Critique groups are great. I have participated in several, of different sizes and styles, and each one taught me to be a better writer. Reading works in progress allowed me to see how stories grew and, from those lessons, I became a more astute reader. Continue reading “4 Tough Questions for Your Critique Group”
This was the question my short story writer friend asked after learning that I—a fellow short story writer—had written a novel. After some thought, I decided on the following 8 basic questions.
Being an editor is a non-stop education. With every manuscript I read, I learn as much as I correct, suggest, or guide. After years of reading mysteries—from idea to first draft to revision to published book—I’ve learned to recognize flaws that can weaken an otherwise strong or promising draft.
A murder is an unnatural event. It throws chaos into a community. The point of solving a fictional murder is the same as a real one: to find justice for the victim, and return safety and order to the story world. If you treat your characters as you would real people in a real world murder situation, you may avoid some of these habitual boo-boos:
- Forcing the mystery. This means a writer tries too hard, too soon to cry murder. Not every death is a homicide, so a conversation such as this…Joe Character: “Did you hear what happened? Walter died last night!” Jane Character: “Was he murdered?”…forces the mystery. The natural response would be “What happened?” not a giant, presumptive leap to murder.
- Forgetting the victim. Victims run the range from total innocence to deserving their fate. Nevertheless, a character who is killed off for the sake of a story was a person before he or she was a body. Every person has a mother, and probably had family, friends, and a place in the community. It makes a story stronger to show a survivor mourning for the victim, and a character is more realistic if s/he shows empathy for the life that is lost.
- Stalling. A story begins with the world in status quo, but that view should be a brief one once the inciting event happens. Background, backstory, banter are all ways authors avoid getting down to business. Get down to business.
- Not enough suspects. How many characters have the motive, means, and opportunity to commit the crime? In the end, only one person—the murderer—proves to have all three. In the manuscript, a pool of suspects is necessary so the story doesn’t solve itself too soon. Each character in the pool needs to have at least one of the three—motive, means, opportunity—to keep the investigation hopping.
- Too many suspects. Unless you are rewriting Murder on the Orient Express, not every character need be a potential hit man. Too many suspects, each with an individual reason for the murder, can over tax the reader’s brain. A few suspects with very good reasons to kill is, usually, better than lots of people with a pretty good reason to kill.
- Ignoring community. When a person dies, the death creates a hole in a town, a family a workplace, a heart. Murders also mean stories in the newspaper, a funeral to plan, police to investigate, survivors to alert or comfort, fears to be addressed. Not every element will appear in a story, but a murder doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What is the ripple effect of the victim’s death?
- Underused settings. Cops who spend all of their time in the police station, working by phone. Amateur sleuths who park in their kitchens, trying out theories on their cats and dogs. There’s a big world out there, and a puzzle is more entertainingly solved by putting characters in a variety of places, especially if those places reveal something about the history or culture of the town, real or fictional. The same old scene, same old scene gets old…quick.
- Disappearing injuries. Our hero is hit on the head in a dark alley, or gets into a fist fight at a biker bar. The next day, voila! Not a single bruise in sight. No one can miraculously recover from a knock-down, drag-out overnight.
- Super Powers. Characters who are all skills and no weaknesses. Police officers who go days and days with no sleep, food, or bathroom breaks. Sleuths who just so happen to have read the exact article about the exact poison used to kill the gardener. A mild-mannered librarian who is a Black Belt, but karate is not once mentioned until the climax, when she’s cornered by a gang of teenage vampires.
- Cops Committing Felonies. When a retired, or ex, or former, police officer makes a call or flashes his/her old badge and claims to be “with” the local department, that’s impersonating a police officer. That’s also a felony. The same applies to cops conducting searches without warrants, beating a confession out of a witness, or warning a person of interest not to leave town. Unless you’re writing a bad cop, don’t make your fictional good cop do bad deeds.
- Coincidences. Coincidences happen in real life, but fiction requires a higher standard. If you can’t figure out how to solve a plot point without using luck or happenstance, you need to build a stronger plot, not pull the proverbial plot rabbit out of a hat.
- Blow by blow fights. Action is actiony because it is quick and decisive. A fight that goes on and on, with every blow, maneuver, plan, and punch considered and decided upon before being acted out, robs the fight of its drama. In a fight, a person doesn’t think about the next move, they just make the next move. The longer a fight lasts, the more tedious it reads.
- Loose ends. Red herrings, dead leads, false tips, twists and turns all make a mystery fun to read. In the end, however, if a line of inquiry is not resolved, that’s the work of a sloppy writer.
- Sleuths with no life. Even in the midst of a crime spree in a seaside town hosting a knitters convention, an amateur sleuth had to have a raison d’etre before the body dropped–as does the cop or PI or whoever is solving the puzzle. So: Job? Family? Health? Love life? The world doesn’t stop, the bills don’t stop coming, while he or she solves a crime.
- Stupid police. If law enforcement did their jobs perfectly, every mystery would be solved by chapter 2 and there would be no books to read. There are many reasons why a murder can’t be solved pronto: no evidence, no witnesses, compromised crime scenes, conflicting reports, delays, clever criminals, corruption, single-mindedness, over burdens. The easy way out is to portray the cops as simpletons. A better story puts valid obstacles between the police and the solution.
- Edge of the cliff confessions. It’s a standard in many mysteries that the killer confesses all. This allows the reader the satisfaction of hearing the bad guy give up the ghost. That’s okay. But the good guy holding onto the bad guy’s hand at the edge of a cliff while sirens get louder and louder from the background is not a unique or believable moment for the killer to tell his life story.
- Deux ex machina. In Latin, this means “god from the machine.” In ancient plays, a god would appear on the stage to solve the plights of the characters. In modern usage, it means employing a contrived or outlandish solution to the story problem. If you’ve killed a person to create a murder mystery, you owe it to that character to provide a logical and emotionally satisfying explanation, not a magical way out.
Have you committed any of these blunders?
Need more info on writing mysteries? Look here for more on mystery writing:
Here are some easy actions and activities than can sharpen your skill set. Most are free. All you need is willingness and an open mind.
1. Attend a live reading! Hearing an author read their prose or poetry aloud is a special treat—and it helps you, a writer, hear emphasis on words or dialogue that’s not possible on a printed page. Many writers like to begin with an anecdote about the story, and that’s an added bonus. In my neck of the woods, we have a 30 year tradition called 2nd Saturday Poets, but we also have library readings, poetry slams, book talks at bookstores, visiting author series at the university. Attending shows your support for the local arts scene. We all want to support the arts, right?
2. Read your work out loud. This is a follow-up to the above. Reading aloud helps you hear the rhythm of the writing. If you construct short sentence after short sentence, a live read will help you hear if your prose imitates Hemingway’s or if it sounds choppy and monotonous. Reading aloud also helps catch awkward lines and clunky dialogue.
3. Try out an online class. There’s a plethora of learning happening in cyberspace, so you never need to leave your house or get out of your jammies to polish your skills in characterization, active scenes, or figuring out what the heck is subtext. Professional organizations (RWA, Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters), writing services and private editors (ahem!) offer courses that run the range from one day to months. Give one a whirl.
4. Free Write. A free write is an informal gathering of writers who meet to practice their writing, often through guided activities and prompts. In 2011, I helped to facilitate a monthly free write at the county library. We met for three hours and combined prompts, sharing and quiet writing time. It was great fun to write on the spot, and to see how others responded to the same prompts and guides.
5. Join a supportive group—a face to face group, an online forum, a Facebook writers group. This is to combat the whole “writing is lonely” thing, but also to give you a peek into how other writers operate. Talking shop or talking out problems can rev your creative engines, or make the struggle seem less isolating. And if there is good news, it’s always nice to have a cheering squad.
6. Deconstruct movies and TV shows. Learn the meaning of a “cold opening” or a “meet cute.” Watch the clock and see how a TV drama breaks off at commercial (as you would with a chapter ending) or how a 2-hour movie will have a significant plot development every twenty minutes. Imagine this TV show or movie as a novel and how it would be narrated, plotted, and told.
7. Choose a favorite author. Think about why you like what this writer does—what in your chosen author’s body of work speaks to you as a reader. Jot down a few memorable scenes or favorite plot developments. Analyze—what’s so special about this writer’s work? What pulled you in? What did you admire? What was your emotional reaction?
8. Challenge yourself and try to write something new: flash, poetry, a memoir piece, a story told in second person. Do this every few months.
9. Think of a book you hated from school. (Mine would be Wuthering Heights. Blech. What do people see in Heathcliff? I don’t get it.) Read it now, with an open mind. What did you dislike about it when you were younger? Do you still dislike this now?
10. Get into the habit of running the Spelling & Grammar function when you shut down your work-in-progress for the day. Notice what pops up—typos? Sentence structure problems? Fragments? Improper word choice? Pay attention to the habitual problems in your work. Sometimes all it takes to repair a bad habit is to recognize that habit exists. Spell & Gram is a free, easy, and readily available resource to help you find those habits. Make using it your new habit.
11. Read every day.
12. Write every day.
Best of luck in your writing endeavors in 2012!
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Steve Jobs –Stanford University commencement speech, 2005
It’s ironic that, in this quote that bounced all over the Internet, TV and newspapers after Steve Jobs’ death last week, he never called his work a job.
Work, career, calling, employment, profession, occupation, vocation, trade—all synonyms for that thing you do which–in theory–pays your bills, feeds your family, secures your future and–even more theoretically–satisfies your soul. On behalf of the many, many people who currently don’t have one, I recognize that a good job is precious. I am lucky. I found a vocation that does the bill paying and soul satisfying at the same time. Over the past week, I’ve come to truly appreciate that.
I was on Facebook when the death of Steve Jobs was announced, and the resulting chatter was awesome, both in volume and in content. For a little while, the world seemed to come together to show respect for an innovator who did great work. He was mourned, lauded, and quoted.
The above quote was the one that stuck out for me. It has stayed in my head this past week. Great work. Not job. Work. How do I–and you, my fellow writers–do great work?
I think it starts with respect.
1. Respect the language. For writers of English, we know our language is complex, nonsensical and difficult. Crazy rules. Weird constructions. Nevertheless, a person who wants to use language as a tool of his work must master it. In other words, grammar matters. Spelling counts. Technique is vital. There’s no excuse for someone who claims to be a professional writer to confuse hear/here, your/you’re, bare/bear, it’s/its, or misuse forms of punctuation. From an editor’s point of view, it tells me the writer is careless and lazy and doesn’t mind if I know it. It reflects your work ethic, right there in black and white. If you want to do great work as a writer, respect and master your language. It is the foundation of story. You can’t build a good story without a strong foundation.
2. Respect the craft. Storytelling is an art that connects the world and records its history. Storytellers create new worlds that help us examine and understand this one. This is no small thing. Erase the word “just” from your vocabulary when speaking of your work. Some writers use just to justify doing a mediocre job. “It’s just fiction.” “It’s just entertainment.” Really? You spend day in and day out at this, and you can belittle it? The lightest comedy can make a person laugh in a time of unhappiness. A juvenile mystery can give a kid a sense of power and control. Does “just” apply to that?
3. Respect the reader. When I work as an editor, I form a mental bond with the manuscript’s imaginary readers. I use “we” in comments to explain to the author why a scene isn’t working or why another one is delightful. I advocate for the reader as well as the writer. So, when “we” see a typo or factual error, we become unhappy. Don’t you, the writer, respect us enough to do your homework and get the facts straight? Don’t think that “just” because it’s fiction, you are not obligated to show an accurate reflection of police procedure if you are writing a mystery; or getting place names correct if you are using a real setting; or you can fudge on historical details if you are writing about an actual event. I’m your reader. I trust you to tell me the truth in this story. I expect you to work hard and get it right. When I see mistakes, I lose my trust in you as a writer and my respect for your work. It’s that simple.
Does “great work” as a writer mean you must produce a masterpiece that will be read through the ages? No. It means you will use language correctly and efficiently; you will tell a story that is logical and entertaining; and you will create a product with parts that do their jobs accurately and well.
After all, if Steve Jobs had worked as a writer, don’t you imagine his stories would have been daring, innovative, well-crafted, and fun?
Whatever your genre, put your energies to creating something that is worthy of the word story. Create a product that works efficiently, that meets a need, and entertains, and you’ll have done a worthy job.
Great work. Go do some.
~This article originally appeared in the April, 2011 issue of FIRST DRAFT, the newsletter of Sisters in Crimes’ Guppy Chapter. Susan Evans, Editor.~
PART 2—Active Words and Word Choice
Writing actively is not the same as writing action.
Some verbs are dynamic: Scream! Punch! Shove! Jump! Swing! Gurgle!
Others show action that is quiet: Consider. Dream. Pause. Ponder. Whisper.
Whether the action is brazen or calm, the word that describes it should be clear and graphic.
An action word should also be precise. How many words describe the act of looking? Take a moment and write a list. Your list may include words like stare, peer, gaze. Do all of those words mean the same thing? They are all forms of looking, but is staring at someone the same as peering at them?
Again, back to the dog.
Compare the following:
(A) “I stood at my window and watched my neighbor beat my dog.”
(B) “I stood at my window and saw my neighbor beat my dog.”
I changed one word—from watched to saw. How did this one word change make the sentence different?
“I watched my neighbor beat my dog” implies that the subject stood through the completion of the act, in this case the beating of the dog. The beating may have been brief, or it may have gone on all afternoon. There’s not enough information in the word “watched” to determine an amount of time. The implication is that the subject watched the entire beating.
“I saw my neighbor beat my dog” shortens the time. “Saw” has a quicker implication. It means that the act (the beating) made a visual connection with the subject. As soon as the scene was witnessed, it registered as being seen. Thus the subject only had to note one visual timeframe of the beating for the verb to have done its job.
Why do small changes like this matter? Because there are subtle differences between watched and saw; between peered and stared; between gaze, gape, and gawk. A single change of a word can change the nuance of the sentence. It also changes what the sentence may say about the subject. Strong words bring power to your writing.
Why did I include dog abuse in this article?
Our old friend Hamlet might stand at the door and watch the dog get a beating. Do you want your characters to be that passive? Or do you want them to take action?
At a recent conference workshop, I had students think of words to describe the act of walking, specifically someone walking across a yard. Some suggestions were marched, stalked, ambled, rushed, strolled and loped.
We examined the word loped, by considering the following questions:
Can a short person lope? (No.) Can a heavy person lope? (No.) Can an old person lope? (No.) If a person is loping, are they feeling distressed? (No.) Are they in a rush? (No.)
By using this one word, we pictured a character who was tall, thin and young. We could surmise that nothing terrible had happened to him or around him because he appeared unhurried and calm.
The single word gave us hints about physical traits, emotional state and plot. That is what a powerful word can do.
~This article originally appeared in the April, 2011 issue of FIRST DRAFT, the newsletter of Sisters in Crimes’ Guppy Chapter. Susan Evans, Editor.~
Poor Hamlet. On paper, he had everything an up and coming young man could want: strong father figure, loving mother, loyal friend, hot girlfriend, good education, royal title.
But as those of us who write crime fiction know, one good murder can derail someone’s bright future. In the backstory, Hamlet was charming, carefree and second in line to the throne, but when we met him in Act I, he was hollow-eyed and hounded by a ghost to get off his duff and get some royal vengeance, already.
Had he made sharp, strong choices to avenge the king, Hamlet would have lived on in literary glory as a proactive prince. Instead, he vacillated and rationalized all over Denmark and beyond. His “to be” soliloquy may be memorable art, but action was not Hamlet’s forte.
So how does Shakespeare’s great tragedy relate to mystery writers? Imagine a writer who has all the vital prerequisites for a corking good mystery: a brave protagonist, an intriguing crime, an interesting setting, a compelling theme, maybe even a clever twist or two.
Now imagine that, like Hamlet, the writer wastes all that promise by making dull, indecisive writing choices.
~ What is active writing?
Writers tell stories through a series of sentences. A writer chooses a sentence structure and specific words to convey an idea or show an action. An author who wants to hold a reader’s interest will learn to write compelling sentences that use language efficiently and add power to those sentences by imbedding them with sharp, descriptive words.
Strong structure combined with dynamic word choices will create active writing.
PART 1—Active vs. Passive: How to construct a strong sentence
A sentence written in the active voice uses the basic subject-verb-object structure. You can also think of active voice as three W’s: who did what to whom.
Example: My neighbor beat my dog.
A passive voice version of this sentence reverses that order to object-verb-subject. The three W’s are also shifted: who had what done to them by whom.
Example: My dog was beaten by my neighbor.
These are simple examples for a purpose. Who did what to whom is easy to repeat and remember. Who had what done to them by whom is an awkward tongue-twister. The two sentences above reflect that. In the first sentence, the author tells who is doing the action in a simple but effective fashion. In the second sentence, the object is the recipient of the action. The neighbor—the subject—is moved to a secondary position. In a strong sentence, the subject always gets top billing.
It also requires fewer words. Seven words as opposed to five may seem trivial, but add two words to every sentence in your manuscript and watch the word count skyrocket. Why say in seven words what you can say in five? Nobody likes a blabber mouth. I mean, look what became of Polonius.
An active sentence is one that shows what happens in the most direct, engaging and efficient way possible.
~ Is passive voice all bad?
Is it ever okay to use the passive voice? Of course! Readers, like writers, enjoy variety. Sentence after sentence of the same structure can get dull.
~ When is passive voice best applied?
When the receiver of the action is more important than the performer of the action. Example: Jimmy Ray was arrested. (Does it matter who arrested him? If not, don’t mention it.)
When the performer of the action is unknown. Example: The jewels were missing from the museum. (Were they stolen by thieves? Misplaced by a careless curator? If you don’t know, you can’t tell.)
When the author deliberately wants to hold back information. Example: The night before the Derby, a million dollar race horse was set loose from its stable. (The writer may not want to identify which race horse, or who set it free, or why. In mysteries, withholding the Who’s and Why’s spark interest in the puzzle.)
~ When, in dialogue, a character wants to shift or mask blame. “Mistakes were made,” said the police chief. (Obviously, those mistakes were made by his officers, but the chief’s not going to throw his guys under the proverbial bus. This phrasing tells us a bit about the chief, too.)
Passive voice is not incorrect. It’s just not active. In the right circumstance, passive voice has a place in a manuscript.
~ What about To Be/linking verbs?
While Hamlet’s famous query may show his wishy-washy nature, “to be” verbs are not inherently passive. The “to be” verbs—am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being + their many forms—do not show action. They show a state of being. A “to be” verb does not show that the Who in the sentence does something. It shows that a What has been done.
Does this make “to be” verbs passive? No. Does it mean “to be” verbs are the best choices for active writing? Again, no.
To illustrate, let’s go back to the dog.
Example 1: I was standing at my window, watching my neighbor beat my dog.
Example 2: I stood at my window and watched my neighbor beat my dog.
Both sentences describe the same scene, but Example 1 tells what the subject is doing; Example 2 shows the subject doing it. As every writer has heard a zillion times, showing is better than telling.
Is there such a big difference? In both sentences, the poor dog is getting it from the neighbor. Both sentences share the same information, but the active sentence is more direct. It does what writers are always told to do: show the act instead of tell what happened.
TOMORROW – Active Words