Saturday, December 15, 2018

The One Writing Rule You “Must” Follow

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published August 11, 2010.

By Charles Gramlich

I hear a lot of advice about writing. I listen to it all, though I don’t necessarily take it all. Here are some of the “rules” I’ve picked up over the years:

Show don’t tell.
Kill your darlings.
Avoid adverbs.
Never use clichés.
Ain’t ain’t a word.
Avoid Info Dumps.
Conflict on every page.
Use adjectives sparingly.
Don’t split infinitives.
Character trumps plot.
Avoid “ing” endings.
Never a day without a line.
Don’t open with description.
Never write in second person.
Don’t start sentences with “and” or “but.”
Characters must change during a story.
Dialogue should do more than one thing.
Develop a full biography for each character.
Never repeat salient words close to each other.
Use active rather than passive sentence structure.
The first word that pops into your head is the best word.
Always begin a story with people talking to each other.
Know every element of your story before you start writing.
Children and animals are naturally sympathetic characters.
Avoid authorial intrusions (Direct address from author to reader).

The truth is that none of these are rules. At best they are guidelines, and at worst they are straightjackets. The one absolute rule of writing is that there are no absolute rules. “Show don’t tell” is a good guideline but you can’t always follow it literally or your work would be unreadable. When you’re moving characters around in a story but the travel itself isn’t important, just tell it and get it done. The rule really means to “show” the interesting stuff. Otherwise your work will be weighed down with useless detail.

Never start a sentence with “and” or “but” is a bad rule. Sometimes those are perfect to start sentences with. Note every sentence, of course.

Never begin with description might be a good rule but it’s one I refuse to obey. I often start with description, and, for me, I hate, hate, hate books and stories that start with dialogue. I almost always put them down immediately.

Never use clichés is both a good and a bad rule, depending on the situation. Cliché description, like “red as a rose,” or “free as a bird,” is generally weak because readers have seen the phrasings so much that they don’t really process the meaning. However, sometimes having a character speak in clichés is just the right element to bring your story to life.

“In media res” is generally a good rule, I think, but it also depends on the genre. It’s a critical rule for thrillers, but not nearly as necessary in literary fiction. And when someone tells me to “never use adverbs” I counter with “never throw a tool out of your tool kit.”

One of the best things about writing, and one of the most intimidating, is the incredible freedom it affords you to do and say whatever you want. Certainly, you should listen to the advice of others. I’ve given plenty of advice myself, and I think it has been good advice. But don’t let anyone fool you into believing that guidelines are rules. It just ain’t so.

So, tell me, what are some of the other “rules” of writing that aren’t really rules? What have I missed?

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Must-See TV for Writers

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published January 21, 2018.  

By Maggie King

As a writer, I love TV shows that use intricate plots and settings to show the ups and downs of being human in a less-than-perfect world. As a crime writer, I am especially fond of shows in the mystery genre. Regardless of the genre, the best TV features conflict as a common denominator.

The following are my top picks:

Cast of As Time Goes By from BBC
As Time Goes By (1992-2005) was a BBC-produced romantic comedy of manners about Lionel and Jean, who were lovers in their youth only to be separated due to a communication failure (communication issues dog every relationship, don’t they?). But they meet up again thirty eight years later and resume their relationship, in fits and starts.

As Time Goes By portrayed well-drawn characters in relationships that were very real. The humor was natural and not manufactured. Lionel and Jean loved each other, despite occasional minor conflicts. My husband and I share the same affectionate marital banter that Lionel and Jean enjoyed. Their story has gladdened the hearts of romantics everywhere.

I try to emulate this tone and interaction for my characters. Most stories have a romantic component and my Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries are no exception.

Beck is a Swedish police procedural, based on the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The characters are sharply drawn, from the plodding, methodical Martin Beck to his hot-tempered, politically incorrect partner, Gunvald, a loose cannon if ever there was one. The writers allow the characters to grow throughout the series, giving them plenty of opportunities to reveal their humanity, warts and all. There is violence, especially when Gunvald gets involved, but it’s not on a par with the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series.

Writers can learn much about creating riveting stories and compelling characters from watching Beck.

Downton Abbey Talk about conflict! This acclaimed British period drama revels in it. It’s educational to see how the fast-paced stories keep us glued to our seats. The secret, I believe, is to supply each character with back-to-back personal challenges, whether they be related to money, marriage, death, birth—the list goes on.

Midsomer Murders Don’t be fooled by the idyllic-looking county of Midsomer—its murder rate beats that of any urban area. Passions run high and evil lurks everywhere. Midsomer Murders is a slightly quirky British detective drama based on the crime novels by Caroline Graham. The main characters enjoy satisfying relationships, and the guest characters tend to be eccentric and harbor pasts (and often presents) ridden with secrets and scandals. They are often involved in the arts, academia, and the occult: painters, actors, writers, professors, fortune tellers, etc.

I especially liked the episode “Written in Blood,” where murder took place in a writing group.

Miss Marple Ah, the beloved Miss Jane Marple, created over eighty years ago by Agatha Christie. The elderly spinster lives a quiet life in the village of St. Mary Mead—quiet until a villager is murdered and that happens with alarming regularity. Miss Marple nails the murderer(s) every time, using her powers of observation. Sometimes she disguises her shrewdness with a dithery manner. Living in a village, she is well-acquainted with the vagaries of human nature, and she can always draw a parallel between the latest crime and a villager, or village incident.

There are countless adaptations of the stories and a number of actresses have played Miss Marple. Joan Hickson is my favorite as she best matches my picture of how the character looks, acts, and speaks.

Agatha Christie has influenced many crime writers over the years, especially with plot development. I expect that she’ll do so indefinitely. I think the Columbo character played by Peter Falk often channeled Miss Marple, with his bumbling ways that concealed a sharp mind.

From Wikipedia
Taggart, one of the UK’s longest-running series, is an unflinching police drama from Scotland. I rent the DVDs from my local library. The story lines are intricate as are the personal relationships of the recurring and guest cast members. I enjoy the depictions of the relationships, many of which are unenviable and riddled with friction between characters who are far from perfect. Twists and turns in the plot culminate in the killer, or killers, being identified. More often than not the end comes as a stunning surprise.

These gritty stories are set against Glasgow’s grand architecture.

In my estimation Taggart is a must-see show for crime writers.

Touched by an Angel was a popular American series that ran for nine seasons. I’ve long been attracted to stories of people who have reached turning points in their lives. Sometimes they’re between a rock and a hard place. As they’re grappling with personal demons, conflict, and tough choices, along comes an angel in human form to guide them and impart God’s wisdom.

This show inspired me on many levels. At the beginning of my debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, the main character, Hazel Rose, is standing at a crossroads. She is at loose ends in her life and is hard pressed to make even the smallest of decisions. Solving the victim’s murder gives her the opportunity to grow and get out of her rut.   

Writers can get inspiration from many more great shows: Brokenwood, Janet King, Inspector Morse, Maria Wern, Wallander, West Wing, and Winds of War/War and Remembrance are just a few.

Tell us your favorites.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

What Is a Platform and Where Do I Find One?

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published January 14, 2013.

By Sunny Frazier

The hot topic today, the buzz word in the writing industry, is “Platform.” Writers are constantly told they need one, but nobody seems to have a clear idea of what a platform consists of or how to construct one. If you build it, will they come?

Here's the problem. Many writers, in the thrall of creating a book out of their imagination, haven't bothered to learn how the industry works. Everything has changed, but too many potential authors believe what they've seen in the movies--the romantic vision of art and the written word with publishing hacks doing promotion and getting their book on the bestseller list.

I doubt if that dynamic ever really existed, but if it did, it's as dead as Hemingway. The reality is that Big Publishing isn't interested in any work that doesn't have guaranteed sales right out the door. That's why Snookie got a contract and you didn't. But then again, she has a platform. One built with substandard materials, but one that exists.

Independent presses also have to try for guaranteed sales. They struggle enough without handing out contracts to people who have no sense of promotion. That's why we hope to see something in place, to hopefully hedge our bet that the book will sell. This is why we look hard for the author's platform.

Start with name recognition. Sell yourself by getting on sites where you get a page to decorate and interact with people. Book Town, Crime Space, and of course, Face Book. Put up photos, post blogs, jump into forums, initiate discussions. Have a personality that people will remember.

Start collecting your fan base. Anyone who communicates with you is a potential reader. Research each one, take notes on bits of info (do they have a cat? What part of the country are they from?). Everyone likes feeling they get personal attention. So, make the effort.

Get a website up. Create a bog. Make it compelling. Offer people something they can use, not just your idle thoughts on a subject.

It takes the sale of 200 books for a publisher to break even. Can you come up with that many buyers? Indie presses have distribution, but it's hard to get libraries and bookstores (the ones that still exist) to stock POD books. The public still has trouble seeing the economically feasible format as “real” books. That's why authors have to convince the reading public that their book is worth buying. You do that with a fan base and by physically promoting your work.

This is what a publisher looks for—not promises by writers uneducated in promotion, but those who have an established presence before publication. A platform. This is the author we are willing to invest in and hope for a return.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Writer's Crossroads

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published November 28, 2011.

By Carol Ottley-Mitchell

Three children had fallen into the crater of a volcano and I had no way to help them get out.

To make matters worse, they were my children, or they had been for the last few weeks and four chapters of my WIP, the fourth book in the Caribbean Adventure Series.

I was as stuck as they were, unable to move the adventure forward. I was suffering from the much discussed writer's block. Finally, after staring at the page for many more days, (dare I say weeks?) than I care to mention, I remembered a bit of advice about overcoming a block. That writer suggested that one solution to writer's block was to rewrite the scene, come at it from a different angle.

So, I, very reluctantly, took the kids back the way they came out of the volcano and took a second shot. It worked. This time they found a solution to that issue and moved forward to the next.

What techniques do you use to kick start your writing if it stalls?

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A Call to Action- Literally

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published July 22, 2016.  

By Amy Reade

This week a trifecta of events led me to an unwelcome realization. Ordinarily self-knowledge is a good thing, but not so much in this case.

First, I made an appointment for a physical. You know what that means- I’m going to have to step on the scales. A grim prospect, at best.

Second, the coup attempt in Turkey following closely on the heels of the horrific attack in Nice, France, mesmerized the world, including me.

And third, my Fitbit has been remarkably silent over the past seven days. No buzzing to let me know I’ve hit 10,000 steps, no notification on my phone to congratulate me for achieving some kind of milestone.

I’m sedentary.

There, I said it.

I am a writer, so much (read: all) of my time is spent at my desk or at a table in the kitchen or at the library, tapping away on the keys of a computer. I don’t get nearly as much exercise as I should.

I need to get moving, and not just because it’s good for my physical health (I’m sure you’ve heard the oft-repeated phrase “sitting is the new smoking”). It’s also essential for my mental health. I need to exercise more often in order to get my mind out of my work-in-progress, out of all the bad news permeating the airwaves, and out of the endless lists of marketing assignments I’ve given myself.

I know it works (it’s not as if I never move). I always feel refreshed and ready to get back to work after I walk my dog or go for a bike ride. I just need to do it more often. I need to make exercise a conscious part of my daily routine, and lately my physical movement has been sadly lacking.

So I have an idea. I was brainstorming topics for this post, my first for Novel Spaces, and I hit on something I think might work. I know I’m not alone- there are lots of people, and many writers included, who don’t get enough exercise.

My idea is to start a Facebook group where we share our exercise goals and encourage and inspire each other to get moving by posting what we do for exercise and how long we spend doing it. I’m in a closed Facebook group called “What’s for Dinner?” in which members post photos of the meals they cook each night at dinnertime. It’s a fun group and I would love to participate in an exercise group that operates the same way. Anything you do in motion counts as exercise- weeding the garden, walking the dog, biking, swimming, playing with your kids. Anything.

I’ll even start by telling you my first goal: I want to have more energy and more focus when I write and when I’m marketing. I believe physical exercise is going to help me achieve that.

You’ve heard of writers who sprint? That’s when writers get together in person or virtually or on the phone or in any other way and write together for a specified period of time. In terms of actual sprinting, I only run if I’m being chased (please note, the photo above was taken two years ago). But if anyone is interested in setting up a time to exercise together virtually, I’m up for that, too.

Of course, exercise is more fun when there are built-in rewards, so I want us to share our rewards with each other, too. You want to reward yourself every time you exercise? Cool. Want to reward yourself once a week? Great. After every five workouts? That’s fine, too. The rewards are up to each member and can be anything- dark chocolate is my personal favorite.

If you’re interested in joining the group, mention it in the comments below. I’ll create the group (I’m thinking of calling it “The Write Way to Exercise”) and add you to the list of members.

So what do you say? Are you in?

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Too Old

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published February 7, 2012.

By Liane Spicer

There comes a time when you have to look reality in the eye and accept that you're just too old for some things. You're no longer a spring chicken. You don't have the resilience and stamina you once had. You're a writer of 'a certain age' - whether 30, 50 or 70 - and you have to focus on efficiency, on putting your valuable energy where it counts. You're too old... take crap lying down. Writers have been groomed to be submissive and accepting, to grovel before all-powerful publishers, editors and literary agents. You're too old for that, and now you don't have to any more. listen to the people who say you can't start a company at your age, take up spear-fishing, go back to school, or write and publish a book or ten. Don't allow pessimists, naysayers and scaredy-cats to keep you from realizing your potential. keep on trying to save people who don't want to be saved. be in love with people who don't value, respect and love you back. keep abusing your body by feeding it garbage and starving it of exercise. hoard your treasures. Wear the pretty outfit; break out the special lingerie; use your good stuff. keep blaming your parents for your failings in life. allow people to stomp on your spirit. Excuse yourself from that conversation. say yes when you mean no, and no when you mean yes. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. take people for granted. Show appreciation. take life for granted. Count your blessings every day, be happy you woke up, and make good use of your time.

Take a long, hard look in the mirror with all the lights on and tell me: aren't you too old for all of the above? I've discovered that attaining 'a certain age' can sometimes be the most liberating experience of all.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

What I Learned From Bad Writers

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published December 27, 2010. Enjoy!

By Charles Gramlich

Even as a kid I loved telling stories, but I first thought about becoming a writer in my late teens and of telling stories on paper for others to read.

Two things persuaded me to try my hand at the author thing. First, I wanted to enthrall others the way I’d been enthralled by L’Amour, Bradbury, Burroughs, Howard, MacDonald, and many others. Second, I figured I could do better, or at least put more effort into it, than some of the other writers I was reading. I won’t mention names, but I was finding books that just didn’t move me. The prose was leaden, the pace stagnant, the characters as stiff as new jeans.

Sometimes the poor writers just didn’t know how to tell good stories. But more often it seemed these authors were writing too fast and not giving the care to their work that being a craftsman required. To me, this became, and remains, the definition of a hack. Turns out, however, that I learned quite a bit from the hacks, mostly, I hope, about the things a writer should not do.

I learned that well-written prose strikes the ear like music, not like the sound of a bell without a clapper. I learned that description is boring unless it fires the imagination or sets a mood. I learned that good characters can’t become chess pieces to be shoved around, that they have to have integrity of action and consistency in their behavior over time. I learned that fiction should give the illusion of reality even when it can’t illustrate reality absolutely, as when dialogue sounds as if real people are talking rather than serving mechanically to advance the plot.

One important thing I learned from bad writing is that there is no suspense for readers when things come too easily for the characters. I read a book where the villain gathered a huge army and cornered the last heroes. The villain had a great bomb but the hero defused it, and the enemy army just suddenly ran away. I might once have thrown that book across the room, but this time I kept reading, wondering what other gems of “thou-shalt-not-do” wisdom might be found between the lines of a weak tale.

Of course, the most important thing I’ve learned from poor writing is that good writing takes concentration and effort, and there is no substitute for either. It’s easy to tell a bad story. The good ones take time.