to hold the reader’s interest when encountering the huge info dump they must stumble through. Author hasn’t yet learned how to eliminate the words “that” and “just” from his writer’s vocabulary, as they should be. A non-educated casual reader might read over the many occurrences of those two empty words—which add nothing to the meaning of the sentences—without noticing them, but they pulled me back to reality every time I encountered them and made the book unreadable for me. My guess is this book has never seen a paid professional edit, as it would have caught all these errors before publication and probably made the story much more readable.”

Wow. The first thing I noticed was that I had obviously made this reader feel something–and feel it strongly enough to write a very lengthy and scathing review. Then I started working on figuring out why it had happened, by removing the opinions and just dealing with the substantive issues. In doing so, I made a few discoveries.

Lessons 

I found that part of this was just about my writing style. The infamous “info-dump” accusation was to be expected. In truth, I had written this book quickly, and I did spend a bit too much time in chapter one, setting the stage for my characters. The fact that the story started “too far before from the beginning of the actual action and takes way too long to get there” was one that I had expected to find from some people. I wrote a story that was mainly about the people, not just about the actions they went through.

I also discovered that I DID have a tendency to overuse the words THAT and JUST. I used this insight to go back into my manuscript, and I did a complete revision, removing over forty instances of these “filler” words. I then released edition 2.0, and in my opinion the story is better for the rewrite.

Finally, I learned a very valuable lesson about the editing process.  See, I am a professional editor, and have edited the works of well over 200 authors, including everything from flash-fiction and poetry to short stories and full novels; in my professional capacity, I have never received a critical evaluation of my editorial talents – but I learned you should NEVER edit your own work, no matter how skilled you may be at polishing the work of others. Being able to edit someone else’s work, is not the same as being able to edit your own.

My book is now at edition 4.0 (this last edition change was made necessary due to a print size change) and thanks in large part to its single one-star review, it is a much finer book than it was when I first released it.

The reviews continue to be good – and bad.

Since that bad review I have received many more four and five star reviews, and a lone two star panning. This bad review stated “virtually the entire work is character development.”

In this case, I gladly accept and endorse the statement. Even in my blurb, I invite folks to accompany my characters during the week leading up to the eruption. Based on the ratio of wonderful reviews to bad ones, this approach is one which thousands of my readers have enjoyed.

Keep This In Mind

In the end, no matter how popular you are with your readers, there will be those who dislike your story, your characters, or the way you write; you can’t let these obstacles stand in your way.

Instead, learn what you can from them, and then move on, and become better at this crazy craft.

My one hope, is that if you have read a book that you enjoyed, be sure to leave a review for the author. If it has issues, you shouldn’t hesitate to let them know it as well — although you don’t have to scream for others not to waste their money, just tell them what you didn’t enjoy. Maybe your opinion will help them become better writers as well.

 

— Dusty Grein

 

About the author:

An author, graphics designer and full-time grandpa, Dusty is originally from Federal Way, Washington. He currently resides in Oregon, where his youngest daughter Jazzmyn Grein (an author in her own right) and a white bulldog-mix named Naked, keep him busy.

His first novel, THE SLEEPING GIANT, hit #1 on the free lists during a recent giveaway promotion. It is a thrilling story of love, fear and survival centered around the impending eruption of Mount Rainier in Washington state.

Dusty is also a publisher with RhetAskew Publishing, a new and fast-growing traditional publishing company with a unique way of looking at publishing.

RhetAskew Publishing: https://rhetoricaskew.wordpress.com/

Dusty Grein’s Amazon Author Page:  https://www.amazon.com/Dusty-Grein/e/B00W36LH6U

Dr. Paul’s Family Talk: Interview with Deborah Ratliff… “We Are Writers. Are We Professional?”

This past week I appeared on Dr. Paul’s Family Talk, Impact Radio USA to discuss the article, “We Are Writers. Are We Professional?

Professionalism is a mindset and the attributes associated with professional careers should be applied to all of our endeavors, personal or professional.

Listen as host Paul Reeves and I discuss how writers should behave when appearing interviewing on radio, television, podcasts, in print, and online.

Click here for the interview

Click here for the article, “We Are Writers. Are We Professional?”

ImpactRadioUSA

Listen to Impact Radio USA

Impact Radio USA Blog

 

Go With the Flow. How to Keep Your Reader Interested.

 

My job as an author is to tell the story in the best way possible, to make it flow seamlessly and get the reader to keep turning the page. — Patrick Carman
Let’s face it. We write for many reasons, among them because we want someone to read our words, to listen to our story. The last thing we want is for them to throw the book down after the first chapter and walk away muttering they will never buy that author’s book again.

How do we keep them from being disappointed? We write a story so good that they cannot put the book down. Creating that story is not difficult if you pay attention to story structure components as you write.

When structuring a story, character development is imperative. You must create a main character that the reader identifies with and cheers for as the story unfolds. Reveal their goal early and make it your reader’s goal as well. Building your world, whether it is a planet in a far-off galaxy, a fantasy kingdom, or a small town in the Midwest is also a very important component. You need to provide your reader with an environment that catches their imagination and makes them feel present in your world as they read.

Your story needs to be coherent and plausible regardless of genre. You can be as imaginative as you want, but even in the fantasy and science-fiction genres, your magic and technology must be conceivable.

Grammar and sentence structure should be correct. You can take liberties with dialogue but not with narrative. The narrative should be without grammatical errors which cause the reader to break their immersion in the story.

It is flow, created by how you assemble these skills, which takes your story from ordinary to one your reader cannot put down.

 

Flow

The concept of flow in a novel has an elusive definition. It borders on the adage that you will know it when you ‘read’ it. Flow is a combination of several factors that create a cohesive story. The question is how to achieve flow. There are a few critical things that you should do.

 

The Hook:

You must connect with your reader. If you do not, they will never become engaged in your story. First, your opening sentence/paragraph, known as a hook, should set the mood and grab the reader’s attention. The following paragraphs, few pages, or even the first chapter can set the tone and interest of your novel.

There are a few do’s to creating a hook:

  • Place your character in a unique situation.
  • Create an interesting image, often of the locale your story is set in.
  • Start at a crucial point in your story.
  • Create mystery, allow your reader to wonder the why or where or what of your story.
  • Highlight an unusual character.

 

Do not do these things:

  • Be overly descriptive.
  • Start with useless information.
  • Start with dialogue. No one knows anything about your character yet.
  • Include a lot of characters in your opening.

 

The last “don’t” is quite telling. We discussed earlier that your reader must develop a relationship with your main character. They need to identify, sympathize or empathize, and root for the main character to achieve their goal. The opening of your story is where you create that bond. If you attempt to introduce too many characters too soon, your reader may bond with someone you will not be focusing on. The connection between the main character and the reader must be strong.

 

Make It Clear:

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences. ~Somerset Maugham

Coherency is required. Well-crafted sentences and paragraphs and carefully chosen words present a clear message and allow comprehension. If your reader does not understand the story, they will not continue to read. Think of it as if you were giving someone directions. You should not say, “Go two miles and turn left,” nor should you describe all the businesses, houses, and landmarks on the way. The former is too little information, the latter too much. Choose the precise words to convey meaning. Extraneous words lead to confusion.

There must also be continuity. If you state your character is a redhead and four chapters later declare her a brunette, your reader will notice, and the flow will be broken. Maintain the information you present about your characters, locale, notable events, and the timeline. They must remain consistent. If they do not, someone who has become engrossed in the story will disconnect at the mistake.

 

Transition:

Sentence to sentence, or chapter to chapter, how you connect your thoughts affects the flow of your story. A transition can be carried out in many ways: a single word, a phrase, or a paragraph, bridging one thought to another, including emotion, time, location, or characters. A ‘cliffhanger’ at the end of a chapter is an excellent transition and follows the intent of the transitional paragraph to propel your reader forward and connect two segments of your story.

Choose your words carefully as you write the transitional sequence. Don’t embellish, but instead, provide concise meaning so that your reader reacts the way you intend.

 

Sentence Structure:

Think of a beautiful piece of music and how it varies in tempo and volume. Slow or soft to create a relaxed or somber mood; fast, building to a crescendo, to denote excitement, action, or power. The structure of a novel mimics the patterns we recognize in music. Notes or words matter and how the reader or listener responds reveals how successful we are in conveying our intended meaning.

How to accomplish flow with sentence structure:

  • Vary sentence type. Mix simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences
  • Be cognizant of word order. Do not start several sentences with the same subject. Mix up nouns, gerunds, prepositions, or clauses. A lack of variety can be both distracting and irritating to the reader.
  • Incorporate sentences of varying lengths. Sentences that are too long will often bore a reader, and a bored reader will quickly lose interest. Sentences that are too short will quicken the pace of the story and leave your reader breathless.

 

 Pacing the Action

 Pacing is not the sort of thing you can plan out beforehand, but you’re always aware of it as you write because you need to make constant decisions. — Jean Hanff Korelitz

 

Without a doubt, following these suggestions will improve the flow. The pacing of your story, how quickly it unfolds, also helps with story structure.

With the skills discussed so far, you can achieve the action needed to move your story along and the quiet times to give your readers a rest from the action. These periods should alternate while propelling your reader to continue reading.

In your first chapter, you have ‘hooked’ your reader with an opening that intrigues them. You should also introduce them to the main characters, as well as the plot and your main character’s goal.

Throughout your story, you will provide plot points to move the action forward. By recognizing how to place your minor and major action, you can maintain a smooth flow. Think of it as waxing and waning as the story builds to the final climax.

When writing a novel-length story, writers, at times, find themselves with issues when writing the middle, referred to as the ‘saggy’ middle. It is easy to lose your way to the ending unless, even if you write with an outline, you have a mid-action sequence in mind to keep the reader involved.

Many writers start a project with the beginning and ending in mind. Add what you want to happen in the middle of that formula. You will find that the story will move forward with ease using the tools suggested and pace the action to keep a smooth flow.

 

Keeping the Flow

Writing, despite misconceptions by some, is not an easy task. To create a story that a reader enjoys from the opening words until the closing sentence requires hard work and concentration. There are no shortcuts. A writer must consider each word as important or not, use correct grammar and structure, and ponder every action and every repose before declaring a story finished.

As stated, flow is an elusive task but one that must be conquered so the reader can simply go with the flow.

by D. A. Ratliff

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Resources:

https://writeitsideways.com/6-ways-to-hook-your-readers-from-the-very-first-line/

https://literarydevices.net/transition/

http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/transitional-words.html

https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/pacing

https://owlcation.com/humanities/Why-do-Writers-Write-Quotes-from-Famous-Writers-on-Writing