Showing posts with label writing tips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing tips. Show all posts

09 November 2019

My Rules of Mystery


Many writers have drafted up a set of "rules" for how to write and, specifically, how to write mysteries. I thought now would be a nice time to toss in my five cents on the matter. And the following list can equally apply to short stories or novels.


1.   First rule of mystery writing: There MUST be a mystery.

Readers KEEP reading, page after page, because they want to know the answer/solution/explanation of that mystery.

2.   Does a mystery always need a dead body?

No. But the "crime" needs to be significant, e.g., a serious physical assault, the robbery of a valuable jewel, a threat to kill.

An empty chocolate wrapper (and Who ate the candy?) is a children's mystery. A severed head is an adult mystery.

3.   The mystery must be solved at the END of the story.

Ask a question very near the beginning, e.g., Who murdered Roger Ackroyd? Answer this question very near the end.

If you don't answer the question, and the mystery remains a mystery, the reader will throw your book at the wall.

You could answer the question in the middle, but you better have another good question to ask at that point to lead the reader through to the end; and there needs to be a good, justifiable reason for doing this.

4.   There is a difference between mystery and suspense.

A bomb that brings down an aircraft is a mystery. A passenger on a plane thinking the guy two rows ahead may have a bomb in his overhead luggage is suspense.

5.   Be aware that “Mystery” is a broad church.

There are many sub categories (or genres) to mysteries, e.g., noir, cozy, police procedural, private eye, locked room. And feel free to mix these up.

6.   Genres have rules.

If you’re writing in one of the genres (99% likely), be aware there are conventions and reader expectations for each.

Unless you truly are one of the masters of literature, mess with reader expectations at your peril.

7.   You are unlikely to be one of the masters of literature.


8.   Write what you know. If you don’t know, find out.

Don’t write a story about a private eye, or a kindergarten teacher, if you have no idea at all what is involved in those professions. Don't set a story in Latvia if you don't, at least, know the country's capitol or what language the people speak (Riga, Latvian/Russian). Don't write about Euclidean geometry, if you haven't any idea what that is. Don’t guess; research (libraries, Google, talk to people).

A good writer is a good researcher.

9.   Clichés

Avoid these like the plague.

There are countless websites that list clichés and common and overused tropes.

10.  Conflict is your friend.

Conflict, at its simplest, is the "disagreement" between a person and another (person, external force/creature). It's between protagonist and antagonist; or to put it another way:

Main Character vs. ________________

Every work of fiction (mystery, or other) that’s ever been sold to a publisher has had conflict in it (literary fiction excluded). Conflict invites drama; it is the fuel of a story. If your story has no conflict, there will be little to engage the reader.

A scene where a married couple eats dinner and discuss what color to paint their bathroom is not drama. If one of the diners suspects the other of sleeping around, you have conflict (and they can still be discussing what color to paint the bathroom (see next)).

11.  Subtext is your friend.

Subtext is not written, it is implied. It is the underneath; the feelings and intuition, the unspoken meaning.

Even a shopping list can have subtext.
  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Hammer
  • Shovel
  • Bag of quicklime
  • Bottle of champagne 
Subtext is one of the writer's tools of magic.

12.  Plants are your friends.

Don’t have the hero pull out a gun and shoot the bad guy on the last page, if there’s been no mention (or any kind of reasonable expectation) that the hero is carrying a gun. Plant it. Remember your Chekhov: Gun on wall in first act. Gun fired in third act.

And plants apply to everything, not just guns. Bad guy's sneeze gives away his position in the shadows; plant his allergy earlier. Hero must rescue cat from tree, but he can't; plant his fear of heights earlier.

Without planting, events and actions will appear implausible, and your book will meet the wall.

A good writer is a good gardener.

Note: Yes, I know I'm retooling Chekhov's meaning (he was more concerned with the relevance of things in a story, i.e., don't include something, if it isn't needed later).

13.  Red herrings vs. Playing fair

Feel free to mislead and misdirect your readers (let them reel in many red herrings), but always play fair. Give your readers some real "clues" as to what is going on; so, at the end of the story, they'll slap their heads and sigh, "Oh, but of course!" Give them enough clues so that they "almost" might be able to work out what is going on, before you yank the curtain back and startle the snot out of them.

Never try to "trick" your reader; your book will be thrown at the wall.

And if you end your story with: it was all just a dream, you'll hit the wall before your book does.

14.  MacGuffins are a thing.

Many mysteries make use of a MacGuffin. A microfilm that everyone wants, and will kill for, is a MacGuffin. The Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin. The object of a quest: a diamond mine, an unknown Beethoven Symphony, the Holy Grail, can all be MacGuffins. MacGuffins give the characters something to do.

Wikipedia sums it up best: "In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself."

The shark in Jaws IS NOT a MacGuffin.

15.  Impose a deadline

Deadlines work well in suspense (We have to find the bomb, it explodes at midnight!!!), and they also work in mystery. A deadline focuses a story on its end/outcome and creates urgency. Think of a story as a tunnel. The deadline is the light at the end.

The detective on board the train must identify the killer before the train arrives at its destination and all the passengers disembark. An unknown man who smokes Gauloises has threatened to hijack a school bus, and it's two hours until school's out.

16.  Twists are good. (there be spoilers here)

A TWIST ENDING is not a prerequisite for a mystery, but if you can write an unexpected and satisfying twist into your story's end, it will certainly make it more memorable; it will add another layer of icing to the cake. A twist ending completely upends and rearranges the facts and events of what's come before it.

The Sixth Sense: The child psychologist IS one of the dead people the kid is seeing. Psycho: Norman Bates IS his mother.

Pro tip: Twist endings are never arbitrarily dreamed up at the end of writing a story. They are written in right from the very beginning. Robert Bloch knew on page one of Psycho that Norman Bates' mother was dead and that Norman was the killer, and Bloch carefully hid this in the fabric of the storytelling. He didn't let the reader in on the truth until the end.

PLOT TWISTS can appear anywhere in a story and are different to the "twist ending." Plot twists change something significant about the story and/or the characters, but don't rewrite the whole thing.

Star Wars: Luke, I am your father. The Shining: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

An excellent, legendary plot twist appears in Psycho, about one third of the way in. Mary Crane, the book's main character (the one we've been following and who we care about), is murdered. She's gone for good. Never comes back. Bloch was one of the masters of literature; he could get away with that kind of thing.

17.  Last rule of mystery writing: Ignore all the rules at your pleasure. Except for the first one.


So, do you have any "rules of mystery" that you live and write by?



stephenross.live/
Twitter: @_StephenRoss/

17 April 2018

Editing, TV Style


by Lawrence Maddox

Paul here: 

Please make sure to scroll to the end (but I know you will ’cause you’ll have read the whole piece by Larry 😊), to see my announcement about SleuthSayers, the Derringers and other awards.

My pal Lawrence Maddox's background is in editing for various television shows, including Santa Clarita Diet, Raising Hope, and many more. His crime fiction has appeared in the anthologies 44 Caliber Funk and Orange County Noir. Larry scripted the Hong Kong kickboxing flick Raw Target and the indie musical Open House. His debut novella Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey) debuted last month. 

I thought it might be interesting to see how Larry applied his visual editing background to his prose writing. So take it away, Larry:

***

“They want to publish Fast Bang Booze, but you’ll have to turn it into a novella. That’s twenty-five thousand words,” Gary Phillips said. “And they want it in the next couple weeks,” he added dubiously.

This was a great opportunity for me, but I wondered if I could cut my novel nearly in half without turning it into something I wouldn’t be proud of. At the time I was also working substantial hours editing a TV show, not to mention raising a family. Time would be tight. If I had any chance at coming out on top of this, I knew I ‘d have to fall back on a set of skills I’d been honing for years—maybe I could apply my skills as a television editor to the editing of my novel..

As a network TV editor, I’m tasked with building an episode scene-by-scene, following the script as I pick the angles and performances that best tell the story. I’ve worked in just about every genre, but my bread-and-butter are half hour single-camera comedies. They’re the hardest. They don’t just tell a story, they also tickle the funny bone (or try to). My shows (single-camera comedies) don’t have laugh tracks that tell you when the show is funny. I’m happy about that, too. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on multi-camera shows (I’m currently introducing my eight-year old to The Munsters—she loves it), and many of them still shine, decades later. But as I got older, I found that laugh tracks seemed 1984-ish, especially when the writing was clearly mediocre. It’s like Big Brother is telling you, “Everyone else thinks this crap is funny, why aren’t you laughing too?” Single camera comedies don’t have the crutch of the laugh track.

The shows I edit are like carefully constructed mini-movies with three acts and multiple jokes per page. There are no pauses for live audience laughter. You know it’s funny because you’re not searching for your remote control in that pesky crevice in the couch. And humor moves. Pace is king and that’s something I definitely applied to my novella: pace—keep it moving.

While the show is being shot, usually over the course of five days, I’m putting it together. It’s like assembling a massive jigsaw puzzle where every piece talks and reacts and forgets what their lines are. I’m not supposed to cut any dialogue when I’m doing the initial edit of the show, called the Editor’s Cut. I’m often dying to, but I get why I can’t. Those words represent big bucks, as well as hard fought battles in the writer’s room. Showrunners (writers usually) who are the main creative forces behind TV shows—don’t even like director’s taking dialogue out when it’s their turn to take a whack at their episode. When directors do their pass through the show after I turn over my cut, they inevitably turn to me in the edit room and ask, “Is the showrunner okay if I chop out dialogue to help get my episode to time?” I will usually respond, “Sure, if you don’t mind not getting hired back.” Then we carry on as if the conversation never happened, all dialogue left untouched, the auteur theory a burning, distant ember.  In TV, the writer is king and queen. Directors are hired guns who need to tread carefully where all things script-related are concerned or they could end up being “one-and-done.”

When the director leaves after their DGA-enforced two days with the editor are over, the showrunner finishes up with their own notes, as well as with notes from the studio and the network. If they don’t like what the director did in the editing room, they’ll often use the Editor’s Cut as their basis.  Now is the time when the elephant in the room takes a seat on the couch behind the Avid (the prevalent non-linear editing system used in TV and film), and begins to tap his Rolex. It’s get-the-show-to-time time. I should mention that many cable and streaming shows are a lot more loosey goosey with running times. While cutting Santa Clarita Diet, getting episodes to time is rarely an issue. I get to concentrate on the fun stuff, like the lovely and talented Drew Barrymore eating people.

Getting a show to time is the Jason Voorhees of network postproduction, the looming obstacle that faces every editor, over and over again. For a half-hour single camera comedy, “getting to time” means making sure an episode comes in at twenty-one and a half minutes. This timing differs from network to network, but not by much. The pilot I’m currently editing can’t come in over twenty-one minutes and twenty-two seconds. Episodes can come in a little shorter, but not a frame over. Remember at the beginning I told you that I start this process by building an episode scene by scene, closely following the script? What if that script is, say, thirty-two pages? At the minute-per-page standard calculation, we’re talking a thirty-two minute first cut. That’s ten whopping minutes—one third of the show—that needs to come out. That’s not editing, that’s liposuction.  And I don’t have all day. At this stage, they’ve already started filming my next episode. That means I’m back in dailies (shot footage), starting the process all over again. I’m finishing one episode and starting another. I have to act quickly.

My showrunner will come up with many of the trims, but they’re even busier than I am. They have to monitor what’s happening on set and in the writer’s room. Egos have to be massaged. Often, showrunners depend on the editor to come up with ways to take the time out of the episode without hurting it. So, when I’m in this position with my own fiction I ask myself the exact same questions I do when taking the excess baggage out of the shows I’m editing. Is this redundant? Do I have to keep this character beat or is this ground covered elsewhere? Have I over-stayed my welcome in this scene? TV editing has taught me the joys of being callous and bloodthirsty. Ruthlessness is called for. Babies are going to be killed. The editing room floor will be awash in punch lines and exposition, as will the outtakes in my novel, hopefully more of the latter than the former.

The through-line of the episode’s A-story should remain unscathed, which is also how I approach my prose. In TV editing I’ve had to be adept at juggling all the story lines as the episode shrinks. Many a B-story has been the victim of a subplot-ectomy in the service of getting an episode to time. When I did my Novella pass through Fast Bang Booze, I lost an entire B story (actually, it was more like a D-story) and no one was the wiser. It made the main story even stronger.

A pilot is the first episode in a proposed TV series. If the pilot doesn’t go well, the series is scrapped and the pilot never sees the light of day. The scripts for pilots inevitably come in over thirty pages, and cutting them down to time are high-pressure situations. The big fear is losing elements about the main character(s) that everyone loves. I’ve learned that this stage is an opportunity to refine the characters and make sure they are consistent. The pilot for Suburgatory had a lot of first person narration. As we whittled it down, the narration was re-written and improved until it was sharp as a one frame splice. Less really was more.

I have to see the big picture and also travel through an episode line by line. Every word is scrutinized in dialogue, and much of it is boiled down editorially to the bare bones. Excess verbiage is jettisoned, word-by-word, until the dialogue flies. I do this when I’m editing my own work. And when I’m done, the leanest, meanest version of the episode is infinitely better than its former self.

So when Gary threw down the novel-to-novella gauntlet, I didn’t freak out. I put on my edit room goggles and did what I do. Except this time, I was ruthless and mean for me, not for a network.  And it worked. I was amazed with how well it worked.

I should add that the original publisher I was writing for went belly up, but Eric Campbell and Ron Phillips of Down and Out Books and Shotgun Honey snatched up Fast Bang Booze, and it debuted March 23rd. If you’d like to see my criminal take on my under-the-gun profession, check out my story “Smotherage,” an extra bonus found at the back of my novella that details the pressure cooker world of editing TV pilots, and “Hot Moviola,” in the anthology 44 Caliber Funk (Moonstone), is about an editor caught in a world of intrigue in 1974 LA.

Keep on cutting!

***

Thanks for stopping by, Larry. Good luck with the book! And you can find Larry’s book here: Down & Out Books and Amazon.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

SleuthSayers Cleans Up:

Derringer Nominations have come out: (https://shortmystery.blogspot.com/2018/04/2018-derringer-award-finalists.html ). I want to congratulate all the finalists, including SleuthSayers’ own Elizabeth Zelvin "Flash Point,” from A Twist of Noir (March 20, 2017) and Robert Lopresti, “The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan," from Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23, editor: Marvin Kaye, Wildside Press (October 2017).

My story “Windward” is also nominated in the novelette category, from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books (January 2017).

But the truly mind-blowing thing is that 4 stories from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea have been nominated: Mine, Andy McAleer’s, Matt Coyle’s and Robert Randisi’s. I’m truly amazed and honored for such a great showing from a terrific book. And many thanks to the Short Mystery Fiction Society:

Available at Amazon and Down & Out Books

And another SleuthSayers’ story, Art Taylor’s “A Necessary Ingredient” is nominated for an Agatha. SleuthSayer John Floyd’s “Gun Work” and my story “Windward” have been chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mysteries of 2018 by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler. – And I want to thank all of the authors who contributed stories to Coast to Coast. – So, like I said, mind blowing. And I’m thrilled to be part of it on various levels.

***

My Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down & Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.  Release date is May 21, 2018:


Check out my website: www.PaulDMarks.com

14 October 2017

How I Wrote THE BIG REWIND


Libby Cudmore
Libby Cudmore, the Girl with the Impish Smile
Welcome Libby Cudmore. She’s the author of The Big Rewind (William Morrow, 2016) which received a Starred Review from Kirkus, as well as praise from Booklist, Publisher's Weekly and USA Today. Her work has been published in Beat to a Pulp, The Stoneslide Corrective, PANK, The Big Click and the anthologies Hanzai Japan, Welcome Home and Mixed Up. She is a frequent contributor to Vinyl Me Please, Paste, Albumism and the Barrelhouse blog, and hosts the weekly #RecordSaturday.

Meanwhile, she answers those forever questions… How do you get your ideas? How do you bring them to fruition?

You can live-tweet her @libbycudmore.
— Velma



by Libby Cudmore

I spent the first few years of my crime writing career trying to emulate others. With The Long Goodbye, Sin City and a soundtrack of early Tom Waits albums as my bibles, my early stories dripped with pulp pastiche like a half-scabbed wound.  I was successful to some degree—short stories published across the internet, some awards and notoriety, a few close calls with agents and editors, but with three novel manuscripts wasting away on my hard drive, I knew I had to try something different.

The Big Rewind didn’t come to me as a fully-formed plan. Rather, it came as an exercise in late-winter nostalgia, on the bus home from work, listening to songs that an unrequited college crush had given to me on a mix CD. I got thinking about the mix CD as a piece of ephemera, wondering what someone might think of the relationship between us if they were to find this document 200 years down the road. I began to write a scene where a young woman, named Jett Bennett, came across a tape meant for her downstairs neighbor, KitKat, and goes to return it. But because I am me, and because I have a background in crime fiction, there had to be a dead body, and that dead body turned out to be KitKat’s.

The Big Rewind
I then realized that I had stumbled upon the greatest idea I had ever had.

It was a great idea because I was able to write it from my heart. I was able to create a modern, likable protagonist with none of the worn clichés of the genre. And where there were conventions—the fact that she works for a private investigator as a temp—I was able to playfully twist those conventions to tell a story that felt true to me. Not to someone else. Yes, there are references to Raymond Chandler and The Shield, but I was able to look at the tools I had been given and use them to build something of my own design.

The book came together in about eight months, writing just a few hours a day, often doing my first drafts in a notebook on the bus and then typing those into the document at night. It was fun finding a voice for Jett, building her a world instead of trying to stuff her into someone else’s variation of New York or LA. Age had made me weary of violence, so I let myself have fun, keeping the book as lighthearted and generous as a murder mystery can be. And I was able to weave in my second love, that is, music. With references to Warren Zevon, The Vapors, Steely Dan and countless others, I shared my love of music with the reader, a narrative mix tape.

Libby
(FUN FACT: After the book was released, The Vapors, best known for their hit “Turning Japanese,” reunited. They have been playing gigs around the UK ever since. I’m not taking credit for this, buuuuut…)

And when I was finished, I cold-queried Jim McCarthy at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret Literary Management, and he agreed to take me on as a client. Another quick polish and it was off to William Morrow, where editor Chelsey Emmelheintz acquired the book for publication in Feb. 2016. It received a starred review from Kirkus, as well as praise from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and USA Today.

One of the hardest parts of writing is finding your own voice. It’s easy to play in someone else’s sandbox because they’ve already done the hard work. But it is important to dig deeper, to find a narrative that is meaningful to you as a writer and as a reader.

25 March 2017

Advances and Royalties and Agents, oh my! A Primer on Traditional Publishing


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl, who is being especially good today)

Many here know I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Toronto.  In weeks 13 and 14 of the course, we talk about the business of publishing.  I’ve prepared the following primer on traditional publishing to bring new authors up to speed on the basics, and thought it might be of interest to readers here.  (Insert caveat here: this is a general primer. Your deal or experience may be different.)

Advance:

…is just that.  It is an advance against the royalties the publisher expects you to earn.

If your book cover price is $10, and your royalties are 10%, then you can expect to make $1 per book sold at that cover price.  (Often, your publisher may sell for less when in bulk. And when that happens, you make 10% of the amount the book sold for, so a lot less.)

So…if you receive an advance of $5000 (which would be considered a nice advance in Canada from a traditional publisher) then you would have to sell 5001 books before you would start seeing royalties.  (At least.  It may be more like 7500, if they’ve sold some of your books below cover.)
In Canada, royalties are supposed to be distributed quarterly, according to standards set by TWUC (The Writers’ Union of Canada).  But this standard is not law; often, publishers ignore these guidelines and pay royalties semi-annually. 

Royalty Example:  Melodie sells 1200 copies of Rowena Through the Wall from Oct. 2015 to Dec. 2015.  She has already ‘sold through’ her advance in previous quarters (see below for an explanation of sell through.) The royalties on these sales will appear on the March 15 royalty statement.  So in fact, for a book sold Oct. 1, she won’t see her $1.50 until March 15, nearly 6 months later.  And that’s with the best kind of publisher.

Sell Through:

This is the term to describe if you have ‘made up’ your advance.  If, in the top example (advance of $5000,) your book has sold 5001 copies, you have ‘sold through’ your advance.

This is a key event in the life of your book, and a critical thing for your book to achieve.  If your book doesn’t sell through, then you are unlikely to get a new book contract from that publisher.

You can see why a large advance comes with stress.  The smaller your advance, the easier it is to sell through. 

(Even if you don’t sell through, you keep the full amount of the advance.)

Agents:

An agent handles the business side of your writing (contracts, etc.)  Agents typically take 15% of your income. 

So, if you got an advance of $1000 (a not unusual advance for a first book in Canada) an agent would take $150 of your advance.  Now you can see why it is so hard to get an agent.  They don’t want $150 for all their work – they want $1500 or more!  So until you are getting advances of $10,000, it is hard to get an agent.

Why you would want an agent:

Agents get you in the door at the big 5 publishing houses.  Most of the big publishers will only take query letters from agents.  If you are a published author already with a house, the main reason you would want an agent is to ‘trade up.’  i.e. – move from a smaller publisher to Penguin. 

Time from sale to bookstore with a traditional publisher:   
Usually 12 months to 18 months.  15 months is typical.

Deadlines: 

Miss your deadline with a traditional publisher, and you are toast.  This means deadlines for getting back on publisher edits too.  Production time in factories is booked long in advance.  If your book isn’t ready to go on the line in its slotted time, then your publisher loses money.  Say goodbye to your next sale.

Print on demand publishers: 

Some smaller traditional publishers have let go of production runs and are now using print on demand technology via Createspace.  Usually this means shorter time from sale to bookstore.  (i.e. a book sold to a publisher in March might be for sale by June.)

How bookstores work:

Bookstores typically buy books from the publisher or distributor at 60% of cover.  So the bookstore makes 40% (less shipping costs).  Usually the shipping costs are born by the retailer, but sometimes publishers will have specials.

BUT – if a book doesn’t sell, the retailer can rip off the cover, send the cover back to the publisher and get a full refund for the book.  The coverless books are then destroyed.  (Yes, it’s appalling.  It all has to do with shipping costs.  Not worth it to ship books back.)

Problem – this doesn’t work with print on demand books.  You can’t return anything to Createspace.  So retailers are reluctant to stock books that are not from traditional publishers using the traditional print-run method, because they can't return books that don't sell.

How long is your book on a shelf:

In a store like Chapters (the Canadian big-box equivalent of Barnes & Noble), if your book doesn’t sell in 45 days, they usually remove it.  Gone forever from the shelves, unless you become a NYT bestseller in the future, and they bring back your backlist.  Yes, this is unbelievably short.  It used to be 6 months.  The book business is brutal. 

I think the third word in that last line is the key.  The book business is a business.  It’s there to make a profit for shareholders.  We are in love with our products, so we find that hard to face.  I saw a study that said approximately 40% of writers are manic-depressive.

The rest of us just drink.

Melodie Campbell does her drinking in the Toronto area, where she writes funny books about a crime family.  Is it any wonder?  www.melodiecampbell.com

28 January 2017

Hiding in the Garret: Seven Tips for Writing Novels when you are still gainfully employed...


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

It’s a sad fact of life. The gap between wanting to be an author, and actually becoming a published novelist is a huge crevice bridged by hard work and a lot of time. Writing is a solitary job with no shortcut. You become a writer by spending hours and hours alone in a room with your computer.

I wrote ten books in ten years, while working full time at an executive job. People often ask me how I did it. How? How did I find the time?

It’s simple. You have to make writing your hobby, your passion, and all you do in your spare time.

Anyone can do it. But it means making sacrifices. Like it or not, if you want to be a published writer, and you don’t have anyone to support you financially while you write, time is going to be an issue.

Writing takes time. If you are going to write, you are going to have to give up something. Probably several somethings.

Here’s my list:

1. No television. Those hours at night from 8-10 (or 10-12, if you have kids) are writing hours.

Okay, what do I truly mean by no television? I allow myself one hour a day. (Crime shows, of course!) That’s it, on weekends too. Sometimes I don’t take that hour. I write instead.

2. Forget the gym. I know exercise is good for you. But we have to make sacrifices, people! I cut out every extracurricular activity that didn’t relate directly to writing. No more hours at the gym.

3. Turn your cell phone OFF. Until this year, I didn’t have a smart phone. I had a dumb phone that just took calls. Even now, when I write, the smart phone is in my purse in the hall. Oh yeah – and I don’t pay for data on it. This means, when I’m in a doctor’s waiting room, or on transit, I don’t surf the net. I write.

4. Ignore those facebook alerts! Turn them ALL off. You can check your page at break time. You don’t need to be notified for every post.

5. Make your vacation a writing vacation. I cannot stress this enough. If you are serious about becoming an author, then the prospect of two weeks with nothing to do but write should fill you with delight. (If it fills you with anxiety, we have a problem.)
For me, there is no better vacation than going to a tiny villa in Arizona where there is fab weather but no resort distractions. Going out for every meal. And then coming back to sunny weather on the patio and writing. And writing. I get so much writing done on vacation. It starts on the airplane.

6. Get a dog. Yes, there is a tendency to overdo the author-recluse thing. Having a dog will make you get outside for short walkie breaks (your new exercise.) A dog will keep you company as you slog away at the computer. And a dog is an essential audience for when you read your work out loud to test it. My pooch thinks I’m talking/performing just for him. Win-win.

7. Finally – and most important – collect friends who are writers. As I look back on my writing career (27 years, 100 comedy credits, 12 novels, 40 short stories) I can see that my body of friends has changed over the years. Most of my friends are fellow authors. They encourage me. Inspire me. Rage with me. Drink with me. Most of all, they understand me. Author-friends are the magic that keeps me writing. God bless them.

Melodie Campbell writes crime capers and other comedy-infested work. Check out her comedy blog at www.melodiecampbell.com

09 January 2017

Books for Writers


by Steve Liskow

Well, 2017's a week old, but this is my first chance to wish everyone a Happy New Year dripping optimism and good intentions. Those good intentions show up in the resolutions we make and--sorry, but it's true--often break. Many writers vow to read more books, review more, attend more workshops, or improve their writing in some way, and I'm no different. Especially when I look back at how far I've come...and how much further I still need to go.

I tell people in my workshops that if you can read something you wrote more than two years ago without wincing, you have stopped growing as a writer. The only upside to low standards is they make you harder to disappoint.

In the 1970s, I wrote five deservedly unpublished novels. When retirement loomed in the new millennium, I knew I wanted to make at least one of those novels better and vowed to learn the craft, which I'd never bothered to do before. As an English teacher I knew how to write a decent sentence or paragraph, but I'd never learned how to tell a story. Once I retired, I attended workshops, joined writing groups, and read dozens of books on writing. I'd always read writing texts for the classroom, but now I had a different focus. It was the start of a much more arduous journey.

Since I began teaching, I have probably read over 1000 books on writing or how to teach writing, and it's a sad paradox that most of them are poorly written. English teachers worry more about formal correctness than style, and most creative writing classes are too big to give people individual attention. Writing is a personal thing and everyone does it or learns it differently, which is why composition classes have such mixed results. You need to do most of the work yourself.

And here's how. The following list is for potential fiction writers, not necessarily of mystery/crime, but slanted that way. These are the books that have helped me, which doesn't mean they will help you, too, but give them a shot.

PLOTTING:

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby                        This is geared toward screenwriting, but it covers premise, plot, character, setting, dialogue, and how to blend them into a cohesive whole better than any other book I've found.




Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt          This expands Georges Polti's over-praised The 36 Dramatic Plot Situations from a century ago. Schmidt, also a screenwriter, is clear, concrete, practical and demanding. The offers many questions that will help you generate your own ideas in a lot of different forms.

Story by Robert McGee                   This has been considered the book for some time, and I think it gets a little more abstract and philosophical than it has to. I prefer Truby, but it's a matter of taste.

Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham                  Bickham's prose is dry but his discussion is crucial. Many later books refer to this one, which is appropriate because nobody else has explained the mechanics as well or as thoroughly.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler            One of many books on the Jungian/Campbell hero model, but more readable than most of the others. Like Schmidt, Vogler is a script doctor.

CHARACTER:

I've found more good books on character than on any other fact of fiction, and here are my faves.

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress
Character, Emotion and Viewpoint  also by Nancy Kress                     These two books repeat a little material, but Kress's discussion is concrete and practical. The first book includes a huge worksheet for developing a character that may be overkill but demonstrates how much there is to consider. It also has an excellent discussion different ways to handle internal monologue.

Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon              There are several dictionaries of baby names and the like, but this one cross-references by nationality, meaning, and gender. It also has common surnames and explains how the language or culture developed those names.

45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt                Same author as the plot book. She uses mythology and Jung to sort the characters into types and has a concrete discussion of how various character complement each other to develop a deeper plot.

SPECIALIZED TECHNIQUES:

Dialogue by Gloria Kempton            There are few books on dialogue, and most of the others are terrible, including those geared toward play-writing. The belief seems to be that either you can write it or you can't (mostly the latter), but this book give you solid techniques and exercises that generate plot or character, too. It's cheaper than taking my workshop, too. ;-)

Hooked by Les Edgerton              Supposedly about openings, it covers several other aspects of fiction and ties them together well.

Description by Monica Wood                 A masterpiece about the technique everyone loves to overuse...badly. This book shows how description can strengthen theme, tone, character, setting, and everything else.

The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

Setting by Jack Bickham                  Again, dry prose but a deep and thoughtful discussion of all aspects of how and why your location can make or break your plot and your characters.

REVISION AND EDITING:

Don't Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden               If you don't already have this book, buy two copies, one as a spare for when you wear the first one out. Roerden is a former reader for a major publisher and also a ghost-writer. Here, she offers helpful--and often hilarious--examples of how to ruin your writing and how to fix it.

Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell                This covers all the crucial issues above: plot, character, pacing, dialogue, tone, point of view, and gives helpful examples and exercises. Even though it's only one chapter, his discussion of dialogue is second only to Kempton's.

Story Fix by Larry Brooks                 Brooks offers a long discussion on the importance of a solid concept and premise, which few other books even mention. He makes a strong argument for tweaking that idea until it can support the mechanics of plot and character and shows how to strengthen your structure.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King                 This has been around for quite awhile, mostly because it's very good.

Sin & Syntax by Constance Hale                 Discussing how to build a style and voice is both difficult and dangerous, but this book does it well. Again, many excellent and funny examples.

Alone With All That Could Happen by David Jauss                             This is a collection of essays on various aspects of writing fiction. Jauss's discussion of point of view leaves everyone else back on the wagon train, and his analysis of present tense is only slightly less brilliant.

You'll probably notice a few omissions. Yes, The Elements of Style is a crucial text, but it's better for exposition than it is for fiction. Writing narration as Strunk and White suggest can lead to a more clipped and impersonal voice than you might want for stories. That said, it's the be-all and end-all for crafting strong prose. I've also left off grammar books and dictionaries because I'm an old-fashioned grump.  If you don't know grammar, spelling, and punctuation already, why the hell do you think you should be a writer?

What are your favorite books that I've missed?

22 August 2015

My Novel is a Mess (How to survive the chaos point in your novel)


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Yes, I’m at that point.  Writing to a specific word count, three-quarters written, and my eleventh novel is an unqualified mess. 

If you are a veteran writer like me, you say it’s not going to happen this time.  But it does.
EVERY FREAKING TIME.

Here’s why:  
The Linear Approach:

This time, you are going to write linear, by gawd.  One chapter after another, in mathematical order, until you reach the end.  Each chapter will have an outline.

But here’s the problem with that.  You signed a contract that specifies a pretty exact word count.  Is your story going to magically end at the precise word count you need?

Damn straight, it’s not.  It’s going to meander along, minding its own business, taking little side trips, refusing to stay on course.

Because, of course, outlines are just that.  They’re a guide.  You don’t know whether the story is really going to pull together with sufficient motivation and all the goodies until you actually write the thing.  And here’s what happens along the way:

You need a new character to make the plot work.  You just thought of a fab new subplot.  Orlando doesn’t work as a side-setting.  You need to move it to Phoenix, and that means a whole lot of changes…

And before you know it, you’re scribbling on the outline, adding this, subtracting that, and it hits you in the face. Your book is a mess.

Scene plus Scene

I write comedy, and comedy is finicky.  Those good lines come when they come, and you have to get them down fast.  Sometimes they’ll present themselves to me when I’m in a restaurant.  Sometimes, when I’m already in bed.  (Yes, I keep a pen and paper on my bedside table. Ditto, by the loo.)

I always have an outline.  But when writing a highly comedic book, you have to write those funny scenes when you are inspired.  This means hopping around the timeline, writing the scene that works for you today, thinking of another great line, hopping back to an old scene to insert it, when you should be moving forward.  

Which brings you to this point: the important scenes are written, and they present themselves like completed sections of a jigsaw puzzle.  Little isolated islands without any bridges to each other.  You need to find the pieces that are missing and write the bits to connect them.

Because Sister, your novel is a mess.

That’s the point I’m at now.  The comedy is there.  The conflicts are in place.  The climax is written.  Now I need to take that kaleidoscope and move those pieces into the pattern that works best.

How to cope?  I think the best thing you can do is accept that this is going to happen.  Unless you are a robotic automaton lacking inspiration, you are going to veer from the plan more than once. 

At some point, every novel you write is going to be a mess. 

My advice: just accept it.  And understand that part of your role as writer is that of clean-up artist. 

That’s where I stand today, staring at a story that looks like a tornado just ran through it.

Time for the cleanup crew. And a healthy wee dram.

Melodie Campbell writes funny novels, including the multi-award winning book, The Goddaughter's Revenge.  You can buy them in Chapters, Barnes &Noble,  and all the usual suspects online.

25 April 2015

Bad Girl's Tricks for Writing with Kids...


In honour of the Arthur Ellis Awards for Crime Writing shortlists being released this week, a good friend asked the question:  how the heck do we actually find time to write the stuff that is up for the awards tonight?
My tricks...

By Melodie Campbell

Okay, these are not the definitive rules for Writer-parents. I would never claim to be an expert.  But I did raise two kids while writing stand-up on the side and penning a syndicated humour column every two weeks. So I learned a few things about survival along the way.

Bad Girl’s Tricks for Writing with Kids:
  
    1.  Probably you shouldn’t lock yourself in the bathroom, so the kids can’t get at you. Equally, you shouldn’t sit in the playpen with your kid on the outside, screaming and shaking the thing.  Okay, at least not more than once a day.

    2.  Never put a package of Twinkies in front of a toddler so that you can continue to write. (Remove them all from the plastic wrappers first so the kid doesn’t choke.)

   3.  A kid won’t die if they drink half a mug of cold coffee.  But watch the wine. In fact, you might want to finish the rest of the bottle right now, just to be safe.

   4.  Breast-feeding can be a real timesaver, but not during Bouchercon book-signings.

   5.  Other kid’s birthday parties are a great thing for a writer. But you really should pick up your own kid when they’re over. (Eventually. Before winter.)

   6.  It’s okay to get someone to babysit your kids while you move into a new house. But it’s not okay to forget to tell anyone where that house is.

   7.  When your kid leaves home for university, it is not recommended to immediately change their room into a study or writing room. Wait until after Christmas. The sales are better.

Re “Leaving the nest”: Every mother gets emotional about this. But probably you shouldn’t do it until your kids are grown up.

Do you have tricks?  Leave them below in the comments.  Please.  Hurry. 

Postscript: The Arthur Ellis Award shortlist events were held two nights ago in major cities across Canada.
The jaw-dropping surprise: I am shortlisted with Margaret Atwood for the Arthur!   Never, not ever, did I expect to see my name linked with CanLit Royalty.  Damned honoured.

The Opening to THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE (Orca Books)

Okay, I admit it. I would rather be the proud possessor of a rare gemstone than 
a lakefront condo with parking. Yes, I know this makes me weird. Young women today are supposed to crave the security of owning their own home.

But I say this: real estate, shmeel estate. You can’t hold an address in your hand. It doesn’t flash and sparkle with the intensity of a thousand night stars. It will never lure you away from the straight and narrow like a siren from some Greek odyssey.

Let’s face it. Nobody has ever gone to jail for smuggling a one bedroom plus den out of the country.

 However, make that a ten-carat cyan blue topaz with a past as long as your arm, and I’d do almost anything to possess it.

 But don’t tell the police.

The Goddaughter’s Revenge, winner of the 2014 Derringer (in US) and Arthur (in Canada) is available at Chapters/Indigo stores, Barnes&Noble, and online retailers everywhere.


31 January 2014

Working Through Writer's Block


by R.T. Lawton

Sooner or later, the dreaded Writer's Block comes to most authors. Sometimes it's because the well has run dry for any number of possible reasons and sometimes it's merely a case of laziness, making excuses or having received a depressing rejection. I won't bother to say which one I'm most afflicted with. However, there are times when I can work through this block to creativity by writing to an outside prompt and letting the mind run free without judgmental repercussions. Knowing full well that these prompt writings are probably never meant to see print.

So, if you don't mind a little silliness, I'll share a resulting sample of said writer's block therapy. This one comes from my Harley riding background and is slightly edited for better readability on your part. The protagonist, named after the slang term for an illegal drinking establishment, is loosely based on a guy I knew, but I honestly don't think he would recognize himself if he read this.

TO A MUSE

Having been severely encouraged by his new old lady Patricia to acquire a modicum of culture and perhaps broaden his literary interests at the same time, Blind Pig decided to write his memoirs. He perceived himself as the proper expert for this endeavor, seeing as how he was the only one who understood himself.

With apparent delight, Patricia was heard to exclaim, "Oh Pig, darling. I'm so impressed. It's simply wonderful that you are going to write your autobiography."

The Pig had been so caught up in drafting his pending memoirs that he hadn't even considered the words auto and biography. Ambling off to the kitchen for a beer, he contemplated these two words and decided they wouldn't do at all. In the first place, Pig refused to ride in one of them metal cages called an auto, that was for civilians in the straight life. And in the second place, he figured all them auto biographies must have been written by race car drivers, which obviously left him out. Therefore, being a motorcycle enthusiast, he decided to refer to his memoirs as a motor-cy-ography.

Thus having rendered that momentous decision, he proceeded to gather up his writing materials. Lacking the immediate possession of either computer or an old fashioned typewriter, Pig decided to write in longhand. He promptly located the stub of a carpenter pencil and a dried-up ball point pen bearing the logo of his local bail bond agent. Finding no clean paper to write on, Pig commenced to cut up old brown paper grocery bags that he'd forgotten to throw in the trash years ago. As he labored, Pig thought he had now acquired an insight into the demise of the modern writer, seeing as how most grocery stores had gone from paper to plastic, thus depriving the writer of a convenient source of cheap paper material.

All set to begin with carpenter pencil in hand, the Pig suddenly found himself plagued by Writer's Block, which pleased him immensely because he now knew he was on the road to becoming a real writer, otherwise he wouldn't be blocked. In order to break through this barrier, Pig thought about what other writers talked about at times like these and knew what he had to do. Turning to the Z's in the Yellow Pages, he punched in a phone number and waited for someone to answer.

"Hello. This is the zoo. How may I help you?"
"Do you have one of those Bullwinkle things?"
"Excuse me, sir."
"You know, one of those big brown, grass-eating things from the north woods?"
"Oh, you mean a moose?"
"Yeah, can I borrow one for a while?"
"I'm sorry, sir. We only loan our animals out to other zoos, not private individuals."
"Just for a couple of weeks. I'll take good care of him."
The line went dead.

Incensed at his first rejection as an author, Pig retired to the bedroom and commenced rooting through his closet. In quick order, he extracted his black ninja, steal-at-night clothes, several lengths of rope, his night vision goggles and two pair of old sweat socks. As the sun went down, he loaded all his gear into an old pickup he borrowed from an unsuspecting neighbor. He also threw in a case of Jamaican Red Stripe beer, ten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and three Moon Pies in case he got hungry during the coming escapade.

Early the next morning, Pig returned to the house where his new old lady Patricia was waiting on the front porch. In the back of the pickup, he had one dazed, bound, gagged and blindfolded moose. With an apparent perception of the problem, Patricia then proceeded to explain to Blind Pig the difference between the large, antlered, herbivore he had kidnapped from the zoo, i.e. a moose, as opposed to the spiritual inspiration for a writer, i.e. a muse.

Undaunted by this minor mistake, Pig asked if he could keep the moose in the backyard for a few days anyway.

The moose, still gagged by the old sweat socks, had nothing to say about the matter.

And there you have it. Turned out I could write something after all. And yes, Blind Pig, over the years, did go on to have several therapeutic adventures which will also not see print. Well, other than the one above.

You're welcome.

Ride easy 'til we meet again.

10 November 2013

Professional Tips– P. D. James


P D James
P. D. James © The Times
by Leigh Lundin

One of the grand dames of mystery, a mistress of the post-Golden Age following Agatha Christie, P.D. James, has given us her tips for effective writing. A student of putting words on paper, I've shared tips from great authors.

As it turns out, the Baroness James has written at least two sets of tips, as noted by one of our readers, which we've gathered in one place. Important: Click the links in the headings for the full articles and explanations.

Writing Tips I, Mystery

  1. Center your mystery
  2. Study reality
  3. Create compelling characters
  4. Research, research, research
  5. Follow the 'fair-play rule'
  6. Read!
  7. … and write
  8. Follow a schedule

When working on a story, I daydream a lot, but it's creative daydreaming about the plot, as opposed to dawdling, which the grand dame refers to. There's a story about an actress wannabee who said she wanted to be a famous movie star. "Tell me," said the career counselor. "Do you want to be famous or want to be an actress?" James is saying the same thing: The goal in the front of your mind must be writing the best you can, not fantasizing about fame.

Here again is the Baroness, the inimitable Phyllis Dorothy James, with an update.

Writing Tips II, General
  1. You must be born to write
  2. Write about what you know
  3. Find your own routine
  4. Be aware that the business is changing
  5. Read, write, and don't daydream!
  6. Enjoy your own company
  7. Choose a good setting
  8. Never go anywhere without a notebook
  9. Never talk about a book before it is finished
  10. Know when to stop

And so I shall.

P D James
P. D. James © The Telegraph