I recently spoke to a middle school class in Athens, Tennessee and was impressed by their thoughts on writing, what they were writing and how excited they were about the entire process from inspiration to words on paper to editing (which they informed me was the hardest and most important part!).
In this class, and when I meet children or young adults with their parents, one of the inevitable questions is what should I do if I want to be a writer? That’s a loaded question but one of the things I usually mention is name recognition through competitions. (After all, practice and potential resume building aren’t bad for anyone.) Inevitable we talk about short story competitions. Why? There are quite a few of them. And while writing a short story isn’t easier than writing a full length novel it is ‘shorter,’ which hopefully translates into a shorter timeline for completion.
While name recognition for a contest winner or short story publication is a great thing, there are other wonderful reasons to tackle the short story.
Perhaps most importantly, it is a tool in development of writing craft. Short stories may be short but they have a beginning, middle and end. Their length makes it all the more critical to distill all knowledge into an abbreviated word count. A good short story will always be tight and succinct (whereas a novel can legitimately be lengthy). That leads to the part that the middle schoolers felt was the hardest and most important – editing. A masterful short story is a well edited story.
This doesn’t mean that a short story edits out theme or twists or experimentation with POV or any other of the other things that writers use in full length novels. The short story provides space for everything, just judiciously. A theme is the heart of any story!
Recently I asked a short story writer what was their biggest piece of advice. The answer: start the story very near the end.
Are you a short story writer? Any advice? Any favorites?
(This post appeared simultaneously on MissDemeanors.com)
Mystery and thriller writers are often asked – how do you plot your books? For the truth of the matter is that whether the author plots in advance or flies by the seat of their pants and then fixes, the mystery/thriller writer is paying attention to the clues and red herrings that bring their story to a satisfying end. This makes clues and red herrings the mystery writers stock in trade. They aren’t, however, all of the stock needed to arrive at a satisfying end. I like to think that misdirection is the mystery writer’s friend.
What are some strategies for misdirection?
– Innocent characters with strong motives (who must be clearly shown to be innocent later)
– Innocent character at the scene of the crime (meaning no motive, but the reader will wonder if the motive will be revealed)
– Guilty character who appears innocent (no evidence of motive, weapon or opportunity)
– Clues that can be interpreted in multiple ways (and are)
– Unreliable narrator (this has been added to the list of popular misdirection techniques in recent years)
Strategies require thought and application. Writers use post its and charts, they think about foreshadowing, investigate the rabbit holes of misdirection, and plot backwards from the end to check the sequence.
The critical part of all these strategies is a satisfactory conclusion to each point. For what is truly important is that the reader buy into the ending. There is a fine line between the reader identifying the guilty party too early and not being able to identify them at all. The solution should evolve, so that when it is revealed it is the nicest mix of surprise and a satisfied ‘of course’!
What are your favorite endings? Was it a big reveal or the steady inevitable construction of clues? (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of my first mystery reads and the conclusion was a complete surprise, but when I was reminded of the chair being moved I thought Agatha Christie was playing fair. The clues were all there.)
This post appeared concurrently on MissDemeanors.com, which was recently spotlighted in Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 best blogs for writers. (And it was one of only three named specifically for the mystery genre.) It was a thrill for our group – our Andy Warholian fifteen minutes of fame!
That said, don’t worry if you didn’t see the list, or if you read over http://www.MissDemeanors.com if you did. There’s a lot of information out there these days.
Part of me embraces the connectivity. That’s certainly why I blog with these wonderful fellow writers. Writing can be an isolating experience and staying in touch via electronic media helps. Fifty – even twenty – years ago we would have written letters. More personal? Perhaps. But also limiting. I doubt the MissDemeanors would have all participated in a weekly round robin letter.
While I appreciate, and value, all of the on-line resources available today, I can’t help but also give a shout out to the old-fashioned kind. Strunk and White anyone? I still have two copies on my shelf near to hand. And the newer and hipper Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss? I keep it on my nightstand – it is truly urbane, witty and very English as the book jacket proclaims. A chance to be entertained and learn a thing or two.
My point? How do you wade through “what’s out there” without merely marking everything under the sun as informative and to be read later? In my case, I stick with a few resources. Writer’s Digest being one of them. I also try to follow Jane Friedman as much as possible. After that, I attempt to keep in the loop about conferences both local and national, big and small since they are wonderful face-to-face opportunities to connect with both writers and readers. And I confess to loving Twitter – in small doses. It’s like taking the pulse of the world. And I keep my old stand bys – the Strunk and Whites of the world – at hand. When the internet crashes, I’ll be thankful they’re here.
(I’m blogging this week with my fellow writers at MissDemeanors.com and this post appeared there as well. Follow us every weekday where we chat about writing and any other thing that strikes our fancy).
My neighbor is a big reader and we had an interesting conversation over the fence this lovely spring weekend. He doesn’t like to read elaborate descriptions. To him, an elaborate description is the gun on the tabletop in scene one that never gets discharged. He gave an example: in the thriller he is currently reading there is a scene where the protagonist walks down a long corridor. The scene is complete with a detailed description of the doors the protagonist passes, what he sees at the other end, etc. In the end, the man gets to the end of the hall and goes into a room.
My neighbor read the passage carefully, sure that the careful attention to detail meant that there were important clues in the text – or at a minimum something would happen behind one of those doors. He felt that the description made it difficult to separate important detail from general atmosphere.
This is a problem for writers. First of all, no two readers are the same, so you can’t satisfy everyone. Some people like to use their imagination to fill in most of the details of places and people. A long narrow corridor. A tall dark stranger. Good enough. They’ve got the idea and the tall dark stranger gets filled in with their ideal, not the writer’s. Same thing with places. My long narrow corridor may look different from everyone else’s, but does it matter if there is crown molding or not?
I believe that there should be enough detail to get close to what the author imagines, but I can sympathize with the notion that too many details are information overload for a reader. This came up in my conversation with my neighbor. Afterwards it struck me that the average reader’s access to information has altered what we want. Think of Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo. These men were literary giants in their day, hugely popular in every sense of the word. They set a scene that was possibly unimaginable to their readers – a glimpse of the darkest side of industrial England’s workhouses and slums and law courts. The vast battle fields of Russia and the gaiety of aristocratic balls. The dark currents of Paris, including those running under the streets. These scenes were so finely wrought that they are useful to historians today.
Modern society has access to images on television, at the movie theater and on-line. Take Industrial England. Google it and you are overwhelmed by images and descriptions (not all accurate, but that’s a separate issue). No longer are novels the main form of exposing people to faraway places or ideas. As a result, we have adapted as readers and therefore as writers.
Or have we? Description still plays a vital role in a novel. I read to remember places I’ve been, and to dream about places I’ll never go. For me, it remains a balance. I want to see into the mind of the author, all the while knowing I’ll continue to fill in details from my own imagination. That’s also my goal as a writer.
I’m curious, though, what do others want? Plenty of description or spare spare spare? There is definitely room for both.
This is not an uncommon situation – in fact, I should acknowledge how fortunate I am to be a ‘working’ author at all. However, there is something a bit odd, perhaps even awkward, about being in the midst of finalizing, working on finalizing and at the beginning all at the same time.
Swiss Vendetta is in some ways a thing of the past – I’m still out and about in bookstores and libraries talking about Agnes’s first adventure in Violent Crimes – however, what I’m really thinking about is A Well-Timed Murder, her next adventure (set amidst the watch industry in Switzerland). No cover art yet, in fact I’ve not seen the first round of edits….. so I’m in waiting mode.
Did I mention that I’m waiting? The moment an author hits send the waiting begins. I like to think that I’m a patient waiter. I like having some distance before getting this all important feedback from my editor. Too soon and I might not be ready to hear suggestions. Hit it just right and I can read with a fresh eye. Certainly time and distance will have made me re-think some parts of the book (the question is will my editor and I agree on the changes…. back to waiting patiently). I won’t bother fretting (will my editor want changes that I agree with?). I defer to Stephen King on this – and I paraphrase – writer’s write and editor’s edit.
At the same time, I’m well into research for book three. I know what the big theme is, I’m working out the various characters, and have some ideas for the story (beyond the big idea). There’s still time for the story to evolve and change and likely it will look much different when finished that I envision it now, but it is the next big project! This is where I want my mind to be 100%.
On the other hand…. the mental hopper needs time and feeding and when I get A Well-Timed Murder back (today? tomorrow?) I am ready to dive in and rotate a bit backwards in the cycle.
I’m curious, though, how do other authors do this? Wait until one is completely finalized before starting the next? Or is everything always on a middle, simmer burner?
Swiss Vendetta recently released as an audiobook and it’s generated a little curiosity on my part about the recording process. I’m not an audiobook devotee – like many of my friends. However, I might turn to the audio version of a book for a long solitary drive. When I do, I typically select a familiar title since I tend to zone in and out of listening – an unbreakable habit. A familiar book is best for me. I need to be able to fill in the blanks when I miss something. (This may come from listening while driving up and down the California coast. It’s best to not be distracted in LA traffic!)
As an author, I am a firm believer in craft. That translates into respect for the professional narrator’s craft. Because of this, I trusted that the narrator chosen by my publisher would do for Swiss Vendetta exactly what needed to be done. That meant creating the characters’ voices, setting the tone, and invoking atmosphere. All with her voice.
My narrator, Cat Gould, has a long and distinguished resume, particularly with accents, both as varieties of English and foreign. I’m so pleased to have her on this project. She makes the listen feel like they are in Switzerland!
Curiosity about the life of an audiobook’s narrator led me to a great article giving Steve Marvel’s perspective about his ‘reading’ experiences and process. http://bit.ly/2mUCIfk
I hope all audio listeners enjoy Cat’s reading of Swiss Vendetta. Hat’s off to our audio collaborators!
A few confessions. First, meeting strangers can be daunting, but when the strangers want to talk about books – and possibly your own book – then it’s incredibly fun. I’ve met people in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Arkansas with Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and New York to go, have driven through a snow storm and heard tales of local flooding, crossed the Mississippi River a few times in a car, and traversed the Arkansas River on foot (via a pedestrian bridge in case anyone envisions my walking on water).
I’ve met writers and readers and convinced a few people to buy their very first mystery (a special shout out to Josh, a high school senior hoping to go to film school who purchased Swiss Vendetta. I expect to see him walking across the stage to accept his Academy Award in about eight years).
Part of the delight of a tour is visiting so many bookstores. Every time I enter, I am struck by a dozen titles I want to buy, and the sight of familiar covers that make me want to dive in for a re-read.
With eight stores in ten days I feel like I should have a preference in stores types, but I don’t. Each and every one has its own charm. Tiny and crowded – feels like entering a personal library! Huge and multistory – clearly they have every title I could wish for! I believe that each one plays an important role in our lives as readers.
Amazing dinner with friends in Lexington, Kentucky last night to celebrate the launch of Swiss Vendetta! What a pleasure to see old friends and to share such meal.
As for the rest of ‘launch day’… not as glamorous. A quick skim through the book before tonight’s reading is probably in order. I’ve avoided doing this because selecting a section to read feels like favoring only one child. They are all my favorite parts…. but it must be done.