Tag: writing advice

writing advice

Lessons Learned.

 Tracee: What have you learned, or changed as you advance from first to second, or sixth novel? I feel like number one and two were seat of my pants (regardless of actual plotting) in relation to the larger world of writing and publishing. Now I think I am – for better or worse – more Aware of what I am doing or should be doing. Not that I’m necessarily doing it.  As I write, I feel there is more at stake. Honestly the biggest difference for me is a sense of wanting it to be better. Which can get in my head and wreak havoc.  What’s changed for the rest of you?  Susan: I love reading books on Kindle because I love seeing what people highlight. One of the things I’ve come to realize is that while people will highlight some beautiful sentences, and some funny lines, they are mainly marking up sentences that offer some form of wisdom. People are looking to authors to help them interpret the world. If you read a book like Beartown by Fredrik Backman, for example, just about every third line is highlighted. So I’ve become more conscious of that as I work on my new Maggie Dove. Not that I want her to pontificate, but that I want this novel to offer some form of comfort. Tracee: Susan, I love this take on the highlights. I confess that I’ve not paid much attention to the highlights on Kindle and now I will. Alexia: I’ve learned more about the part of being an “author” (as opposed to a writer) that no one ever tells you–it’s work. A job. I know nothing about business–marketing is as alien to me as taking out someone’s appendix is to a publicist. Heck, I’m not even sure what a publicist is. We don’t worry about SEOs and sales figures and foreign rights and ad campaigns in medicine. I’m having to educate myself on the fly about an area I never gave a thought to before book one. I hope I’m more aware of what I need to do to sell books, as opposed to just write them, now that I’ve finished book four and am working on book five. I at least realize I have so much more to learn. Robin: Wow, I’ve learned so much. One thing that stands out is the memory of being afraid that I’d run out of ideas – for characters, scenes, storylines, whatever. I was one of those newbies who said to myself, “I should save this bit for the next book.” I held back. Then I saw my words elicit the desired response in my audience. That gave me the confidence I needed to shed what little inhibition I had. Now I pull out all the stops, every time. If I cut a line, a scene, or a character, it’s not to hold back, it’s because something about it doesn’t work. Sometimes I save those bits in a “deleted scenes” file, more often I don’t. I’ve found ideas are like bunnies, they multiply. Tracee: As a former bunny owner I completely agree. Alison: I couldn’t agree more about wanting to do better. Going into writing #3, I’m aware of things that weren’t even on my radar with #1. I definitely want to meet a higher standard of writing. I’m also more willing to break grammatical and punctuation rules for the sake of a good story than I was when I wrote the first novel. In terms of concrete changes, I now have a story board in my office. I didn’t think I needed one for my first book, but it’s essential for me now. I’m also more disciplined in my approach to my writing, more willing to cut what doesn’t add, and more aware of letting the characters’ personalities speak. Write and learn! Michele: What I have learned is how much I don’t know. I wish I were kidding.  Tracee: That’s the note to end on. Truer words couldn’t have been spoken, Michele.     

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Advice from Ursula Le Guin

Last night in my Gotham Writing class we discussed Ursula Le Guin’s writing advice, and, as you can imagine, she had a lot of good advice. One of the things she said that struck me was that the idea that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end is a typically European idea because it puts emphasis on the end–“on where the story goes, what you get to.”    She suggested that it might also be helpful to think of a story as a house to be explored.  “You want the entrance to be attractive, you want the front door to be invitingly open, showing a glimpse of what’s inside. Once you’re lured your reader inside, you may direct her in a definite route right through the house and the events happening in it to the back door. Or you may just provide the rooms and halls and staircases and events, and let the reader find her own way around–let her live there for a while. Or you may conduct her smllingly up to the attic and show her the yellow wallpaper and lock her in. Or you may show her views of undreamed of landscapes through the windows, charmed magic easements opening on the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn, so she never wants to leave the house at all, and has to be pushed out the back door–or shown that there’s a sequel right next door.” Of course, I then had everyone draw pictures of the house they thought their novel would be. Some of us,myself included, drew warm houses with porches and open doors. Others set there houses in the woods and they had an ominous bleak look. I found it so helpful. What would the house of your novel look like?

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To Pee or Not to Pee? How much mundane human activity must an author include for a character to be believable.

 I will probably get myself banned from all future literary consideration by writing this, but James Joyce’s Ulysses did not blow my mind. I read the famed novel as an adult after it was named one of the best books of all time by a panel of experts at Harvard University. However, after I finished it–and I did finish it–what I remembered most was not my empathy for sensitive, cuckolded Leopold Bloom or the profoundness of his musings, but how often the main character had to urinate during the day.  In truth, Leopold Bloom probably didn’t go to the bathroom any more than an average person does on a given afternoon. Really, I think he went twice (though the peeing in the dream sequence clouds it for me). And I get that part of the point of Ulysses is to paint a portrait of a man going about his day. But even being subjected to Bloom’s necessary bodily functions twice in the course of a 265,000 word novel gave the act a relevance that, for me, took away from the larger work (or, at least, distracted me enough that I forgot what point of existence I was supposed to be pontificating upon at the moment). When I write, I always remember Ulysses, its acclaim, and then wrestle with the question of my characters’ basic needs as human beings. Does my point-of-view protagonist need to relieve him or herself during the course of the book in order to be believable? Can I just let the reader assume that urination has happened off screen in the space between chapters? Can I gloss over the potty breaks — i.e. After I got dressed and ready– or do I need to bring my audience into the loo? These same questions can be posed with regard to eating, drinking, sleeping, masturbating, etc. (All of which Ulysses does during his day around Dublin, I might add). Do authors need to show and tell? If so, how often? Personally, I’ve drawn the line differently based on specific characters and my selected point-of-view. In my upcoming book, One Little Secret, one female protagonist bathes while her husband is shaving, another puts on her makeup and thinks about her marriage, and yet another spends much of the third act fighting exhaustion after having not slept the prior night.  I included these details of washing, grooming, and sleeping not so much to make my characters realistic as to reveal something about their individual states of mind. The character in the bathroom scene is concerned that her husband finds other women more sexually enticing. As a result, the vulnerability of her nakedness juxtaposed with his grooming (perhaps for someone else) is something I wanted to show in order to reveal my character’s insecurities in an arena that would aggravate them. I included the makeup scene for a similar reason–it allowed an exploration of the character’s thoughts about a particular subject, as well as enabled her to cover something up, both literally and metaphorically.  In the book that I am currently working on, I write a bit about sleeping and eating because my character is struggling with how to mourn someone and accomplishing these basic tasks show something about her state of mind. Still, I worry about whether I am doing too much or not enough. I don’t want anyone to read one of my books and feel disconnected from a character because they didn’t do any of the necessary human things. At the same time, I have a limited number of words. If I spend a few hundred of them on bathroom breaks, perhaps the reader will get bored. Worse, he or she might put down the book thinking about how they’d like to flush it in the toilet.  So writer friends and readers, what is your opinion? Must writers include such details for realism’s sake or can we skip them?    

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Trusting Your Gut

As a journalist and now author, I’ve had more than a dozen editors. The best ones finessed my writing and ideas, getting the best story possible out of me and my research. The worst ones used me as a living tool to tell the story they wanted in their voices. The former resulted in some of my best work. The latter in some of my worst. I strongly subscribe to the every writer needs an editor doctrine. But I also believe that every writer needs an editor that respects him or her enough to bring out the best in the individual author. Writers need the freedom to tell their stories the way that resonates with them. The editor can help focus an author’s ideas and tell him or her where they are losing the reader, where the characters are falling flat, where the scene isn’t translating, etc. But the editor shouldn’t use the writer to tell the story in his or her head. It won’t work. It will read as strained as the process of creating the story will invariably become.     

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The Omnipresent Villain

Yesterday, I read a book (which will remain nameless) that made me want to bury it in the sand. The characterization was deep, the writing was vivid, and the villain was such a minor player that by the time he was revealed I felt betrayed.  In psychological and domestic thrillers/mysteries (the genres in which I write), the villain should be hiding in plain sight. Don’t tell me the butler that showed up every now and again to deliver a cup of tea is the kidnapper–especially not after making me suspect the victim’s mom. It will feel like the bad guy came out of nowhere and that the writer manipulated the reader’s emotions rather than actually created a puzzle able to be solved. 
In my opinion, the best mystery writers make the villain a POV character or close to it. He or she should be someone in many of the scenes, ideally someone even trying to help with the investigation. We should have a sense that we know who he or she is and what his or her motivations are. It should feel like we had a shot at figuring out that the person was, at least, hiding something.   

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Throwback Thursday

Remember when I would wait like a high school junior at the mailbox for my latest rejection letter from an agent? Remember when I got so many that I lost count….  Whenever I start feeling overwhelmed by launching a new book and all the what-ifs–am I promoting enough, am I selling enough, will folks like the story, will I ever have another book contract, etc.–I remind myself that there was a day when I aspired to be plagued with these doubts as opposed to the what-if-I-wrote-this-for-nothing what-if.  Writing on spec is one of the most difficult things to do (I know. I did it in between book contracts just last year). You are pouring yourself into a project and you’re not even sure that it will be read by anyone save immediate family members. You hope, but you know that writing and reading is subjective. Just because you like a story, doesn’t mean anyone else will. And, even if you write a brilliant story, it doesn’t mean that your artistry will come across in an elevator pitch. I am fortunate to have a wonderful agent that makes me confident that everything I write will eventually find a home. I also remember all too well when I didn’t.   So, the purpose of this post is to tell all the would-be authors out there penning a novel with the dream of getting traditionally published that what you are doing is difficult. It can be demoralizing. It can be frustrating and self-doubt inducing and throw-the-computer-across-the-room-infuriating. But, hang in there. That old adage about success and perspiration is true. It just doesn’t make clear that some of the sweating isn’t from effort but fear and frustration.    

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Not Killing My Darlings

 Every now and again, as a writer, I pen a paragraph or phrase that I REALLY, REALLY like. The words flow in a way that I find personally poetic. The idea conveyed seems deeply honest. The descriptions work…  And, invariably, I wonder if I should delete it.  Surely, it comes across as too writerly, I’ll think. The prose is probably borderline purple. It betrays my own feelings too explicitly. It’s self-indulgent to leave it. I can say whatever it is in a simpler, direct fashion. My journalism training returns: just the facts man, leave your editorializing and flowery language out of it.  Many times I listen to myself and delete it. Sometimes, I try to sneak it in, and my editor suggests that I take an ax to it. Once in awhile, though, I’ll get to keep it. This paragraph (pictured) in Lies She Told is an example of it. I’m happy that I kept it. It’s my favorite in the book. It’s my darling. And I’m glad I didn’t delete her.  Do you kill your darlings or do you try to keep them?  

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Orange Juice and The DON’T Do Lists

 One morning last November, I strolled into the Market Basket just over the Sagamore Bridge, the entrance to Cape Cod, to pick up a few items on my way home to the tindominium. Right in front of me stood a display filled with various sizes of freshly squeezed orange juice with a sign saying, “Squeezed Today.” I headed right for it, reaching for one of the largest size bottles.            Then I heard the voices of the invisible committee, sitting on my shoulders, whispering in my ears. “Orange juice, Michele?” asked one. “All that sugar,” said the one on my other shoulder. I silently told the orange juice was good for me. Vitamin C. “Sure, if it survived the pesticides,” chortled a voice. “How old do you think those oranges were before they were squeezed?” sniggered the other. I told them to shut up and placed the bottle in my basket, wheeling it quickly away into the bakery section before I was shamed out of buying orange juice by them. I glanced at a package of fresh baked pecan cinnamon rolls, which I had never noticed or purchased before, and defiantly put them next to the orange juice.            The next morning, my husband and I sat in the toasty November sun, reading the Sunday papers, welcoming a new week with fresh orange juice and warmed pecan rolls we even buttered. I refused to listen to the committee of “they.”  You know who that is. It’s the preface to a sentence that starts with, “They say you should never eat these three items if you want to rid yourself of belly fat” or “Always tell your children the truth about…” They is a very diverse and busy committee, especially now with the Internet and social media. Sometimes they can be identified as a source from Huff Post or even the New York Times, but often the committee’s roots are vague and its name an acronym no one had the time to figure out. They tell us how to spend our money, raise our children, what foods we must and must not eat, and what to read before we die with such authority, it’s hard to resist. The committee’s advice is often distilled into lists. “Ten Reasons Never to Drink Milk in Your Coffee.” “The Twenty Things You Must Do to Live Longer.” It’s exhausting.            Writers are faced with these lists all of the time. On any given day, Facebook will have a dozen lists telling a writer what she should do to become successful. Some of these lists are from professional agents and editors and can be very help, but others come from less reliable sources and can cripple a writer. In 57 seconds, Google handed me more than 93 million choices for advice for writers.            I certainly take Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writers that the New York Times had to persuade him to share seriously, probably because it isn’t dished out as dogma. “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” But even one of Leonard’s rules was a myth debunked by Lee Child, who pointed to successful authors who start with weather, another Leonard prohibition. Child says the rule that a writer must show, not tell a story is wrong and that it’s fine for a writer to tell a story.            Getting an agent can be as difficult as writing an entire book, so advice from professional agents like my own, Paula Munier, who has penned three excellent books on writing, can be helpful. Agent Jessica Faust of Book Ends recently blogged five very helpful “Do’s and Don’ts” for writing a query letter. Jane Friedman’s blog is filled with great information. There is wonderful information available for writers. You just have to remember three things (and now I’ve slipped into writing a list of my own): 1. Consider the source of the advice and its credibility. 2. Remember that some of the most successful writers have hit the NY Times best seller lists by abandoning well established writing conventions.3. Writing advice, be it in a list or any other form, should help you to write. It should not shut you down.           Take one example on this last important point. “You must write every day” is a rule spouted by many wonderful and successful authors. When I worked as a lawyer, mediator, and adjunct professor, I would arise early to review my case for the day, head out to court, return to the office to meet clients and conduct mediations. At the end of the day, I’d drive to Boston to teach law students who miraculously invigorated me. When was I supposed to write? Oh, I listened and watched lawyers, clients, court officers, and judges and took notes, jotting down ideas. But writing everyday wasn’t going to happen. Did I quit because I wasn’t a real writer if I couldn’t write every day? No. I’d write for ten hours on weekends, considered writing a priority when I’d take a vacation, and managed to write eight books, two of which were published during that time.            So go ahead, read the advice after you’re sure it’s coming from a reliable source. Then, start writing. And while you’re doing it, treat yourself to a glass of orange juice.    

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Fair Game

 The movers brought my furniture today. Except for a few minor snafus—driver arrived, crew didn’t; car battery died so couldn’t get it off truck—everything was going well. Until. The crew parked in the nameless alley behind my house and had almost finished unloading my household goods when a cranky neighbor showed up and demanded both the crew’s pickup truck and the moving truck be removed. She “needed” them moved, she said. The movers had parked in the alley to avoid blocking the road in front of my house. They weren’t impeding traffic. They weren’t parked in the woman’s yard. They weren’t blocking her driveway or preventing her from leaving her house. Cranky neighbor was so offended by a moving truck in a back alley, she called the police. The policeman who responded did not seem overly concerned. He remained polite and professional. He simply asked the movers about how long they thought they’d be then left. Cranky neighbor stayed home and spied on the movers, looking for reasons to scold them. Welcome to the neighborhood. Being an author always alert for story ideas, I immediately thought this woman would make the perfect fictional murder victim. I fantasized ways of killing her off and created a list of suspects with a motive for doing her in. The list was long. I mentally scouted locations for the crime scene and devised a reason for my sleuth to be in this otherwise charming town. Then I stopped. I reminded myself part of what made this town charming was its small size. If I wrote a story and people read it (as I hope they would) they’d recognize the person on whom I’d wreaked fictional vengeance. That probably wouldn’t get me invited to many parties or included on any Christmas card lists. Last Spring, Richard Cohen wrote an article titled, “How Writers Will Steal Your Life and Use it For Fiction.” He explained how writers crafted characters inspired by people they met and examined how this literary identity theft impacted both writer and written about. One of my favorite episodes of “Midsomer Murders” deals with a man whose life has been turned into a novel by someone else. He feels victimized, his experiences stolen, leaving him with nothing to write about himself. There are ways to borrow someone’s life without offending them or risking libel charges. Transform males into female characters and vice versa. Borrow traits from several different people and combine them into a single character. Change your locale. Get their permission. Some people might like the idea of being an author’s muse. However we handle it, we’re unlikely to stop using bits and pieces of real people to build fictional characters. Life has too many good stories to pass up. Maybe writers should all wear warning buttons like the one I recently gave a writer friend—”Be careful. Anything you say may end up in my novel.” How do real people inspire your writing? How do you disguise them? 

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Good Bad Guys

 I binge-watched “American Greed” on Hulu tonight. The show, in its eleventh season, airs on CNBC. Stacey Keach narrates each episode which details a fraud investigation. The show doesn’t focus as much on the law enforcement officers and prosecutors who pursue the fraudsters as it does on the con artists who commit the crimes. That’s what fascinates me about the show—the look inside the mind of a criminal, what motivates a person to lie, cheat, and steal. I remember someone in one of my writing classes asked about creating an antagonist. I don’t recall the exact wording of the question but the gist was, how do you create a believable, relatable villain? The answer was, make sure the villain is the hero of his or her own story. Every villain has a reason for their actions. Their motivation for doing what they do makes sense to them even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. When I’m plotting a mystery the first things I figure out are whodunit, howdunit, and whydunit. Literature has given us spectacular villains, some as remarkable as the heroes they oppose. Professor Moriarty,  Mr. Ripley, County Dracula, The Joker, Cruella DeVil. In 2013, The Washington Post published a list of “best” literary villains.https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-greatest-villains-in-literature/2013/09/12/fa7dd6c6-0e74-11e3-85b6-d27422650fd5_story.html?utm_term=.f6f39f348116 Who are some of your favorite bad guys? 

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