04 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part I

Susan SlaterUndetered (or perhaps (shudder) drawn) by Leigh's communiqués covering the weirdness of Florida, Susan Slater recently moved from the Southwestern US (New Mexico, Arizona) to Palm Coast, between St. Augustine and Daytona. First she was beset with internet problems, then Sunday she telephoned SleuthSayers International Headquarters. horrified that her computer had died. Fortunately, she'd sent in her intended article, which appears today. Unfortunately, she will have to introduce herself personally when she gets her new machine. (She's considering using this opportunity to switch from PCs to a Mac, possibly an iMac, a Macbook air– or both! Me, I stick with my Underwood.)

Susan is the author of several Southwest mystery novels including single title and series, including the Ben Pecos series. She's also the author of the breakout 'henlit' novel, 0 to 60.


The Class of Writing, Part I

by Susan Slater

Most readers today– certainly those thirty-five and younger grew up with computers! They expect their information demands to be met quickly–they IM, email, download, text, twitter, speed-dial– anything that saves them time. And information is always at their fingertips– iPods, Blackberries, cell phones, laptops– the pace of life seems frantic and the amount of information staggering!

It's certainly no longer necessary to describe the elephant! The gorgeous prose of yesteryear is almost non-existent! We are exposed to so much more today. Poor Miss Marple is no longer gory enough– not when the reader has just seen a murder/suicide on the six o'clock news.

Taking It Home

How different from when I grew up. I wrote in a journal, posted notes to friends, sent honest-to-goodness thank-you notes on real paper in real envelopes (no Jacquie Larson here). As a child I read books written a hundred years before my time–and loved them. The richness of back-story, the lushness of description– I wanted to be another Bronte or Austen or at the very least an Agatha. I wanted to "live" with those characters–grow with them. A chat with Hercule Piorot? Too perfect.

I always chose the 'fattest' book on the library shelf to take on vacation–it had to last a week! No beach read, commuter scan, or summer light-weight for me. I personally think it's a shame we have very few epics being written today. I know I was meant to write The Thornbirds!

But in our bottom-line driven society, terms like having punch and to-the-point take precedence. There's very little patience for carefully crafted, in-depth stories with memorable characters. We have formula romance and formula mysteries. Readers demand (and get) fast-paced stories that mirror their lives. There are not a lot of characters in fiction today that I'd want to take home!

Attracting That Audience

So what does this mean for writers? If we want to attract a reading audience, we MUST take heed or not be published! This modern-day pacing has changed the way we write.
We no longer have the luxury of wallowing in lengthy back-story or page after page of description– hey, our readers have been there, done that. And they can always Google a topic they're not familiar with.

All this ranting brings me to some advice. Having taught writing for many years, I tried to come up with what might be the most helpful to writers. Comments on plot, characterization, scenes, POV? All are great topics but I decided to start (and aptly so) with beginnings. Those opening paragraphs that will make or break you. And I'm not just talking about "hooks"– but maybe more the nuances. See what you think.

• Question: What do readers need to know right up front??
First paragraph, first 5 pages, first 10?
• Answer: Whatever will keep them reading!
  1. It could a foreshadowing. Consider Connie Shelton's opening to Memories Can Be Murder:
    We come to certain crossroads in our lives. It is inevitable. Some are planned–marriage, career changes, cross-country moves. At other times we come to these crossroads quite suddenly, with no warning. I was orphaned in such a way over fifteen years ago and managed to get on with my life anyway. But within the past few days the discovery of some boxes of old papers dumped my preconceived ideas about my own life suddenly and completely upside down.
  2. If you don't want to "bait" your reader, snag him with a description (setting the stage or establishing tone) of something so unusual that he's propelled to continue. For example, Tony Hillerman in A Thief of Time:
  3. "The Moon had risen just above the cliff behind her. Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick-figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand. Sometimes, when the goat trail bent and put the walker's profile against the moon, the shadow became Kokopelli himself. The back pack formed the spirit's grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli's crooked flute. Seen from above, the shadow would have made a Navajo believe that the great yei northern clans called Watersprinkler had taken visible form. If an Anasazi had risen from his thousand-year grave in the trash heap under the cliff ruins here, he would have seen the Humpbacked Flute Player, the rowdy god of fertility of his lost people. But the shadow was only the shape of Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal blocking out the light of an October moon."
  4. 0 to 60Or pull the reader directly into the action–often done through dialogue. Let the reader experience (or discover) what is happening along with the main character. Consider Susan Slater's opening to 0 to 60:
    "I have a love child."

    "Ed, I don't have time for games. Ok, Ok, give me a hint. Movie? Novel?"

    She continued to slip his tux from its protective covering, twist the hanger handle perpendicular, and stretch to secure it over the closet door. She smiled. They hadn't played a version of What's That Line? for years. But back when things were simple– before children, a demanding job with a six-figure salary– they'd open a bottle of wine and just be together. Would it be like that again now that he was retiring?
    Here the reader is 'with' Shelly when she learns that her marriage is a sham. By experiencing the event, the reader buys into the story (perhaps, identifies with it) and wants to find out how Shelly will handle the crisis.

    Consider also, Erica Holtzer's Eye for an Eye, where a mother is on the phone with her daughter on Halloween and hears what happens when the daughter opens the door to what she thinks is more trick-or-treaters. The reader is right there experiencing it with her.

  5. If I'm writing a short story–where I do not have the luxury of space–I have to make every sentence count especially in the first paragraph. I call it the "10 in 10" rule– 10 facts in the opening paragraph of 10 lines! Look at the following opening paragraph from An Eye for an Eye, my contribution to the anthology of short stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. Can you find all the facts? ONLY count those that further the story–those that are necessary to the plot:
    Sliding behind the steering wheel, Edie started the rental and quickly turned the heater to three before pulling a New Mexico map from the glove box. At least she couldn't get lost. Ha! Her friends would laugh at that. She had been known to screw up going from point A to B in a straight line. But not this time. She shook out the map and traced the route with her index finger: highway 64 from Taos, west across the Gorge, cross 285 at Tres Piedras, continue on 64 and follow the signs to Durango. Piece of cake. Yeah, right. What the map didn't say was beware of wildlife. Was she taking a chance starting out well after dark? Probably. But as usual she was running late. Just another stressor. One she'd promised her shrink to work on.
Did you find these?
  • Her name is Edie
  • She's driving a rental
  • She's in New Mexico
  • She's going from Taos to Durango
  • It's cold out
  • She's sometimes inept–gets lost easily
  • Wildlife on the road could pose a danger
  • It's well after dark
  • She's running late
  • Being late is a stressor that she's promised her shrink to work on

Obviously, if your opening paragraph only has 5 lines or 8, the facts would match.

• Question: How do you know where (within your story) to start?
My response might surprise you.
• Answer: Next week!


  1. You can credit (or blame) Susan for encouraging my start in the world of writing. During a conference in Orlando, I mentioned I liked to write and Susan said "Show me your stuff." I dashed home and nearly burned out my lazy laser printer to print out a few hundred pages. The next morning she telephoned and said "§fl¥æ@ߌ, you can write!" The teacher and writer she is, she persuaded me to start sending material to editors.

    Maybe she'll encourage some of you, too.

  2. It's not clear if Susan and her computer are up and running yet, but feel free to leave messages.

  3. This is a really great post, Susan! Thanks for the great tips and examples.

    And, the frosting on the cake??

    I now know what "henlit" is. Go figure!

  4. Your Q and A remind me of when I used to teach psychotherapy to psychiatric residents. MY question was: What one thing is the best indicator that you had a good initial therapy session with a new client?
    Nobody ever got the answer right. Answer: The client shows up for a second session.


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