I’ve mentioned before that I don’t review books I don’t like. So, without naming names, let’s talk about why some books are not on my review list.
Passive phrasing: If you watch them in real life, people don’t “begin” to pick up that knife. They don’t “start” to walk away.
They reach for the knife. They take the knife from the drawer.
They walk away.
We’re thinking and writing the story as it falls from our heads. Because we get into storytelling mode, the dog begins to bark, and the neighbors start to complain. In real life, the dog barks, and the neighbors complain.
When you write with a passive voice, it’s easy to use too many quantifiers, such as “it was really big” or “it was incredibly awesome.” It becomes easy to “tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bob was mad.”
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One question I frequently see in various writers’ forums, is “how can an indie get their name out there and gain fans for their work?”
My answer is simple. We write short stories and submit them to magazines, anthologies, and contests.
Every time your short work is published or places well in a contest, you stand the chance of getting your name out there and it’s nice to have a little extra cash in your pocket.
Despite the changes in the publishing industry as a whole, writing short stories is still the way to get your foot in the door and increase your visibility. Anthology calls from traditional large publishing houses and reputable small and mid-size publishers that are willing to pay for your work are sometimes open to new authors.
Also, magazines that are SFWA approved regularly post open calls for submission, so it pays to check each magazine and publisher’s website for opportunities.
Submitting to contests is good too. If you have a story that was a contest winner, you may be able to sell it to the right publication.
Writing for anthologies and contests have similar requirements. You must learn how to write to a specific length. Often, you must make use of a specific theme, one that may not be of your choosing.
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I gravitate to narratives featuring a strong antagonist, someone who could have been a brilliant hero if only they had made different choices.
Authors work hard to create a strong, credible hero. In genre fiction, the hero’s story evolves in a setting of our devising and is defined by their struggle against an antagonist.
Strong emotions characterize what and who we perceive as good or evil. Emotion is a constant force in our lives. When we write, the emotions we show must be credible, shown as real, or they will fail to move the reader.
Consider the forces of antagonism in the story. The antagonist can take many forms. In some stories, it will be a person or people who stand in the way. In other stories, an internal conflict and self-deceptions thwart the hero. When you think about it, we are usually our own worst enemy, constantly telling ourselves negative things that undermine our self-confidence.
When we create an antagonist, we take what is negative about a character and take it one step further: we hide it behind a lie.
First, we assign them a noun that says who the antagonist thinks they are. Good.
Then we assign them the noun that says who the protagonist believes they are. Evil.
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Depth is a vast word, a sea of information created of layers. It is complex, intense, and profound. Characters with depth feel solid, alive, as real as your best friend.
To achieve a sense of depth, we begin with simplicity. Each character’s sub-story must be built upon who these characters think they are.
One of the most useful seminars I’ve ever attended was given by a Romance writer. He is a strong proponent of assigning verbs and nouns to each character at the outset as a way to get inside their heads.
If there is one thing Romance authors understand, it is how to create a strong impression of character.
When I plan a character, I make a simple word picture of them. The word picture is made of a verb and a noun, the two words that best describe each person. We want to know the good things about these characters, so we assign nouns that tell us how they see themselves at the story’s outset.
We also look at sub-nouns and synonyms, so put your thesaurus to work. In my book, Julian Lackland, I had four characters with significant roles, so I assigned them nouns that describe their principal defining quality.
This noun is the core characteristic thread that stays with them, is challenged by events, and either wins in the end or is their downfall.
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This is an excellent post with recommendations about writing crime. Thank you so much for your article, Connie.
I recently began reading a murder mystery where the author used a mushroom to kill the first victim. That’s where this book fell apart—the idea was good, but the facts and execution weren’t.
Using a mushroom stroganoff to poison him was a poor choice because fungi is an undependable weapon unless you are an expert. Also, individually, one mushroom may be more or less poisonous than another of the same kind, rather like people are. Judging how many one would need to kill a three-hundred-pound man takes more thought than I am capable of plotting out.
Also, it was stroganoff, which is basically beef and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce. This author danced over the fact that serving the food at this dinner party would have been a tactical nightmare. It would have been nearly impossible to ensure the intended victim got the poison mushrooms and no one else did, which is how this murder was written.
Agatha Christie knew that and regularly poisoned entire dinner parties, literarily speaking. Her murderers made everyone at the table sick but only the intended victim actually died.
This particular mystery was set in Scotland, and I don’t know how poisonous their mushrooms are, but I think that logic would hold true there as well as it does here in the Pacific Northwest.
If I hadn’t been on several nature walks with Ellen King Rice, a wildlife biologist and amateur mycologist who writes well-plotted mushroom thrillers, I would have accepted the slightly contrived fatal dinner as written and focused on the other failings of this novel.
This experience reinforced my belief that readers are often more knowledgeable than we authors are. E-readers can do the research just by highlighting the word and hitting search.