5 Mistakes killing your book

Keyhole with hidden murdererI’ve been reading some Indie novels in a GoodReads review group and I’ve noticed several common writing mistakes. Some of them seem very remedial for published authors, and I wanted to call them out on it. Instead, I held back. So, I’m going to post them here.

  1. Writing too much description bogs down the narrative.

Don’t write long, descriptive details about the sky, the weather, the landscape, the contents of a room or what a character is wearing. To establish the time and setting, I limit myself to one or two descriptive sentences. Then it’s time to get into the story. Anything more and the reader will probably just skip over it anyway.

  1. Poor grammar and spelling errors take the reader out of the story.

I see them all the time in Indie books — peaking vs. peeking, set vs. sat, then vs. than, your vs. you’re; affect vs. effect… I could go on. Word misuse happens to all writers. I get it, but it still breaks the illusion of the story and makes the author look amateurish. Also, many writers don’t understand comma, apostrophe and semi-colon placement. Compound sentences, most modifying clauses and many phrases require commas. If, as an author, you’re not sure what that means, take a grammar class or hire a professional editor.

  1. Writing scenes that “tell, rather than show” won’t engage the reader

I think this is one of the toughest concepts for new authors to wrap their heads around. Basically though, telling is a boring lecture. It’s reporting information after the fact. Showing is describing the scene as it happens. It’s imaginative and the reader can “see” the story unfolding in his mind as he reads.

  1. Background that the author thinks is vital information is probably just an indulgence that’s interrupting the story.

Don’t drop in heavy, indigestible chunks of history into your story. Maybe some of the Protagonist’s background is vital to the plot (or just interesting) could be summarized in a few pages. However there’s no need to reach back to the immigrant great grandparents. Also, never, ever start your book with a data dump. If there’s critical information the reader must know to understand the plot, then drip it in pieces around the action, in the scenes and within the dialog – after the initial introduction of your characters and what’s immediately happening to them.

  1. Boring dialog creates boring characters.

Dialogue in fiction veers from real life in that the characters in your novel don’t engage in idle chit chat. Dialog provides essential information and reveals character. Yet, it must still sound real. Which can be tougher than it sounds.

Got writer’s block? Here are some brainstorm ideas

canstockphoto1509708We all get stuck with writer’s block. And who hasn’t gotten bogged down in the murky middle? If you find yourself stuck, it’s good to stop, brain storm and think about “what if…” Ask a few questions to get those creative juices flowing again. Here are fifteen “What If…” questions you can ask to spur your imagination and hopefully get those fingers back on the keyboard.

What if…

  1. A character makes a startling revelation?
  2. The sleuth is tricked?
  3. There is a reversal of fortune and/or power?
  4. A supporting character dies or is found dead?
  5. There is an act of betrayal?
  6. There is an act of forgiveness?
  7. There is an act of self sacrifice?
  8. A past lover suddenly shows up?
  9. A trusted ally turns out to be an enemy?
  10. You changed the murderer’s identity?
  11. A storm knocked out the power?
  12. A character who was thought dead suddenly showed up alive?
  13. The sleuth’s significant other or most trusted friend abruptly leaves in anger? Or dies?
  14. The character’s greatest fear is realized?
  15. A character loses an arm or leg?
  16. The Sleuth gets sick or poisoned?

Violence escalates between debating writer factions

Stillwater, Florida (AP) – The murder of Janice DeStoppalace put police detectives on high alert last week. Discovery of her body was worse than anyone expected, especially since the victim led such a quiet life. She was a receptionist at a downtown insurance agency. She was a loving mother and wife who wrote amateur detective novels in her spare time. Now she’s the face of a hate crime that is growing in intensity.

The fervor is raging across the country: at writer’s conferences, book fairs, local critique groups, even between couples who are both writers.
outline
Friends and family are saying that Janice DeStoppalace, 34, lived openly about her beliefs.

“I like to pick out the villain when I get to the end of writing my mystery novels,” said DeStoppalace at an Amateur Mystery Writer’s Meet-Up Group she attended on the night of her murder. “I let the characters decide who did the dastardly dead and why.” Those were her last words. She was murdered in her home by a gang of Outliners who held a rally in a neighboring residence on the same evening.

“I’m not saying that the murder of Janice DeStoppalace was right,” said Andrea Ferngroves, 61, a representative of the D.O.R.I. organization (Detailed Outlines ‘R’ Imperative).  “But I find it a little disturbing that people like her can just start writing a story without any clear direction where it’s headed. You must first outline, then start the initial draft. That’s just the way it’s done in a civilized society.”
old couple
News of DeStoppalace’s murder has had a profound impact on her friends and neighbors.

“This is definitely a problem that we’re struggling to get past,” said Angela Whiddle, 42, a wife and mother. “I’m just like that poor, innocent woman. I’m a wife, a mother and write in my spare time. And I too just start writing on the first page and let the story flow where it wants.”

“But it’s put a strain on our marriage,” said her husband, Barry Whiddle, 44, a novelist who is adamant that an outline must be written first. “How does your story have direction? How do you keep the characters from running off on tangents without an outline to follow?”

A fellow writer who knew DeStoppalace and frequently attended the same Amateur Mystery Writing group attempted to explain. “I find an outline too restrictive. It limits my creative muse.”

However, there are many who oppose that viewpoint.

“You know that big reveal at the end of my mystery novels? I planned that out 300 pages earlier,” said Barry Whiddle. “It’s hard to imagine all that falling in place on its own or developing within the natural flow of the story.”

“We will never agree on outlines, but we don’t want to end-up in a situation like that poor woman who was murdered,” his wife Angela added. “A mixed marriage is tough. I’m not saying it isn’t. So, we’re currently working through our issues with professional help.”
Married Couple
DeStoppalace’s mother, Alice, spoke publicly for the first time after her daughter’s tragic death.

“I’ve always heard that there are two kinds of novelists: those who free-flow and those who outline,” she said in a statement released through the family attorney.

According to the attorney, “Free-Flowing” is a street term that describes a process where writers begin a story without any type of prepared outline. The story reveals itself as it’s being written. “Outliners” determine the major plot points, the narrative structure, and the ending before they begin writing.

“Isn’t this world big enough for both free-flowing and outlines?” Alice DeStoppalace pleaded in her public statement. “Obviously, there is no right or wrong way to write. And, I’m going to guess that a lot of people fall somewhere in the middle; they start with an outline but tend to veer off it once they delve into the writing process.”

Memorial services are currently scheduled for Janice DeStoppalace, but per her final wishes, no initial preparation has been made.

Couple in bed
All names are fictitious and no resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is intended. Photos are from canstockphoto.com and used with permission per the licensing agreement. Hopefully the members of my writers group don’t kill me for making fun of this week’s (and previous week’s) discussion.

Life Lessons that make great character growth

canstockphoto13359765There’s a formula that a strong plot plus a strong character arc equals a great novel. Readers love character development because it adds weight to the story. Sure, the adventure is fun or the mystery is thrilling, but add a layer of personal growth for your sleuth and you leave the reader feeling that the book meant something.

There are many examples of character growth out there. These are a few ideas I had, especially for an amateur sleuth thrust into the middle of a murder mystery.

1. You can’t give up when the going gets tough. The story opens with a character who has spent her life running from her problems. She’s never dealt with adversity because she’s always taken the easy way out, especially when things get tough. But, as the story unfolds, she learns that there are some things worth fighting for, and must stick around to face her problems.

2. Being selfish and self-centered is not a healthy or socially acceptable way to live. You just know a character who begins a story as a self-absorbed prima donna is going to get spanked with a whole heap ‘a Karma. She may initially react inappropriately to the events unfolding around her, but by the end, she will find her place in the universe, and generally be a happier person for it.

3. Wearing a mask to impress others will ultimately hurt you. A character who spends the beginning of a story concentrating on everyone else’s perception of her, or who everyone else wants her to be, is headed in one direction: an embarrassing reveal of her true self. This character will ultimately learn not to fear the judgments of others. If she stops living to impress others – others will be impressed and inspired by how she deals with her imperfections.

4. There is no real relationship if you can’t first love yourself.  A character with low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and a genuine dislike of herself is probably beginning the story in a lonely place. Or she may be brokenhearted, with a history of lost loves and disappointments. Then she gets swept up in the events of the story and learns her true value. Real love probably isn’t far behind.

5. Micromanaging every little thing in life leads to failure. The character who begins a story needing to control everything in her life is about to have her entire world upended. The more she tightens her grip, the more out of control her life becomes. When the dust settles, she’ll have learned that she must relax and let life happen without the incessant worrying and micromanagement. She may even come to the realization that life was actually in perfect order all along, she just couldn’t see it or understand it.

Want to read more? Check out:

Eight Life Lessons: Ideas for Themes and Character Arcs

Does your sleuth have a quirk? He better have a history to back it up

canstockphoto11602983I just finished a manuscript in which a mystery is solved by an amateur sleuth who hates technology. It’s an interesting premise. Surprisingly though, the sleuth’s aversion to laptops, cell phones, iPods and treadmills had no impact on the story. It had nothing to do with the mystery or in any way helped him figure out the whodunit or capture the murderer. He just complained about technology.

After reading it, I asked the author why she gave the main character that quirk. She told me that she was trying to make the sleuth interesting, to give him a memorable personality trait. As it turns out, her writer’s group read her story and told her that the main character was too bland, and that she needed to spice him up. So she came up with that personality quirk and inserted some new dialog.

That got me to thinking: how do you make an offbeat quirk a natural part of a character’s personality?

Offbeat characteristics can be fun to write, but if not done correctly, they can be distracting to the reader. In the story I just read, it was clearly not an organic part of the narrative. It was tacked on and it felt like it. And to fix that story, two things need to happen. Number one, the sleuth’s extremely negative reaction to geeky coolness should — in some way — help him solve the murder. Number two is rooting the quirk within the character’s history.

For the most part, supporting characters can have odd, outrageous quirks without delving into that character’s pathos. The same can’t be said for main characters. Their back stories need to be more developed and should provide an explanation for the abnormal behavior. Cause and effect comes into play. You’ve got ask, “What experiences would produce that trait?”

If your sleuth is going to have a quirky personality trait, he better have a history to back it up.

Want to read more? Check out:
Quirky Character Traits

A Conversation About ‘He Said, She Said’ (or Avoid Dialog Tags)

canstockphoto5739427“What are dialog tags?” he asked, inquisitively.

“Dialog tags are the little obvious fragments that writers add to the end of speech to identify who is speaking and what feeling the character is emoting,” she explained.

“So dialog tags are kind of like emoticons for writers,” he laughed.

“Exactly,” she agreed.

“Well, you didn’t have to tell me you agreed. I already knew that based on you saying ‘exactly,'” he snarled, offended.

“Why are you telling me you’re offended?” She put her hands on her hips and leaned toward him. She studied his expression a moment, then wagged a finger at him like an old schoolmarm.  “You should show your feelings, not tell them.”

“I don’t understand what you mean?” he queried, baffled.

“You’re a writer.” She straightened her back and folded her arms across her chest.  “You should show not tell. And of course this includes dialogue.”

He shrugged. “But I like to use ‘said’ after my dialog to identify who is speaking,” he said.

“That’s fine.” She put a hand on his shoulder. Her face softened. “Adding ‘said’ to dialog is okay when used in moderation. It generally doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative. Just don’t break out the thesaurus to describe how they’re talking. Your reader should feel that through your character’s dialog and action.”

“You’re kidding?” he vociferously expostulated. “You mean readers aren’t impressed with all those verbs and adverbs?”

“Those verbs and adverbs are distracting. They pull the reader out of the story.” She stepped back and waved a hand, as if grasping an invisible object and flinging it across the room. After a moment, she looked him directly in the eyes. “Those words scream ‘Look at me! Look how clever this story is written!’

“Really?”

“Really. In fact, you sometimes don’t need dialog tags at all.”

“And the reader can still follow along?”

“Yes. Especially when there are only two characters having a conversation.”

She watched him a moment as they stood in silence. He lifted his hand to his face and scratched his chin. He looked deep in thought.

“I guess that makes sense.” He reached for her and grasped her hand. His face brightened. “The words that come out of my character’s mouth should be strong enough to convey the emotion. If I need an added oomph then I should describe what the characters are doing while they talk.”

She returned his smile and squeezed his hand. “Exactly.”

 

 

What exactly does “Show, don’t tell” mean?

canstockphoto6655007The best writing advice I ever received was how to identify when I’m “telling,” rather than “showing.” And I’m going to share that advice with you.

You probably already know what “telling versus showing” means. If so, skip down past the examples. If not, well, read on.

“Telling” is relaying information. It’s generic, lifeless, and rather detached. It’s often the opposite of storytelling, but rather info dumping.  “Showing” allows your reader to follow your characters into the moment. The reader can see, feel and experience what the characters are experiencing. It also makes your book more interesting and impactful.

For example:

  • Tom was angry at the boy on the bike. (Telling)
  • Tom’s face reddened. He reached down and grasped a large rock then hurled it at the boy on the bike. (Showing)
  • Cheryl was in love. She had never felt like this before. (Telling)
  • Cheryl’s heart thudded in her chest as she glanced up at Chad. She smiled at him, before her legs tuned to jell-o and her forehead broke out in perspiration. She honestly didn’t know what had come over her.  (Showing)
  • “We need to leave,” Addy said impatiently. (Telling)
  • Addy drummed her fingertips on top the desk and looked over her shoulder for a third time. She fidgeted in her seat. “We need to leave.” (Showing)

Take the time to paint the scene. Don’t explain what’s happening, use sensory language (see, hear, taste, smell and touch) to reveal what’s happening. Use an active voice, rather than a passive voice, meaning beef-up sentences that rely on “had” and “was.”

I received some great advice about how to recognize telling versus showing. If you’re not sure, ask, “If this was a movie, could the camera see it?”

The camera can’t see “angry” or “in love” or “impatiently.” Intellectually, we understand the meaning of those words. But, we’re writing a novel, not a text book. We want our readers to feel anger, and love, and impatience.

The camera can see – as well as our own mind’s eye – descriptions of “Tom’s face reddening and him reaching for a rock.” We can feel his anger; we don’t need to be told that he’s angry.

There are exceptions, but as a whole, asking “Can the camera see it” will help you spot and eliminate telling.

5 Dialog Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

canstockphoto6243281This may read like Grammar 101, but I see these mistakes in a lot of unpublished, new author’s works. Unfortunately, these mistakes scream “Amateur!” and hurt the author’s chances of getting published.

If these rules are elementary, skip them. For everyone else, print them out and nail them to your monitor.

Problem #1:
“You sandbagged me with another blind date,” Kim said. “You know I’m involved with someone.” Mallory grabbed her arm to slow her down. “Stop being so melodramatic.”

Don’t put two character’s conversations into one paragraph. It makes it very difficult to figure out who is talking.
Start a new paragraph every time a new character speaks.

Problem #2:
“You sandbagged me with another blind date You know I’m involved with someone.” Said Kim.

“Stop being so melodramatic!” Said Mallory.

The character’s conversation and the tag should not be two separate sentences. This is a basic grammar rule. Use a comma instead of a period, and make the conversation flow into the tag.

Problem #3:
“You sandbagged me with another blind date You know I’m involved with someone“, Kim said.

Mallory grabbed her arm to slow her down. “Stop being so melodramatic“!

Always put terminal punctuation (commas, periods) inside the quotation marks.

Problem #4:
“I can’t believe you, Mallory! You sandbagged me with another blind date when you know I’m involved with someone. Ross and I are madly, deeply in love. I just think you’re jealous of our love. You always have been, but this time you’ve gone too far. Too far, I tell you! And, I will never forgive you. Not today or tomorrow or in a million years from now. Our friendship is officially over!” Kim said.

Mallory grabbed her arm to slow her down. “Stop being so melodramatic! Ross broke up with you. He cruelly, unceremoniously dumped you and he’s not coming back. No matter what you do or say, he will never come back. You need to make peace with that and learn to accept it. That’s why I set you up. Because I’m your friend, and always will be.”

The characters need a chance to breathe. Besides, no one really talks like this — and if they do, no one is really listening. Keep the dialog brief and to the point. The conversation above would be much easier to follow if it was broken-up into an exchange between the two women.

Problem #5:
“You sandbagged me with another blind date,” Kim said angrily. “You know I’m involved with someone.”

“Stop being so melodramatic,” Mallory said indignantly.

Repeat after me: Adverbs are not my friend. Adverbs are not my friend. Adverbs are not my friend. If you need to explain the emotion, then you’ve written flat dialog or a stale scene.

* Examples based on an excerpt from the mystery novel Prey of Desire.

Index of A to Z Blog Challenge Articles – April 2014

A2Z-BADGE-0002014-small_zps8300775cJust completed the Blogging From A to Z Challenge. Nearly 2,000 bloggers signed-up to participate this year. We started on April 1, 2014 with a topic themed on something with the letter “A,” then on April second another topic starting with the letter B, and so on until you finish on April 30, 2014 with a topic based on the letter “Z.”

My theme was, obviously, on mystery writing — and I wrote about everything from Amateur Sleuths to Zealous Zodiac. Participating in the challenge doubled the number of my blog followers, and I met several interesting writers!

Here’s the rundown of my articles in the challenge:

A – Amateur Sleuths: How Your Next Door Neighbor Solves Crimes

B – Bad Guys: The Whole Point of the Mystery

C – Cause of Death: Procedure from Crime Scene to Death Certificate

D – Deadly Doses: Death by Poison

E – Endings: Crisis, Climax & Resolution

F – Forensic Files: Bridging Fiction with Science

G – Great Escape: Getting your Sleuth Safely Out of the Frying Pan

H – Heroes & Heroines: 3 Tips for Writing a Kick-ass Protagonist

I – Investigations: Steps in Investigating the Crime Scene

J – Jargon: Classifications of Murder

K – Keen Killings: 24 Inventive Ways to do in Your Victim

L – Language of the Body: Add Visual Dialog to your Conversations

M – Motives for Murder Mysteries

N – Nobody Knows: What Type of Mystery are you Writing?

O – Obstacles: Road Blocks in your Hero’s Journey

P – Private Eyes: Getting a P.I. involved in a Murder Mystery

Q – Quirky Character Traits

R – Romantic Subplots: 20 Ideas Beyond Romeo & Juliet

S – Suspicious Behavior

T – The Ticking Clock: 25 Ideas to add Suspense to your Mystery

U – Unlawful Behavior: Just How Bad is Your Bad Guy

V – Vibrant Victims: Two Types of Dead Bodies in Your Murder Mystery

W – Writer’s Block: Stuck on What’s Supposed to Happen Next

X – The X Factor: The Unexpected Twist

Y – Yielding Yesterdays: Writing a Character History

Z – Zealous Zodiac Characteristics: Basic Character Templates

Whew! That was tougher than I thought it was going to be. I guess that’s why they call it a “challenge.” :)

Yielding Yesterdays – Writing a Character History

canstockphoto18571274Does the plot create the characters or do the characters create the plot? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Every once in awhile I come up with a fun, fascinating character and I go searching for the right story in which to place that character. Then again, and more often than not, I have a plot — a specific mystery idea — and begin creating characters to bring that story to life. Ultimately, the characters will determine the structure and direction of the plot anyway. So, maybe the chicken and the egg is kind of irrelevant.

Since I write about amateur sleuths with no to very little investigative experience, their motivation and approach are very different from, say, a law enforcer or a hired P.I. The amateur sleuth must rely on unique character traits, and fall back on previous experiences that are in no way related to the murder investigation but are surprisingly useful. It’s almost as if she’s lived a lifetime of yesterdays of unique experiences that prepared her for the day when she’d have to seek out the truth in an odd and suspicious murder.

Whatever the murder, the sleuth I eventually develop must be a living, breathing personality who is capable of solving the murder and keeping the reader engaged for 300 pages. There’s a lot that goes into creating a fully-developed character but here’s where I start:

  • Where was your character born and raised?
  • Who were the parents?
  • What was the character’s childhood like?
  • What members of a family does the character have?
  • What kind of student was the character?
  • What special skills or knowledge does the character possess?
  • What hobbies did or does the character have?
  • What are some of the traits of the character – emotional, mental and physical?
  • Does the character have any quirky personality traits?
  • What kind of job or profession is the character occupied with, past and present?
  • And finally, what are some of the character’s past and present relationships?