Monday, June 30, 2014

12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

 Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process:

1. Brainstorm possibilities – or just start writing. Make a story map/diagram to decide who (protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters), what (main problem), where (physical setting), and when (past, present future, season). Or just start writing and see where it takes you -- but be warned that this “pantser” method (writing by the seat of your pants) will require more editing, cutting, rearranging, revising, (and probably swearing, hair-pulling, and rewriting) later.

2. Write with wild abandon while your muse is flowing. Don’t stop to edit or rethink or revise anything. Just write, write, write! Don’t show it to anyone and don’t ask for advice. Just try to write uncensored until you get all or most of the first draft of your story down. If you get blocked or discouraged, put your writing aside for a bit and go to step 3.

3. Run out of steam? Take a break and hone your skills. Read some highly regarded, reader-friendly craft-of-writing books. Here’s a list of recommended resources for fiction writers. And maybe attend a few writing workshops or conferences (here's a list of writers conferences in 2014), or join a critique group. Also, read blog posts on effective writing techniques. Check out our resource library here at The Kill Zone (down the right sidebar), as well as blogs like Writer Unboxed, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University (formerly The Other Side of the Story),  K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors, Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse),  Elizabeth Craig’s Mystery Writing is Murder,  Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn, John Yeoman’s The Wicked Writing Blog, and more. (Add your own suggestions in the comments below this post.)

4. First revision. Go back to your story and look for possible ways to strengthen your characterization, plot, pacing, point of view, and narration, based on your reading of the various techniques that make up a bestselling novel today. Also, check for continuity, logistics, and time sequencing. Does your basic premise make sense? If the problem/dilemma your whole novel is based on is easily solved, you’ve got work to do! Go through the whole story and revise as you go. Always save the original copies, in case you want to go back and incorporate paragraphs or scenes from them.

5. Distance yourself. Put your story aside for a few weeks and concentrate on other things. Then you’ll have the distance to approach it with fresh eyes, as a reader. 

6. Now go through it as a reader. Change the font and print it up. Or send it to your e-reader or tablet. Then be sure to read it in a different location from where you wrote it. With pen in hand, mark it all up. 

7. Second revision. Now go back and make the changes you noted while reading.

8. Send it to beta readers, 3-6 volunteers -- savvy, avid readers who enjoy your genre. Give them specific questions, like: Were you able to warm up with and start bonding with the main character early on? If not, why not? Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not? Are there areas where you were confused? What specifically confused you? Are there areas or details that didn’t make sense to you? Why not? Are there any points where your attention lagged, where you felt like putting the book down or skipping ahead?  Check out my list of 15 questions for your beta readers - and to focus your own revisions.

9. Third revision. Read through the feedback from your beta readers and strongly consider revising any parts that confused or bored them. Any areas of confusion or other issues mentioned by two or more of your readers should be red flags for you. Revise based on their suggestions.

10. Professional Edit. Now seek out a reputable freelance fiction editor who reads and edits your genre. Be sure to check over their website very carefully and contact some of the people listed as clients or under reviews or testimonials. And get a sample edit of at least 5 pages of your story - not someone else's.

11. Final revisions based on the edit. Read your story out loud or use text-to-speech software to have it read aloud to you. This will help you pick up on any awkward phrasing or anywhere that the flow is less than smooth. If you bumble over a sentence or have to read it again, revise it for easier flow. (Do this at any stage of your story.)

Also, either before the professional edit or after, try changing the double-spacing to single-spacing and the size to 6” x 9” (e-reader size) and sending your story to your Kindle or other e-reader. Then read it on there, as a reader rather than a writer, but with a notebook beside you. See what jumps out at you that should be changed.

12. Get a final proofread of it, if you can afford this step, or perhaps you’ve made arrangements for your copyeditor to do another, final pass to go over your revisions, looking for any new errors that may have cropped up as a result of the revisions. (I edit in sections, and each section goes back and forth with the author at least 2 or 3 times.)

Now your story should be ready to send to agents and acquiring editors or to publish yourself. Good luck with it! Hope it enthralls readers and takes off running!

Do you have any essential steps to add or emphasize? What about more great blogs to help writers hone their skills? We always value your input!

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Is It Plagiarism to Steal a Plot?

A creative exercise I suggest in Plot & Structure and in my workshops is "stealing" old plots and re-imagining them. Of course I use the word stealing tongue-in-cheek. Still, I have occasionally heard an objection to this exercise, that it might in some way be unethical or even the dreaded P-word: Plagiarism!
It's neither. If it were so, the greatest literary felon of all time would be a hack named William Shakespeare. Most of his plays were lifted from other sources.
For example, Will used an obscure narrative poem entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet as the basis for his play. He didn't even change the names of the titular characters! What cheek! Which reminds me: Wasn't there someone who had the bright idea of "stealing" the plot of Romeo and Juliet and turning it into a Broadway musical set in New York? But I digress.

I once read a thriller about a small town where people were being transformed into animal-like creatures who feasted on human flesh. One of the characters in the town, a child, was convinced her parents were not really her parents anymore.

As I read that I thought of one of my favorite movies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the 1956 version). At the beginning of the movie a little boy is running away from his mother because he doesn't believe she's his mother anymore.

And I'm thinking, this novelist is blatantly purloining the movie!

Then a bit later in the novel, it's revealed that the animal-people are the result of biological experiments by a mad genius.

And now I'm thinking, the author has absconded with H.G. Welles's plot for The Island of Dr. Moreau!

The clever scribe had walked off with not just one plot, but two!

Ah, but the writer was ahead of me. Further into the book he has a character think that the events are just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Later on, another character refers to The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The author was winking at readers like me who knew exactly what he was doing!

His name is Dean Koontz. The book is Midnight. And this combining of familiar plots, with updating and his own personal stamp, makes it legit.

In contrast, plagiarism in fiction is the serial lifting of actual passages and passing them off as one's own. 

So go ahead and look to old plots for ideas, while keeping these general guidelines in mind:

1. Don't Lift Words

In 2011 Little, Brown pulled a book from distribution when it was discovered that the author had copied actual sentences from James Bond novels and other sources. In an ironic twist, the book's ranking on Amazon shot up as readers snapped up the remaining copies. This is not a marketing move I would recommend!

Another infamous case involved a young Harvard student who scored a major book deal for her debut novel. Little, Brown (again!) was setting her up to be the next big thing.

Then the Harvard Crimson broke a story showing that the author had lifted several passages out of the books of another author. You can read about that kerfuffle here. The book was pulled off the shelves, the deal scotched.

These cases involved copying the words of another author. Don't do that. What will happen from time to time is that an author will write a sentence that sounds like another author's voice. That can be explained by osmosis, because we do retain things we read. No problem there. The problem is when it's intentional.

2. Make the Plot Your Own

I would not recommend that you write a novel about a spoiled, antebellum girl on the cusp of the Civil War, who wants to marry a handsome Southerner pledged to another, at the same time she is courted by a dashing rogue. But this love triangle from Gone With the Wind could work nicely in, say, a future world where intergalactic war is about to break out.

Another favorite movie of mine is High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Writer/Director Peter Hyams took that plot and re-envisioned it in outer space. Outland (1981) starred Sean Connery and is a darn good movie.

You see the point? The "stealing" of a plot idea is only meant to open up a window to new possibilities. You still need to create your own characters and setting, and most important of all, tap into a personal passion for the plot you are developing.

3. Use Plot Elements as Sparkers

You don't need to follow a plot pattern wholesale to find this exercise of value. You can use plot elements, characters and scenes and riff off them. We do that anyway, unconsciously. When you see a film or read a book and are moved by something, it gets sent down to the basement where your writer's unconscious mind is eating a sandwich. Later on, your sub-mind looks it over and either files it away or sends up a message recommending you do something with it. Sometime you may not even remember the source as a fresh idea takes hold. This is all natural and acceptable.

So why not be intentional about it? Keep notes on elements that work for you, and why they work. File those away and look them over occasionally. See what bubbles up.

Being creative and productive do not happen by accident. Get your gears churning. Find creative exercises to do on a regular basis. Borrowing or combining old plots might be a good one to try.

What if we took Liz Curtis Higgs's award-winning historical novel, Thorn in My Heart, and combined it with one of those Left Behind thrillers written by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye? Why, we'd have the story of a plucky Scottish girl eating haggis and fighting off demons during the Great Tribulation.

And we could call it: Thorn in My Left Behind.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Balancing Fiction and Non

Writing fiction is fun, but it’s also great to do something else for a change. Yesterday I visited Princeton, my alma mater, to attend a conference on string theory. String theory, of all things! This stuff is so mathematically complex I can’t even pretend to understand it, and luckily I don’t have to. My alumni magazine asked me to write a “casual piece” about it. I’m going to write five lighthearted paragraphs about the scientists who are struggling to understand the universe.

Actually, that’s a perfect assignment for me right now. I’m about 25,000 words into my next novel and I don’t want to get sidetracked by writing a long, serious magazine article. On the other hand, writing 500 words about the quirks of genius physicists is a welcome distraction.

And you can definitely reap some benefits from writing both fiction and journalism. I gave up my full-time job at Scientific American six years ago when I got a contract to write thrillers, but I’ve remained a contributing editor at the magazine. A couple of months ago I contributed an item to the magazine’s website about a scientist at NASA who’s trying to build a real warp-drive engine, like the one that propels the Enterprise in all the Star Trek episodes. This silly little piece got more than 8,000 “like’s” in 24 hours.

I’ve also done a bit of book editing on the side. I’m on the editorial board of Science and Fiction, a series of novels and works of literary criticism published by Springer. I get a chance to read manuscripts and make suggestions for improving them.

I don’t do these things for the money. I get only nominal fees for this work and sometimes nothing at all. No, I do it because I want to keep one foot in the world of journalism. Although I love the fantasy of fiction, I don’t want to lose touch with reality.

And you can learn some fascinating things when you hang out with geniuses. Did you know that Chinese scientists are seriously considering building a gigantic particle collider, a machine so huge it’ll dwarf Europe’s Large Hadron Collider? This is big news in the physics community.

On Monday, though, I’m going right back to the novel. I have some new ideas for the book, ideas I gleaned from the living, breathing world.  

Friday, June 27, 2014

Reader Friday: Your Protagonist's Character Traits?

According to some writing experts, it's important to give your main character about four distinct character traits. (Some of these traits might even seem contradictory).

Can you identify four character traits of your main character? What are they?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Three Elements Writing Exercise

Jordan Dane

Lately I’ve become a fan of crazy unrelated ideas being woven into the fabric of a story. The farther apart the elements are, the bigger the challenge to make a cohesive story out of them, but I think this can be a good exercise for writers to “think/plot” out of any proverbial corner. If you can train your brain to free associate, without filtering your thought process through common sense or your inner naysayer, this could be a good way to jump start your creativity and brainstorm into something fun to write. Who knows. You might come up with a real story you’d like to develop and feel like this guy on the top of a mountain.

The idea is that plots can come from a myriad of inspirations. Recently I was asked to join a group of authors for an anthology of stories themed in an area I’d never written. I loved the authors so much that I said yes, but the crazy part came when I liked the plot so much, that I developed it into a series with a bigger scope. Keep an open mind to ideas, almost especially when they push you out of your comfort zone, because you never know where your next big inspiration can come from.

Bear with me and try this exercise. Pick one of these “3 Elements” and tell us your story. (This would be similar to pinning crazy notions on a dartboard and letting the dart decide what your next story will be.) Try the exercise below and enter as many times as you’d like (by posting your story in a comment) or pick a different “3 Elements” and go for it again. 

Pick any of these THREE ELEMENTS and tell us a story: 

1.) A priest, a skin rash, and a cell phone GPS mistake
2.) A singing competition, a family ring, and an over protective grandmother
3.) An abandoned farm house, breast augmentation, and a lumpy mattress
4.) A malfunctioning elevator, a pickpocket, and a mother’s Last Will
5.) A stolen lap top, a favorite love song, and a wager
6.) Pink eye, a get well card, and a run in with someone famous
7.) A funeral, a missing cat, and a promise

Our little family here at TKZ is very creative. Give this exercise a go and have fun. Make us laugh or share a poignant idea.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hard part #2

By Joe Moore

You’re writing a novel. Maybe you’ve even finished it. Congratulations. The hard part is over, right?


Now comes hard part #2: getting ready to sell it to a publisher. Even before you start your search, there are some basic concepts you should research first. They can prove to be costly detours on your way to finding an agent and editor if you don’t. Having the correct information by doing your homework can make for a smoother journey to publication.

First, you need to define your audience. It’s important that you know what type of person or group will go out of their way to find and pay to read your book. What are the characteristics of your target reader such as their age, gender, education, ethnic, etc. Is there a common theme, topic or category that ties them together? And even more important, what is the size of your target audience?

For instance, if your book is a paranormal romance set in the future in which the main characters are all teenagers, is there a group that buys lots of your type of book? If not, you might need to adjust the content to appeal to a broader audience. Change the age of the characters or shift the story to present day or another time period. If your research proves that a large number of readers buy books that fall into that category, making the adjustment now could save you a great deal of frustration later.

Next, you need to define your competition. Who are you going up against? If your book falls into a specialized sub-genre dominated by a few other writers, you might have a hard time convincing a publisher that the world needs one more writer in that niche.

The opposite problem may occur if your genre is a really broad one such as cozy mysteries or romance. You’re going to have to put a unique, special spin on your book to break it out of the pack. Or accept the fact that the genre and your competition is a wide river of writers, and you only hope to jump in and go with the current. Either way, make the decision now, not later.

The next issue to consider is what makes your book different from all the others in your genre. Do your homework to determine what the characteristics are of books that your potential audience loves. This can be done online in the dozens of Internet writer and reader forums. And you can also do the research by discussing the question with librarians and books sellers. Once you know the answers, improve on what your target audience loves and avoid what they don’t.

Just keep in mind that you can’t time the market, meaning that what’s really hot right now might has cooled off by the time your book hits the shelves. The moment you sign a publishing contract, you’re still as much as 12-18 months behind what’s on the new release table right now.

Another detail to consider in advance is deciding how you’ll market and promote your book. Sadly, this burden has fallen almost totally on the shoulders of the author and has virtually disappeared from the responsibilities of the publisher. Start forming an action plan including setting up a presence on the Internet in the form of a website and/or blog. Also, is there a way to tie in your theme to a particular industry? How can you promote directly to your audience? For instance, if your romance novel revolves around a sleuth who solves crimes while on tour as a golf pro, would it be advantageous to have a book promotion booth at golf industry tradeshows? If your protagonist is a computer nerd, should you be doing signings at electronics shows? How about setting up a signing at a Best Buy or CompUSA? Follow the obvious tie-ins to find your target audience.

Writing is hard work. So is determining your target audience and then promoting and marketing to them. Like any other manufacturing company, you are manufacturing a product. Doing your homework first will help avoid needless detours on the way to publication.


shield-cover-smallTHE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore is now available in print and e-book.

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.”
– James Rollins,New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

Yesterday, Clare alerted us to a great discussion about how professional writers create by listening to an inner voice. It occurred to me that we also need to develop another "inner ear", one that can discern whether our own work rises to the level of being publishable.

It's difficult to tell someone their work isn't ready for publication, or even submission. I ran into this situation the other day. A friend told me (breathless with excitement) that she'd signed up for an agent pitch session at an upcoming conference. 

"You're pitching your XYZ manuscript?" I asked in disbelief.

A happy nod. "I finished it over the weekend," she said.

Cowardly Lion here didn't tell her friend the truth--that her project is not ready. It's nowhere near ready.

It's interesting to note that this same writer friend can provide a keen analysis of other people's writing. Just not her own.

I wonder if we all tend to have a blind spot for our own writing. Perhaps the way we "hear" our writing is influenced by the way it unfolds within our imagination. Stories can live so vividly inside our noggins. Unfortunately, there's a huge leap between seeing a  story in the imagination, and conveying it successfully on the page.

Bridging that gap is a critical part of the writer's job. 

Have you ever sensed you had a "blind spot" for something in your own writing? How did you correct it?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Your Brain when Writing

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

A recent article in the New York Times describing a study on the neuroscience of creative writing ('This is Your Brain on Writing') provides an intriguing glimpse of what happens to your brain when writing fiction. I guess it wasn't something I'd ever thought about in scientific terms at least - but, if this study is correct, there appears to be a number of similarities (in terms of brain function) between writers and people who are skilled at other actions such as sports or music. The study also found  differences in brain activity between professionally trained writers and novice writers who were asked to continue a short piece of fiction after a few minutes of brainstorming. What were these differences? 

Well, for starters they found that during the brainstorming section of the study, novice writers activated their visual centres of the brain, while the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions of the brain involved with speech. The researchers concluded that novices 'watched' their stories like a film inside their heads while the 'experts' were narrating their stories with an inner voice.

Secondly, when the writers started to actually write their stories, areas of the brain crucial for retrieving factual information and holding multiple pieces of information (possibly characters and plot lines) became active.

Finally, they also found that in the expert writers the caudate nucleus (the region of the brain that plays a vital role in how the brain learns and which activates as a skill becomes more automatic with practice) 'lit up' in a similar way to that observed in people who were experts in music or sports.

Now, creative writing is a notoriously difficult thing to study in the brain - for a start, you don't usually perform the creative process while lying still inside an MRI machine - and it also sounds from this article like some experts believe the results of the study are too crude to be all that meaningful. Others however feel the study provides some real insight into the regions of the brain that 'light up' when a person is involved in the writing process. 

For me, the most intriguing aspect of this study was that a researcher even attempted to look at what the brain does when a person is being 'creative' - although I so wonder whether we can ever really understand how creativity works in terms of the brain (for a start it seems to me that many writers access their creative process in very different ways). To be honest, I was also a little depressed by the novice versus expert results. I tend to be a very visual person and so I fear, had I been included in the study, my brain would have acted like the 'novice' during the brainstorming sessions at least (after my years of writing practice that seems depressing!)

Who knows, maybe one day neuroscientists will be able to use their studies to create a designer drug that will make us all awesome creative writers...or maybe they'll identify the crucial area of the brain that needs to activate in order to become a bestselling author...Then again, perhaps delving too deep into the brain of a writer isn't exactly a good idea (we can invent just too many ways for this research to be used for evil...)

So what research would you like to see in the science of creativity? I think it would be cool to see whether the brains of brilliant writers work differently to mere mortal folks like me and (as brilliance so often comes with madness) whether mental illness has an impact on the creative process.

What about you? If you could be included in a study on the neuroscience of writing, what kind of study would it be?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Write As If It Were Impossible To Fail


Here is another entry from the unpublished journal of that great pulp writer, William "Wild Bill" Armbrewster. The first entry can be found here. The second is here.

I was killing a dame when Benny walked in.
The dame was Gilda Hathaway and she was an icy blonde in the story I was pounding out for Black Mask. The killer was her husband, an action Jackson named Mickey Hathaway. He was about to use an ice pick on his wife when Benny said, "Hello, Mr. Armbrewster."
"What? Huh?" I looked up from my Underwood, which was sitting on my usual table at Musso's in Hollywood. "Don't you know better than to interrupt a writer when he's typing?"
"I'm sorry, sir, I thought we had—"
"I don't care what we had! Go get yourself a Coke and let me finish my murder!"
Benny put his head down, but he did what I told him. I liked that about the kid.
Mickey dispatched Gilda, then wiped his fingerprints off the ice pick. He was out of the apartment by the time Benny got back to the table.
"Say, kid," I said, "you've got the hangdog look of a mortician without a stiff. What gives?"
"I do have a stiff," Benny said. "It's that story you told me to write. I just couldn't. I don’t know, I froze. I just sat there staring at the paper."
"Welcome to the world of the professional writer, son."
"This is what it's like?"
"A blank page is God's way of telling us how hard it is to be God."
He stared at me like I was the blank page.
    "Before you try to write anything," I said, "you've got to get your head right. You've got to get your mind running like Seabiscuit at Pimlico."
Benny took a sip of his Coke, looking more concerned than ever.
I took out a White Owl, bit off the end, fired it up. A matronly woman at the adjoining table gave me a hard look. I made a mental note to put her in my story as another victim of the ice pick killer.
"You've got a will to fail," I said.
"I do not!" Benny said. Good. He had a fighting spirit. He was going to need that if he wanted to make it in this game.
"Cool your radiator, Benny. We all have a will to fail. It's subconscious. It's deep in the memory banks. All of the things we tried to do in our past, and failed at, collect there. All the embarrassments we've suffered, all the people who made fun of us, those experiences pepper our brains. It's human nature. We almost always act in order to avoid pain. So rather than try something and possibly fail, we freeze up. Or we choose something easy because we know there's no risk of failure. We don't act boldly."
Benny was silent, but I could tell I was getting through.
"Our job is to fight that will to fail, to give it the boot. You were afraid I'd rip apart your story, so you didn't write it."
Benny paused, frowned, then said, "You're right."
"Of course I'm right. This is Armbrewster you're talking to."
"So what do I do?"
"You really want to know?"
"More than anything!"
"More than a new Packard?"
"More than a sweet gal to smother you with kisses?"
"I kind of want that," he said. "But only after I'm a successful writer!"
"Just what I wanted to hear, kid. So here's what you must do from now on––write as if it were impossible to fail."
"That's it?"
"It? Why, boy, I'm giving you the Promethean fire here! If the gods find out I've told you, I could get lashed to a rock and have my liver pecked out by a predatory bird! Which, by the way, isn't all that different from working with an editor."
"But I can't just write that way, can I?"
"You're not a Presbyterian, are you?"
"Then you're a free-will being! And as such you are in control of your thoughts. And if you don't control them, they will certainly control you. It takes effort, sure, but so does anything worthwhile. Now, have you ever done anything successfully?"
"Like what?"
"I ran the anchor leg on our state championship relay team in high school."
"Aces! Think about that moment."
"No, in the late Spring of 1954. Of course now! Close your eyes and keep 'em closed."
He did as I asked.
"You remember taking the baton?" I said.
"I sure do."
"Remember your adrenal glands firing on all cylinders?"
"How about the roar of the crowd, the feel of the track, the exhilaration of crossing the finish line?"
"Drink it in!"
"I'm drinking!"
"Keep those eyes closed. Your teammates are around you, slapping you on the back."
"And your best girl is in the stands, watching."
"Judy Parrish! How did you know?"
"This is Armbrewster. Now, you're feeling good, right?"
"You see? You're in control of your thoughts and your thoughts feed your feelings. Now, I want you to see yourself standing in Stanley Rose's bookstore, holding your novel from Scribner's in your hands, as a crowd starts to gather for your reading."
Behind those closed lids, Benny's brain was starting to run. When he smiled, I knew he was ready.
            "Open your eyes! Next time you freeze up, remember those good feelings and imagine yourself with the book. Then write as if it were impossible to fail."
"Does it really work?"
"A sweet kid named Dorothea Brande wrote a book called Wake Up And Live! and it sold a million copies. It's the only way to stomp that will to fail and write your best stuff."
"Gee. I feel better already."
"Swell! Now get back to your room and start typing."
Springing up, he almost knocked over the table. He did a 50-yard dash out the door.
I sat back, remembering when I felt the way Benny did right now––ready to write like the wind. To write as if I couldn't fail. That got me through a lot of cold nights and dismal days. And now here I was, making a living with the written word, but also realizing I'd been skating on the story I was working on. The encounter with Benny left me with the uneasy feeling I was playing it safe, mailing it in, avoiding risks. That old will to fail can sneak up on you like a jungle viper.
"Phooey!" I said.
I tore out the page I'd just typed, crumpled it, tossed it on the small pile at my feet. Then rolled in a fresh piece of paper.
This time, Gilda had an ice pick of her own.

Do you have fear when you write? Do you find yourself afraid to take risks? 


Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Serial Killer

I am very fond of series fiction. I always have been, going back to The Hardy Boys and their (much) lesser known peers, The Walton Boys (not the ones on the mountain). I probably will be for as long as I am able to read. I’m having a problem, however, with that wonderful and delectable corner of the genre or whatever you want to call it where the new book in the series builds upon what has happened before. More often than otherwise, a year or more passes between books in the series, I’ll go to pick a new one up, and I have no freaking idea what happened previously. I can remember the main characters, and usually a supporting character or two, but past that…it can be really hit or miss.

Some authors are aware of this and do an excellent job of doing a back-and-fill to bring new readers (and yes, older, forgetful ones) up to snuff without bringing the narrative to a grinding halt and having the characters engage in an awkward dialogue designed to summarize the mayhem that has occurred over the past x number of books. Others don’t. That’s fine. But let’s not put too fine a line on it. We have an aging population and not everyone who reads a series is necessarily going to remember, in the words of my favorite limerick, who was doing what and to do twelve months ago. Accordingly, when Detective M shows up in the squad room sans the ring finger on his right hand there are a few of us who might not recall how that happened.

If you write series fiction, why should you care? Someone probably has added the information to a Wikipedia entry somewhere that lays it all out. Maybe so. I would submit to you, though, that most readers don’t want to have to stop in the middle of the narrative and look things like that up. If I had ten bucks for every reader who has told me, “Yeah, I used to read them but it got so I couldn’t figure out what was going on” I’d have a house next door to Sandra Bullock in New Orleans’ Garden District. Well, maybe a room over a garage in rear of the house next door to Ms. Bullock’s; but I hope you take my point.

Here is what I would request of those wonderful authors who labor mightily in the grammar mine of series fiction, and yes, those who publish them, and to whom I have been grateful for over fifty years and will continue to be so: take a cue from your cousins in the television medium. Each time I turn on an episode of Justified or Hell on Wheels or 24 any of the other half dozen or so dramatic series I watch the first thing I hear and see is, “Previously on (you fill in the blank)…” and short clips of what has happened before, as are relevant to the current episode, are presented. Could we have a “what has gone before” introduction of anywhere from a few paragraphs to two pages to refresh our memories --- if you don’t do so elsewhere in the narrative --- in the latest installment of your series? And maybe, if appropriate, could we have a listing of characters as well once you have more than say, seven folks with histories bumping into each other on a regular basis over the course of several books? I would consider it a favor to me, and to your legions of readers, acquired and potential.

So tell me: is this a problem? Or I am just grumpy today? Or both?  Or neither?  Is what I advocate reasonable? Or is it too much trouble to go to for what is a minor problem? 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Reader Friday: Share A Tip!

Note: Reader Friday apologizes for being woefully tardy in posting today.  Not that it's any excuse, but it was well into Friday that Reader Friday realized that it was, in fact, Friday.

Anyhoo, please share any useful writing tips you have learned of late.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

by Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEd 

In another article, Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue, I discuss various techniques for writing dialogue that will come alive on the page. Drop over there for some advice on making your dialogue less stilted and more natural-sounding. Also, check out another post of mine, Some Dialogue Don'ts.

This article just provides a reference for the grammatically correct way to write dialogue, as well as some style tips for dialogue tags. Using correct punctuation and form for dialogue will keep your readers from becoming distracted, confused or annoyed, and maintain their focus on your story. So if you want your manuscript to look professional and your story to read smoothly, it's best to follow these technical guidelines.


First of all, start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. On the other hand, don’t start a new paragraph if it’s still the same speaker, unless you’re doing it for a good reason, like a pause or emphasis.

Punctuation for Dialogue:

1. Put quotation marks around all spoken words.
Although in Britain and Australia, it’s more common to use single quotes around dialogue, in the United States and Canada, the standard is double quotes around dialogue, with single quotes around any quoted words or phrases within the quoted dialogue.

2. In North America, the punctuation always goes inside the end quote, not outside it:

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied.

3. If the person is asking a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation mark, and a period goes at the end of the whole sentence. The same goes for exclamations.

“Where were you?” she asked.
“Help!” he shouted.

Note that in the above examples, even though your word processor wants you to put a capital letter for “she” or “he”, these need to be lowercase, as they don’t start a new sentence.

4. If the person speaking is making a statement (or a suggestion or a command), replace the period (which would follow if it weren’t in quotation marks) with a comma. Then put your period at the end of the sentence.

“Let’s go home,” he said.

5. If there’s no attribute (he said, she said), put a period inside the closing quotation mark.

“Turn off the TV.”

6. If you start with the dialogue tag, put a comma after it, before your opening quotation mark and the dialogue:

He said, “But my game is on.”

7. If you want to put your dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence, put a comma inside the first set of closing quotation marks, and also after the dialogue tag:

“I can never understand,” she said, “what you see in him.” (Note no capital for the second part.)

8. If one person is speaking and the dialogue goes on for more than one paragraph (definitely not a great idea to have one person speaking at great length), you leave out the closing quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph, but put opening quotation marks at the beginning of the next one. Use closing quotation marks only when that person is finished speaking.

“…no matter what you do.
“And another thing, don’t ….”


1. Avoid overusing dialogue tags. Instead of constantly using he said or she said (or the name and said), replace them often with action beats, which will also help bring the scene alive:

He closed the door very quietly. Too late.

She stood there, hands on hips. “Where’ve you been?”

“Don’t start.” He took off his coat and hung it up.

The action immediately before or after the words tells us who’s talking.

Or, if it can be done without confusing the readers, just leave out the dialogue tag or action beat. Context often makes it obvious who's speaking.

2. The best dialogue tags are the simple he said and she said (or asked), or with the name: John said, Carol said. These simple dialogue tags don’t draw attention to themselves or interrupt the story line, as they’re almost invisible. Avoid fancy tags like queried, chortled, alleged, proclaimed, conjectured, affirmed, etc., which can be distracting. But I do suggest using verbs that accurately and quickly describe how the words are delivered, like whispered, shouted, yelled, screamed, or stammered.

3. You can’t use words like laughed or grinned or smiled or grimaced or scowled as dialogue tags.

These are both incorrect:
“You look great,” he grinned.
“Why, thank you,” she smiled.
Why don't they work? Because smiling is not talking; you can’t “smile” or “grin” words.
Change to:

"You look great," he said, grinning.
“Why, thank you.” She smiled at the compliment. (Note period and capital “She”)
Or “Why, thank you,” she said, then smiled at him.

4. Use adverbs very sparingly.
"I'm sorry," she said apologetically.
“Come here,” he said imperiously.
“I’m in charge,” she said haughtily.

Instead, make sure the words they're saying and any actions convey the feelings you wish to express.
5. Off-topic, but do not put quotation marks around thoughts. That's a topic for another post.

 TWO CURRENT STYLE TRENDS (Jodie's observations):

1. Contemporary North American fiction seems to avoid the reversed form, “said Carol”, in favor of “Carol said.” The reversed form seems to be more British and also considered kind of archaic, which makes it great for historical fiction.

2. Most contemporary North American fiction writers, with the notable exception of Lee Child, seem to put most dialogue tags after the words spoken:

“Let’s go,” Tony said.

Rather than before:  

Tony said, “Let’s go.”

These last two points are of course just my observations of common usage, not rules. But aspiring or debut authors would do well to stick with what seems to be in favor, to give a contemporary feel to your novel. Of course, if you’re writing historical fiction, go for the older “said Elizabeth” form.

For more tips on dialogue, thoughts, and other fiction techniques, check out my book, Fire up Your Fiction - An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Stories.

Fiction writers and readers, what do you think? Do you have any more tips to add to the mechanics of writing dialogue? Or opinions on the last two “style trends”? Let’s get a dialogue going!

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: