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. […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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, […]

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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, […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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