Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Thursday, March 30, 2006

CRAFT: First Person Point of View

I admit it, I love first person. That's a point of view, or POV, for those writers out there. It's where you write as if you are the narrator, telling the story... I did this and that and so on. A lot of chick lit books are written in first person, as well as mysteries. It's particularly good where you want to slowly unveil the story from the narrator's perspective.

Anyway, what I thought I would do, because I really do love first person, is give examples from books that use first person very effectively. It's a nice sampling and it shows how effective first person is, and how it's done. The major thing to remember is that the narrator is a character in the story so you have to "stay in character" when you're telling the tale. That's the challenge.

(The following is done by professionals--don't try this at home without proper supervision or a very large glass of wine. Preferrably red because it's better for the heart.)

From MOON-SPENDER by Jonathan Gash
This story begins where I'm making love to an ancient Chinese vase, on gangster's orders, watched by eleven point two million viewers.
But first, how to sell stolen hankies, from poverty, in the rain.

By evening the crowds of shoppers had thinned. The wet snuffed daylight off the Lion Walk spire, leaving me on the glistening square while women battled pushchairs in the rain. Those old Victorian lamps would have imbued the scene with a romantic opalescence. As it was, our town council now brittle us to death with a neon glare that hurts your eyes. Daft, like everything modern. I'm an antique dealer so should know.
"Genuine Irish linen hankies," I warbled. People hurtled past. "Hankies. Genuine Lancashire," I tried. Prams zoomed. Where has compassion gone? I hoestly wish people would reform. I'll even reform myself when I get a minute.

From THE KILLING DANCE by Laurell K. Hamilton
The most beautiful corpse I'd ever seen was sitting behind my desk. Jean-Claude's white shirt gleamed in the light from the desk lamp. A froth of lace spilled down the front, peeking from inside his black velvet jacket. I stood behind him, my back to the wall, arms crossed over my stomach, which put my right hand comfortably close to the Browning Hi-Power in its shoulder holster. I wasn't about to draw on Jean-Claude. It was the other vampire I was worried about.

From DATING CAN BE DEADLY by Wendy Roberts
I charged through Seattle's Memorial Cemetery with my arms pumping and heart pounding. My mouth wheezed in great mouthfuls of dreary afternoon drizzle while I ruined a perfectly good pair of black leather sling-backs. To top that off, the purse snatcher, who was at least double my twenty-six years and probably a heroin addict as well, had easily outrun me.

From "G" IS FOR GUMSHOE by Sue Grafton
Three things occurred on or about May 5, which is not only Cinco de Mayo in California, but Happy Birthday to me. Aside from the fact that I turned thirty-three (after what seemed like an interminable twelve months of being thirty-two), the following also came to pass:
1. The reconstruction of my apartment was completed and I moved back in.
2. I was hired by a Mrs. Clyde Gersh to bring her mother back from the Mojave desert.
3. I made one of the top slots on Tyrone Patty's hit list.

From A DYING LIGHT IN CORDUBA by Lindsey Davis
Nobody was poisoned at the dinner for the Society of Olive Oil Producers of Baetica--though in retrospect, that was quite a surprise.
Had I realized Anacrites the Chief Spy would be present, I would myself have taken a small vial of toad's blood concealed in my napkin and ready for use. Of course he must have made so many enemies, he probably swallowed antidotes daily in case some poor soul he had tried to get killed found a chance to slip essence of aconite into his wine. Me first, if possible. Rome owed me that.

From KEEPERS by Gary A. Braunbeck
"Hey, Gil--your air freshener's standing by the side of the road." Cheryl adjusted the focus on the new binoculars and then laughed.
"My whosee-whats--it is huh?"
"You'll see when we catch up to him in a minute."
Traffic in our lane wasn't moving nearly as fast as it was in the other two--in fact it was barely moving at all. We were coming back from the gran opening week of my second "novelties and collectibles" store, this one in Columbus, and had gotten into Cedar Hill just in time for rush hour--lucky us.

The first few examples above are pretty classic first person. They are all the first few paragraphs in the book. The last example from Braunbeck does some interesting things later on, and I'm going to show you right below. These passages are from later in the book (although still very close to the beginning).

I've never done well when it comes to ministering to sick or wounded animals. I guess it stems from an incident that occurred when I was a high-school sophomore, one of those "It Happens" incidents that you think you'll eventually get over but never really do, even though admitting to it some three decades later feels embarrassing...but the sight of this pathetic animal on my lawn caused this particular instance of "It Happens" to happen across my memory once again.
(See there, pal? You can remember things if you want to. If you'll just go a little further back...)
Go away, please.
After school I had a part-time evening job at Beckman's Market, a local neighborhood grocery store, one of those mom-and-pop operation that had been in the area for as long as anyone could remember...

That's it--did you see what happened there? You actually slipped inside his head for a few minutes and got to hear those little voices we all have in there. Writer things like this are incredibly exciting to me. I love this. This book, KEEPERS, is a horror novel so being able to get inside the head of Gil Stewart, the narrator, turns the screws to a nearly unbearable degree. You can feel that fear and tension in his head, and hear him trying to control and suppress it.

Okay, okay. So what was the point in my laboriously typing in all these introductory passages? Well, I wanted you to see the differences in the voices. Remember, the voices being used are the main characters' voices -- not the author's voice. And they are all different. Just because you write in first person, doesn't mean your book is going to sound like every other book written in first person--not if you do a good job. In addition, each book you write in first person that features a different narrator, will sound different. Or at least it should sound different, assuming you're doing a good job.

And, the last example should show you something else. Even within pure first person there are layers of techniques. You have to figure out how to express the narrator's emotions in a revealing way--you can't just say: I was mad as blazes. That's where it takes a little effort, that and trying to figure out a way to describe yourself (because you're the main character) without looking into mirrors or reflective windows all day long. Because I have to tell you, I was snooping on another group of writers and readers the other day and they were all complaining about authors who use the mirror/window thing to describe the narrator. They hated it and thought it was lazy writing. Let that be a lesson to you, if you're even thinking of doing that. Don't.

Surprisingly, many of them said they preferred the narrator not to be described at all, or just to get snippets like: the color of my jacket clashed with my blonde hair. Or something like that, but not as bad as that.

Anyway, I love first person point of view (POV). I hope this gives you a little taste of what can be done with it. And I'm wondering if others find first POV as fascinating or just think it's annoying...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Surviving Revisions

Writers need to be flexible and resilient. In fact, everyone needs those qualities if they're going to be successful in life, but it's even more important for writers. You see, although each and every one of us is convinced that we're writing deathless prose which will live on down the centuries inspiring (or creating fear in the hearts of) the masses, what we're really doing is, well, just writing. And no matter how good you are or how many books you've published, you're not perfect. No matter what you think. There is always something more to learn, something you wish you could have changed before that book went into print.

I decided to talk about revisions in my blog tonight to prepare myself for the revision letter my agent is sending me. I know her suggestions will be terrific and make my manuscript 100% stronger--and more importantly--more likely to tempt an editor to offer a contract, but I also know when I read that list of revisions, it's going to hurt. Because it's never easy to have someone point out your faults to you and your manuscript is even more dear and perfect to you than anything else in the whole wide world. You slaved away on that thing, night and day, blood dripping from every pore, trying to give life to a brilliant idea that you--and only you--thought of.

So here is what I'm trying to remember. The revision letter may not touch on a single one of these things, but by spelling them out, I'm hoping to dull the pain when I do get the letter.
  • Scenes *can* be cut. If I can't show a purpose for a scene except, "Oh, it just shows so much about my character's personality" then I probably need to cut it. Surely there are other scenes in my 385 page masterpiece that provides insight into the character while it's also accomplishing something else, like moving the plot along, so this shouldn't be so excrutiating. And most importantly, I can't keep a scene just because it has my favorite line or lines--ever. I'm not saying I have scenes that fall in this category--at least I don't think I do--but it's possible. So if my agent tells me to cut some scene (I haven't gotten the revision letter yet) I'm prepared for the sacrifice.
  • Subplots can be removed. I'm praying she doesn't tell me to remove the mystery element because I want to write mysteries and I hate to think that I'm not any good at doing that. This is a tough one. However, several editors said they didn't like the mystery element so it may have to go. I'll see what she says. Maybe I can remove the actual dead bodies plotline and just leave the kidnapping. Sigh. This one really does distress me, but I have to be flexible and pragmatic about this. It's a business, after all.
  • Increase the s-e-xual tension and perhaps add a love scene. I am virtually certain this will form part of the revisions because we've discussed this before. Let me say up front that I'm game and will work on doing this. Now that I've said that, I'm going to whine. WARNING--WARNING--WARNING! The next bit is my mini-rant. It's my opportunity to cry, stamp my foot, and declare how really unfair it is that I'm going to have to make changes I don't want to make, as opposed to changes which are fine by me. Really, wording, scenes, plotting, all that crafty-stuff, well, it can only be made better. I may be upset that I did it so poorly the first time but it can be FIXED. It's not changing the actual flavor of my work, per-se.

    One of the reasons I like mysteries (other than the fact that I like mysteries) is because they tend not to go into laborous details about s-e-x. The romance is but the gravy to the meat. Unfortunately, my work seems more suited to the romance market where the romance is the meat and the mystery (if any) is the gravy. In that market, you need the dreaded s-e-xual tension and obligatory love scene or scenes. ARGH!

    I'm afraid s-e-xual tension and love scenes are not high on my list of interesting things to read about, but I have been thinking about it. I even have a couple of blogs on the subject, trying to find ways of incorporating it into my writing without feeling like I'm making my writing worse instead of better. This is one area I'm definitely going to have to do some serious study and work. S-e-x sells and I've just got to get over my dislike of forcing my characters into s-e-xual situations. Their independence is now, officially over. They will toe the line and they will hop into bed with each other at the first possible moment whether their personalities and moral character would naturally do this or not. There shall be no more thoughts about morals and the possible consequences of their actions.

    I will inject them into situations which will lead to the bedroom (or other convenient spot). I'm really sorry about this, but it's one area where I'm going to have to ignore my artistic sentiments and judgment and just do it. And just to be clear--I've got several manuscripts where the characters have been more than happy to fall all over each other--and they have. It's the heroines in my historical set manuscripts that have been so very, very stubborn. You see, most of the heroines in my historical set manuscripts are actually intelligent. And they are perfectly aware that "doing it" in a time that had no convenient pill or really effective birth control leads to babies and they don't want babies out of wedlock, or to be ostracized as being "fast", so they don't want to do it before they get married. And they may have other goals than getting married, too. But, unfortunately, their opinions can no longer matter to me on that score. They shall risk it. I'm exceedingly sorry about the entire situation. Sigh. This really is one area that is going to kill me, but I'm going to do it. I have to do it. I have to get over this. And please, no emails about how s-e-x scenes have all this depth of meaning and really enhance a story, and blah, blah, blah. Although I have laboriously tried to analyze books and convince myself of this over the last five years, I've yet to meet a scene (other than really brief ones like Tess Gerritsen has in her books, and a few others that I've read that are fine, just fine) that can't be completely excised from the book without losing a single thing. Not one single thing. Tess' really brief scenes are usually more about expressing some need or desire that must be expressed at that point and the actual lovemaking is usually just a few very brief lines, if not done behind closed doors. That's perfect. It makes the point and moves on without breaking the tension/suspense in the book or making her characters come across as hormone-driven morons. Unfortunately, I don't think I have that freedom, seeing as how I'm not published and Tess is a brilliantly famous best selling author, and what do I know, anyway? If you disagree with what a million other people are saying, who is wrong?

    So, end of whining. What I am going to do is study Tess and Theresa Monsour and a few others who do this s-e-xual tension thing really, really well and try to imitate them. If I can do THAT maybe I can actually add this to my manuscript without feeling like I've violated the integrity of my characters. More importantly, I might be able to add it and not create something that I would never want to read.

    You see--that's the point you need to get to when you get a revision letter. My whining above, childish though it was, was a necessary phase for me to work out my resentment/fear/sadness that my original manuscript wasn't quite as good as it could be, and that there were areas I really needed to work on. The thing you have to realize is that the one issue that makes you the angriest or hurts you the most is probably the area that needs the most work. For me, I know it's s-e-xual tension because I don't like writing about emotions--they make me very uncomfortable, and I get annoyed when what I see as the "real plot" gets "sidetracked" by all that emotional stuff, particularly romantic emotional stuff. Because of this, it is my inclination to give it short-shrift. But in a book, the characters' emotions are the life of the story so you can't ignore it.

If you have one area in your writing that touches on a subject that makes you uncomfortable or that you don't like in other books, study it. It's stretching as a writer, moving out of your "comfort zone", that will make you a better--no, a great--writer like Tess or Theresa or any one of a number of fabulous authors.

So revisions are not a bad thing. They are an opportunity to reach for something better. Don't close your mind. Be flexible.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

CRAFT: Moron Descriptions

That was a typo. It was supposed to be "More on Descriptions".
So, I'm sitting here in my bathrobe, considering showering and the fact that I need to clean house, and I've decided to write this blog about descriptions. What works, what doesn't. Keep in mind, this is from my perspective, and I've a very jaundiced perspective on descriptions.

I scoured my shelves to find really bad descriptions but didn't find many, so I'll probably use stuff from my own writing when I reach the "this is what is lurid and awful section". That'll probably be in my next blog, though.

Before I get into it, I just want to say one more thing by way of a caveat or general disclaimer: what's with the violet eyes? Does anyone out there realize what color violet is? It's blue mixed with red (or pink). Hmmm. You know, I never thought Elizabeth Taylor's eyes were violet. They always looked blue to me until she started drinking heavily. Then they were blue and bloodshot--OH! I get you. Blue-and-bloodshot. Blue and pink. OH, YEAH! Violet. Okay, I'm with you now. Gotcha. So heroines with violet eyes are probably closet alchoholics or have severe allergy problems that make their blue eyes bloodshot. Gotcha. It's sort of a shorthand for a condition you don't want to describe in your book. Okay, I'm good with that.

So how to write good descriptions.
Keep 'em brief.
Keep 'em realistic.
Keep 'em ordinary.

Ordinary? Did I say that? Yes. Because all that flowery junk makes me wince. It's probably just me. I guess some people like that stuff.

In Wendy Roberts' book Dating Can Be Deadly, she does a great job with brief and realistic. I'll give you two examples, the first is the heroine's friend and the second is a guy the heroine has a crush on (not the hero, though).

First, the friend:
...Stumbling in my direction, with high heels sinking in the sodden grass and with ample bosom rising and falling in deep gasps, was my good friend Jenny...
...She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, the red hair color, Claret Classic, was courtesy of this week's sale at Neuman Drugs. Next Jenny dug in her purse and pulled out a cigarette. She lit up then nodded her head in the direction the thief had taken...

Get the picture? There's a bit more interspersed through their conversation, but only brief phrases. That is a great technique, by the way, since it lets the reader build up a picture of the person without being hit over the head with one long paragraph of description. In fact, let me continue so you can see the build up. I'll use the standard elipses (...) to show where I've left out the text between the descriptions.

...Jenny was retaining twenty-five years of fried food, not water, but she was my best friend so I supported her delusions of water retention...

...Jenny planted thick fingers on wide hips...

Okay, now for the not-hero guy. She give us the initial description in dialog as the poor heroine looks up so see a coworker (this guy) in her checkout line:

..."Golden hair, body like a Greek god, has on a brown leather jacket and there's a blonde, a model-type, hanging off his arm," I whispered. ...

But doesn't that violate the rules above about keeping it ordinary and all? No. Not really. Because this is converstation. If it's how your characters would talk, then that's how the description goes. She does go on to say he has azure eyes, but I let her get away with that, although it was a little close.

Here's a final description from this book, just showing a secondary character. I include it because it's just as important to know how to describe secondary characters as it is main characters--maybe more so, because you've got to give the reader a handle for secondaries.

...Suddenly, the doors did open and out stepped a stocky middle-aged man with skin the color of expresso. He wore a rumpled overcoat, a worn tweed suit and a dour expression...

Got the picture? Okay, let's continue.

Another approach
Here's another description from Jonathan Gash's Paid and Loving Eyes. Gash writes the fabulous Lovejoy mysteries about a rather seedy antique dealer. I'm not going to give you a lot of analysis or explain why Gash's descriptions meet my standards. Ths one is pretty self-explanatory. It's exquisite.

...There was relish in her mellifluous husky words. I recognized the respone. Women love conflict more than men. In the oblique light of the loading yard she looked stark somehow, black and white yet languid with the serenity of the well used. Lovely. Money's easier to spot on a woman. They like it to show more. Smallish, slender, intense, voluptuous. I loved her...
..."What is life or death?" She actually licked her lips...
...Diana glanced at me, at them, her excitement growing and showing. God, but women interrupt your thoughts...

Those were all from the same scene - I only cut out small bits of converstation between. All I can say is...masterful. In both these examples there is one major thing to remember: they are written in first person so in both of them, it is the narrator who is doing the describing, and you have to remember to write the descriptions the way the narrator would express them. So if you've got some flowery English-professor type who takes five years to say something an ordinary mortal would say in five minutes, then that's how you have to describe the scene, whether you (we) like flowery or not. Okay? Got that?

Now it's important to realize that there is a wide variety of ways to effectively describe things without going totally nutso and diving into purple prose.

Here is a description of Anita Blake's boss in Laurell K. Hamilton's Bloody Bones.

...He glanced up, smiled, and motioned me closer. The smile bothered me. Bert was never pleasant unless he wanted something.
His thousand-dollar suit framed a white-on-white shirt and tie. His gray eyes sparkled with good cheer. His eyes are the color of dirty window glass, so sparkling is a real effort. His snow-blond hair had been freshly buzzed. The crewcut was so short I could see the scalp...

See, now she uses similies and so on, but it works because she stays in the narrator's voice. It's also not overly flowery. Here is her description of one of the heroine's early love interests. It's quite a long descritpion, actually, but again, she pulls it off because it's in Anita's cocky tone. Ms. Hamilton approaches my wince zone quite frequently, and I stopped reading after things just went too far into the erotica/sensual zone in her last few books for my taste, but she's still very good at descriptions. She gets them right up to the edge, but the cocky tone saves them from being smaltzy or purplish.

...I had to admit that Richard was worth a crush or two. His thick, brown hair was tied back in a ponytail that gave the illusion that his hair was very short and close to the head. He has high, full cheekbones and a strong jaw, with a dimple that softens his face and makes him look almost too perfect. His eyes are a solid chocolate brown with those thick lashes that so many men have and women want. The bright yellow shirt made his permanently tanned skin seem even darker. His tie was a dark, rich green that matched the dress slacks he wore. His jacket was draped across the back of his desk chair. The muscles in his upper arms worked against the cloth of his shirt as he held the book...

Pretty good, right? She goes on some more, dribbling in tasty descriptions and Anita's reactions to him.

Okay, but those examples are all written in first person. In many ways, it's easier to write descriptions in first person, because any over-blown phrases can just be blamed on the taste of the narrator. It's much harder to write good descriptions in third person, because you, Mr. or Ms. Author, are responsible.

So, here's one final example for today (I still have to think up or find some bad examples, but maybe I'll have those in a later blog.) This example is from the fabulous Georgette Heyer's The Masqueraders. It's quite longish. It's quite good.

...My lady's brother gave his three-cornered hat into his servant's keeping, and struggled out of his greatcoat. He was much of his sister's height, a little taller perhaps, and like enough to her in appearance. His hair was of a darker brown, confined demurely at the neck by a black riband; and his eyes showed more gray than blue in the candlelight. Young he seemed, for his cheek was innocent of all but the faintest down; but he had a square shoulder, and and good chin, rounded, but purposeful enough. ...The lady wore a fine silk gown, and Mr. Merriot a modish coat of brown velvet, with gold lacing, and a quantity of Mechlin lace at his throat and wrists. A pretty pair, in all, with the easy ways of the Quality, and a humorous look about the eyes that made them much alike...

While not precisely brief, it doesn't go in for fantastical comparisons to things like jewels or fruit, which can really just not work. If you look at this, the description is very down-to-earth, very real. In fact, that's the key element in all of these that makes the work really shine. It's so real you can see it.

That's what makes a great description.
So... What kind of descriptions do you like?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

CRAFT: Descriptions

After teasing you with visions of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Descriptions: Everything you ever wanted to know and more," I felt obliged to come through to some degree. While this is certainly written by an idiot, I can't find it within me to claim it is complete, or even anything you ever wanted to know. You see, I don't really believe in descriptions.

Oh, sure, they exist in those long literary novels we're all forced to read in school, and they exist to some degree in commercial fiction, but I don't entirely believe in descriptions because what I really believe in imagination. With any really good imagination, less is more.

Thankfully, most readers have good imaginations. They may even prefer what they imagine while they're reading to what they see on television, thereby making them...readers.

And, as if to prove my point, when I grabbed a few books from my shelves, I found myself having a hard time locating descriptions. In an effort to drag myself into the current state of affairs, which I define as post-1995, I only selected books which were published after 1995. I really wanted to cut it off at 2000, but that proved too difficult, so I backed up a little. You see, I wanted this to be what is being done lately in the publishing industry. Not what was done twenty years ago when everyone had the patience to sit through paragraphs of descriptions and be perfectly content with this. There being less on television for one thing.

So, let us begin.
Point to consider: If your reader's eyes flicker down the page and see more than a couple of very dense paragraphs, there is going to be an immediate urge to skip over them. Therefore, you have to do something in those paragraphs which is going to make the reader want to read them. What treats can you give the reader to stop such dreadful behavior?
  • Animate the inanimate. I promised I would stop quoting Elizabeth Eyre, the supreme master of this, but that doesn't mean I can quote someone else. Here is a description of London by Neil Gaiman, from Neverwhere:

    It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parts and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names--Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl's Court, Marble Arch--and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as much as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn, or, more recently, motorized, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every color and manner and kind.

    This technique draws the reader in and makes what is being described become another character, in this case the character is London. This makes what might otherwise be a dull recitation of a cityscape into something alive and interesting. It feels like a character description, rather than just some "the city's narrow streets were filled with traffic and so on" kind of passage which doesn't accomplish anything other than get on the reader's nerves.
  • Insert a sense of movement into the description. The problem with a lot of literary books is that the descriptions are static. They feel like someone just sitting on top of a hill somewhere describing what they are seeing. This is exactly the boring kind of tripe that readers will skip given half a chance. By inserting movement through the scene, you draw the reader in and keep them going. Here is an example by J.A. Jance from Devil's Claw.

    The yellow school bus rumbled down the long dirt trail known as Middlemarch Road, throwing up a thick cloud of red dust that swirled high into the air behind it. Approaching a shotgun-pellet-pocked CURVES sigh, the bus slowed and then stopped beside a peeling blue mailbox sitting atop a crooked wooden post. Switching on the blinking red lights, the driver, Agnes Hooper, waited until the trailing dust blew past before she opened the door to discharge her only remaining passenger.

    There is movement--the school bus coming down the road and halting--and action (including information about Agnes' personality--she cares enough to wait for the dust to settle) when the driver opens the door for her passenger. This paragraph isn't really straight description, it's narrative with descriptive passages woven into the action, but that's precisely why it works. Because instead of being just straight, long passages of description about a dusty road, the CURVES sign, and the peeling mailbox, these things are slipped in as the action occurs. So we have action and description combined.
  • The only way you can get away with a static view is by coloring it with a character's perspective to the point where it says something important about the character. Sadly, I don't have an exact passage to quote for you, but I'll give you an example. Unfortunately I can remember neither the author nor the book it came from. The deal was, there was this hero and heroine who were working together and they came to this old house they were going to turn into their offices or something (I can't remember). Anyway, she describes it as this wonderful old Victorian with lovely gingerbread carvings, a fabulous turret, and great old rooms complete with hardwood floors. Her description of this place reveals her strong romantic streak, energy, and innate optimism. The hero then describes it. He sees a broken down old house that's huge (will cost a fortune to heat) and needs a lot of repairs. It's got all these God-awful carvings that will be hard as heck to sand down so they can be repainted, and the hardwood floors need to be refinished. His description reveals a strongly practical man who already has a lot on his plate and the last thing he needs is one more "fixer-upper" job. (I know EXACTLY how he feels.)

    These descriptions were obviously much longer, but you see the point. The descriptions here aren't present to "set the scene" so much as to reveal who these two people are and how they view the world in very different ways. It is a point in the novel where you see the contrast and potential sources of conflict between the two (among other conflicts the author has, of course).

An important idea you should be thinking about at the moment is: do you really, really need that page-long description in order to set the scene? Probably not. In fact, if your description is there just to set the scene, you need to make that thing really, really short. Or animate it in some way. Make it funny. Make it sad. Give the reader something other than what amounts to a nice landscape painting on the wall. I mean, there's a reason so many hotels have landscapes on the walls in their rooms. They put people to sleep.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Teaser for Next Blog

This blog is really just a teaser for my next blog, which I hope will be on narrative and descriptions. I'm not big on descriptions myself, particularly character descriptions since they are usually unnecessary. Most readers build up pictures in their mind of the main characters without much help from the writer, and after a while, if the writer starts inserting descriptions which disagree with how the reader is building the character in their head, well, the results are generally a dissatisfied reader.

That's not to say some description isn't necessary, because it is. But sort of like a minimalist artist, you're better off saying too little than too much. I wasn't going to go into much here, because I intend to have actual example which I don't have in front of me right now, but I do remember one. It's from Sue Grafton's wonderful alphabet mysteries, you know, the ones like 'A is for Alibi' and so on. In it, her main character is a female private investigator. Because the series is done in first person, you never really get much in the way of description, which is good. I mean, how many of us go around thinking: Oh, I've got beautiful blue eyes, or looking longingly at ourselves in mirrors. If you do, I suggest a good mental health professional.

Anyway, one of the things I remember most about Kinsey, the main character in these mysteries, is a little aside where she decides her mop of hair needs a little trim, so she trims it with her nail scissors. There wasn't much more to it, except that you know that because of the time period and a little bit more description thrown in here and there, what she's describing is a sort of home "shag" hairstyle for a woman with wavy brown hair, cut at different lengths with nail scissors. Perfect. No elaborate descriptions, no mirrors. Just a note in passing, which is a great way to drop in descriptions on the fly.

An audience will actually read and digest that sort of description. It's the long, long descriptions (oh, say a paragraph) that I skip over (oh, my, did I just admit that I, a writer, skips over descriptions? Yes, sweetie. Sorry.) There are remarkably few descriptions that I don't skip over. Those all have some tone or aspect in them that makes the descriptions fun or interesting to read. For example, my favorite writer, Elizabeth Eyre. I always read her descriptions because of the sly wit and the fact that she makes even inanimate things like wind have purpose and personality. P.G. Wodehouse is another one who writes descriptions with a purpose and great deal of humor. If you don't read his descriptions, chances are good, you're going to miss a chuckle.

I don't read descriptions which are just "mood setting" or just...descriptions. They're boring. If they don't make a point, aren't funny/sly/witty or interesting for some reason, then I don't give a darn about them.

Of course this has also driven my agent to mention to me that I could use some descriptions in my writing. Hmmm.

So that's what my next blog is going to be about. Writing descriptions that aren't boring. That an audience won't just skip over because they don't add anything important to the story.

How's that? A deal?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Writers and Resiliency

Okay, it took me roughly two and a half days to cut bait and let my four historical mysteries and plots for 4 more sink beneath the surface of the waves. I can't say that I'm not casting longing glances back over my shoulder at them, nor can I say that some small part of me isn't hoping that my agent can sell the ones she's still flogging, but I've cut that line. I'm just having a little issue with it tangling around my ankles, trying to pull me under the waves with it. Or them. (That darn grammar stuff--sheesh.)

I guess I'm either a writer or masochistic to have already decided not to let those really sincere rejections stop me. Are all writers masochistic? I think some have to be. No matter how many blows I take and how many times very knowledgeable people in the publishing industry try ever-so-gently to tell me that my concepts are not fit for barnyard animals, I keep coming back for more. "More please," she says, holding out her empty bowl.

"Hit me again. Please. But harder this time, because I didn't quite get the message before."

Oh, but how I envy my critique partner who decided one sunny day to write a historical, finished it, sent it off to a handful of agents, signed with the agent, and got the book published without any visible effort or angst. All without breaking into a cold, smelly sweat. Magic does happen for some, don't think that it doesn't. Not all writers are full of tales of woe and rejection.

Does that mean that she has more talent than I do? I honestly can't say. She's also a member of Mensa. She's undoubtedly smart. She does write very well, and she has lovable characters. Is that the answer? If it's not the answer, it is certainly a major, well-heeled constituent.

But enough about talking about other people. This is about me and my angst as a writer.

So, now that I've thrown away all the work I've done for the last five or six years (who's counting?) what will I work on now? I'm not really sure. I'm still drawn to mysteries. They are probably 80% of what I read.

If I can't write historical mysteries, then what about contemporary? Ummm. I'm not sure. I need a different angle, I mean, that's what I loved about the historical ones I was writing - I had this framework all worked out with the "Second Sons, Discreet Inquiries" detective agency and the stories written as Tales with a terminal twist...

I've got a vampire tale "with a terminal twist" that I might try on the contest circuit. I wrote it as a change of pace and to "cleanse my palette" after writing so many historical mysteries. My agent isn't too keen on that radical a "change of venue" and paranormals can be a tough sell, but you never know. It's one possibility, so I'm editing the heck out of the first few chapters and hope to send it to some contests in April to see what the general populace think about it. If it goes over like week-old fish, I'm not going to agonize over it. Well, that's probably a lie, and it'll probably be in a future blog, but I'm not planning on agonizing over it.

What else can I do? My brain is a little rusty on contemporary stuff, but maybe something along the lines of a chick-lit mystery. I've tried dark/gritty and I just can't do that. I'd love to be able to write something that Hard Case Crime would publish (I've been reading ALL their books the last few months) but I just can't get that Scumbag Noir flavor into my writing. It comes out more like a mildly depressed P.G. Wodehouse trying to imitate Raymond Chandler. Too weird for words. And I'm probably giving my writing too much credit to even mention Wodehouse and Chandler in a paragraph which is tainted by references to my writing.

Okay, enough self-deprecation. I'm not being paid enough to beat myself up for longer than a few minutes at a time.

I'm going to send that darn vampire thing out to as many contests as I can afford, starting in April.
Then, I'm going to get to work on something contemporary. Something with some dead bodies. Something with a chick-lit tone, maybe, and a few con men perhaps, even though they are sort-a more 1940's than 2006. There is no way I'm going to write something without something dead in it. On that one point I shall stand firm. I mean, I know people are telling me to write romance, but I'm afraid my idea of romance doesn't completely coincide with the rest of America's idea of romance. My concept is...

You're sitting next to this big, hulking guy who you suddenly realize isn't so bad. He notices you noticing him, which you can tell by the kind of half-smile on his face while he watches the made-for-television movie on tv. You assume the smile isn't in response to the good guy's sidekick just getting blown away by the bad guy's sawed-off shotgun.

Suddenly, he puts down his beer and glances over at you, and you realize a commercial just started.
He says, "You wanna?"
"Wanna what?"
"Do stuff?" he asks, waggling his brows at you.
"Oh, sure." You put down your beer, too, and you rip off each other's clothing and you do stuff.

Then, this being a romance, you're lucky enough to have both your beers--which are still ice cold and almost full (this being a romance)-- sitting there when you're done, and the commercials are over so you didn't miss any of the movie.

Now, that's romance.

Hmmm. Maybe I really could write Scumbag Noir in a chick-lit kind of tone, except when my characters are done doing stuff they find a dead body laying in front of the tv. Good Grief, just think what the crime lab/CSI folks could find at THAT crime scene. It almost makes me shudder...with glee.

Maybe I should talk to my agent first though, so she won't think I've gone completely nutso on her. Geeze, I hope she doesn't read my blog, or she'll already know that I'm completely nutso and that I wa-a-a-ay over-react when she forwards those polite e-mail rejections to me.

Well, that might be good for her to know. Lower her expectations. I like low expectations. You can only go up once you're down!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I Should Have Read My Own Blog

The title says it all: I should have read my own blog. The one where I said nothing good happens if I get a little confidence. I should have stayed depressed and sure I would always be one of those pitiful writer wannabe hacks who write for years but never produce anything good enough to get published.

Why would I say that?
Sunday night, I decided it was time to revise my web site and turn the focus to what I hoped would be a historical mystery/romance series revolving around a detective agency called: Second Sons, Discreet Inquiries. I had already written 4 manuscripts with this concept and each ended with a "bonus epilogue" containing a minor, but I hoped enjoyable, twist. I even thought I could use: Tales with a Terminal Twist, as a sort of an all-encompassing sales line.

My agent loved the manuscript I sent her (it was actually the second, but we're not going to talk about my previous abortive effort) and she started trying to sell it. Then, I sent her a second one. This one, she was not so thrilled with, but she's gamely trying to sell that one, too.

Well. Of course, since it's now been months, I got a little confidence that maybe it would sell. I mean, my agent loved the first one, didn't she? So I decided I really was going to be a writer, a published writer, and I redid my web site to be a writer's web site. Even though I hadn't sold yet, I figured I was close so instead of a more hobby (writing and gardening) web site, I created what I considered to be a professional writer site.

Besides, I had read all these other blogs from other writers who said things like: you have to have confidence and present yourself as a professional writer, and if you do, you'll be a professional, published writer.

Sounded like good advice. The sort of solid advice one gives to Olympics-bound athletes. Confidence. That's the ticket.

Naturally, whatever forces power the universe duly noted this slight but significant increase in my level of confidence. Normally, I have none since I've learned that confidence, any confidence, on my part inevitably leads to disappointment and disaster, but for some stupid reason I keep trying to overcome that. I keep trying to take other people's advice.

After showing this minute, microscopic cell's-worth of confidence, I imagine some sort of cosmic conversation went on like this:
"Did you see that that woman actually thinks she might get published?"


"I think she's almost got confidence that she'll sell. She's revised her web site, too. Thinks she's going to get this Second Sons concept off the ground."

Loud guffaw.

"We can't have this. Swat her down like a mosquito in August, and this time, since she had the nerve to redesign her web site around this concept and included excerpts from three of her manuscripts, I want the entire thing crushed. I want everything she's written for the last 4 years, and everything she plans to write for the next few years to be entirely worthless."

"You got it, boss. Entire waste and devastation. No problem."

The day after I revised my web site, I got a boat-load of rejections. Coincidence? Coincidence that I got the rejections the day after I revised my web site to be more professional and to commit to this concept of historical-set mysteries (with a pathetic touch of romance)?

Well, they weren't just the "sorry, not right for us" kinds of rejections. These were the "you're not in tune with the market" kind of rejections. No one wants historical-set mysteries and particularly not with a romance. Your romance was too subtle. It wasn't hot enough. It stunk on ice. Revisions would be so massive that it wouldn't be worth thinking about.

Three publishers didn't even want to look at my work because they loathed even the concept.

Since pretty much everything I've written during the last four years and everything I plan to write over the next few years rests on this concept, I'm basically sitting in a leaking boat watching a great white shark circle me. Waiting. Watching. Hitting the hull with its tail to make the boat sink a little faster. Oh, and I have a nosebleed which seems to make me of even greater interest to the circling shark.

So now what?
I'm going to have to pull back on the web site, for one thing. There's no point in talking about an entire flotilla of related manuscripts that aren't going to make it out the door. Toss out all the plots I'd worked out and have lined up, waiting to be written. Forget about Second Sons. Forget about the Archers.

If I'm not going to write these historical-set mysteries (with a touch, but not hot enough, of romance) then what am I going to write? My brain was entirely wrapped around this idea. I had already tried the contemporary route six years ago but found it more interesting and "natural" for me to set my stories in the late Regency period. I don't know why, but ideas just flowed when I switched to historical-set.

But that's not going to sell, so I have to get over it right now.

Time to stand back. Other writers tell me to try other genres. Mentally, it feels like trying to divert the ocean. It feels like what they're really telling me is that I don't fit in. I'm not one of them. I'm not a writer.

Am I going to give up? Today, I don't know. Tomorrow, I can't say.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Getting Out There

All writers need a web site.
That's really the main point of this post, so if you're in a hurry, you've read all you need to read.
Get a web site and get your domain name reserved now. What is a domain name? It's that www.yourname.whatever address that folks are going to type into their web browser to get to your web site.

There is a lot of domain name "squatting" going on, so I advise you to grab whatever name you want now, pay a domain name registration service such as, or or or any one of a number of other services. For less than $9.95 per year you can reserve your name, e.g., and make sure that some cyber-squatter doesn't grab your name for whatever nefarious reason they have. (Don't forget the versus debacle where some folks of ill-repute got the domain name before the legit presidential folks could get their big-brother governmental hands on it. What a mess. Don't let that happen to you!)

This is not an idle remark and it's not just the White House that has had the problem. I have a wonderful fellow writer friend who has been publishing a slew of novellas and whose agent is working to get her published as a single title. This friend had a web site but due to some issues with her web hosting service, she had to move it to a different service and in the process, some cyber-squatter got her original domain name, forcing her to move from to Since most people will automatically add the .com to the end of a web site name, it makes it a little awkward.

If you run into a situation like that, where your name and most versions of it are already taken, I would recommend using the country extension instead of the .net extension. (I don't like the .net extension because it's generally used by folks in the computer industry to indicate organizations/companies/industries related to the networking industry, which is not particularly applicable to writers and will make propeller-heads like me, crazy.)

Each country in the world, including the U.S.A. has an extension which can be used instead of the regular .com, if the name you want to attach to the .com extension is already taken. For example, the United Kingdom has the extension for the country extension. The United States has the extension.

All this naming stuff, however, is not exactly the point I wanted to make in this blog.
I just spent the weekend going back over my website and making some modest changes. One of the changes is relatively important, however, and it's a change I would encourage others to make.

Of course, it may be that others don't need to make this change and as usual, I'm just weird.

When I originally started my web site, I did not have an agent and I had no idea when I would be published. I didn't want the site to be a "writer wannabe" site. As it turned out, I became heavily involved in the Wilmington Cape Fear Rose Society as the newsletter editor, and I also began writing articles about the history of roses. So, I made my web site a sort of "all my interests" site with sections on gardening/roses including newsletter issues (I'm still working on getting the old issues up there), birding, and writing.

That's fine, but what that made it was a hobby site.

Now that I have an agent and am closer to being a published writer, I realized that one of the writer's biggest tools in the publicity toolkit is their web site. I had to do a makeover to begin to change it from being a hobby site to a writer's site that just included sections on other things such as rose gardening, instead of the hobbies being the main focus. I couldn't take down the rose gardening sections, however, because I get a lot of visitors on those pages and I maintain the newsletters online for my rose society. Besides, it's writing even if it's nonfiction, and it provides information to writers on...roses. And roses during the Regency period.

The importance of turning it into a more writing profession and less hobby-oriented site was brought home to me by another writer, Mai Thao, She has a gorgeous web site and actually got her first writing contract when someone visited her web site, read her excerpts and contacted her.

Don't go all crazy at this point and think this is the answer to your prayers for getting published.

This was most likely an aberation. I seriously doubt editors and agents are cruising the internet looking for new writers, because they get enough manuscripts in the mail to keep them occupied well into the next century. However, this is one example of how important a site can be. You just don't know who is surfing the net out there and who may discover you at random.

Nonetheless, fantasies aside, the most critical thing a site does for you is to provide a avenue for publicity and a place for fans to go for more information and news. Do not pooh-pooh this aspect. It is incredibly important. And since it takes time for search engines, such as to find your website and catalog the pages, the sooner you can create one and get some "content out there," the better it will be when the time comes to actually use it professionally to publicize your books.

Over the past year, I've noticed a lot of major authors have done amazing web site overhauls, which to my mind means they have also realized how critical this is. I would encourage you to take a look at three of my favorite sites. They have beautiful designs and give you a feel for what should be on an author's site:

Surprisingly enough, I also use sites like to see how they lay things out because they really are web site professionals and know exactly how to present a lot of information in a graphically pleasing way. Or, just look at your favorite web site.

If I had to give one (okay, 2) piece of advice, it would be:
Keep the site visually clean. Use a lot of white space. And watch what words you use, particularly if you include excerpts. If you use a lot of dirty words, your pages may be found, but they may be put on the "porn" site list so people with parental filters turned on may not get to your site. Your site may not even be listed as a choice when people use things like to search. Think about it.

I'm a little torn on the excerpt issue. I've heard pros and cons. Last year, I had excerpts, then I took them down and now I've got some very short ones back up. The pros are that they can give your audience a feel for your writing and they may gain you new readers. The cons are that you're providing "free reading material" which may not make your publisher happy. There are a lot more pros and cons. This issue deserves a lot of consideration. I have noticed that most professional, big-time writers like the ones I have listed above do not have excerpts. I find this very telling.

On the other hand, I've heard readers say they like the excerpts on web sites because they can more easily determine if they will like an unfamiliar writer's voice and they are more likely to buy a book to try them.

This leads me to the conclusion that it may be good to have excerpts until you are well-known enough to despense with them.

Anyway, that's about it. Web sites are important to writers; and readers, too!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What I've Learned The Hard Way

After just finishing up our taxes (we owed so no nice, big, fat tax refund to play with, boo-hoo) my mind is a little blotto, but I'm going to give this a try anyway. If I'm majorly incoherant, well, it's because the little guys in the back of my mind are screaming and running around frantically trying to think up ways to cover our tax bill.

So, what have I learned over the last, oh, say thirty years or so?

First (and this applies to any endeavor, but it most especially applies to writing) you have to know what you want to accomplish. This is not as easy as it sounds. I'll give you two examples from my work, one is writing-related, the other is my paying job-related. Just to confuse you, I'm going to do my paying job-related one first.

Back around 1987 or so, I was a first-time supervisor, a first-time project manager, and was pretty much the entire project team on a development project. The project wasn't exactly new, it was to develop a replacement computer system. The folks who had hired me had tried a couple of times before, failed, and now had really angry customers on their hands. In fact, their customers were in law enforcement so it was legal for them to carry guns on their job, which should have made my employers a little more success oriented.
At any rate, during our first meeting, these huge, burly guys filed into the room (I'm 5'4"), placed their sidearms on the table and said, "So, what is it that you think you're going to do for us?"
(I'm thinking, other than pee in my pants?) I replied, "I'm going to develop a replacement computer system for you. Now, what did you have in mind and what features do you need for this system?"

During the next 9 months, which was all the time I had to do this, I made a few false starts before I realized what people say isn't always what they mean. Sometimes you *think* you know what your goal is, but you're wrong because what your customer is telling you they want may not be what they need. What you must get at is their goal.

That sounds like a lot of gobbledy-gook, so here's what I mean, exactly. These customers said they didn't want to see wants-and-warrants listed on the dispatcher's screen when they called in during a stop, but they wanted to be able to click on some link and flip to the information. Well, maybe, but maybe not. Turns out, they desperately did need to see wants-and-warrants, first thing.

What I needed to find out was what it was they were going to do with the information and when they were going to need it because not immediately displaying it turned out to be the wrong decision. I had to ride with a few of them while they worked, question them about their procedures during a stop, find out what information they passed to the dispatcher, and what they needed in return. Turned out, the first thing they do is pass on the information for the dispatcher to do a search for wants-and-warrants and then the dispatcher needed to immediately pass any relevant information to the officer so s/he knows if s/he is dealing with a dangerous person. (Remember, this was back in the middle to late 1980's so the officers didn't have those cute little wireless devices in their vehicles to do their own searches.)

So I learned that getting someone's list of specifications doesn't necessarily get you to the right place. You need to understand what the underlying goal is and how that product is going to be used to meet that goal. You can then create the right end product.

Well, yeah, but what does that have to do with writing, or anything else for that matter?
Because with writing, painting, or just about any human endeavor, to be successful depends upon how clearly you understand both the goal and how you are going to meet that goal, and the goal may not be obvious.

When I first started writing (for the third time - I already had written three manuscripts at various intervals, but then I got really, really serious and wrote 8 more) I thought I understood this lesson from my paying job. I was going to write a romance, right? I read them, I understood the structure and thought I was ready.

Wrong. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Sure, I did understand certain things, but there was a lot I didn't understand down to my bones. I thought each of my scenes pushed the story forward. I had conflict between the hero and heroine. However, there were still critical things missing because basically, like that first computer project, I had my specifications but I didn't understand the difference between just having bad things happen to good characters (plain specifications), and having events happen that are inevitable given who the characters are.

Now folks are probably already laughing up their sleeves at me, figuring I'm just a "plotter" who develops a plot and then just shoves their characters into the situations. Those authors who are character driven don't have this problem. Maybe, but I doubt it, because there is a lot more to this than just forcing characters willy-nilly into specific plot situations.

Remember that goal thing I was talking about? Well, part of this, part of the inevitability of events must also rest upon the underlying theme. Argh!!! I'm just writing commercial fiction for crying out loud! I'm not going to worry about a theme. Then don't, but don't come crying to me when your story doesn't gel, your characters seem cardboard, and it just doesn't work.

A theme is really that goal, that in-depth understanding of what you're trying to accomplish, and without that, you begin to lose the ability to do things like, oh, I don't know, like determine if each scene is really necessary and if it does what needs to get done or is just boring/repetitive/filler. It's what will create the gift for your reader at the end of the story, the thing that gives them that happy sigh of completion and fulfillment.

Of course, you also have to understand your character's goals for letting you drag them through this story, because you have to know why they are acting the way they are acting and doing what they are doing. Don't let them opt for the easy, "Oh, I kill people because I'm a raving madman" line. Make them tell you about all their little dark secrets, so you can understand them and write their actions with conviction, knowing that under the circumstances, the characters have to act they way they are acting because it is who they are. They have consciously or unconsciously made the choices that brought them to this place. Understand their choices. For example, just because a child is abused, doesn't mean they will inevitably turn out to be a mad-dog killer. Lots of people go through horrible abuse or terrifying ordeals and while they may have odd quirks as a result, they are kind, decent human beings.

Like I said, don't take the easy way out. Get to know the whys behind the character's actions.

Some writers are just so gifted that they can happily write without doing all this work of figuring out the theme or goals or anything else like that, so, well, good for them. If you're one of them, I applaud you and wish I was one of you. I'm not.

The more I write, the more critical I am of my own work and the more depth I crave, even though on the surface they are just light, fluffy little mystery stories with a touch of romance. My characters may be amusing and even crazy, but with each new manuscript, I'm trying a little harder to get them to tell me their whys. Why are they doing these things? Why do they act the way they act?

On a side, but related note, I've also finally realized that being funny for the sake of being funny doesn't make a story worth reading.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

HELP: Writer's Block? Stalled?

HELP: Writer’s Block? Stalled?

Like an airplane with the engine suddenly giving out in mid-flight, I sometimes stall and start a nosedive straight toward the corn fields below. This happens to me at least once a year, usually in late spring, early summer, and pretty much lasts through the summer. When the days turn cool again in late summer, I get a sudden surge of creative energy that lasts through the holidays. If I want to get any writing done, that’s when I need to do it, holidays, guests and unroasted turkeys be damned. Some years, I’ve written two complete 400 page manuscripts during the period from September 1st through January 30th.

While exciting, this is not the best way to manage your writing life, not to mention what it does to your personal life when you’re already juggling another (paying) job, a household and a 2 acre garden, not to mention family and friends who may feel a little neglected sitting down to the dining room table only to discover that the turkey is still sitting--raw--in its pan on top of the stove. (Just five more minutes--I swear I’ll have this scene done in five more minutes, honestly, can’t you just shove that pan in the oven for me? I’ll be with you in ten minutes or so, twenty tops, okay maybe thirty, but then we’ll have the whole evening Okay, I didn’t realize it’s past nine already, but I swear I’ll be down soon...)

So many writers complain about writer’s block or stalling out, but I know in my own case its due to several very specific things and if I can get control over them, I can beat that thing like an uncooked turkey. I suspect that many others have similar issues.

Before I go into long-winded psycho-babble, I will offer the solution right up front. The only solution to writers block or stalling out is to write. That’s right, just write. Write at least five days a week, every day of those five days. Set aside a chunk of time and just do it. There is nothing I can say that takes the place of this. It is the only way to beat writer’s block into submissions. Just write.

Now that you know the answer, you don’t really need to read any further, but I do have some other observations based upon my own, limited experience.

Over-thinking, or Thinking at All

If you stop to think about writing, to think about if you feel like writing, you’ll never write. When you’re feeling depressed about your writing not going anywhere or you feel like all your good ideas have somehow morphed into useless dross, then of course you’re not going to feel like writing. Nonetheless, you’re a big girl or boy now and you’ve got a job to do, so just do it. Don’t stop to get in touch with your feelings (gag). The last thing you want to do right now is to get in touch with your feelings because right now, you’re feelings probably consist of one or more of the following:

v My writing sucks. Why am I torturing myself this way?

v I’ll never be published. Why do I keep trying?

v This manuscript stinks on ice. Why continue with this worthless piece of stinky shine-ola?

v I’ve gotta be crazy to think I’m a writer. Who am I kidding?

v I have no idea what I’m doing. What am I doing?

Honey, every blessed one of us is convinced their life is one big desperate charade consisting of trying to make people think they know what they are doing (they don’t), that they are successful (maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, maybe they’re going to fail at any minute if they can’t keep those plates spinning on top their poles), and that people of the opposite sex find them hugely attractive.

Let’s face it, we all feel that way. If we don’t, then we’re probably psychotic sociopaths because those are the only people I know who are so filled with self-confidence that they think they’re smarter than everyone else and will never get caught. Not that I personally know any. Or at least, I don’t think that I know any.

What is the solution? Stop fretting over your feelings. Stop pausing to evaluate how you feel about writing. Just write. That’s all, just write. The more you write, the better you will feel about your writing, because your writing will get better. It can’t help getting better because it’s an art and like any other art, the more practice you do, the better your performance.

Stuck or Stalled

Sometimes you go on a vacation or take a break of some kind or reach a point in your manuscript where you sort of forget what you were going to do. Unfortunately, the longer you remain in this state and don’t write, the more stuck you become. You’ve walked right into the quicksand and you’re sinking and unless you grab a nearby branch and pull yourself out, you’re going to go down.

This happens to me for the reasons I mentioned above: I took a break and forgot what I was doing, or, I’ve hit page 150. You see, around page 150, my characters have taken on a life of their own and now control things. My plot, sketchy at the best of times, now no longer bears any resemblance to anything these people want to do.

At this point, I need to sit down and sketch out what I now think could happen. I need to review what has been done and renew my acquaintance with my characters and get their take on where they think things are going to go or should go. In other words, I re-plot it or I review my characters to make sure I still understand them.

Lest you think this takes a long time, I rarely spend more than an hour or two re-plotting. I just want to get a few more scenes and twists in my brain to carry me through the next 150 pages or so, bringing me to 300. At around page 300, I need to be thinking of the final chapters, which are admittedly the hardest for me (others say the endings are easy, but I find the end to be absolute torture to write). So when I hit 300, unless I’m on a roll, I sit down again for another hour or two and plot out the rest.

Lately, I’ve taken to writing the last chapter or two after I’ve written the first 150 pages because it eases my dread of the end of the book.

Now, when I say “plot” I’m being very loose with that term. My plotting consists of writing about three brief sentences, summarizing what I want to get done in a chapter. Each sentence equates to a scene. This is my formula and you will need to work out what feels natural for you.

Stubborn characters

Kill them off. The death of a stubborn character will often have a jarring effect upon the remaining characters and make them toe the line for you. The prospect of an early and grisly death will quite frequently make previously uncooperative characters very helpful and perhaps bring them groveling to your feet if you’re very lucky. If they aren’t, you can let lose a serial killer. There’s nothing like a little murder to improve the tension in a manuscript and get the action back on track.

Seriously, maybe that’s why I write stories that contain a mystery element. I find that a dead body will absolutely make the middle of the book come alive. No sagging middles for me.

For those who don’t like murders or mysteries, you’re going to have to sit down and have a serious discussion with your characters. You need to understand them and figure out what they are doing and more importantly why they are doing it. A really big problem for many writers is that they actually don’t understand their characters. The hero and heroine are just cutouts from a glamour magazine without any real personality or motivation. I suggest you go back through and create a grid of what your characters what, why they are where they are, and what they think they’re going to do next. This should help you bring the plot back in line with your characters’ conflicts and give you the impetus to write again.

Above all else, it is the characters and emotion that will sell the manuscript and drive the plot.


To cure writer’s block, you need to write. You also need to read and watch entertainments such as television or movies, because those will also sometimes set a spark to the creative spirit. The old, “Heck, I can do better than that” scenario. You want that. You need that.

You need to get back to work and write.