Sunday, September 27, 2015

What’s in a sentence?

According to Merriam Webster, a sentence is a group of words that expresses a statement, question, command, or wish. Pretty simple, right? Not so fast. In everyday conversation this might be true, but when you get to the written word there’s a lot more to it. I use the everyday conversation concept when writing the first draft. It gets the thought down on paper without chewing up a lot of time trying to word it just right. 80k word books don’t start out at 80k words. In my case, they start at 50k. 50k pretty basic sentences just to make sure I get the whole story down before I forget where I’m going with it. When I wrote my first book I almost gave up. I was constantly going back chapters to edit and add all the details. I would move ten pages forward, then thirty pages backwards. No wonder it took two years to write the first book. It wasn’t until I was finished and in the query process that I realized what I was doing wrong. I had completely skipped over the first draft.

There are any number of writing styles. Some write detailed outlines; some a thirty page synopsis; others just a few sentences to describe each chapter. I fall in the latter category. I’ll pen a few details that need to happen in a chapter, connecting them in both directions. Once I get this done for all the chapters, I get to work on the first draft, amending my chapter notes as needed along the way.

This example for the opening sentence of a new chapter
 poses the question of: What is your character doing in this chapter?

The basic first draft sentence, first person: 

After he left, I walked walk down the lane to the village market to buy fish for dinner, returning as quickly as possible. 

Very basic, gets the thought down on paper.
The second draft of that sentence to a romance writer in a first person narrative:
Long shadows of late afternoon were leading me back along the tree-lined lane from the market; the fresh aroma of the day’s catch was a bittersweet reminder of his strong embrace and the many nights I would be dining alone until my love would return from the sea.

The same second draft technique, but to the mystery writer:

With every sound reminding me I was alone this time, a bitter chill came over me as I made my way back along the narrow lane leading up from the market, hastening my step with each inch of darkness drifting down behind the dark clouds of the moonless sky behind me.

I write in third person narrative, so the sentence above would translate like this: 

With every sound reminding Mary she was alone this time, a bitter chill came over her as she made her way back along the narrow lane leading up from the market, hastening her step with each inch of darkness drifting down behind the dark clouds of the moonless sky behind her.

The devil is in the details, but the details can wait until the second draft. I’ll start the second draft with the idea of adding in most of the details, and at least another 20k more words. Once this is done, I put the book aside for a month or two, using the time to work on the first draft of another book. As a rule, I keep two books going at the same time, both in different states of completion. It helps me avoid writer’s block. If I’m stuck on a plot line in one story I jump over to the other until I work through it.

From here, it’s on to the third draft. I finish up all the details and add in the remaining words to get the story up to 80-84k. That word count is right where I want to be with a story. This is also the time when you can break long sentences up into shorter, more tense sentences if needed to build the suspense. I'll touch more on this in the next post.

It wasn't easy getting to this point with my writing structure. I had help. One of the best writing courses I’ve taken over the years was “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft, available through The Great Courses.

Photo courtesy of:, ©Gualberto107

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Early 2016 will see the release of Between Good And Evil—first book in the new Auburn Notch Mystery Series—from Sunbury Press. But for you Ernie Bisquets fans, the 4th book in the Bisquets series should creep into the light of day before the end of 2016. Ernie and his old friend Simon Railes will be teaming up again for an exciting new mystery. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Don't Just Delete The First Victim

Don’t just kill them, put a little thought behind it. There’s only a handful of basic ways to bring about the demise of your victim—shot, stabbed, poisoned, crushed, starved, tossed off a building—you get the picture. Doing it is something I’ll devote another blog post to, so for now I’m just going to talk a bit about after the fact. Let’s face it, if the opening murder is going to be the inciting incident, why not add a little something extra to the deed. Get those readers wondering what the hell is going on from the moment the body is found. Don’t just stumble over the badly decomposing corpse in a dark corner of the basement of the old abandoned house on the edge of town, have the red ember of a wooden match head draw your attention to a dark object bundled in the corner of the crumbling basement. Wait a minute. Did he say red ember? Was someone just there? Who was there? Are they still there? Adding subtle layers gets the reader’s mind churning. It’s a great foreshadowing mechanism, and it works just as well used as a red hearing if needed. 

As a rule, I’ll write the first draft pretty much straight forward. No bells, no whistles, no layers, just get the main thoughts down. The new book, Between Good And Evil, came in at 50k words for the first draft. In the second draft I added in all the color and substantiating details. It’s during the second draft when most of my plot twists and turns surfaced. It’s at that point I went in and added the little details like the red ember of the match head by the body, (the red ember is for example only and not a spoiler alert), revealing its importance in a later chapter. All those what-ifs come into play here. I’ve mentioned this before; if a what-if pops up and surprises me as I'm writing a scene I’m pretty sure it will do the same for the reader. Use them to your advantage. Not everything needs to be planned. Writing the book should be just as exciting as reading it, otherwise why do it? 

By the time the second draft was done I was up to 70k words. It’s off to the copy editor at this point. Once it came back I went over the edits, made changes, and adjusted plot points where needed. Once that was complete, I did the fine-tuning in the third draft. All went well and the story landed at 80k+ words. All the subtle layers are now neatly woven together into the story. The seemingly insignificant details standing alone in their respective chapters are ready for the reader to clump them all together, leading them to the Aha! moment near the end of the story once the murderer/s is revealed. 

Whoever said, “The devil is in the details,” must have been a mystery writer.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Virtual Blog Tours

Get ready. Get set. Release!

So your new book finally has a release date, so what do you do next? Besides the local Q&A/book signing events don’t forget the power of the Internet. I’m talking Blog Tours. Get out there, fill out the questions, write a few posts about your writing experiences, characters, settings, etc., and get out there.
I don’t know about you, but any time someone asks me what my book is about I can go on for hours. You have to take that passion for what you’re doing and funnel it through an assortment of literary blogs. They come in all shapes and sizes, from a few followers to hundreds—if not thousands—all interested in one thing: your book genre. Do your research, find a few that fit, sign up, and introduce yourself and your books. Be selective. Don’t just sign up for the sake of doing it. Make sure there is a structure to the blog and they have a decent following.
So, you’ve done all this writing, researched a few good possibilities to sign on with, now what’s in it for you? It comes down to one thing—Exposure. Nothing more promised, nothing more to expect. But, exposure is really the name of the game. Think about how many billboards you drive by in a day. What were the products? What were the messages? Unless something on that ad captured your attention as you glanced out the window it was a waste of time on the part of the advertiser, wasn’t it? Not necessarily. The advertiser got the message out there, that’s all they were contracted to do. It may not mean anything to you, but what about the cars behind you? You see where I’m going with this. No matter what you do only the readers interested in your genre, or protagonist style, or similar works they’ve enjoyed, are going to be interested in your book. And of these readers a percentage may purchase the book. Once again it just comes down to exposure.
The lesson here is don’t get discouraged. Get out there and fight for those sales. And to keep your mind off the results, get to work on that next book. Exposure is one thing; exposure times two increases your presence. Do you have a website? Better get on that right away. A website is an authors best friend.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Elevator Pitch

Image courtesy of Antpkr at

Just a few thoughts on something you may not think you need, but then spend a day kicking yourself when the opportunity pops up and you’re caught by surprise.
You’ve plowed through 4 drafts, wrestled with two copy editors, and finally put the finishing touches on that book you started writing two years ago. So you think you’re done, right? I don’t think so.

Now you need a stop-them-in-their-tracks query, so it’s back to work. You spend the next month perfecting the hook and distilling down the plot into who the protagonist is, what their problem is, and who’s in their way. Done, right? Almost. One more thing to do, and I find this the most fun—the Elevator Pitch.

It can happen anywhere. At a book signing of a favorite author, a writing conference, the produce aisle at Whole Foods, etc. On occasion it even happens in an actual elevator. The odds of bumping into a literary agent aren’t as astronomical as you might think. So when it does happen you have less than a minute to answer a single question, and you better be ready. 

The question? “So, what’s your book about?”

A cold sweat comes over you. You start blurting out plot points, characters, why you write at night instead of during the day. You’ve said everything except what they really want to hear: a one or two sentence description that completely intrigues them. If you’re a Twitter pro, you’ve already got the skills; just apply them to your book. Think about it, if you can take an 80,000 word MS and condense it down to two eyebrow-raising sentences there’s a very good chance you’re going to impress the heck out of the person asking the question. Lets try it once more:

“So, what’s your book about?”

Sunday, January 4, 2015

If you don’t have anything original to say, leave Lord Lytton alone.

So there I was, seated in the second row, at a daylong writers How-To. The room was filled with published, soon-to-be-published, and if-I-could-only-get-this-down-on-paper writers. On the dais were a collection of published authors assembled to share their experiences, love of craft, and general writing tips and principals. These authors were what I would consider mid-level authors—authors not yet on the NY Times bestsellers list so they also have day jobs. That’s ok. I didn’t expect someone on Dan Brown’s level, so I wasn’t disappointed. Truth be told, I was excited. I had every expectation of it being a full day of tips and insights I could run home with and polish up my latest manuscript.

It started off with a meet-and-greet over Danish and coffee, the obligatory smiles and raised eyebrow interest in our latest projects, and then got down to business. The morning session centered on character development, eased into plotting, and slid right into foreshadowing before the lunch bell signaled the end of the session.  The morning was light, interesting and involved audience participation, and I captured it all within four pages of notes. I was going to be a polishing fool by the time I got back to my manuscript that night.

Lunch was enjoyable. We clustered at tables in groups outside, going over different aspects of the morning session. We hurried through our box lunch, getting ourselves ready for the pearls of wisdom we were sure would be forthcoming in the afternoon session. Personally, my interest for the whole day was focused on an author in the afternoon session whose topic concerned the setting as a character. He was an author who also had an academic background.  

I yawned through the first author, whose name I forget. He spent most of the time convincing us he was well known. I pondered to myself how well known could he possibly be if he had to go through that much of an explanation? At some point he mentioned a few things about dialog, but my interest was forfeited long before he got to his talking points. He finally finished.

It was time. The topic I came to hear was about to begin. I turned to a fresh page in my notebook, neatly wrote the topic on the first line, and sat ready to be mesmerized. Imagine my disappointment when he starts out by reciting a portion of the opening paragraph of Paul Clifford, an 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He posed it as a question and did so while omitting the opening sentence—a sentence much parodied and one most people would recognize whether you new the origin or not. This was followed by a regurgitation of myopic critiques on Lord Lytton. Needless to say, I put my pen down.

What was that first line, you ask? It read thus: “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” Sound familiar? It should, even Snoopy got in on the act by typing that line for the opening sentence in his attempt at the great American novel. But he wasn’t the only one. Poe penned the same line in one of his short stories, as did Madeleine L'Engle in her Newbery Medal-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time. So why pick on Lytton? I ask myself that every time someone uses it as an example of poor scene setting. It all goes back to Lytton’s contemporaries scoffing at such an opening for a book. Personally I would say it was more sour grapes than editorial critique. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was one of 19th century England’s most widely read and prolific authors, so it naturally makes him a target to the rest. Every great writer has his critics—before there was a New York Times best seller list it was the only way the public knew they were great writers. Face it, who would quote a nobody?

 Those opening their How-To lectures using this one obscure line from a vast body of work might want to think about basing their direction on something from this century and leave Lytton alone.  Or at least, give the man some credit while you’re at it. Bulwer-Lytton had a varied and prolific literary career, writing historical fiction, romance, mystery, and even science fiction. His plays were produced in London and New York, and his novels were the basis of operas by Richard Wagner and William Henry Fry. Here’s a couple other famous quotes penned by Lytton that should sound familiar: “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and, “pursuit of the almighty dollar.” Even Great Expectations would have had a very different ending if it weren’t for Lytton convincing Dickens to revise the ending to one the reading public would find more acceptable.

So, what does this all have to do with the How-To’s of writing fiction? It basically comes down to this. What someone did or didn’t do a hundred years ago is going to be more confusing than helpful, especially when it’s taken out of context. There are only four basic rules to follow.

1. Write your book. Not one based on how someone else says you should write it. Get it all down on paper. Reread it and refine it until you’re happy with it.

2. Get it copyedited. This is the tough one. When I say get it copyedited I don’t mean give it to your niece because she got straight A’s in English, I mean spend a few dollars and have a professional editor go over the whole book. They’ll look at grammar, pacing, continuity, etc. Working with a professional is an eye opener, and will be the best investment you can make in your writing career. If you have it in you to be a successful writer, a good copyeditor will help you bring those talents to the surface, with the result being a publishable manuscript.

3. Querying agents. This isn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be if you keep one thing in mind—a rejection is only one person’s opinion. There are also 2 parts to this: 1-Query, 2-Submission.
The Query: Writing a query is to some extent harder than writing the book, but not necessarily undoable. Start with a high level outline and distill it down to 3 things: who your protagonist is, what they need to overcome, and who/what is stopping them from achieving their goal. Open with a tag line (the Hook) and jump right into the 3 Things. Finish off with any writing credits you might have, but don’t worry if you don’t have any.
The Submission: Do your homework. There is a plethora of information at your fingertips about the agents dealing in your genre.  Look over their current deals on their websites, check MS Wishlist for what agents are excited about that week. Purchase the latest copy of Writers Market. Think about attending writing conferences where you can have a scheduled one-on-one pitch with an agent. The list goes on.
This could take some time, so be ready for that. Like anything else in life, you have to put your manuscript in front of the right person at the right time. Getting a rejection doesn’t mean your book stinks; it just means it wasn’t right for that agent at that time. I’ve always looked at a rejection as a badge of honor. It proved to myself I was serious about my writing. I was out there, pitching my book, taking my best shot. So you keep doing it until you hit it right smack in the center. And until that day comes, you continue to query but concentrate on #4.

4. Start the next book. If you followed 1 through 3 think about all you’ve learned. Apply it to your next book and start the process all over. I think you’ll be surprised at the result.

One final thought. Allow me to quote the inspiration for this rambling on a more positive note. There’ll be a lot of dark and stormy nights in your writing process. As long as you remember you have all the tools necessary to weather the storm, you'll be just fine. So, get back to work.

Picture Credit: Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton by Henry William Pickersgill