Nuggets for September

Writerly links you may have missed:

The cornerstones of characterization

An interesting piece on the short story market

I love when someone gives me a new way to look at my writing.

Patricia Wrede's blog posts are always informative. In this one, she walks us through how to write a crowd scene.

A good post with examples of showing vs telling

How Do You Find That All-Important, Illusive, Author's Voice?

What is that all-important, illusive thing called author's voice and how do you find yours? Les Edgerton doesn't doesn't really answer the first question in his book Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, but he does help with the latter.

Edgerton starts by talking about how we lose our voices. The process begins when we're young, when our teachers start pounding the rules of grammar into our heads. Now grammar is important. It matters that we know how to structure our written communications so our intent is clear, but the rules, when carried to extremes, suppress our natural voice. Everyone has, I'm sure, read business letters. Perhaps you've even authored them. They're full of passive sentences where things were done, but in order to protect the guilty, no one actually did them.The standards of business writing strip the author's voice out and turns the writing into a cure for insomnia. The camouflage is so effective, so widespread, that if the author's name is removed, it's impossible to tell who wrote it. That's what happens when you've lost your voice.

That appears to be the main goal for many English teachers. No incomplete sentences! Never start a sentence with and or but! Be politically correct! Don't offend anyone! As fiction writers, this is the exact opposite of what we want.

You never want to put your readers to sleep, so voice matters. It matters enough to me that I read certain authors for their voice alone.

When I read Jennifer Crusie, I know I'm going to get a humorous story and that she'll have musical themes.

  Kate reclined in her end of the boat and watched Jake fight the good fight while she ate her second apple.
  Finally, drenched and exasperated, he got the fish off the hook and threw it back in the lake. He sat looking at her, his forearms on his knees, his hands dangling in front of him, water dripping off his chest, arms and hands.
 “You were a great help,” he said.
  “If I’d known you were going to be this energetic,” she said, “I wouldn’t have brought you.” She tossed her apple core back over her head into the lake. “Now cut the hook off your line. The fish around here are positively suicidal.”
     ~ from Manhunting

When I read Harlan Coben, I know I'm going to be drawn so close to the character that I'm going to feel as though I share his peril.

  When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.
  At least, that is what I want to believe. I lost consciousness pretty fast. And, if you want to get technical about it, I don’t even remember being shot. I know that I lost a lot of blood. I know that a second bullet skimmed the top of my head, though I was probably already out by then. I know that my heart stopped. But I still like to think that as I lay dying, I thought of Tara.
    ~ from No Second Chance

When I read Michael Perry, I know I'm going to get a wordsmith who takes my breath away.

It (a singer's voice) sounds as if it was aged in a whiskey cask, cured in an Ozarks smokehouse, dropped down a stone well, pulled out damp, and kept moist in the palm of a wicked woman's hand.

There is no chance I would confuse these authors with each other because each of them has their own distinct voice. The question is: how did they find it? More importantly, how can you find yours?

Edgerton talks about a number of ways to get back to your original voice. One exercise he recommends to uncomplicate your language is to take a recent news event and write a three paragraph story  or article about it as if you were a participant. The kicker is that, except for proper nouns, you're only allowed to use one-syllable words. I haven't tried this, but I suspect it's tougher than it sounds. The benefit I see, however, is that it will increase your awareness of word choices. It will also help get rid of what Edgerton calls our "writerly" voice. (You know. That urge to sound more sophisticated and smarter than we normally do.)

Many of Edgerton suggestions for finding your way back to your natural voice are valid. Things like reverting to your childhood voice and working your way back to adulthood. He recommends reading your work aloud. This is particularly effective I've found because you'll tend to stumble over the words any place where you've been untrue to your voice. He recommends things like writing letters because we tend to lose our self consciousness when writing a letter and our natural voice shines through. These kinds of things can be useful to help us get into the proper mindset as well each day when we sit down to write.

A word of caution however. These exercises may facilitate finding your voice, but nothing locks it down like practice. After all the years of using that industrial, generic voice you've been taught, it takes time to truly repossess our natural voice. And even when you've returned to your natural voice, it will take polishing to make it the best it can be.

To illustrate: My best writing bud is writing her current WIP (work in progress) in first person present tense. She's doing a good job with it, but there is one scene--a flashback--that caught me so off guard as to render me near speechless (an unusual occurance). She completely nailed the flashback. When I read it, my inner writing critic disappeared, and I was totally immersed in the scene. Coming out of that scene was like stepping out of the looking glass. Did she know she'd nailed it? You bet your ass she did. She knew that was the best thing she'd ever written even while she was writing it. Did she know how to recapture the lightning? Nope. Not a clue. But that scene shows what she's capable of and that she's within striking distance of her best, most authentic voice. It doesn't happen overnight, but she's worked hard to reach this point, and it's paying off.

Even once you find your voice, you may need to protect it. Be aware if you're the kind of writer who subconsciously tries to emulate the style of what you're reading. If you are, you may have to segregate your writing and your reading. It doesn't matter how much you love and admire a particular writer's style. Their voice isn't yours. The world already has the original Crusie, the original Coben, the original Perry, the original (fill in the blank). It doesn't need an imitation. It needs you, in all your unique splendor.

Before I move onto another aspect of voice, I want to say that I don't recommend Edgerton's book for newer writers. I think they'll miss the best of what he has to say simply because their not ready for it yet. His book on voice is more suited to high-level intermediate and advanced writers. If you're in one of those groups, then I think it's highly worthwhile.

Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster isn't intended as a book for writers. Foster is the professor who invented Literary Forensics. Some of you may remember when the book Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics (which later became a movie) came out. Published anonymously during the Clinton presidency, there was a lot of speculation about the author's identity. Don Foster correctly identified Newsweek columnist Joe Klein as the author. (Klein initially denied authorship, but later owned up.) This book details how Klein was identified by comparing his public writing to that in the book. Other cases of forensic analysis are also discussed, including the Unibomber and the Jon Benet Ramsey notes. A fascinating read but, for authors, it should also raise awareness about how intricate, detailed, and unique voice really is.

What are your thoughts on voice? Do you have any authors you read just because you love their voice?

Thursday Writing Quotes ~ Hemingway & Faulkner

He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to a dictionary. - William Faulkner, on Ernest Hemingway

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? - Ernest Hemingway, on William Faulkner

Writing Mysteries for the Timid

Writing Mysteries by Sue Grafton (Editor)

Since I write romances, you might wonder why I'm reading, never mind reviewing, a book about how to write mysteries. It's like this: In a romance, the focus is on the couple, but the couple have to do something while they're busy falling in love, and in one of my works-in-progress, what my characters do is solve a murder. Since I'm a hybrid pantser, discovering I had to solve a mystery scares the bejesus out of me. I'm afraid I'll end up with a lame plot, or worse, a lame resolution that the reader saw from a mile away, so when I saw this book by Sue Grafton (actually it's a bunch of essays by different authors compiled and edited by Sue Grafton), I thought, "Great. This will help."

For those new to my reviews, I try to judge a book by how well it succeeds at what it promises. This book promises to help mystery writers, so that's my usual yardstick. If an essay only offers the kind of generic advice that's useful to authors in general, I consider that a failure to deliver on the book's promise. I am going to give this book a little more leeway, however. Since I'm not a mystery writer, I've decided to consider whether this book is useful for non-mystery writers who want to incorporate some of the elements of a mystery in their story even though they don't generally write mysteries. 

The mystery genre covers a lot of ground, so let's get started, shall we?

The first essay by Jeremiah Healy, The Rules and How to Bend Them, deals with Private Investigator stories and by "rules," he actually means conventions. Things such as The Hero Must Be Male. If your writing PI mysteries, this is at least pertinent.
Also useful are the essays by Nancy Pickard about the Amateur Sleuth and by Sandra Scoppettone on villains because she writes specifically about the psychology of murderers.
I had particularly high hopes for the essay by George C. Chasbro, which is about plotting, because as a non-mystery writer, this is what I most need help with. Sadly, it wasn't as helpful as I'd hoped because I don't have a problem finding an idea or setting up the mystery. What I'm insecure about are the steps that keep the mystery alive and delivering a satisfying resolution. This essay doesn't address that.
Tony Hillerman's essay, Building without Blueprints, is for me one of the most interesting of the book. One rather expects that mysteries need to be written by plotters. Having a careful plan for the discovery of clues, the deepening of the mystery, the resolution of the plot seems like wise and sensible way to write a mystery, but Hillerman makes a fabulous case for writing by the seat of his pants. Being something of a hybrid pantser, I felt my tension dissipate somewhat reading this. Is the advice specific to mysteries? Not really, but for a pantser trying to write a mystery, it gives permission to work in a way that's comfortable.

Because Hillerman process is similar to my own in that he discovers important details, which shape the story as in writes, I paid close attention to what he considers the basics. The essentials that he considers necessary before starting are::

  • A setting with which he is intimately familiar
  • A general idea of the nature of the mystery that needs to be solved (along with a good idea of the motive.)
  • A theme
  • One or two important characters in addition to the protagonist.
Robert Campbell's essay on Outlining is also interesting because he doesn't do a rigid outline before he starts. Instead he outlines as he goes. He says: 

I find that by the time I'm a hundred pages into a four-hundred-page book, I have fleshed out a credible plot and have a very good idea of how I will proceed, what dangers to my protagonist will appear along the way, what villainies will impede their progress, and I even have a better than fair notion about who the killer will prove to be--if the book is a standard mystery--or how the book will end--if it is a book that doesn't require the classic revelations.

Clearly, this isn't advice limited to mystery writing, but for a non-mystery writer like myself, it's liberating to know that it's not just Tony Hillerman who's willing to step out onto the ice and trust that he won't end up cold and wet. This will give pantsers the courage.
The essay on Depiction of Violence by Bill Granger is relevant to some types of mystery. While it could be useful outside the genre and thus isn't mystery-centric, I found the advice about describing violence wasn't something I'd seen a dozen other places. That alone makes me bend my rule a little further and deem this useful for mystery writers (and others.) The advice here is succinct, but the examples are extensive. Even more impressive are a couple of personal observations Granger relates from having talked to victims of violence. The way they perceive the violence inflicted on them is revealing and worth knowing for anyone planning such a scene.
Clues, Red Herrings, and other Plot Devices by P.M. Carlson. This was the essay I was looking for. I made a bunch of notes while reading this because the issues dealt with here involved how to think about placing clues and the whole hand-is-faster-than-the-eye tricks you need to write mysteries successfully. For me, this essay was worth the price of admission all by itself.

A logical story of the murder must be laid out early, of course, even though it will be revealed in a less logical order and won't be seen in full until the end of the book. Sensible as this is, those of us who fear writing a mystery for the first time need to hear this.

Other good advice you want to consider before writing the story that I gleaned from this essay include:

  • Who is the victim?
  • Who else wants the victim dead and why?
  • Outline the murder.
  • Outline how other suspects might have committed the murder
  • Who has or can create an alibi?
  • How could the murderer frame someone else?
Easy? No, but at least these questions give a writer a solid framework.

In the Beginning is the End by John Lutz is a good essay about planting clues. Real clues and clues of misdirection. Well worth reading for aspiring mystery writers.
I found some good insights in Edward D. Hoch's essay about writing short mysteries surprisingly useful. For instance, he writes:

The easiest (laziest) sort of clue is the false statement by a suspect, or a statement that reveals knowledge the suspect shouldn't have.

Yes, I'm not above using a lazy clue, because, my objective here is to write a romance, not a full blown mystery. I don't expect my readers to be too demanding on this point. Besides, lazy doesn't mean it won't work.

I don't have any need to write for children, but the essay by Joan Lowery Nixon about Writing Mysteries for Young Readers reminded me that, yes, I did read Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew when I was younger. The essay did a nice job, I think, of pointing out how these mysteries are different from adult mysteries, though the author must have felt that wasn't enough because she then fell back on generic writing advise.

Tess Gerritsen's essay about The Medical Thriller is superb. Even though I don't ever intend to write a book of this sort, I've occasionally had the need to know something about medicine, injuries, or treatments that I didn't know. The resources she lists are worth their weight in gold for any writer but I suspect are crucial if you're writing medical thrillers, and for those of us not lucky enough to be familiar with the path to becoming a doctor, her description of that path and the labels applied to each step along the way will keep a writer from making a bonehead mistake (like confusing an intern with an internist) and losing reader credibility.

Linda Fairstein attempts to do the same for Legal Thrillers that Gerritsen does for medical thrillers, but I found the advice somewhat generic. She does provide an extensive reading list of authors who do it well, however. If I discover a need for procedural details, I'm much more likely to reach for How to Try a Murder by Michael Kirkland. (Yes, it's unfair to compare an essay to an entire book, but in the interest of finding a useful resource, fairness becomes a casualty.)

As one would expect, Ann Rule writes a fascinating essay about what it takes to write about true crimes. If this area interests you, you have bigger cojones than I ever will. Rule took a two-year degree in police science so she would have a better understanding of the evidence. She recommend taking similar courses, and I can't help but think that this would be a huge benefit to anyone writing mysteries (fiction as well as true crime). Rule has ten more pieces of advice for those hoping for a career in this fascinating field, but this is a review, not a summary. If this is for you, this essay is a must read.

The book contains other essays that I found less than useful based on the standard I've set, mostly because the advice offered was not mystery-centric enough even when the examples they use are pulled from mysteries. Even so, some are more worthwhile than others, and taken as a whole, they provide something of an evolutionary history of the mystery genre, which is interesting in its own right. 

For instance, the essay about writing with a partner is not only informative but amusing, but fails my standard because it applies to writing across the board.

In a kind of appendix, the book has an extensive recommended-reading list of books a well-read mystery author will have read as well as other books on writing the contributors find useful. A couple of the links to resource web sites look like they might be treasure troves of useful information as well.
So my final opinion of the book is that, as long as you don't expect too much from it, this is worthwhile book for aspiring mystery writers with some helpful information for those of us who are being dragged, kicking and screaming, by our muse to include elements of a classic mystery.

BTW, Grafton's latest, W is for Wasted, has just been released. It's on my must-read list. Is it on yours?

Thursday Writing Quotes ~ Mark Twain

"Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial 'we'." -- Mark Twain

Everything is Grist for the Mill

I watch very little TV. What I do watch is mostly reruns--Friends and The Big Bang. Both shows are amusing, well-acted, character-driven sitcoms. I don't watch other shows because so much TV is mindless entertainment that eats into my writing time. And yet . . . I've fallen victim to, of all things, a reality show. 

The show follows Big Bang reruns on Wednesday night and I'm so hooked that I've started watching the episodes I missed online. What show is it, you wonder? Master Chef.

If you haven't seen it, this is how it works: Much like the other talent shows on TV, thousands of home cooks vie for a place on the show. Through a process of elimination, the chefs (Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot) chose the talented twenty to compete for the title of Master Chef. Each week, the challenge is different. The competitors may be required to prepare a dish individually to be judged by the three professional chefs, or they might have to work in teams to work a professional kitchen or feed a hundred firefighters. The judges have exacting standards and can be acerbic and demanding. When it comes to the moment of elimination (one person every week), they have no problem playing the kind of head games that make for dramatic TV moments and it's not uncommon for a contestant to be fighting tears when they believe they're about to lose their place in the competition.

This place is heaven for studying people. As a character-driven writer, I'm in hog heaven.

The season starts with twenty-three distinct personalities. You don't get much opportunity to get to know the ones who are eliminated in the first few weeks, but a few stand out even in the early episodes. Like Chrissy, who's from Philadelphia. Brash, plain-spoken, and heavier than any of the others, she's a bit of a loud-mouth, and the character most people probably love to hate (there's always one, isn't there?) I started out feeling that way, too, but I've come to rather like her and to respect her. 

The way the competition is structured, the competitors regularly have the opportunity to target one another, making their task of the week particularly challenging. The smart ones target their strongest competition. By virtue of her abrasive personality, Chrissy has also been a favorite target. Over and over, she's overcome these extra challenges and proven herself in the kitchen. She knows her competitors don't like her, and she doesn't like them, but she's strong enough to keep going, to keep fighting. I really expected she would fall to the judges' ax. But that hasn't happened (at least not yet.) That she's made it to the final four, beating out some amazing cooks, several of who have been publicly invited by one of the judges to come work in one of their restaurants, is not only amazing but a testament to her skill and ability to improvise in the kitchen.

Chrissi has provided a lot of drama on the show. She's open about who she doesn't like and downright gleeful when she drags down one of the competition. As offensive as that characteristic can be, I've come to respect her. For a while, there was a particular animosity between her and Bree. It seems inevitable somehow that there would be because Bree is a vegetarian. Okay, so I didn't like Bree either. She sometimes displayed that overly perky quality that grates on my nerves. And here's a interesting insight. I didn't like her because she's a vegetarian. I'm smart enough to know that my response is not particularly grounded in reality, but being a confirmed carnivore, I suspect vegetarians of feeling smugly superior about their choice not to eat meat. I'm sure some are, but apparently, I'm quite willing to believe that Bree is also without one grain of proof. *sigh* Not a pretty revelation to face but a human failing, and for a writer, an interesting one.

The other three survivors may not be so in-your-face, but they're equally worth studying.

Jessie is a Georgia belle and easily the prettiest of the competitors. How many of us would love to hate her? Yeah, it's not possible. She sweet without being saccharine. She listens to the judges attentively without being defensive, acknowledges her screw-ups, and doesn't beat up on other contestants. I underestimated her for a while because she is a real sweetheart, and while she's the one I'd most like to hang out with, from a writer's standpoint, she would make a bland character in a book.

Natasha seems to be the odd-on favorite to win. In the beginning, she said that she wasn't just "the pretty girl" that most saw. While she's pretty enough, with Jesse on the show, she's not the pretty girl. As a writer, I find it noteworthy that she's stopped referring to her looks. (This change also makes me consider what I could do with a character who is challenged by someone who has more of whatever dominant feature they use to define themselves.) Undoubtedly, a talented cook, Natasha is a classic example classic example of how an attractive quality like confidence becomes unattractive when carried to extreme. 

Her arrogance isn't only about her cooking. When Lynn, one of the top contenders, put forward a disastrous dish that sent him home, everyone cringed. You could see them putting themselves in his shoes, imagining the mortification, but for just a moment, the camera caught Natasha's pleased smile. Crissi may not be the most endearing person, but I respect her honesty. Natasha may be the best cook, but I hope she doesn't win.

Luca has become my favorite. He's Italian-born and has that expressive exuberance often associated with Italian men. He tried out for an earlier season of Master Chef but didn't make the cut. That he came back and tried again gives him that underdog quality that's so appealing. He's also generous as he proved in one episode when Natasha forgot to get garlic from the pantry before she started cooking. Since they're not allowed to go back to the pantry, she had to go begging. Luca shared. When the judge pointed out that he gave away an advantage, he said he didn't want to win like that. His status as my favorite was sealed when the judges played one of their mind games with him and had him convinced that he was seconds from leaving the competition. Watching him fight back the tears of his dashed hopes nearly broke my heart. I'm not sure I'd care much about the outcome if he gets eliminated.

Confession time. I'm not a foodie. I'm actually a picky eater and have been my whole life. I suppose it doesn't really matter since I can't taste the food. The contestants all have the vital quality of wanting something badly which makes the show dramatic, real, entertaining, and for writers, a fantastic lesson in learning how different personalities respond to pressure.

So what reality shows do you watch? And what vital lessons have you learned and applied to your writing?

Thursday Writing Quotes ~ Angela Giles Klocke

The title to a work of writing is like a house's front porch.... It should invite you to come on in. – Angela Giles Klocke