Sunday, January 29, 2012
Friday, January 27, 2012
Centuries ago storytelling was a dangerous pastime. Tales were told around a campfire and, if the storyteller droned on and bored his listeners, they either fell asleep or killed him, according to Sol Stein in his book, Stein on Writing. Fortunately for modern writers, the worst thing that can happen is that the reader will put your book aside and never pick it up again. So, in order insure that your work is read, don’t include the boring stuff that readers tend to skip over. That’s usually descriptive passages that should be spooned in with light doses, not all in one large lump. Or it can be tedious dialogue that has nothing to do with the plot’s race to the finish line. Editors call that padding and ask that writers delete it, or even worse, they reject the manuscript and return it.
Suspense is one of the most important elements of plotting. It keeps your reader reading and unable to put the book down. How many times have you read until two or three in the morning because you couldn’t go to sleep without first learning the plot’s resolution? And then couldn’t fall asleep because the book was so good that it continually replayed in your mind?
No matter how unique your style or intriguing your characters, if you don’t pique your reader’s curiosity and keep her hooked until the end of the story, you might as well be the campfire storyteller with a club over your head. Keep your reader in suspense with occasional rest periods so that he can catch his breath with a little description and backstory. Always keep your eye on the finish line and make the race to the book’s conclusion as suspenseful as possible.
The greatest compliment a writer can receive is for someone to say, “I couldn’t put the book down.” How many times have you said that, yourself? And what was it about that book that kept you reading? Nine times out of ten, you’ll say it was suspense and your own curiosity that kept you reading to learn what was going to happen next. Suspense, according to Stein, is the strong glue between reader and writer. And, of course, caring about the characters and wanting them to resolve their problems.
The word suspense comes from the Latin word “to hang.” So consider yourself an executioner who takes your reader to the edge of a cliff. Once there you hang your protagonist by his fingertips. It’s not your job to feel sorry for the cliff hanger or to immediately rescue him. Leave him hanging until his fingers are slipping and he’s about to fall into a deep, dark canyon. Suspense builds as the reader anxiously waits for someone to rescue the hero, but it’s not happening yet; or the villain is stomping on the hero’s fingers and the reader wants him to stop. That’s an exaggerated example of suspense, but one that a writer can use it to his advantage.
There are various forms of suspense: potential or immediate danger to your protagonist, unwanted confrontations, a fear of what’s about to happen, and a crisis that needs to be met head on. A writer's job is to set up a situation or problem that needs a resolution, but without an immediate answer. Your detective is a novel killer if he picks up a clue in chapter two and says, “Ah ha, I know who this button belongs to. I’ll contact the police and have her arrested for the murder.” Unless, of course, you’re writing a short story or very short novella. Stretch out suspense as long as possible like a rubber band on the verge of breaking.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
Sunday, January 22, 2012
by Earl Staggs
Marilyn Meredith posted here recently about the value of her critique group. I’ve belonged to one or more critique groups since I started writing and would be lost without them. Now I belong to two. One of them is long distance. We exchange critiques via email. The other one is local and we meet in person whenever we can schedule a date convenient to enough of us to make it worthwhile.
Both groups contain experienced, published writers who have become close personal friends. I love them and respect their expertise a great deal. If any of you are reading this, please know that. I never feel confident about anything I’ve written until you’ve gone over it. You point out the errors in spelling and punctuation, of course, but you also question story and plot points. You tell me if something I’ve written doesn’t make sense, simply doesn’t work, or if I’ve left out something important.
Like yesterday, for instance. I attended a meeting with my local critique group.
The chapter I submitted to the group for their slicing and dicing pleasure takes place in an outdoor market place near Kabul, Afghanistan. Tall Chambers, the main character, belongs to a secretive government agency which tracks and deals with terrorists. Tall and his team are on the trail of the worst of the terrorists who may be hiding out with a woman who runs a fruit and vegetable stand there.
I did some research and found a good place for the market to be located. I looked up what the people at the market would be wearing. I came up with the kind of stuff the different vendors at the market would be offering from their tents and lean-to stalls in the market. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, meats, handmade clothing, rugs, and such as that. There would also be animals. Camels, donkeys, and goats, for instance.
So I described the market and had Tall and his team walking through it, passing all the stalls, looking for the missing terrorist.
Good job, I thought.
Then a member of the group asked, “What did it smell like?”
I hadn’t thought of that. Naturally, all that produce and meat and fish would produce odors that would permeate the open air space. Not to mention what the animals parked beside the stalls would contribute to the immediate environment.
Okay, back to the drawing board – make that keyboard - for me. I have to describe how all those things would smell, even to Tall and his men who are on an important mission.
I don’t think Google or Wikipedia will give me that information, so I’m on my own.
Any and all suggestions will be greatly appreciated.
SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS, a collection of 16 short mystery tales on sale now for 99 cents. That's only about six cents per story. Wow.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Once they've heard the whole book and I've worked on each chapter, I print it out and go over it carefully. Amazingly, I find more mistakes and inconsistencies. Sometimes doing the fixes contributes to more typos, extra periods and two words used that mean the same thing.
With my latest that I'm getting ready to send off to the publisher, I've had a bit more problems than usual. A friend who has read all the books in the series offered to read the manuscript and point out anything she found. When she sent it back, I couldn't believe how much she found that I need to address. It's like gremlins attacked it when I sent it over the Internet.
Fortunately, the publishing house has a great editor. It will be interesting to see what she has to say.
Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time writing, especially when I find so many mistakes. But, what would I do with myself if I didn't write?
Friday, January 13, 2012
After you write that standalone novel, your publisher may suggest that it become a series. So it’s important that you like your protagonist(s) and want to continue writing about them. Agatha Christie grew tired of writing about Hercule Poirot and wanted to kill him off, just as Conan Doyle attempted to rid himself of Sherlock Holmes.
When I began my Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series, I named my two protagonists Shirley Lock and Dora Holmes. They were known as Shirl Lock & Holmes, a corny spin on the detective and his physician narrator. When my publisher closed its doors, I resold the series and changed the names to Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty. By that time my two women sleuths had become like old friends, whom I enjoy visiting to eavesdrop on their conversations.
Dana is a bit autobiographical while Sarah is like my friend Marge, who is outspoken and often so funny that she has me laughing tears. Dana is a mystery novel buff, who, with her friend Sarah, a private investigator’s widow, buy a motorhome to travel the West, as I’ve done.
Making the two women mobile provides them new settings in each novel. Although two of their motorhomes have been wrecked in the first three books, Dana’s wealthy sister dies and leaves her a considerable sum of money as well as a Wyoming mansion. The money allows them additional mystery solving opportunities as well as extensive travel.
Most protagonists have a job and the author needs to be knowledgeable about the occupation, or at least know the basics. And above all, enjoy writing about the job on a continuing basis, without becoming bored. Another pitfall is to change the tone of the writing. For instance, you shouldn't begin writing a cozy and decide in the middle of the series to darken it to a noir. Readers will complain. I’ve covered various subjects in my series, including adultery, drug gangs and homegrown terrorists, but with humor, so I’ve been able to get away with subjects not usually associated with two 60-year-old feisty amateur sleuths. And readers have fortunately told me that each book has been a fun read.
If your series becomes popular, you may have to continue writing it longer than you'd like. J. K. Rowling was able to discontinue her Harry Potter series after seven books but Sue Grafton is committed to 26. Her schedule has changed over the years and she now only writes three hours a day with one published novel every two years. At 71, she’ll be nearly 80 when Z is for Zero is released, but she plans to continue writing about her private investigator on a standalone basis after the series ends. She admits that Kinsey Millhone is her alter ego and that she enjoys writing about her.
I can't imagine writing 26 novels about someone you don't like and I'm glad that I enjoy my characters, especially my lovesick sheriff.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
Sunday, January 8, 2012
Once he’d figured it all out and knew whodunnit, Adrian Monk, everyone’s favorite OCD TV detective, would say,
What better way to let an audience know what happened in the past than with both a narrative retelling AND a visual reenactment? They can do that in movies and on TV. Writers do not have that luxury, but we still have to tell our readers, “Here’s what happened.”
“I can’t take it anymore. I’m leaving.”
Margie took a sip of her wine and set her glass on the table, rotating it slowly with her hands. After several moments, she said, “Jane, you never did tell me why Dan left.”
“I’m not sure myself. I came home and saw his bags packed and sitting in the foyer.”
“Didn’t he say anything?”
Jane turned to the window and looked out. “I asked him what was going on. He said he couldn’t take it anymore and he was leaving.”
Another method is a quick flashback. Here’s how that might be done:
A short flashback like that is not a major intrusion to the current story and chances are, you won’t lose the readers. It lacks the immediacy and drama of a reenactment, however.
(If you’d like to know how Amanda escaped her fate, “That Night in Galveston” is one of the sixteen stories in my collection, SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS. You’ll find more information about it over on my website: http://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com/)
Friday, January 6, 2012
by Jean Herny Mead
I'm lucky to live on a mountaintop at 7,000 feet. What better place to write? By lucky I mean all those hours of uninterrupted writing. We only have cell phone service here and that doesn’t work half the time, so I’m usually not bothered by telemarketers. My life may sound boring to some but my husband and I are basically hermits who make a trip to town once or twice a month to buy supplies and visit friends. It requires planning but the solitude and beauty of the landscape are well worth any inconveniences isolation may cause.
I'm up between six and seven each morning and I go straight to my computer in my pajamas with a bowl of cereal. A cup of chai tea topped with whipped cream opens my eyes while I answer email and check on my books’ sales numbers. I then launch into one of three books I’m currently working on: my fourth Logan and Cafferty mystery/suspense novel, second historical, and a second book of interviews, The Mystery Writers, from my blog, Mysterious Writers. So, when I occasionally hit a blank wall—I hate the term “writer’s block”—I switch from the manuscript I’m currently working on to another. And if all else fails, I sit on the back deck and watch deer and antelope roam our land. I also enjoy watching the neighboring rancher’s horses as well as the mountain scenery, whether green with grass or covered in snow. That always gets my creative juices flowing. But, because I began my writing career as a journalist trained to sit down and write, I rarely hit a snag.
I’m definitely a seat of the pants writer. My characters are so familiar by now that they’re like old friends I look forward to visiting every day. I always read the chapter I worked on the previous day, making minor changes, which carries me into that day’s work. I use the film strip method, which means I watch and listen to my characters in my mind’s eye and type as fast as I can to keep up with them. I rarely plot in advance and only outline my nonfiction books. I sometimes write myself into a corner, although not very often. I also enjoy doing research at night for my current book.
It's cold and windy here now, but as fellow mystery writer Loren Estleman once said, the best time to write is when the snow is deep around the old ranch house and there's nowhere else to go.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
I'll open by admitting I'm older than dirt (everyone knows the only things older
than dirt are Water and Earl Staggs), but I never expected to be around this long. Earl wrote a recent blog post about writing, wherein he admitted he was one of the original Chiselers. And since I've "Wii bowled" with Earl, I can verify that he is still an excellent Chiseler. Must be like riding a bicycle—one never forgets how. But that's not the purpose of this writing. (Maybe another day, Earl.)
What I'm thinking about here are some of the scams I've lived through in my long and
lovely life. My favorite one is the millennium scam of 1999. Remember? The media and a few well-placed people ran the most successful scam of the century (and perhaps, several centuries). They convinced the people of the civilized world that life as we knew it would come crashing to a halt. Our money stored in banks would be lost. Electricity would be shut off. Water would quit flowing to our homes. Gas pumps would quit working. There wouldn't even be celebratory fireworks New Years Eve, because the timers were computer driven. There were so many dire predictions I can't begin to remember them all. Why? All because computers were not programmed to recognize a four-digit year, especially one beginning with 20.
It's laughable now, but not then. I worked as a computer tech for a federal agency that was in full panic mode. My shop was scrambling almost 24/7 running "fixes" on computers. The agency had purchased licenses for software that would "correct" the doomsday problem, although no one could be sure it would work. Took about two minutes to run. Now, I don't know how much it cost, but I'm betting it wasn't cheap.
And I was only one of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, in the government rushing around like that. I spent New Year's Eve, 1999 at my desk, waiting for the worst. At two minutes into 2000, my co-workers and I went to the roof to watch
the fireworks explode over the city and laugh at the foolishness of the past year.
Ever wonder who got rich on that one? What media mogul or upper level politician turned a lowlife rumor into riches? How many software companies doubled, tripled, or quintupled their income for CY 1999? How much government and business money was lost to a perfect scam? Will the truth ever be told?
While I've lived through many scams, the millennia scam was the Grand Pooh Bah of
them all. But there were other good ones. Anyone (except Earl) old enough to remember bomb shelters in the back yard? Anyone watch gas prices go up and down, up-up, but not down-down, up-up-up and only a single down? The price of sugar—and many other commodities?
Those who will sell you a tree to be planted in Upper or Lower Slobofdia, guaranteed to reverse global warming? Oh, so many.
So, I'm glad to still be here in 2012 looking forward to the next global scam, the one that will convince me to ______. Someone will fill in the blank.
And, of course, I'm glad to be here because my next book, HOT ROCKS, will be out from
Midnight Ink during Fall, 2012. In the meantime, for those inclined to look at a thriller, THORNS ON ROSES is available as a paper book and as an E-book, and there are others I wrote you might like. But enough of the BSP.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Wow, I'm finding it was worth the bucks to pay for it. All I had to do was send out my photo, bio, book blurb and links once to the organizer and then put together whatever the host blog wanted, be it an interview, writing tip, etc.
I've been sending out requests, getting lots of great people responding to host me, but juggling the dates has been daunting. Some have told me what they want me to write, others have just said do whatever. Well, I've got to think up the whatever, and I need to make each post unique.
Fortunately, I've got lots of time. I don't even have a cover yet to send off to folks--and to be perfectly honest, I haven't received my edits yet. That's why I put the blog tour way off until April. Just the same, I have lots of stuff I need to do for it.
So, that's what I'll be up to for awhile.
And by the way, I'd love to host any of you who'd like to arrange a blog tour for your upcoming book.
Sunday, January 1, 2012
There are two ways to combat this annual frustration. Of course, we can declare that "I'm as good as I'll get, take me or leave me. I've reached my pinnacle. If it's my destiny to write a novel, an angel will visit me one night and fill my head with inspiration."
The other approach is to be realistic but persistent. We can walk a little more, eat a little less, perform an extra kindness now and again until we see it doesn't have to be hard. Pick the manageable and the doable, and both your confidence and success will grow.
Which brings me back to writing. If you can write several pages a day and the words just pour out, that's wonderful. But maybe you don't have a lot of time, and writing is a luxury you have to squeeze in when and if you can. Or maybe, like me, you are a slow writer. (To be clear, I mean a person who writes slowly, not a slow person who writes.) That's perfectly okay. Can you write one page a day on most days? If so, that means you can finish a draft of a complete novel in a year. In my case, I'm working on a mystery with a target of 70,000 words--50,000 done, 20,000 to go, and the project is momentarily stalled. But let's take out a calculator and do the math: 20,000 words divided by 365 days equals 55 words a day. Holy microchips! Who can't write more than that?
There've been times when my heart or head wasn't in my writing, and when I sat down to write, only a sentence or a paragraph came out. But ninety percent of the time, I'll plunk my butt in the chair and write my page or two. The lessons are to set achievable writing goals and then sit down at the keyboard.
To see what I've managed to finish, please visit tinyurl.com/bobsanchezauthor.