Tag Archives: writing

No Need to Bleed: Painless Ways to Breach the Blank Page

By Lori DeBoer

“It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway likely wasn’t recommending that one literally open a vein. I think.  Besides being dark and witty, this quote keeps coming back in different forms, attributed to disparate authors, because for most of us wordsmiths, it speaks a truth.

I’d rarely had to search for that vein in my 20 years as a journalist, because the fear my editors inspired made me able to compose leads in my head during the drive home from an interview or an event.  By the time I hit my computer, I already had a few full paragraphs ready to tumble to the page.

That was until I sat down to write my first piece of fiction. I pulled up a blank page and blanked. It was sheer, imposing and seemed to offer no toeholds.

I breached that blank page, with a bit of determination and a fair amount of bloodshed. Since blood, metaphorical or not, makes me faint, I’ve developed some easier ways to get into story, ones that don’t require stocking up on iron supplements.

Here goes:

Write nonsense–Type any old thing until your brain stops its bitching and gets engaged in the story.  You may have to write nonsense for a few pages, but keep going.  If you fail to gain some traction midway through your allotted daily word count or writing time, then shift to revising, research or sending stuff out.

Write a shitty first draft–I wish this were my advice, but it’s Anne Lamott’s.  If you aspire to write, you must read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She talks openly about her own fits and starts and has this to say:  “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

Give it your worst shot–I teach for a living and found that my students not only loved examples of crappy writing, but they learned from trying to improve them. Since I am a do-it-yourself kinda gal, I rose to the challenge of writing some of the crappiest crap around for my advanced writing classes. There wasn’t a cliché I didn’t borrow, a run-on sentence I didn’t elongate to a ridiculous end. Writing crap turned out to be fun and liberating.  Often, crap turns into keepers. For inspiration (and a spot for your own terrible writing), please visit the website for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, organized by the English Department at San Jose State University, which invites entrants  to write the worst opening sentence to the worst possible novels.  (www.bulwer-lytton.com)

Pen a gossipy letter–This strategy confuses your internal critic because it doesn’t know whether to bark, bite or wag its tale. That’s because writing a letter–dripping with juicy details that only someone in the know would know—is rather a quaint endeavor, don’t you think?  In that letter, which you may or may not send, indulge in the latest scandal about your characters.  What is up with your main character’s latest choice in lovers?  What is your antagonist hiding, anyway?  You love to dish.  Indulge.

Borrow a line–Your English teacher would call this plagiarizing, but I prefer to think of it as priming your pump.  Just remember to delete this line from your story at some point during the revision process.   For bonus points, don’t pick a line you love; pick one at random. For extra bonus points, jump genres.  Caveat:  don’t spend all day picking out a line, please. If procrastinating’s your game, go scrub your tub.

Cut to the exciting part–Instead of walking in circles, trying to figure out where you are supposed to start story, try fast  forwarding to the exciting part.  Chances are, that’s your real beginning, anyway.

Prompt yourself–If you find yourself staring down a blank page, having someone tell you what to do can help.  Lucky for you, there are a kazillion tried-and-true writing prompts.

Throw in some mystery–If the main point of view character encounters some sort of mystery to puzzle over or an intriguing problem to solve, chances are your fuzzy little writing brain will start puzzling over it, too.  You’ll find yourself several pages in just because you want to figure out what’s going on

Come out swinging–You don’t need to have your characters taking physical punches at each other like mad monkey ninjas, unless that sort of scene suits your genre. Simply starting a story with two characters at odds with each other will send a thrill up your storyline and have you coming back for more.

Picture it–Break up a blank page by slapping some pictures on that sucker and you’ll be closer to starting your story.  Many writers take this to extreme, creating whole Pinterest boards with photos of their story’s characters, settings, costumes and the ilk.  If you do this, I not only approve, but am a teensy bit jealous.

Start with the ending–I like writing the ending of a story before I start the beginning because I can trick myself into feeling like the heavy lifting is done.  Plus, I have a better chance of starting a story if I know where it’s going to end up, just like I have a better chance of having a successful road trip if I know if I am driving to Santa Fe or San Francisco

Well, that’s a sampling from my bag of tools for breeching the blank page.  What are some of yours?

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times, Pithead Chapel, Arizona Highways, Gloom Cupboard and more. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.

Murder Your Darlings

By Jan Weeks

Jan WeeksSir Arthur Quiller-Couch said that over a hundred years ago and writers have followed his advice (or not) ever since. I, for one, being of kind heart and semi-sound mind, hesitated to do something so cruel. Occasionally I’d shoot a few of my darling words in the butt with a BB gun and watch them scamper to safety but my heart ached for them. I wanted to call them back and nurture and cuddle and soothe them into believing they really were worthwhile. I wanted to build their self-esteem, just like I did for my fifth grade students.

The first wholesale massacre was planned one day while driving down a Colorado back road, thinking of nothing in particular. I’d been working on Season of Evil, Season of Dreams, my first suspense novel, for years. The protagonist was Lorna Hollingsworth, a retired school teacher who discovers a child’s skull in a meadow in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Ben Logan, police chief of the small town and Lorna’s former student, uses the teacher as a foil for his thoughts and surmises as he investigates.

The story began with Lorna taking her dog for a walk early on a September morning. A bloody sun rose through lavender mist. Sentinel pines lined the trail. Sweat sheened her skin as she labored up the steep path. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Years and miles after writing that scene, I realized it had nothing to do with the story. Once home, I booted up the ’puter, highlighted the 3500-word first chapter, and pressed delete. Oh, the tears! Oh, the sorrow! Oh, the pain as my darlings disappeared into oblivion, never to return, unless I wanted to hire a techie to save them. I hardened my heart and started the story where it truly began, with the discovery of the skulls. (Yes, more than one.)

More years passed. Rejections flew like autumn leaves in a gale, adding frustration to insult. Why the heck couldn’t editors see what a great story I’d written? Surely they couldn’t all be rejects from the Arthur Murray School of Great Writing…or something like that. Each rejection caused me to stalk the manuscript, BB gun upgraded to a .22 rifle, in hand. Now my darlings seemed to know when they were in for the high jump and some scurried away with barely a nudge from the barrel.

Then the second mass murder sneaked into my mind as I washed dishes. I had the wrong protagonist. It wasn’t Lorna’s story, it was Ben’s. I sank into a chair, poured another cup of tea, and wept, not for my darlings, but for me. I had been writing this damned book for twenty years! Enough, already! I didn’t want to condemn the whole thing to oblivion. I didn’t want to start over!

The fit of self-pitying hysteria passed, as all fits must, and I buckled down. As I rewrote I realized that the book was becoming better. Now, readers could live in Ben’s mind and investigate along with him. They didn’t have to wade through pages of talking heads as Ben explained everything that he’d discovered to Lorna. Switching POVs between Ben, Lorna, and the antagonist further moved the story along. Some of the babies I’d plunged into purgatory crept back into the manuscript, a few at a time, this time in their proper places. The bloody sunrise and sentinel pines never did find their way back, thank God.

After 25 years and 59 revisions, Season of Evil found a publishing home and arrived in hardback in the spring, a time of renewal and life.

Now I believe in wreaking murder and mayhem on my dears. I also believe in reincarnation, as long as those little darlings know their places.

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Jan Weeks is an editor and award-winning writer with three published adult novels (Silverton Summer; The Secret of Spring Hollow; Season of Evil, Season of Dreams) and a middle-grade novel (The Centerville Code) available as an e-book, as is The Secret of Spring Hollow. Her articles, short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in local, regional, national and international markets, such as Outdoor Life, Guideposts, Natural Health, California Lawyer, Grit, and Midwest Fly Fishing.

She belongs to The Authors’ Guild and the Western Colorado Writers’ Forum, and has facilitated the Colorado West Writers’ Workshop. She teaches workshops in creative writing, writing for magazines, and basic grammar for writers.

Visit Jan’s website for rates, links to books, and more information.

Jan is also giving away a print copy of her novel, Season of Evil, Season of Dreams, to one U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on today’s post. The mystery involves a small-town cop who must stop a serial killer before more children vanish. Comments through Tuesday, March 11th will be included in a random drawing.

An Awkward Confession

By Mary Gillgannon

I’ve been writing historical romance for over twenty years. In the beginning, the genre was also my favorite reading material. I read the best-selling romance authors to find out what magic they worked to rise to the top. I read the “up-and-comings” to see what they offered and get a feel for the direction the market was headed. And I read pretty much anything in my preferred sub-genre, medieval and Viking romances. I once heard that before writing a book in a particular genre, you should read a hundred books of that type. Over the first few years of my writing career, I probably did that.

But gradually I got away from reading historical romance. I discovered historical mysteries, which helped me immerse myself in the world and time period I was writing in and often gave me new ideas for stories that were more unique than the ideas I got from romances. I dabbled in literary fiction, which had been my preferred reading in college and immediately afterwards. Chick lit came along and I ate it up. Fantasy started getting popular and I added it to my reading “oeuvre”. Then, a few years ago, I stumbled onto a contemporary mystery I really liked and started reading them too.

I’m currently writing my fifteenth historical romance, and yet I have to guiltily admit that, except for books written by friends, I haven’t read a historical romance from start to finish in years. I have good intentions. I purchase e-books that sound interesting and download free copies to help other authors get exposure. I order historical romances for the library where I work and sometimes even check them out. But some other book (or books) always seems to be calling me, and I never get far into the romances before I move on.

It doesn’t help that I acquire fiction as part of my job at a public library and read dozens of reviews every month, covering fiction in all sorts of genres. I usually skim the non-fiction reviews, too, adding to my choices. When I check in the new books (to confirm the cataloging is correct, etc.) I set aside the order slips of those I’m interested in. I now have a pile about fifty order slips on my desk. I’d like to read these books, but it seems like there’s always something new and irresistible and I seldom end up going to “the pile”. I guess I’m sort of ADHD when it comes to reading for pleasure.

Lately I’m obsessed with gritty contemporary mysteries set in the British Isles. I could never write stories like these. I don’t have a good feel for contemporary dialogue and as an American, I certainly couldn’t pull off the slang or the authentic local details that make these books so intriguing to me. For the most part, I avoid portraying much violence in my own stories (they are romances, after all), while these mysteries are full of dark and disturbing scenes. They also don’t have “happily ever after” endings. Indeed, sometimes the endings are downright grim.

I suspect that my preference for reading books that are nothing like what I write is a little weird. When I read interviews with writers and they discuss their reading habits, they may mention stories that are a bit different than what they write, but not usually the complete opposite. I’ve tried to analyze why my tastes are this way. Maybe it’s because when I’m writing, I’m living in that world on a much more intense level than when I’m reading. When I’m writing as a character, I really am that character, and I don’t want them to endure too much violence, pain or suffering because I don’t want to experience it myself on that intense level.

It’s one thing to be exposed to darkness and evil vicariously. Another to feel like you’re actually living it. In the books I read, I identify and care about a lot of the characters, but I don’t become them the way I do my characters. I can read a gritty mystery and go on an exciting, vicarious ride. But I don’t envision my real self in that world.

I’ve heard other authors complain that writing fiction takes away from enjoying reading it. You become too critical of technical details, too aware of pacing flaws and places where the characterization is weak, etc. You stop reading as a reader and start reading like an editor. For the most part, I’m pretty forgiving and tolerant of these things. If I find the story compelling, I can ignore a lot of issues that might bug some of my writer friends.

At least when I’m reading non-romances. When I read a romance, it’s much harder for me to turn off the editor in my head. And even if I have no problems with the writing itself, it’s hard for me not to think about how I would write the story. That puts a distance between me and the story and makes it hard for me to really immerse myself in the book. More specifically, other authors’ fantasies are not my fantasies, and that is ultimately a very important component of the romance reading experience.

Despite all these things, I plan to keep trying to read more romance. After I get through the two mysteries and the historical novel I’m waiting to come in at the library, and that book I just ordered that sounds so interesting and well… you know the rest.

What about you other writers out there? Is there a big discrepancy between your reading and writing interests?

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Mary GillgannonMary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library, where she she has the enviable task of purchasing adult fiction. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! For more about Mary, visit her website and blog. You can also find her on Facebook.

George Saunders on Writing

By Mark Stevens

George SaundersOne of the most highly-decorated writers of the last few years stopped by The Tattered Cover a couple weeks ago.

The man was George Saunders, who wrote the short-story collection Tenth of December.

Saunders has been showered in praise and critical acclaim. Shower? More like Niagara Falls. The list of awards and prizes is long. Seek elsewhere if you don’t know. It’s impressive.

I wasn’t there, but I listened to the podcast posted on “Authors on Tour.”

I listened three times.

Stwvens_Saunders_Tenth of DecemberThe stories in Tenth of December are stunning pieces. I reviewed it when it first came out. Put it this way: the guy is highly original. The stories have bite.

So what about his presentation? Pompous? Snooty? Professor know-it-all?

Hardly. He referenced Honey Boo-Boo as easily as William Faulkner.

I highly recommend listening to his rapid-fire, enthusiastic style of talking about his writing—and his way-cool reading from a portion of one of his short stories, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” (a hilarious bit of whacky sci-fi).

Here’s a recap of a few of Saunders’ key points about writing.

(A brief comment first: holy smokes, this guy works hard, thinks hard. Tenacious.)

1. Listen to Yourself. “Follow your natural instincts—it’s all you’ve got,” he said. After some early efforts at writing fiction (“Joyce meets Hemingway meets Quaaludes”) and poetry (“scatological Dr. Seuss kinds of things”), one day his “so-called voice sort of appeared” and it was “kind of disappointing.” Nonetheless, it was his natural self. Saunders confessed to a former “medical affliction” called the “Hemingway boner.” “It was like this mountain, Hemingway mountain, I love you, I’m going up you.” After also failing on “Kerouac mountain,” Saunders finally realized there was a “little dung hill” and it had his name on it. The dung hill was his natural voice and he stuck with it.

2. Meaning Doesn’t Matter. “Maybe never,” says Saunders. “What you’re trying to do is get the thing to be energetic and the way you do that is baffling yourself someway.” Saunders added: “My end goal is to put you (the reader) through an invigorating and maybe confusing experience.”

3. Don’t Think in Categories. “You should do whatever you can do.” “Don’t lower the ceiling on yourself.”

4. Reader Intimacy Is Key. “By any means necessary, I’m trying to get the reader to lean in and have an intimate moment with me.” “Engage them first and move on.”

5. Rewrite and Rethink With No Attachment. “I take the story I printed out the day before and inch up to it and say, ‘Let me just read it with no attachment.’ If you are not too hung up on what you thought yesterday, you can see” (what needs work).

6. Dialogue As Plot is DOA. “Bad dialogue is when A asks a question and B answers it, because people don’t do that.” “Dialogue that fulfills plot function is dead on the page.” Dialogue should be two people “firing missiles past each other.” Well-written dialogue is “like poetry—it’s not functional but it looks good on the page and has a zinginess.”

7. Throw Trouble at Your Characters. Quoting Chekhov: “Every happy man should have someone with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws.”

8. Make it Undeniable. When is a story done? “Everyone will tell you something different…it’s whatever works for you.” For his own needs, Saunders said it’s when every moment in the story “feels undeniable; it feels like what happened.” He worked on one story two months of every year for four or five years. “I have to be solid with it myself. I go to pretty obsessive lengths to make sure I like it.”

9. Writers Don’t Get to Stabilize. In most jobs, he said, we want to have mastery, not only in our jobs but in our life. And we want to coast. In art, you want to find the method but the method is always changing. For writers, “you’re on a cruise ship, your job is to juggle, the ship is sinking, it’s coated with ice and we’re in roller skates and we’re drunk. We don’t get to stabilize.”

10. Good Stories Don’t Choose Right or Wrong. Fresh-cut grass is good; falling off a bridge is bad. A writer doesn’t have to deny one or the other. “Part of the fun of a story is you can think one direction, life is miserable, and then put in the other valance and suddenly those two things are resonating and the reader looks to you and says, ‘well, which do you believe?’ And you say, ‘Excuse me, I have to go on to the next paragraph.’ To credit both is really fun.”

11. Milk Your Insecurity. “I feel like if I even let up for one sentence, you’ll go away….My stories are kind of manic because I don’t want to lose you.”

12. First Draft Doesn’t Matter. At one point in his life, Saunders thought “if your first draft is no good, it’s ‘Shit, I’ve got to go to law school.” Now it’s “you have an infinite right to go in there and tweak it forever…just keep coming back to it again and again; that’s the key to a healthy and long writing life.”

High standards? You bet.

But isn’t it magic when you’re reading and you are so deep down in the story that you forget your reading? That you question nothing? That you lose yourself?

It’s that “undeniable” bar I love. A mighty goal. It’s magic, yeah, but if the master doesn’t mind sharing a few secrets, I’m all ears.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

Keep Your Eyes Open

By Yvonne Montgomery

Yvonne MontgomeryAs I draw near the end of my current project, A Signal Shown, Book Two of the Wisdom Court series, I’ve reached one of my favorite phases of writing a novel, what I call the Gifts from the Universe stage.

All writers are scavengers, gratefully and greedily snatching what we can find to flesh out the narrative. We eavesdrop on conversations and watch interactions among strangers, squirreling away precious bits and pieces to adorn our stories. Everything is grist for the mill, and someday that episode will find its place in a story, said Louis L’Amour. The man knew writing—and writers.

What I’m talking about is a little different. When you’ve been eating and breathing your work in progress, you come to a state of hyper-awareness. Perhaps it’s an inevitable tip into creative madness, maybe just a turn of the kaleidoscope making everything you encounter take on the characteristics of your particular focus. I prefer the idea of a generous, creative force presenting me with extra elements of completion for my manuscript.

One pre-dawn morning this week I was lying in bed and I saw a small triangle of light overhead. As I watched, the light skimmed across the ceiling and disappeared. Undoubtedly it was a stray shaft of light from a car driving through the alley.

But my novel is about a haunted place where strange happenings are eroding the comfort of its residents. The light floating along the surface of the ceiling set off my imagining another room where the moving glow was a sign of an eerie presence. The scene I wrote later in the day informed the chapter I was working on, and it had a little extra chill to it because of what I’d seen and felt that morning.

As I’ve mentioned my work lately, some people have generously related shivery anecdotes of otherworldly events I’ve found both evocative and worth stealing. (Of course I always ask their permission.) I’ve stumbled across reminders of ideas I’d forgotten, resurfacing now when I need them the most. A few weeks ago my grandchildren badgered me into watching a kid-TV show with them, and an element of its story let me see how a point-of-view shift in my narrative would enrich one major character. Pure gift.

We RMFW members are well aware of the creative community resulting from interaction with fellow writers, from attending critique groups, from combining our energies in conferences and educational programs. With each novel I’ve written, be it mystery, saga, or metaphysical thriller, I’ve had the additional, lovely experience of being a part of a realm in which those inspiring energies surround me. Whether generated in my fevered mind, lobbed my way by benign writing partners in the ether, or as a result of the overwhelming desire to be done with this book, I take great pleasure in these Gifts from the Universe. Their appearance truly means I’m nearly at the end of telling myself this tale. Before long the fervor of its creation will subside and I’ll be looking for another story to write.

Keep your eyes (and ears and minds and hearts) open to the creative gifts available to us as writers. They’re all grist for the mill.

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Montgomery_Scavanger Hunt Yvonne Montgomery lives in an old three-story house in Denver’s historic Capitol Hill. Its nooks and crannies and odd noises in the middle of the night have inspired her latest works, Edge of the Shadow and A Signal Shown, Books One and Two of the Wisdom Court series, to be e-published in early 2014. Her e-books are widely available, including at Amazon, B&N Nook, iBooks, Kobo.

Yvonne is the author of two mysteries, Scavenger Hunt (aka Scavengers) and Obstacle Course, and co-author of Bridey’s Mountain, a Colorado saga awarded the Colorado Authors League Top Hand Award for Best Book Length Fiction of 1993.

For more information, please visit Yvonne’s website, Writer in the Garret. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Spicing Up Your Stories

by Katriena Knights

Sex sells. We all know this. Not everybody wants to leap off the edge right into steamy erotica or even romance, and that’s fine—it’s not for everybody. But relationships are an important part of any story, and adding a little spice to those relationships can give you another tool to expand characterization, plot, and other important elements of storytelling.

Work It, Baby…

Like any scene in your story, a sex scene—or love scene, nookie scene, or scene where all the characters are naked anyway so you might as well take advantage of it—has to pull its weight or it doesn’t belong in your final draft. No matter how explicit or non-explicit, that scene has to provide plot impetus and character development. As much as we all might be in favor of it in real life, gratuitous sex has no place in a well-written story. Instead, any intimate encounter between your characters should perform one or more of the major tasks demanded of any scene in a story. It should:

  • Introduce plot points
  • Propel the story forward
  • Contribute to character development

This might seem like a large burden to put on a scene many people would consider extraneous fluff, but it isn’t. Every scene should do at least one of these things, and preferably two or all three. Intimate scenes between characters should show us something about those characters that contributes to their story. The same can be said for a fight scene or a scene where people eat dinner. Every scene in a story has to work for its right to be in that story, so be sure you’re loading those smoochie scenes with details and story elements that keep your plot toodling along and keep your reader reading rather than skipping pages.

No Two Scenes are Alike

There’s a perception, especially among those who don’t care for explicit fiction, that all sex scenes are alike. Some people even skip them, assuming nothing important is going to happen and they can get along to the plot. Your job as a writer is to make sure this isn’t true. Every scene—no matter what happens in that scene—should be unique to the book and the characters you’re working with. No two people are going to say the same things to each other as they tip over the edge from affection to intimacy. No two couples are going to have the exact same experience, the same feelings. If you know your characters well—and you should—you’ll know what about that encounter will touch them most deeply. You’ll know which of their buttons to hit to make the scene ring with emotion rather than dry anatomical details.

Even if your encounter isn’t explicit, it’ll pack a punch if you keep these things in mind. I’ve read well-written, well-integrated scenes that were only a couple of sentences long that were more sensual, erotic, and meaningful than five or six pages of mechanical details that didn’t drag me into the scene or make me care for the characters.

Sure, you can write an entire book without sex scenes. You can also write an entire book without fight scenes or scenes where people eat dinner. This isn’t a judgment call on the types of scenes you choose to put in your story. It’s a reminder that every scene, no matter what the context, should always work its little words off to do its job. And that job is to entice, involve, and hook your reader.

I’ll be teaching an online workshop starting March 3rd that will help you add this kind of punch to any sensual, romantic, or sexually explicit scenes you might want to write. Even if you just want to add a touch of spice to a story rather than diving into the deep end of the explicitness pool, you’ll learn how to ensure those scenes drive the story and are meaningful for the reader. Join me for “Writing Meaningful and Memorable Sex Scenes” and find out ways to enrich your readers’ experience.

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

Engineering a Mystery

By Beth Groundwater

Beth GroundwaterI’ve taught a number of workshops at many different writing conference, library programs, and to writing groups, and one of my favorites is “Engineering a Mystery.” I apply my engineering background from my first career to help fledgling mystery writers build some scaffolding for their projects, or formulate recipes for their mystery novels.

The first essential ingredient in a mystery is the sleuth, who investigates the murder(s) and tries to deduce who the killer is. In my case, with two mystery series in the works, my sleuths are well-defined: whitewater river ranger and rafting guide Mandy Tanner for the RM Outdoor Adventures series or gift basket designer Claire Hanover. Both of these characters are old friends, but when I switch from one to the other, I usually need to go back and read at least the last few chapters of the last book starring that character, so I remember what emotional and physical state I left her in and move on from there.

The next essential ingredient in the recipe for a murder mystery is the victim. The dead body that falls on the floor in Act One. There may even be more than one victim to keep things interesting if the plot starts to drag in the middle. Without a victim, we wouldn’t have a mystery to solve and we could all go home! Along with defining a victim, I try to give him or her a family and/or friends who will sorely miss them, because we should never forget how truly horrible murder is.

Usually the victim is not well-liked, so there are many people who’d like to see him or her dead. And, I, like most mystery writers, try to use my creativity to find an interesting way for the victim to die—a mysterious poison, a unique weapon, something that might be construed as an accident or suicide and so on.

Groundwater_Basket of TroubleThe third essential ingredient is suspects, those people who may have killed the victim(s). There are usually between 3 and 7 suspects in a murder mystery. Detectives or amateur sleuths look for means, motive, and opportunity for suspects. All three are needed to identify the killer. Means is the ability to commit the murder, such as access to the murder weapon. Motive is the reason why the suspect wanted the victim dead. Opportunity is the potential for the suspect to be at the right place at the right time to kill the victim. And an alibi is a story for why a suspect didn’t have the opportunity. That story can be true or false.

I try to make sure that all of my suspects have at least two if not all three of means, motive, and opportunity. And bringing in suspects often drives the addition of subplots (activities the victim was engaged in that may have led to his murder) and the addition of research topics I need to study.

The fourth essential ingredient in a murder mystery is clues, pieces of evidence that help the sleuth solve the crime. A good principle that detectives use is that the killer usually leaves something at the crime scene and takes something away. What the killer leaves may be fingerprints, shoe prints, a lipstick stain on a glass, or the murder weapon, say if the knife is stuck in the body. What the killer takes away may be hairs, carpet fibers or bloodstains, money or jewelry, or a special memento of the crime. I try to sprinkle the discovery of clues throughout the manuscript, as well as conversations with the suspects, to keep the reader stimulated with more information that she or he can use to try to solve the puzzle.

The last ingredient that spices up the recipe is red herrings. These are false clues that point to the wrong suspect, such as the gun in my first mystery, A REAL BASKET CASE, that incriminated Claire’s husband. The term comes from a fish that’s been cured in brine and smoked, which turns it red and makes it very smelly. The smelly herring then is dragged across a trail to try to distract hunting dogs from their prey. A good hunting dog—or sleuth—is trained to not be distracted by the strong false scent but to stay on the trail of its prey. What makes things interesting in a murder mystery is when a piece of evidence points to more than one suspect, so it’s both a red herring for the innocent suspect and a clue for the killer.

I like to have at least half a dozen clues and red herrings, if not more. Once all the essential elements are defined, I work on putting scenes in order in an outline, figuring out what happens when and what gets discovered when. During this process, I shuffle scenes around until I come up with a flow of events that I think will most interest the reader. And, of course, there have got to be some surprises!

It’s a complex process, and one that I always find daunting in the beginning, wondering how I’ll ever come up with the final product–a scene by scene outline, a set of detailed character profiles, and thorough research notes from which I can start writing. But, I have to trust in the process and my abilities. I keep telling myself that I’ve done it many times before, so I should be able to do it again.

This post previously appeared on Inkspot, the blog for Midnight Ink authors, on February 11th, 2013.

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Bestselling mystery author Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series (A Real Basket Case, a Best First Novel Agatha Award finalist, To Hell in a Handbasket, and in November, 2013, A Basket of Trouble) and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner (Deadly Currents, an Amazon #3 overall bestseller, Wicked Eddies, finalist for the Rocky Award, and Fatal Descent). Beth enjoys Colorado’s many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs.

For more information about Beth and her books, please visit her at her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook and Goodreads.

It’s All Relative

By Ross Willard

Ross WillardI’m cold.

I know, I know, it’s winter and we’re all cold, but, if you can hang on for a moment and trust me, my being cold is actually kind of relevant. You see, I’m visiting my parents in a small town in Texas where we have a farm.

Right now, it’s about thirty five, forty degrees outside, and I’m cold. Which is weird, because I’ve had days in Colorado where I’ve joyfully worn short sleeves outside when the temperature got up this high. As a matter of fact, if it had gotten this warm on the day that I’d left Colorado, I probably wouldn’t have brought the jacket I’m wearing today.

But here I am. Cold.

Why? Because it’s all relative. I lived the first few years of my life in Michigan, and the first winter after I moved to Texas, I was stunned. People were throwing on jackets and huddling up right about the time I was starting to get comfortable. Of course, the first summer after I moved to Texas, I spent about a month wearing as little as I could and laying under the fan all day, but that winter I was amused.

So many times, when I’ve heard editors talking about what they look for and authors talk about how they start a book, they’ll put so much emphasis on the importance of getting right to the action as soon as possible. To an extent, I agree with them. Hooking a reader in, giving them a reason to keep turning the page is paramount: it doesn’t matter how good your story is, if readers have to slog through two hundred pages of description to get to the meat, they won’t do it. That being said, I think that many times authors forget the importance of world building when it comes to writing, and it’s an art every bit as important as the art of crafting action.

Willard_SYSTEM PurgeWhy? Because a book about propriety in the nineteenth century can be every bit as captivating and riveting as a book about the end of the world. More so, even. I cannot even begin to imagine how many books over the last decade or so have been written wherein the stakes are the fate of all of mankind, where the world hangs in the balance and everything and everyone you’ve ever known or met will come to naught if one person fails in his/her quest to… well, whatever it is they have to do. And yet these books, at least, most of these books, will fade away with time. They will be forgotten, taken off of shelves, disappear from human memory, while books written a century or more ago, books about young orphans simply trying to survive on the streets and young women resisting society’s pressures to marry this man or that, will live on for a hundred more years.

Now, I’m not saying that I prefer the works of Dickens and Austin over more modern creations, in point of fact, I haven’t read either of them since graduation, and I don’t feel that I’ve lost much by doing so. That being said, if we were to write the basic plot of each down, show them to someone who didn’t know about literature, and ask which one was likely to be read and reread, generation after generation and which one would be quickly forgotten, I strongly suspect they’d be inclined to choose poorly.

But the thing in literature is that the stakes are always magnificent. Whether failure means death to a species, or less exuberant life for a single soul, we can experience the full range of human emotions in examining each. We can gnash our teeth in rage at the smallest bit of rudeness and feel our toes curl in delight at a half smile, if the author gives us the opportunity.

World building is often discussed amongst science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts (such as myself), because, well, we build worlds, but every author is required to be a world builder. Every writer is responsible for explaining to his or her reader why it is that their story is important. While authors like Dickens and Austin can be difficult to read because of their laborious passages and never-ending descriptions, the fact is that they have lasted for as long as they have because they do what so few other authors can: they paint the world in such a way as to force their reader to care about the outcome of their book, to reflect upon on it.

For you authors who feel your work is missing something, but cannot put your finger on what, forget, for a moment, your plot, and reflect upon your world.

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Ross Willard, a Colorado resident, has been writing speculative fiction in one form or another for as long as he can remember. A longtime member of the Penpointers critique group, Ross can often be found reading or writing at his local independent coffee shop, or working on his website.

Old Writer, New Tricks

By Mary Gillgannon

I’m what I call an intuitive or “into the mist” writer.  I have a general idea of what the story is about, but I don’t really plot. I’m also a linear writer. I start from the beginning and keep going on the rough draft until I reach the end. Between “non-plotting” and writing straight through, I usually end up with a complete mess and then have to go back and rewrite extensively to get a coherent and compelling story. It was pretty typical that for a 120,000 word novel, I’d write about 30,000 extra words. For my 160,000-word historical novel, I probably wrote 300,000!

About five years ago, I decided I wasn’t up to all that floundering and struggle and wasted words. I was going to learn to plot. I attended workshops, read books and talked to other writers about their plotting process. It all sounded good to me… until I sat down and tried to do it. Nothing happened. No story ideas came. My mind went blank and my muse refused to speak to me.

So, I went back to “writing into the mist” and writing linearly. I seemed to be getting better at it with my romances. But when I tried to write a fantasy series, I ended up with a 200,000 word book that needs to be about half that. Not to mention, I can’t market the series yet because I don’t know what happens in the second book, let alone the third and fourth. (I know. George R.R. Martin probably doesn’t really know where his series is going either. But he’s clearly better at this stuff than me.)

The feeling that there has to be a better way keeps gnawing at me. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve found it with my latest project. It’s a fantasy romance that I first started years ago. Because I was trying to sell on proposal back then, I actually wrote a very rough synopsis for this book. I started writing based on the synopsis, and after a few chapters, inevitably, the plot began to change. But then I did something different. I didn’t keep writing. I went back and started revising the synopsis to fit the story. As I did that, I realized there were lots of story questions I hadn’t addressed. So I went back and rewrote parts of the first few chapters. In the process, the whole story became clearer to me. For once, I wasn’t writing “into the mist”. I could actually see where I was going.

I’ve decided I would keep up with this new technique with this book. I’m beginning to think that maybe the problem isn’t that I don’t plot, but that I keep writing forward even when I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe if I try to plot as I write the book and fix things as I go along, I won’t end up with such a disaster at the end.

I’ve been writing novels for over twenty years. It would be really exciting if I finally figured out a better way to do it!

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Mary GillgannonMary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library, where she she has the enviable task of purchasing adult fiction. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! For more about Mary, visit her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook.

Tips on Working with a Manuscript Reader

By Alissa Johnson

Alissa JohnsonWhen I finish a book I love, I turn past the last page. I look for anything I can read so I don’t have to set it down. I want to stay immersed in the feeling of the book. Inevitably, my search takes me to the author’s Acknowledgements Page.

I’ve come to believe this page would be better called the Gratitude Page because it’s so often more than a list of names. It’s a tribute to the people who helped bring the book to life, and it’s a reminder to writers: writing may be an individual act but the process of creating a good book is never solitary.

Chief among those listed on the Acknowledgements Page are trusted and insightful readers—people who identified where the story flowed and where it needed some work. Theirs is one of the most important steps in writing, and one of the most vulnerable for the writer (I imagine it’s like parent teacher conferences, waiting to hear if your kid is a pro or a total slacker).

I’ve seen it go incredibly right, inspiring a writer to move forward with her story, and I’ve seen it go incredibly wrong—literally stopping a writer in her tracks because she didn’t pick the right reader.

Here are a few ways to make sure that you and your reader get it right:

1. Select readers with the skill sets you need. My two most trusted readers brought opposite (and equally important) skills to the table. One responded to the big picture—did the plot make sense? Were the characters clear? Where was it confusing? The other favored a black pen and editing a sentence like his life depended on it.

2. Ask for sample feedback. Send five to ten pages or a chapter and ask what he or she would suggest so you can get a sense for the input you’d receive.

3. Choose readers you like. If the communication flows easily it’s going to be a lot easier to take the good and the bad when they send you feedback on your manuscript.

4. Let your reader know if there are specific questions you want addressed, but trust that he’ll be seeing it with fresh eyes. Leave room for him to tell you what he sees.

5. After you send the manuscript, do something fun. Go for a hike, a ski, a run, or out with friends. Celebrate the fact that you care enough about your story to get someone’s input on how to make it better.

6. Resist the urge to edit before you get feedback. It’s difficult to work with feedback based on an earlier draft, and the time away from your work will let you see it with fresh eyes.

7. Set your own expectations before you get feedback. You’ve been living and breathing this story, which means that you are too close to see it clearly. You’ll hear some good stuff, but you’ll also learn where it’s not working. That’s not a failure—it’s the point of getting feedback.

8. When you get the feedback, read it and digest it. But before you start making each and every change, look at your manuscript for yourself. What do you see that needs work?

9. Once you’ve made all your revisions, read the feedback one more time. You don’t need to make every suggested change but make sure you’ve carefully considered each one.

10. Remember that revision is where the magic happens in writing—where prose comes alive and the storyline comes into its own.

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Alissa Johnson is an award winning writer and writing coach in Crested Butte, CO. She helps clients find peace with their writing process so they can get the most out of life and feel productive as writers. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Dirt Rag Magazine and Green Woman Magazine among other publications, and she holds an MFA from Western Connecticut State University. You’ll find her at her personal website and blog, and at the Writing Strides website.