Apr 082014
 


By P.J. Parrish

The other day I caught an interview with Tony-winning playwright Terrance McNally. His new play Mothers and Sons is now on Broadway and he and its star, Tyne Daly, were talking about it:

Daly: Terrance is great at punctuation.
McNally: Punctuation is very important.
Daly: If you follow what he does, it’s like a musical score.
McNally: That would be in my notes, that it’s a comma not a semi-colon. I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.

To which I said: “Yes!”

Did you notice that I used an exclamation mark there? That is because when I heard McNally talk about punctuation, I got really, really excited. Because I am one of those old-fashioned writers who believe that all those little marks we pepper in our fiction:

. ; : ? ! ( ) , “” 

all those little marks make a big difference. So forgive me if I go in the weeds today (yeah, I know, I do this often) but I want to talk about getting the little stuff right.

But first, I’m thinking we need a definition of “right.” Because even though all of us savvy folks here at TKZ know we need to be up on our grammar so our editors will accept our manuscripts and our readers won’t flame us with Amazon one-star reviews, we also know that when it comes to fiction, rules can be bent.

In fact, sometimes they need to be bent. Sometimes, you the writer are going for a particular mood or effect or style, and if you do that with confidence, then grammar police be damned!

Take a look at this opening line of a famous book:
Marley was dead: to begin with.
That’s the opening line of A Christmas Carol. I’m not sure what Dickens was trying to do with it, and technically it’s a misuse of the colon. It probably should be “Marley was dead, to begin with.” But that’s flat and prissy. That oddly placed colon is like slamming up against a brick wall in the fog. I think it works in a weird sort of way. (Hat tip to blogger Kathryn Schulz for this example).

Here’s another strange one that I’m sure you’ll recognize:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Again, misplaced commas, an inflamed colon, fragments and a plethora of periods. But it is music, no?

One more and then we'll move on:
Grogan’s is not the oldest pub in Galway. It’s the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.
While as the rest go
     Uni-sex
     Low-fat
     Karaoke
     Over-the-top
it remains true to the format fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seat, no-frills stock. The taste for
    Hooches
    Mixers
    Breathers
hasn’t yet been acknowledged.
I can just hear the grammar gurus grinding their teeth over that one. This is from Ken Bruen's Edgar-nominated The Guards. This is classic Ken, a style that ignores convention to create its spare lilt. Like George Saunders and Joyce Carol Oates, Ken plays with sentence structure, indention,  and makes up new uses for all the old punctuation symbols. Because when he hears his story in his head, he hears a singular rhythm that you or I would not if we tried to tell the same story set in that Irish pub.

But here's the thing: (colon!) These writers all knew the rules before they broke them. Charles Ives was a church organist before he broke away to write The Unanswered Question.

Picasso painted this

Before he felt free enough to paint this

William Strunk, the éminence grise of grammar, says: "The best writers sometimes disregard the rules. Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules." Or, as I often tell folks in my workshops: Don't start juggling machetes if all you can control is two tennis balls. So maybe we should take a moment -- pause em dash -- to look at some of those little marks and decide which ones we can play around with without slicing ourselves to bits.

The Period
This is my favorite punctuation mark. It is concise and emphatic without being overbearing. You always know where you stand with periods. Periods give you simple sentence structure and clear syntax. Periods can also create lovely sentence fragments, which can be a nifty stylistic tool. You can write a really great novel with just periods, quotes and maybe some question marks. Unless you're James Joyce. Cormac McCarthy once said of Joyce: "[He's] a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate."  But hey, Joyce is juggling chainsaws in Ulysses. Don't try this at home.

Commas
Wars have been waged over the poor comma. Some people are very strict about them, sticking them in every little compound sentence crevice. Others feel less is more, that fiction's narrative voice allows you the freedom to "feel" your way around a phrase without the pause a comma injects. If you publish traditionally, your editor will have style manual and will inflict many commas on you. Some are bad:

Woman, without her man, is nothing

But some are good:

Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

The Colon
This is a pretty clear-cut fellow. It introduces text that amplfies something previously said or it tells you a list is coming up. I don't think colons have much place in fiction, except maybe for that second use. A colon finds a better home in non-fiction. I think a better, less stodgy substitute for the colon is:

The Em Dash

I adore the em dash because to my eye and ear, it feels more like people really talk and think. Our thoughts tend to move forward and there is something pure and lively about seeing this     instead of this :  A colon bring your eye to a stop while a dash implies there is more movement ahead. Two examples:


“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds: the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.'
“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit."

I think the second is better because it is dialogue. You also can use the em dash to show an abrupt break in the dialogue, when one person is cutting off another:

“Define insubordination.”
Louis wet his lips. “I did something — ”
“I don’t care what you did. Define the word.”
Which leads us to the ellipses. It's a cousin of the em dash in that you see it used in dialogue often. But there's an important difference. Whereas a dash implies an abrupt break in the dialogue, the ellipses implies a trailing off. It can also imply a slowing of thoughts.

“Why didn’t you quit?” Jesse asked quietly.
Louis shook his head. “Can’t...”
“Why?”
“He’s still out there.”

The Exclamation Mark

This thing can be like a rabid ferret...hard to control. Yes, you need a rare one to convey extreme emotion. But like a dash or italics, it can lose its effectiveness if you overuse it. As Elmore Leonard said: "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful."

And last but least:

The Semi-Colon

I saved this one for last because I hate the damn things. Semi-colons are like some professor-types. They've got an inflated sense of importance from living in the academic world. Or maybe they're like literary novelists who like to go slumming in crime fiction. I think I've used maybe two semi-colons in sixteen books and both times I had to take a shower right after. I am not alone in my attitude. Let's go back to what the playwright Terrance McNally said for a moment: "I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon."

Our own James Bell called semi-colons the eggplant of punctuation. (Click here to read it). Why are semi-colons bad? Because the beautiful business of fiction is replicating real life on the page and in real life people don't think or talk in semi-colons. Unless they're using emoticons. And c'mon, don't you want to punch out those people anyway?

Postscript: After I finished this, I was proofing one of my back list titles. It is filled with em dashes! The Em seems to be my default punctuation. That got to wondering why I hate the semi-colon so much and what this says about me as a person. So...

What Your Favorite Punctuation Says About You

Period: You are emphatic, decisive, fearless. In the life raft, everyone looks to you to figure a way out.  You bowl overhand.

The exclamation mark: You’re dramatic and get a lot of invitations to parties. You wear purple. You’re probably the person people glare at for talking on your cell phone too loud at the bagel store.

The Em Dash: You are creative and optimistic. Life is a cabaret, old chum. You keep fresh kale in your fridge, wait for a Kraftwerk comeback and you root for the Knicks.

Question mark: You are deeply spiritual and people in meetings always wait to hear what you think. You have read and understood everything George Saunders has written. Your favorite color is tweed.

Colon: You’re organized and make to-do lists. People always ask you to arrange the Christmas office party but no one grabs you under the mistletoe.  You do the Times crossword in ink.

Semi-colon: You are cautious and methodical but you change your mind easily. You have trouble ordering at a restaurant and often resort to eating off other people’s plates because you think you made a mistake in getting the sea bass. You think Rand Paul makes a lot of sense.


Mar 292014
 

by
Scott D. Parker

A couple weeks back, I wrote about one of the rabbit trails we all take through the shrubbery that is the internet. The thing at the end of my trail was the wonderful happenstance discovery of Aaron Allston’s book, Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide. For those who may have missed it, the following text from the opening page is what hooked me:





Do any of these statements sound familiar?
  • "I come up with good ideas, but I can't develop them into complete novels." [Yes! That’s me!]
  • "I'm going along fine with my novel, and then it just stops. I can't get it moving again." [Again, yeah!]
  • "I know what happens from start to finish, but I can't figure out what it's really about." [Sometime, yeah.]
  • "I know what's supposed to happen and what it's supposed to mean, but my story is just not working." [Still me, a bit]
  • "My novel is missing something and I can't figure out what it is." [Sure.]
If any of the above applies to you, Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide can help.

Well, I’m here to tell you that I’ve finished this book and it is exactly what I needed. You see, I’m stuck on a story that I’m writing and I’m trying to figure out which way it needs to go (bullet point #2). Moreover, bullet point #1 is a thing I struggle with as well.

Allston breaks down his book into two large sections. The third section is the appendix. Part one is theory. Here is where he lays out, in detail, many of the concepts most of us already know: What is a scene, the basics of plotting, the four elements of plots, etc. But where this book differs from others I’ve read is in two very important ways. One, Allston gives you exercises! Yes, you have homework. Some of these exercises might be basic, but for a beginning writer (or one who might be stuck), they are fantastic. There are exercises in each chapter (four chapters per section) and, while they start out as random exercises, they gradually turn to your own work. That’s a nice way of coming at your novel--in-progress with something akin to outside eyes.

But where this book really earns it’s keep is the sample novel. To illustrate his points, Allston uses lots of on-the-fly examples. Along the way, however, he starts a novel from scratch. He poses an idea for a story and takes it from idea all the way through two to three outlines! This was like a light bulb went off in my head. I’ve heard talk of outlining over and over and I could not get past the idea of the high school-type outline with Roman numerals. I was a bit ahead of the curve with my use of notecards, but seeing Allston ask the questions writers are suppose to ask, answer them, and then build his plot was so enlightening. Especially when he got to the outlining stage, just reading and trying to absorb all that is present in the outline is both daunting and exciting.

The book has done something I expected it to do: I couldn’t wait to finish it so I could start applying it’s teachings on my own work.

I mentioned this in my previous post mentioning this book, but Allston recently passed away. But he has left writers of all stages of development with a fantastic primer on how to plot and prepare for writing.

You can get the book via Amazon or at ArcherRat Publishing’s website (where you can get the epub or a PDF) If you head over there, Allston also posted some Author’s Notes where he examines the process he used to write a few of his short stories. If you get the Amazon Kindle version, you can highlight and annotate the book to your heart's content. I know I sure did. Afterwards, you can go and get your notes from the web and keep some of Allston's checklists on your desk while you write. Perfect!

This book, in its circuitous route, arrived at the time I most needed it. I'm now looking forward to applying Allston's processes in all my writing.




Mar 242014
 
 
 by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  

To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation. And verbs are the heavyweights in your sentences, so pay particular attention to them. Especially avoid the very common but tired, overused verbs like walked, ran, and looked. Instead, find a synonym that shows how that action is taking place.

Say you’ve got a character going from one place to another. How are they moving, exactly, and why? Convey their physical and emotional state at that moment by using a strong, precise, evocative verb. Readers will envision the character and situation much differently, depending on whether you show them strolling or striding or skipping or shuffling or sauntering or slinking or strutting or sashaying or slogging along, just to name a few "s" movement verbs, for example.

For help in zeroing in on the very best word to convey the tone and mood you’re after, it’s a good idea to use both a thesaurus and a dictionary (either online or print). Use the thesaurus to find a wide range of possibilities, then if you’re not 100% sure of the meaning, check with the dictionary to avoid embarrassing slip-ups.

But don’t choose words your readers will need to look up in a dictionary.

Just make sure to choose a word that really nails the meaning you’re looking for, not one that will impress your readers with your literary prowess. Choosing obscure words that just draw attention to themselves is a sure way to distract readers from your story and annoy them. So read your story out loud later to make sure the words you’ve chosen sound natural and are words your characters would actually say or think in the given situation. (And remember that narration is really the viewpoint character's thoughts and observations!)

Example from my editing:  She heard a stridulous sound coming from the basement.

I’ve never heard the word “stridulous” before, so it conjures up no image or meaning whatsoever to me. That’s the danger for a lot of your readers, too – no image, no impact. And a mild irritation at having to look a word up in the dictionary if they want to know what it means.

If you’d like to introduce some interesting words your readers might not know, it’s best to use them in context, so readers can guess at the meaning.

Choose words that enhance the tone, mood, and voice of your scene.

Find vivid verbs

Verbs are especially important, as there are so many variations in the way someone can move or speak or eat or whatever, depending on their personality, mood, age, gender, size, background, health, fitness level, and of course the circumstances. So it’s worth the effort to find just the right verb that nails the action and makes sense in the context of the scene. A verb that doesn’t quite fit can be jarring and turn a reader off, whereas finding a stronger, more specific verb can really strengthen a scene.

Words for “walked”:

I've compiled a handy list of synomyms for "walked" to fit various situations and characters:

- Drunk, drugged, wounded, ill: lurched, staggered, wobbled, shuffled, shambled

- Urgent, purposeful, concerned, stressed: strode, paced, treaded, moved, went, advanced, proceeded, marched, stepped

- Relaxed, wandering: strolled, sauntered, ambled, wandered, roamed, roved, meandered, rambled, traipsed

- Tired: trudged, plodded, slogged, clopped, shuffled, tramped


- Rough terrain, hiking: marched, trooped, tramped, hiked

- Sneaking, stealth: sidled, slinked, minced, tiptoed, tread softly

- Showing off: strutted, paraded, sashayed

- Other walking situations: waddled, galumphed (moved with a clumsy, heavy tread), shambled, wended, tiptoed

So in general, it’s best to avoid plain vanilla verbs like “walked” or “went” if you can find a more specific word to evoke just the kind of movement you’re trying to describe.

But don’t grab that synonym too quickly! Watch out for show-offy or silly words. 

After you’ve found a list of interesting synonyms, choose carefully which one to use for the situation, as well as the overall tone of your book. For example, for “walk,” don’t go to extremes by choosing little-known, pretentious words like “ambulate” and “perambulate” and “peregrinate” (!), or overly colloquial, slang, or regional expressions like “go by shank’s mare” and “hoof it.”

And beware of words that just don’t fit that situation.

Also, some synonyms are too specific for general use, so they can be jarring if used in the wrong situations. I had a few author clients who seemed to like to use “shuffled” for ordinary, healthy people walking around. To me, “shuffled” conjures up images of a patient moving down the hallway of a hospital, pushing their IV, or an old person moving around their kitchen in their slippers. Don’t have your cop or PI or CEO shuffling! Unless they’re sick or exhausted – or half-asleep. 

Similarly, I had a client years ago who was writing about wartime, and where he meant to have soldiers and officers “striding” across a room or grounds or battlefield, he had them “strutting.” To me, you wouldn’t say “he strutted” unless it was someone full of himself or showing off. It’s definitely not an alternate word for “walked with purpose” as is “he strode.”

Or, disguised from another novel I edited:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning. 

The verb “sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or even “stumbled” back to his office. 

For similar lists for the verbs "ran" and "looked," as well as lots of other tips for writing compelling fiction, check out my award-winning writing guide, Fire up Your Fiction (previously titled Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power).

Here are two recent quotes from two different contest judges about Fire up Your Fiction:

"This should be on the booklist for Master’s Programs in Writing for Publication." ~ Writer's Digest Judge

"FIRE UP YOUR FICTION is the Strunk and White for writers who want to be not just mere storytellers but master story-compellers." ~ Judge, IndieReader Discovery Awards

Readers and writers - do you have any examples of great synonyms for ordinary, overused verbs?

More more info, check out Jodie’s Amazon Author Page, her author website or editor website, her other blogs, Crime Fiction Collective and Resources for Writers, or find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. And sign up for her newsletter.
Mar 152014
 
by
Scott D. Parker

The internet teems with rabbit trails. But sometimes, those rabbit trails can lead somewhere you never knew you wanted to go.

You know what I’m talking about. You go to the internet to look up something you need to know. You either find the answer right off the bat and sign off or, more likely, you find your answer and then see something else. You click on that other link which leads to yet another website. Before you know it, you’ve killed half an hour. Or more.

Recently, via Black Gate.com, I read about the passing of Aaron Allston. As much as I like Star Wars, I was unfamiliar with his name. I glanced at his birth date, gave myself a few moments to see if I really knew his name, realized I didn’t, and then moved on.  

Cut to a few days later. I’m reading through yet another list of articles at Black Gate and saw the cover of something called Doc Sidhe. It’s a Doc Savage pastiche. I had never heard of that book but, it being a Doc Savage-type thing, I quickly clicked on the link to read the entire article. Fancy my surprise that Doc Sidhe was written by Allston who, to me on that day, was the writer who had just passed away. Imagine my surprise.

Just wait. It gets better. Liking what I saw on the cover of Doc Sidhe, I followed the rabbit trail over to Amazon. My thought was to buy the ebook. I searched for “Doc Sidhe” and found only the paperback. No ebook. On a whim, I clicked on Allston’s name and there found the end of my rabbit trail.

I’ve gone on record regarding my challenges of, to date, getting an idea for a book from initial spark of imagination to a manuscript. I’ve proven that, once I have the idea and the structure, I can bust out a book. But I’ve been having imagination issues. Which is why I've started reading how writers do their thing.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the following book on Allston’s Amazon page: Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide. Hey, thought I, that’s kind of something I could use. Intrigued, I sent a sample to my Nook. Opening the Kindle-only ebook, I read the first page:

Do any of these statements sound familiar?
  • "I come up with good ideas, but I can't develop them into complete novels." [Yes! That’s me!]
  • "I'm going along fine with my novel, and then it just stops. I can't get it moving again." [Again, yeah!]
  • "I know what happens from start to finish, but I can't figure out what it's really about." [Sometime, yeah.]
  • "I know what's supposed to happen and what it's supposed to mean, but my story is just not working." [Still me, a bit]
  • "My novel is missing something and I can't figure out what it is." [Sure.]
If any of the above applies to you, Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide can help.

Next thing I did? Immediately went back to Amazon and bought the ebook. Forget this sample thing. I knew I wanted this book.

And, so far (about 19% percent in--biggest peeve of Kindle = no page numbers!) I am already learning things, annotating like a crazy man. Better still is how Allston is taking all the instructions he writes about and creating a novel-in-progress, showing exactly how all of his instruction applies to real, live story.

I’ll report on this book when I finally reach the end, but, so far, it’s a excellent purchase. It's exactly the book I needed right now. And I owe it all to serendipity and, of course, to Mr. Allston. May he rest in peace. Thank you for writing this book.

Mar 112014
 

By P.J. Parrish

I was at SleuthFest last week and after my panel was over, a woman came up to talk. We had met the previous year, and she wanted to thank me because evidently I had said something that inspired her to quit her soul-killing job and finish her book.

Now, I remembered her but I didn't remember what I had said to her. If you read this blog regularly you know I am a realist about this business so I'm pretty sure I didn't pull a Pollyanna with her. I'll do what I can to encourage other writers just starting out, but I won't give false hope because that is just cruel.

So last week, I didn't really know what to say to this woman. I mean, just because I might like skydiving and have managed to get seven or eight jumps under my belt, I'm not going to push someone else out of the plane. Only they know if they have the guts and can afford the parachute. But she was very excited, and said she was very happy with her decision, so we talked some more.

It went something like this:

"So, are you submitting it yet?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," she said, "And I got a letter from Big-Name Agent at the Gigantoid Talent Management. He asked to see some sample chapters."

"Great! That's farther than most folks get," I said. "What about the others?"

"Others?"

"Other agents. What did they have to say about your query?"

"Well, I only sent out two. And Big-Name said he had to have an exclusive. So I'm not doing anything until I hear back from him."

"Oh," I said. "How long has Mr. Big had your chapters now?"

"About four months."

Okay...can you figure out where I'm going with this?

This woman had worked hard for three years to write her book. She had gone to writing conferences and workshops. She had done her homework. She had quit her job so she had enough time to follow her dream. (Don't worry; she had other means of support, so that's not the issue here).

But then she fell for the first guy who said "maybe." As in, "Yeah, maybe we'll hook up. Maybe I'll give you a call someday, baby. I don't know when exactly -- maybe even never. But in the meantime, I don't want you to talk to any other guys."

Now I realize Mr. Big was her Dream Date. And it's easy to get blinded by good biceps and blue eyes. Or in this case, a 212 area code and a client list heavy with bestselling authors. But would you wait around for this guy?

Of course not. If your book is finished and you're ready to send it out into the cold, cruel world, why would you do anything that lessens your chances of success? Finding a good agent -- no, let's correct that; not just a good agent but the right agent -- is maybe the single most important business decision you make as a writer. This person will be your advocate, your guide, your champion, your career-coach. And the best agent for you might not be Mr. Big at Gigantoid Talent Management. The best agent for you might be Miss Sincere at Small But Personal Inc. Maybe even Mr. Cassius at Lean And Hungry House. But most definitely, the best agent for you is the one who sees something so special in your work that he or she plucked you out of the 200 to 300 queries they get every week. The best agent for you is someone who will believe in you even in those dark moment when you don't even believe in yourself anymore.

Exclusives are bad things -- for writers. Why? Because you are giving that one agent the power to tie up your manuscript for months. Odds are, the sample chapters you sent will be rejected. (Maybe for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality remember). But by agreeing to an exclusive, you have lost six to eight precious months in what is a long and tortuous process even in the best of circumstances. Until an agent agrees to take you on as a client, they just don't have the right to control your work like that.

If you won't take my word on this, I bow to a higher source. Here is Miss Snark Literary Agent on the subject.:
"Exclusives stink...To ask an author to tie up his/her work on open ended terms is disrespectful and counter productive. It's also a lazy ass way to do business. You can't provide her an exclusive read and you shouldn't. If she doesn't see the merit of that, why would you want to work with her?"
But, you say, Mr. Big said he liked her stuff. What if she turns around now and sends out a hundred queries and he finds out?

Worse case scenario: No other agent is interested. She is back sitting by the phone waiting for Mr. Big to call.

Best case scenario: She gets responses from forty agents who want to see her sample chapters. Then ten want to sign her up. She now has the luxury of choice. She can talk to them all, make a measured thoughtful decision and find the agent who is the best fit -- for her.

I wouldn't sit home waiting for Mr. Big to call. Don't know about you, but I had enough of that crap in high school.

So don't give away your power to the first pretty face that says "maybe." Beneath that pretty face there could be a true Poindexter.

Jan 142014
 

By P.J. Parrish

Way way back in the 1980s, when I was first starting out, I got asked by a local writers group to speak at their luncheon. The group had bagged some big-fish speakers in the past (I remember Les Standiford giving a particularly inspiring talk). But I guess they ran out of literary types so they asked me -- a minnow of a romance writer at the time.

I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to tell this group of as-yet unpubbed writers. I finally decided to focus on the marketing and business end of having your book published -- the underbelly stuff like co-op advertising, how "bestseller" slots in drugstores were bought by publishers, how the New York Times bestseller list wasn't really based on sales. I thought they needed to know what they were up against. (Remember, this was pre-Amazon days when if you self-published you were automatically assigned to the eleventh ring of hell).

Well, you'd thought I had brought a dog onto the podium and shot it there in front of them. During the Q&A, they turned on me like rabid bats, each one saying, in different words the same thing: We don't need to hear this. We need encouragement. One guy actually stood up and said -- I will never forget this -- "If you are so bitter about writing, why do you even do it?"

Maybe things were different back in the 80s. Maybe writers could afford to be mushrooms -- keep in the dark and fed a steady diet of manure. But not anymore. Today, if you want to survive, you have to be smart, tough and tenacious. All of you who are steady Kill Zone readers know this already. But sometimes we all -- including me -- need to hear it anew.

As the great western philosopher John Wayne once said: If you wanna be a pony soldier, you gotta act tough.

I still speak at alot of writers groups and on panels and such. And now that I am more battle-tested, I try hard to be kinder. But damn, if someone asks me for advice about getting published, I just can't coddle him or her with empty platitudes and pat their hands. I believe every writer needs a Dr. Phil in their life. Someone who will tell you the truth about why your plot sucks, why your characters aren't compelling and even why you should throw away your manuscript and start over. Someone who will read your stuff, stare you straight in the eye and say, "what WERE you thinking?"

So, as we start off into this fresh new year, let me be your Dr. Phil. Let's start with The 15 Things You Should NEVER Do.

1. Don't procrastinate. You must choose to write. That might mean giving up something else, like golf or sleep. Too bad. Don't jump from idea to idea. Pick one and ride it to the end. Don't let the first wind that blows through your life distract you. Don't wait for inspiration to come. Inspiration comes only WHILE you're writing. It's so much more fun to HAVE WRITTEN a book than to actually write one. (believe me, I know...this is my worst sin.) Writing the actual book is hard. Deal with it.

2. Don't talk your story away.  I am also guilty of this but not as much as I used to be. Writers love to yak about writing instead of actually doing it. I got this great idea about a cannibal serial killer, yada yada... Pretty soon all your yadas are used up and you can't stand your book anymore. Talk is cheap...or in this case, costly. As Lawrence Block once said, don't book Carnegie Hall if all you do is sing in the shower. Shut up and write.

3. Don't try to hit a home run on your first at bat. Don't sit down to write the Great American Novel or the next Chick Lit Bestseller. First you have a better chance of hitting the lottery than landing on the NYT's list. Give yourself permission to write badly as you find your narrative legs. Don't get hung up on the perfect beginning. That's what rewriting is for. I am really struggling with this one right now because my WIP is a totally departure for me and I am sort of flailing in the dark and I think I am losing sight of the "fun" part of writing.

4. Don't beat yourself up as you go along. Trying to craft the perfect sentence can create paralysis. If you keep going back over the stuff you've already written YOU WILL NEVER FINISH. Write a first draft THEN go back and rewrite. And get intimate with that delete key. It is your best friend.

5. Don't lean on adjectives. Most of us know this mantra but it always bears repeating. Adjectives weaken writing, and a string of them is deadly. Don't use crap like "tall dark and handsome." Find one apt word. But the real strength in writing is found in verbs. You're not Proust.

6. Don't overcook your words. It's so easy to slip into cliches and overworked words. Don't say "white as snow." It's not yours. Neither is "thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock, overcome with grief." Don't make do with time-eroded words like "beautiful, wonderful, interesting, lovely." Find your own words and voice. And for god's sake, stay away from dialects. Few writers can pull it off without looking silly, y'all.... (I committed this sin in my first book).

7. Don't over-punctuate. This is my pet peeve. Some writers use alot of exclamation marks, semi-colons and dashes. Maybe it's because they LOOK so cool -- active, even -- on paper. But they are crutches to prop up weak action, poor narrative and badly organized thoughts. Worse, they are signposts demanding reactions from readers (Okay, reader, now here I want you to feel excited!) You can write a whole book with just periods, question marks, quotes and a couple commas. Try it! Make your words do the work!!!!

8. Don't neglect your theme. Theme is WHY you are writing the book. Even genre novels -- well, the best ones -- have themes. Steinbeck said an author should be able to state his theme in one sentence. But don't get didactic. Maybe your book is about a body found in the Everglades, but your theme is about environmental destruction. But if you get preachy, readers will turn off no matter how many bodies turn up in the sawgrass.

9. Don't get personal. This is a big mistake beginners make. Save your self-expression for your journal or blog. What's wrong with self-expression? It is general, boring, trite, sentimental. NO ONE CARES about your years operating a bar in Queens. But they might care about a Queens man who loses his bar in a poker game and then kills to get it back. NO ONE CARES about your war experience. But they might care about an army unit sent to rescue the last member of the Ryan family. The trick of good fiction is taking your personal experience and making it universal.

10. Don't be dishonest. Great fiction is always honest. Which is not the same as personal. You don't have to "write what you know." But you have to be able to tap into your powers of empathy to "know" the characters and world you create. To write honestly is also to take emotional risks. We've all read books where the characters don't move us. Usually it is because the writer was holding back, unwilling to spill some blood on the keyboard.

11. Don't get seduced by research. First, it is a time-killer (See no. 1). Do your homework but don't let it get in the way. It is easy to get blogged down in research and then you feel obligated to use it in the book. The result: James Michener book bloat.  Now sometimes, research can open new doors in your plot but be careful you don't use stuff just because you worked so hard to find it.

12. Don't obsess about trivial stuff. 
Will a publisher steal my idea if I submit it?
Should I get Windows 9?
Do I need an agent?
What if they want me to change it?
Can I use White-Out on the manuscript?
Should I wait until I have better conditions at home to write?

You get the idea...
Answers:
No, if your book is good, they will buy it.
Work with what you already have.
Just write the damn book first.
They will...don't sweat it.
You're actually worried about this?
No. Poe was penniless and died in a sewer. He didn't wait til he had the right desk lamp.

13. Don't listen to your wife/husband/hairdresser/mother. Someday, when you are accepting the Edgar, you can thank all the folks who love you. But while you are trying to write, keep them at arms length. Sometimes, they can get inside your head in two disparate ways. First, they can criticize you and say you will never get published. Second, they can tell you everything you write is brilliant. Both are bad for you. Find feedback from someone who will be honest with you. (And yes, sometimes, that cold eye person IS someone who loves you!) But avoid writers group if all they do is sit around and bitch and moan about how its all a big conspiracy to keep them out.

14. Don't be afraid to rewrite. The temptation is huge, after you type THE END, to ship that puppy out. Don't. Let it bake in the thumb drive for at least a week, then go back and read it cold. The crap will jump out at you -- huge gobs of smelly stuff. You must rewrite. As many times as it takes. The first draft is made with the heart. The second, fifth and tenth, are made with the head.

15. Don't give up. Never up, never in. Not at the plate, no chance to hit. One of the main differences between the published and unpublished writer (besides talent -- duh!) is that the latter packed it in. This is a cruel, difficult, god-awful business. There is no secret formula for what editors want. There is no big conspiracy to keep you out of the club. There are, however, overworked, badly paid people sitting behind desks in New York who are overwhelmed with manuscripts but are still willing to pay money for a well-told story. There are readers out there waiting to find a new author who has a great story to tell. The trick is to find them -- through a combination of talent, craftsmanship, perseverance and luck. Especially luck.

This is Dr. Phil, signing off. Now get back to that computer before I come over there and cut off your fingers....

Jan 112014
 
by
Scott D. Parker

When compared to all the previous years of writing, the year 2013 was an outstanding year. I wrote about my progress much of last year so I won't rehash it here in 2014. But I will throw out one number: 269,792. That's the total number of words I wrote last year. And, when you consider that I didn't start until 1 May, that total encompasses only eight months worth of work. While I am proud of that number, I'm more proud of the habit.

The word for last year was Progress. The word for 2014 is also Progress, but different progress. Last year, I needed to pass over the hurdle of Not Writing. In 2014, I need to cross the next hurdle: edit what I've written, craft new tales, and get it out in front of y'all's eyes. But there's another milestone I need to achieve: improving my writing. It's one thing to churn out words, but if they're crap, what's the point?

When one thinks of Progress, the first impulse is to exceed what came before. That would mean writing three novels, three novellas, and three or four short stories. I know there are professional writers out there for whom this is what can be done in, say, the first quarter of 2014, but I don't necessarily want to write three books just to top myself. I want the quality to improve. And I know that the mere act of writing will help my writing improve, but if I'm making a common mistake, I'd want to know and correct it.

So what are my Resolutions for Progress in 2014? The first is to examine my writing with my editing pencil and find out what works and what I can improve upon. I wrote 'The End' on my first 2013 novel five months ago and I'm curious to see how it reads now that I've not given it a full read-through. Ditto for my second, even though it's only been three months for it. I knew when I was writing those books that certain traits were showing up in my writing. I'm eager to identify them and see if they need to be changed.

The second Resolution for Progress is my imagination. I want to improve it as well. I will be practicing on creating stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The latter half of last year I got bogged down in the sloppy middles of my stories. I want to be able to see the through line of a tale I write and make sure all the parts adhere to it.

My third Resolution for Progress is one I probably shouldn't have--since the first two need to take priority--but is one nonetheless: learn more about the industry. I've been happily ensconced in my office, writing away with little awareness of the greater world around me. Well, that's not entirely true. I know a whole lot more than I did in 2012, but knowing what to keep and what to ignore is a challenge. It's one I want to hone.

My last Resolution for Progress is to keep writing. I've grown to where I look forward to the writing times in my day and my family has even adjusted to it as well. That's a good thing. Gone are the days where I measured my streak with red Xs on a calendar. The habit is ingrained. Now, just keep it flourishing and make progress.

I have many different ways I'll be going on fulfilling my resolutions in 2014 and I'll let y'all know about my progress. But let's start a conversation, a dialogue. What are your writing resolutions/goals for 2014?


Extra of the Week:

I'm looking forward to seeing our own Joelle Charbonneau this Tuesday when she visits Houston's Murder by the Book. She's on tour for Independent Study, the second of her Testing trilogy. Head over to her website to see if she'll be at a bookstore near you.
Dec 172013
 

So there I was, standing in the corner at the Christmas party Friday, nursing my apple-tini and watching the crowd, when my friend Trent sidled up.

Trent’s dream job is to be Clinton Kelly on “What Not to Wear” so at the party he was mentally undressing the women and then re-dressing them. He is also a disciple of the Alice Roosevelt Longworth axiom “If you can’t say anything nice about somebody, come sit by me.” (Teddy’s daughter once described Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle.”) And this being a Christmas party, you can imagine that Trent had a lot of material.

He says that there's something about dressing up that just confounds some women down here in South Florida, particularly during the holidays. I have to agree with him. Women start out okay with maybe a little black dress. But then too many pile on every button and bow, every piece of bling they own. Trent calls it “the Full Boca.”

Okay, I'm picking on the women here, but men have it easy when it comes to formal wear; you have to try really hard to mess up a tux. But women? Some of them just don't know when to leave well enough alone.

And standing there at the party with Trent, I realized a lot of writers have this same problem. Me, included. So let’s talk about description and how to keep your book from turning into an ugly Christmas sweater. 

Description is maybe the most potent tool in our narrative toolbox. It sets a mood, signposts a sense of place, and renders characters into flesh and blood. Description has the crucial function of letting the reader sense -- see, hear, smell, feel and taste -- what it going on in your story. If your description is truly compelling, it can make a reader believe in things that are otherwise incredible. Think of what Stephen King does with "Salem's Lot." By making his mythical Maine town come alive through description, we are willing to suspend disbelief when the vampires start showing up.

Speaking of King, here’s what he says in his book "On Writing":
"Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It is far from easy. We've all heard someone say, 'Man, it was so great (or horrible/ strange /funny)...I just can't describe it!' If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this well, you will be paid for your labors. If you can't, you're going to collect a lot of rejection slips."
"Prickle with recognition." Isn't that a great way to put it?

Why do so many of us struggle with description? I think it's because many writers don’t know how much description to use. Some don't use enough. But usually, they have way too much. Description is narrative and narrative disrupts action. So a little goes a long way.

Which brings us back to the little black dress. When description is working well, it is concise and evocative. It also concentrates on a few well-chosen specific details that imply a host of other unspecific details. When Holly Golightly got dressed to go visit Uncle Sally in prison, she didn't junk up her Givenchy. Just sunglasses and that great hat.

So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you've gone too far or haven't gone far enough? How do you resist gilding the lily? There are no easy answers but here are a few things to think about:

Don't generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it's Monopoly. Instead of a "bad smell" use the specific "like sour milk." But again, don't reach too hard or you look silly.

Don't forget to compare and contrast. The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you're describing something green, it's your job to come up with something fresher than "grass." Here's one of my faves from Steinbeck: "The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns." And come to think of it, Alice's description of Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle” is pretty good. But again, don't strain for originality or you just sound pretentious.

Don't lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don't strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn...not a "verdant sward."

Don't use cliches: It's easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can't use "white as snow." It's not yours! Neither is "thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock" or even "overcome with grief." Time has eroded all those. It's your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.

Yeah, it's tough to dress your writing for success. But don't despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them. But then my sister told me one day that I was -- ahem -- dressing to impress. I made every writer's biggest mistake: I fell in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be "writerly." 

Finding your style -- be it writing or fashion -- is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O'Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out. In fact, I have gone too far with my WIP so my critique group friends tell me I am now underwriting and they are advising me to add more description.


Here is Stephen King again: 
"Description is a learned skill, one of the reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It is not a question of how-to, you see; it is also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can only learn by doing. "
I'll leave you with one final fashion icon as metaphor. If you try hard, you can get better at this. If she could go from this:

To this:
So can you.

Sep 282013
 
by
Scott D. Parker

Every author can struggle with it and it's one of the two fundamental things any write must do. There are countless blogs about it, our own Joelle Charbonneau wrote about it last week, and there was a link via SF Signal Thursday about.

You simply must finish whatever project you start.

This comes from a guy who spent the past seven years starting and stopping various projects for no good reason. I'll pick laziness as my reason of the day. The struggle to get through a hard spot in a manuscript is the drudges, but it's a learning experience.

I thought of all that again this week as I near the end of book two this year and a plot idea suddenly showed up. As soon as I wrote it, I told myself, "you know, this probably should have gone in an earlier spot in this book." There was a moment, a long moment, when I sat there, fingers over keyboard, thinking if I should abandon forward progress and insert said plot point into the manuscript. Back in 2006, when I wrote my actual first novel, my reading buddies asked a question about a certain set of characters. I rattled off all that they were doing off screen. They said I should put all of that in. Well, I stopped forward momentum and did exactly what they asked for. Nothing wrong with that, really, but it killed the progress.

The decision I came up with this week was, ultimately, an easy one: Not now.

Perhaps my inner editor is right and the point belongs earlier in the book. Fine. Save that for Draft 2. This is the First Draft. And, above all else, it needs to be completed. I'm very close. I made a note and moved forward.

Progress to The End. It is the key to this entire industry. Just. Keep. Going. If I've learned one thing this year, it's that writing every single day without fail will, eventually, get you to The End. If I've learned two things, it's to finish what you started no matter what. You can tweak later. Get it on paper.


Do y'all ever stop midstream and fix something in an earlier section? How does that work out for you?
Sep 212013
 
by
Scott D. Parker

Another week, another set of days just plugging away. I achieved a milestone last night: I hit 200,000 words written this year. And, considering I didn't start until May and didn't truly start until late May, I consider that achievement something to be proud of. I am. But it all goes back to prove the point I've learned this year: the simplest and most fundamental trait of writing is just to write. Start a streak, get in a groove, and just keep going. After awhile, all those words and pages just start adding up. Before you know it, you'll be done. Viola.

But you have to start. And you have to maintain. Those are key.

Once you've written something, put it away and don't look at it or think about it for a few weeks or months. This week, for the first time since I wrote "The End" back on 2 June, I started reading the first story I wrote this year. It's a little 18,000-word whatever-you-call-it (novella? novelette? long short story?). Since the second of June, I have written two short stories, completed one novel, and nearly completed a second. Plus, I've lived life.

All that is to say when I opened the file folder and started reading, the tale itself was fresh again to me. Sure, I remembered writing some of it, but not all. That freshness enabled me to experience the story more or less as a reader. I saw what I liked then (and still do now), I saw my mistakes and fixed them. I like it. It has a particular voice. Now, I'll pass it around to some beta readers and get their take on the story. Only then will I think about where it can go. Oh, and I'll have to write another two or three stories with that character, make sure he has some legs to stand on and move around. Would hate for him to be a one-and-done guy. I kinda like him.

How much time do y'all usually spend putting distance between "The End" of a story and when you start reading it again for the purposes of rewriting?

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