Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ruthlessness with Discards

For many, this time of year reverberates to the clash of the garbage lid while the sweet aroma of cleaning liquid dances in your nose. 'Tis the year end, time to clean house.

Time to wonder 'when on earth did I buy this?' or look once again at the gosh-awful present Great Aunt Gertrude gave you years ago and wonder if this is the year you'll be able to get over the guilt and just get rid of it.

It's also the time for rediscoveries (sometimes just after the nick of time). There's the white sock that's been missing since Easter. There's your other earring. Perhaps, even, there's the cat. It is the time of year to take stock and bravely move forward into a new year (like you have a choice; unless you want to do your best Miss Havisham impression).

Time to take stock of your writing projects as well. Take an inventory. Decide (honestly) which are worth keeping around and which should go to that big editing room in the sky. Maybe you could send it to that farm in the country where it could play with all the other unfinished projects. There's no point in holding on to things just for the sake of holding on to them. There's only so much room in that desk drawer, or under your bed, or behind the furnace.

Be aware of your facial expressions. If seeing the project makes you smile, then keep it. If you emit a frustrated sigh at the sight of it, let it go. Why would you keep something that makes you feel bad? And no, guilt, isn't the right answer. Not by a long shot.

Be ruthless with your discards. Your living space will be cleaner and so will be your writing.

I'm taking tomorrow and Friday off so I can follow my own advice and be ruthless with discards. Best wishes to all for a safe and happy New Year's.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Little Things

The end of every year is always a time of reflection and anticipation. Each time it rolls around, (every year it seems to come faster) I try to remind myself to take comfort in the little things as well as the large. Not living the life of the rich and famous, I don't have a life crowded with massive accomplishments earning me plaudits from millions. I try to remember the small triumphs: dinner was on the table every night of the year. My kids are bringing home exceptional report cards, you can see the floor in the living room (okay, in patches. But it's there).

It's the same thing when I'm writing. Although the joy of finishing a draft is magnificent, there's also the pleasure of finishing a chapter or a scene. There's the thrill of writing an especially good piece of dialogue or finding exactly the right word to describe the crispness of fresh linen sheets (or whatever).

Huge accomplishments are fantastic; but what constitutes 'huge' varies from person to person. To one writer, nothing counts except their book being atop the New York Times bestseller list. For another, it's holding a copy of their book for the first time. For yet another, it's triumphantly tapping out that last sentence in that seemingly never-ending first draft.

When I write, I try to focus on the small steps on my way to my destination. I cheerfully admit this may simply be an act of self-preservation; as I've noted in previous posts this year, I'm not the Speed Racer of writers. I'm pleased when I come up with a new plot twist, when my characters start evolving into real people, when I see my word count is actually increasing. Some days I'm pleased to finish one sentence (okay, that's rare, 'cause it's sad).

Look around you. Pat yourself on the back for all the little things you've accomplished. Certainly, large events are deserving of massive applause, but remember all the little steps it took to get yourself there.

You sat down. You wrote. You won.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday Musings

Yes, tremble in your chairs....I'm back.

I hope all of you had a lovely holiday and if you're still celebrating, I tip my party hat in admiration. Everyone who shares a roof with me captured magnificent treasure under the tree. My teenage son's voice actually quavered as he unwrapped his ipod touch. My 12 year old went into paroxysms of joy when she discovered a Wii game system. As for me? I now sport diamond solitaire earrings, thank you very much. All in all, all were satisfied.

I received another gift yesterday from Margot Kinberg, when she kindly included me in her list of "Inspiring Crime and Mystery Fiction Writing and Writers' Blogs". Look at this lovely award!

My thanks to Margot; and I encourage all of you to check out her blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, her knowledge and analysis of the mystery genre is truly astounding.

I've written a little over the past week, but I'm getting antsy to finish this draft. I'm hoping once the holidays are truly done, the tree put out for compost, the decorations packed away and the baking eaten I'll be able to concentrate and plow on to the finish.

All kidding aside, it's great to be back. I was surprised how much not writing these posts fidgeted me. Leave a comment and tell me about how you've spent the last few days. Were there presents? Or was there a movie and Chinese food?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Stretch

Here's a fun stretch for your imagination as the holiday season turns up its engine. How would your main characters spend the holidays?

Where would they be? Who else would be there? Would it be a large occasion or small?

My detective would be in the south of France. He would have his Christmas dinner at one of the town's fine cafes. His present of choice? New water colour paints.

With this tiny post I'm signing off for the rest of the week. I've cookies to bake and presents to wrap and a giant turkey to wrestle.

My warmest wishes to all of you and my best hopes for a wonderful holiday; what ever holiday you celebrate. See you on Monday, December 27th.

Friday, December 18, 2009


There are days when writing is tricky. There are days when writing is inspired. Then there are days like today when writing is near to impossible!

I've got a full schedule today; in fact I'll be driving for more than three hours this afternoon. I've errands to run, groceries to buy, and oh yes, some big holiday coming up next week.

Adding to the merriment is the fact I'm also busy coughing up a lung right now. I have the mother of the mother of all colds. Imagine trying to blow your nose while you're at the wheel. This will be my afternoon.

As for now, I'm going to stop coughing at my monitor and sign off this post. Hopefully, I'm back on Monday feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Have a wonderful weekend everyone.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Special Occasions

At this time of year, everyone is rushing about preparing or celebrating some sort of holiday. Special dishes are prepared and far-flung families reunite around the table. It's the perfect setting for any number of stories which is why so many writers use special occasions as the impetus for their plots.

I've used this device many, many times. I've had mysteries taking place around someone's birthday or anniversary. One of my plays takes place at a high school graduation, one at a pre-Oscar party.

Special occasions can bring together people of various backgrounds who all have one thing in common. Old rivalries can flare. Old loves can be revisited. New loves can blossom. Everyone is supposed to be on their best behaviour, but what happens when a few glasses of champagne have been ingested?

I like writing plots that give a firm reason for these people to know each other and a special occasion raises the emotional stakes. For example: A wedding. A time of joy but also a time of stress and huge expectations. For every ten people with tears in their eyes as they relive their own happy love stories there's someone who's reliving a bad relationship and feeling bitter. The ideas for plot lines are endless!

Gathering people for any event gives the writer the opportunity to have characters with long personal histories. Everyone knows everyone in their high school class. Strangers aren't going to be invited to a birthday party (although unexpected house guests can be fun). Imagine yourself as the new boyfriend or girlfriend at a family event. Are you instantly accepted or do you feel they eyes of judgment upon you? It would be an interesting POV.

One of the reasons I use special occasions so often is that everyone can identify with the situation. Not all of us have been to dinner with royalty, but we've all had birthdays. The reader has to get to know all the characters and their quirks fairly quickly. Why not give them a familiar situation?

Consider the wealth of writing opportunities offered by special occasions. It's a great gift for any writer.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Clear Thinking

I've been struggling with a vicious head cold this week and it's got me pondering about the art of thinking clearly. It's difficult to achieve this when your head feels as if it's stuffed full of cotton balls, but how can you write if you don't have a plan? Furthermore, how clearly do your characters think?

As a writer, I have to know where I'm going. I need to know the main points of my plots before I start to write. I know what information has to come out when; I can't imagine just sitting down and writing. I need some sense of order, some sense of control. I have to think clearly.

Some characters are naturally clear-thinkers. You can strand them in a pelting rainstorm with leaky shoes and they'll still find their way to shelter. Other characters will sit down and cry. Others will worry about how much they paid for the shoes that are now leaking.

Clear-thinking characters are often the main players. Their decisiveness and less emotional natures make them wonderful plot-pushers. They are concerned with action, not reaction. Usually highly intelligent, these characters are not easily fooled. I try to give my clear-thinkers some sort of Achilles heel to make them more identifiable. Perhaps they have a thing about finishing the crossword every morning within a certain time or perhaps they have to stir their coffee five times before they drink it. Maybe they have a favourite mug. Even clear-thinkers aren't robots (unless you're writing science fiction, in which case, maybe they are!)

I would think it would be incredibly irritating to have the crier as a main character. Wouldn't any reader get fed up and start imagining whacking the poor thing with a heavy shovel? Overly emotional characters can be exhausting; sooner or later you want them to just grow up and behave. Of course, there are those characters that overreact. But why do they overreact? Is it plausible or is it a case of 'pay attention to me'? I tend to put my emotional characters in supporting roles as I have found a little goes a long way.

The character who's concerned about their shoes could be described as a combination of the two previous types. On the one hand, he's clear-thinking enough to be aware of money he's just thrown away since the leaky shoes are obviously of inferior workmanship. On the other hand, he's upset a pair of shoes have been ruined. What if they were his favourite shoes? What if they were his lucky shoes? What if the pair of shoes were a gift from someone near and dear? This is the type of character I tend to make a main character. Sometimes clear thinking, sometimes emotional. I find them more human and thus easier both to write and to relate to.

Are your characters clear-thinkers? Are they criers? Or are they worried about the leakiness of their shoes?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Return of the Sheep

Sheep #1: We're baaaack.

Guardian: I just got the brain cleaned up after your last visit. Who knew that sheep shed?

Sheep #2: We did.

Guardian: Why are you back?

Sheep #1: Conflict.

Guardian: You don't have enough?

Sheep #2: We're sheep. Of course we're conflicted. Who's going to lead, who's going to follow, it's a power struggle.

Sheep #1: It's the writer. She's worried about conflict.

Guardian: I thought everything was going so well.

Sheep #2: Well, you were wrong. She's having a struggle with internal versus external conflict.

Guardian: We're back to the car chases and maniacs lurking in the attic, aren't we?

Sheep #1: That's right. Is it enough for a story to have its conflict takng place within each character and between characters? Is psychological conflict sufficient? Or do you have to throw in the equivalent of car chases and people rushing about lugging meat cleavers?

Guardian: Some of the best books involve psychological conflict.

Sheep #2: Yes, but those are important books. Books dealing with the riddle of life and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. Literary fiction. She's writing a mystery. Completely different genre.

Sheep #1: Don't get us wrong. We love mysteries. We love well written mysteries. But can she write this type? Will it work?

Guardian: I'm confused. She just read her draft and was quite pleased. I know. I felt the grin.

Sheep #2: She's conflicted. Ironic isn't it?

Guardian: What's the plan?

Sheep #1: We're just going to frolic about for a bit. Maybe jump a few fences. Usually if we show up she figures it out.

Sheep #2: I'd recommend keeping a watchful eye. Knives and speedy roadsters could be making an appearance.

Sheep #1: I've never driven before.

Sheep #2: Maybe that will be enough conflict.

Monday, December 14, 2009

With Thanks

I posted my 100th post last week and I thought I should give a little back to all of you who give me so very much.

Monday morning. Again. Time to make my blogging circuit and discover what's on other writers' minds. I realized a while ago how much I've come to count on this wonderful online world of writers. I love reading all of your blogs and experiencing how each of you approach your craft. I've enjoyed learning what I have in common with many of you, and what makes me stand alone in a corner.

It's been said many times, but it bears repeating because it's true. Writing is a lonely business. I don't have a writing partner (I can't see myself doing well in such a relationship). I write alone. Admittedly, I have two cats who stalk by and occasion and seem to judge me. Harshly. But most of the time it's just me and the laptop ( and it seems to have very little to say).

This is my thank you to all of you who have been kind enough to include me on your own blog circuit. I so appreciate all of your comments; some of which have made me laugh, some of which have made me smile; all of which have made me think.

I can't imagine not being in touch now that I've entered this world. It's comforting to know as I sit here tapping away that so many of you around the world are tapping away as well.

I wish you all inspired plots, fascinating characters and blockless writing. Thank you all.

Friday, December 11, 2009


"What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures and conversation?"

There aren't many books with pictures unless you include children's books and coffee table books; but almost every work of fiction has to have conversation which means the writer has got to get his/her head around writing realistic dialogue.

I've had an odd journey in this discipline. Way back, when the world was young, I wrote a great many plays (all awful, I'm sure). I wrote them specifically so my class could do a play every year. I wrote so I could act. Later, I wrote several duologues for drama festivals; again so I could act. I never paid that much attention to the fact I was writing; it was just a necessary step so I could get my feet onto a stage.

When I started writing my mystery games, my first commission was for a play. I was paralyzed with fright. By this time, I had acted for years and had said some of the best dialogue ever written. Who was I to think that I could write dialogue? I muddled through, gritting my teeth and was pleasantly surprised by the finished product. My customer told me the play was a big success. I still wasn't comfortable writing dialogue. I hadn't learned to trust my acting instincts would start to scream if a line was wrong. Over time (I've written one more play and many games with 'scripted' clues) I've learned to trust.

Writing dialogue is now one of the easiest things for me to do; in fact my WIP is very dialogue-driven. I know each of my characters so well that putting words into their mouths isn't a problem. I know their rhythms and their vocabulary. I've learned to write conversations without the annoying dialogue tags but still be able to differentiate between the two conversationalists. If a third or fourth person enters the conversation then the tags start to appear.

Any writer writes with their own voice, but each character must have their own voice too. I admire writers who can create characters who use identifying phrases (Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells) and who make their characters come alive through their words rather than by description.

It may be my theatrical and debating history, but I've always been interested in what people say and how each of us choose to phrase it. Get ten people together on a sunny day and all ten will describe the day differently. Vocabulary choices reveal so much; education, history, personal prejudices to name a few.

Every character in any book is there for a specific purpose. Let each of them speak with their own voice. Your work will be richer and more realistic. Do they stutter? Do they have the unfortunate habit of dropping a malaprop? Remember as you write; these characters aren't you, they need their own voice.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

When You Write, Get it Right

Warning! This is a rant!

I love to read historical fiction. Love it. However, one of my pet peeves is when the writer gets the history wrong. I have no problem with historical 'maybe's, but I have massive problems when known history gets played with for the sake of a plot.

For example: It's possible Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots met. It's possible. There was a time when they were in the same part of England and Elizabeth did have a habit of riding off and people not knowing where she was. Did she meet Mary? No one knows...but it's possible. Were they best friends? No. Would they have gotten along? Probably not. People are people after all, regardless of the date. Elizabeth was ruled by her head, Mary was ruled by her heart. Usually these people do not see eye to eye.

People have been writing books against a panoply of great historic events for a long, long time. That's great. But get the history right. Get the dates right. Don't have people meeting in a building that wouldn't be built for another 100 years, or one that was destroyed 50 years earlier (examples of both I've read recently). Don't write anachronisms. Do your research. Were they writing with quills, or were fountain pens in regular use? How much food would regularly be served at a meal, and what kind of food? Central heating is a fairly recent invention, don't have characters flitting through corridors dressed in nothing but wisps of chiffon in an English winter. They'd freeze.

Don't get me started on the current television series The Tudors. In my opinion, Tudor history is interesting enough without having to add things.

I recently watched a television movie about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the events leading up to the abdication. This is one of my subjects; I think I may have read almost every book on the subject, including autobiographies and letters. I watched the interview with the screenwriter before I watched the movie and I was encouraged. She'd done her research and certainly talked very knowledgeably about the subject. I then watched the movie and ground my teeth when there was a historical error 2 minutes into it. Now, I realize that this particular story would have to be condensed for a movie. But, couldn't the events be condensed correctly?Case in point: Their first meeting was mentioned correctly, but their second meeting was wrong. Grrrrr.

This same credo must hold, surely, for writing in any period. If you're mentioning current events, then get them right. Get the date right. Get the cell phone right. If you're writing in a time that can only be described vaguely as 'now' then don't call attention to world events or (what is now) up-to-the-minute technology.

Historical fiction is called that for a reason. There's obviously fiction. But get the history right. If you're going to use real people as characters then do your research. Learn their speech patterns from letters. Of course, things will get made up; no one can tell what Churchill and King George VI said to each other during their first meeting, but get the date of the meeting right.

Okay, rant ended.

Do you read historical fiction? Do historical inaccuracies bother you or do you get swept up into the story and not really care?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

TIme Management

It's here. That dreaded time of year when there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day. There are times when I feel as if I'm sprinting from the moment my feet hit the floor beside my bed until I tuck myself under my blankets at night. So much to do and so little time!

I admit I am not one of those people who have their Christmas shopping done by August. I'm just not. When it's August, it's summer and I'm thinking about going to the beach or on holiday or making jam. I'm not thinking about Christmas.

I'll even deny the ever-nearing date after I've turned the calendar to December. Come on, it's only the 1st or the 2nd! I've got plenty of time. Add to the mix that there are several December birthdays in my household (not to mention my grown daughter's birthday on the 20th) so my baking has to include birthday cakes. And presents. I believe December birthdays deserve just as much attention as birthdays in any other month.

So with the baking, the decorating and the shopping, when in the name of holy socks am I supposed to be finding time to write? I can't write in the middle of the night. I could, of course, but I tend to get cranky if not down right ornery if I have to exist on only a few hours of sleep. I'm not 22 anymore. On the other hand, I really want to get my WIP to the point of revisions. Really, really, really. And no, I can't write 5,000 words a day. I am not that gifted.

Who has tips for me so that I can still be holding onto my sanity when January comes around?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


I have a file of pictures I use while I'm writing. They are pictures of buildings, trees, views, flowers, etc. I have many, many pictures of rooms. Strangely, I don't have any pictures of people.

When I first started writing seriously five or so years ago I would always find pictures of people I would use as jumping-off points for my characters. I know of many authors that swear by this technique, but I don't do it any more. I find it too limiting.

I need to look at pictures of rooms for details. What does the ceiling look like? How is the furniture situated? What kind of fabric is used? Remember; I write stories happening 70 years ago in a country I don't live in. The internet and picture books are my telescope to the past. I can look at old menus; read books written in the period, look at pictures of old automobiles. I look at lists of what music was popular, what plays were being performed, etc. But faces? No, no, no!

I do have pictures of people, but for the clothes. How narrow are the belts? How big are the hats? What style are the shoes? What colours are the most prevalent? Actually, I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge about clothes (I was a costume designer at one point), so most of these pictures are for confirmation that my knowledge is correct.

I don't want faces. I have the faces in my head and I want readers (if I ever have any) to make up their own pictures. I'll say if someone's got curly hair if it's a character note (for the character or for someone else). I'll mention someone being exceptionally tall or short. I'll talk about the wart which she tries to hide. Someone could talk about someone's blue eyes or extremely long eye lashes. Physical similarities are also mentioned. But I'm not copying anyone's face. These characters aren't based on anyone and I don't want anyone's face on them; even if it's only in my head.

How important are pictures to you when you're writing? Do you refer to them constantly? Do you have pictures of your characters?

Monday, December 7, 2009


Every writer exposes their readers to the setting(s) of their stories. It could be a charming English village or a busy city. It could be a farm or a mountain cabin high in the Alps. Stories can take place anywhere and it's our job to make the reader's experience as rich a one as possible.

I believe all five senses should be invoked when possible. The house may be sparkly clean, but can you smell the scent of wood-polish? Does the eye-watering aroma of bleach greet everyone as they come through the door? Has someone been baking; and if they have, was the baking successful? The smell of fresh bread or cooking wafting in the air is wonderful, but consider the comedic possibilities of baking gone wrong. Any character is going to be in a foul mood if they've just burnt something; not to mention their embarrassment at having someone show up at their door to witness their failure.

Every writer will tell the reader what a setting looks like, but have each character notice different things. A person with back trouble will be horrified at the prospect of a room filled with cushy furniture. A tall person is going to duck through doorways and have trouble sitting in a regular sized chair. An art critic (or someone who claims to be) will immediately notice the art (if any) on the walls and the social lion will see nothing but the decor.

Is it quiet or is there the unsettling skitter of mice in the walls? Is there the staccato of rain against a tin roof? Is there music playing and if there is, what kind? Musical taste can be a wonderful indication of character and a tool for revealing hidden depths. Have a teenager mesmerized by opera or a white-haired matron bouncing to hip-hop. Your characters just became real.

The sense of touch should also be utilized. Is that cushion really as soft as it looks, or is the material scratchy? Sitting on a bale of hay is not the same as sitting on a feather bed. Remember the smoothness of the banister or the roughness of a kitten's tongue as he gives your characters a friendly lick.

Last but not least, let the reader experience the wonder of Aunt Hilda's famous lemonade; maybe it's famous for another reason than what one would expect! Maybe your character lives for his morning cup of coffee or is always crunching peanuts. What would happen if someone is forced to eat something they don't like or something unfamiliar? Opportunities abound.

Try to use every sense. The more real we make our characters' world the more real we make our characters.

Friday, December 4, 2009


I've discovered I read differently now I'm writing. Once I would simply open a book and read. Now I open a book and analyze.

I pay attention to the beginning: Is the first sentence dialogue? Is it throwing me right into the middle of the action? Or is it what I term a 'soft' beginning where I'm introduced to the characters and start to learn about their particular quirks?

I take note of dialogue: How is it written? How many dialogue tags are there and what are they? Does the author use 'said' or 'says' or are many characters hissing and whispering? Can I easily discern which character is talking and if I can, why can I? Is it vocabulary choices? Different rhythms?

Descriptive passages get my attention as well; what vocabulary is being used? Can I easily imagine the setting? How often are other senses invoked other than sight? I relish books that allow me to smell the cooking or feel the pinch of a new pair of shoes. How much time is spent describing the settings is also interesting. If I'm reading a book that bounces from place to place then I want a description of each location so when the story returns there I know where we are. If the book takes place in one location then let me know the layout, especially if it's a mystery.

POVs also capture my interest. How many are there? Is one character more dominant than the others? Is there one character that seems particularly quiet and if there is, why is that? I've read several books where the protagonist is written in the first person and the rest of the POV characters are written in the third.

Lastly, I look at the thickness of the book and take a moment to appreciate how long it took the author to actually write the sucker. I just finished a book with a page count of over 1,4oo. My brain fries at the time it must have taken to write. I happen to know that this particular author had the cover of the book design delivered while the book was still being written upstairs on her computer. Can you imagine the horror? Obviously, she finished it by her deadline, but that must have been a chilling moment.

I still can get swept away by a great story, but part of my mind is analyzing why I'm getting swept away. I pay attention to the plot's pace. Does it begin with a flurry and then slow to a snail's pace? Is the ending rushed? I read a book this week with a rushed ending and my first thought was "Ah, the deadline approacheth..."

Do you read books differently now? I look at every book and think "What can I learn from this?" How about you?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Once Upon a Middle

Every writer learns the importance of your manuscript having a good 'hook'. Your first sentence is supposed to dazzle. Your first paragraph should astound. By then end of the first page a reader should be drooling in anticipation to turn the page. Fine and dandy.

Endings are also obviously important. Does everyone live happily ever after? Are those who are evil suitably punished and those who are good suitably rewarded? Every writer makes his/her own decision, but all know to tie up (at least) the main plot line. It's fine (maybe even good) for a reader to wonder what happens next, but no one is left unsatisfied. Everyone will close the book and heave a pleasurable sigh.

But what about the middle? You're past the beginning, all the characters have been introduced, each with their own issues, and the plot lines are well underway. But, you're nowhere near the end. How do you keep things moving along at a nice trot without racing?

This is the part of any project where most writers (including me) seem to run into trouble. Since I write mysteries I worry about giving away too much too soon, or not dropping enough clues early on. Subplots are great, but I don't want them taking too much focus away from the main storyline. Subplots are great for humour, or for concentrating on one character's foibles, but I believe they should all serve the main plot in some capacity.

The trick is have the plot's path take some twists and turns but still be heading in the right direction. Many mystery authors throw in a few more dead bodies in the middle to keep the game afoot. Romance writers may add a few hiccups to their heroine's life; old boyfriend (or ex-husband) returns, new pet arrives on the doorstep, she earns a promotion at work, or takes on a new project. I have no problem with any of these as long as when I'm reading I don't think this plot just got thrown into the mix to add some steam.

How do you make your way through the middle? Is it full steam ahead as you whistle a happy tune or do you stand, arms akimbo, and puzzle 'what do I do now?'. You've got to get through the middle to get to the end. Do you stall or put your foot down even heavier on the gas pedal?Do you suffer from middle-mania?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Just Do It

It's the best advice one can give to any writer, and in my opinion, the hardest advice for any writer to follow. Just do it. Write. Sit yourself down at a table or at a computer desk or put your tablet of paper down on the nearest giant tortoise shell and write. Make words flow out of your pen and make the words into sentences, which become paragraphs which become chapters which become a complete manuscript. Hey, presto.

The first trick is finding time; because (for me, at least) I can always find something else to do. There are days when the prospect of cleaning out my refrigerator is a more delightful idea than sitting down and writing. Non-writers cannot understand this. "How lovely," they say, "you can spend your days writing. How creative! How fulfilling!" I don't want to shatter their dreams and say that some days it's just "How painful!" I can tell if my writing is going to go well because there's an urge to get my fingers dancing across the keyboard before the words and phrases that are sparkling in my head dissolve into the murky back recesses of my consciousness. I know I'm going to get the next unit done and I may even go further. It's possible for me to write for a few hours before my pace starts to splutter and my fingers become too busy typing typos.

Writers come in all guises, but all of us have responsibilities outside of our writing. It's very easy to allow those responsibilities to take first place and say "I've no time to write today. I've got to get whatever done." It's a simple shift of priorities that affects no one but ourselves. Of course we'll meet our deadline, but we're simply not writing today. We'll write tomorrow. All's well with the world.

There are those writers (how I wish I were one) who will write on and on and not particularly care about the quality of the writing, it's getting to the end of the manuscript that counts. After all, they rationalize, that's what self-editing is for. That's what second, third and fourth drafts are for. Just get to the end and then the real work will begin. I simply can't work this way; trust me, I've tried. If I'm not liking what I'm writing, if the rhythm is wrong or the vocabulary is stale I simply cannot keep going. I have to fix it. I have to figure out what's wrong. For me, there is no point in writing just to write because I know I'll be deleting it before the day is through. I am a very harsh judge of my own work. I like it when my writing makes me laugh, I like it when my writing makes me cry. I do not like it when my writing makes me angry.

Just do it. Sit down and write.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Malevolent Mud Makers

My thanks to Galen Kindley who inspired this post with the comment he left on my blog yesterday.

Observe the merry writer making her way down the forest path. Her pace is steady, her face wreathed with smiles. She has no idea she is being watched by a malevolent mud maker. But she is. They strike without warning. Without mercy. Slurp! Another writer stuck in the mud.

What is the mud? For me, mud is when I can't seem to move forward. Something is wrong. It could be a character. It could be a plot. It could be a combination of the two. Getting stuck means it's time to reevaluate and plan my way out; since the only other option is being stuck and never moving on. How do I accomplish this?

Characters: Every writer has to know their characters. You have to see the world through their eyes and feel their hearts quicken. You must walk in their shoes, have their memories and their expectations. You know their fondest desires and their deepest fears. Mud can occur when you've forgotten this and you've written your character incorrectly. It's easy to do, one can get so caught up in plot that characters become puppets instead of people. Go back to a point in your manuscript which is mud-free and see where the mud begins. Has a character become a puppet?

Plot: Every writer juggles several plots during the writing of a book. There's the main story line, of course. But there are countless other subplots weaving their way through the story, each with its own agenda and its own purpose. Malevolent mud makers appear when one of these plots go astray. The timeline could be awry. The plot goes in a circle instead of in a line. Worst of all is the realization there's no reason for the plot. Malevolent mud makers love plots that don't accomplish anything. Take a harsh look at your manuscript. Are you harboring a plot that is simply taking up space for the sake of taking up space? You've got mud, my friend.

Beware of malevolent mud makers as you continue down your path. Ignore them at your peril. Avoiding them is preferable, but even the best of us can be taken in by their wiles. If you do look down and see mud on your boots, know there is always a way out. It may be a quick fix, it may take time. But you will be mud-free and able to move ahead.

Have you encountered the malevolent mud makers? How did you get unstuck?

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Writer's Brain

Guardian: Welcome to the writer's brain. I've been waiting for you.

Sheep #1: We're late because she couldn't get to sleep. (looks around) This is cramped. Why are some of our faces changing?

Guardian: She's thinking about her characters. There's a plot point she's stuck on. Look out!

Sheep #2: I didn't see the mud puddle. I'm stuck. And muddy. I hate mud.

Guardian: So does the writer. See those sheep frolicking? They're in the part of the plot that's working. As you've discovered, right here, there's mud.

Sheep #1: What's with the rainbow?

Guardian: That's the writer's fantasy of finishing this draft. Enjoy the view of the sunshine and the green grass. You can't get there from here. Too much mud.

Sheep #2: I could use some help here. I just had my hooves pedicured.

Sheep #1: Hey! You sheep with the weird faces! Come help! If we all work together we can get our sister out of this mess.

Group of sheep: We're busy. One of us is a murderer and we don't know which of us it is. It's rather unsettling.

Guardian: The writer knows which of you is the bad one. That plot is fine.

Group of sheep: Why all the glass?

Guardian: Sub plot.

Sheep #1: Who's the sheep walking softly carrying the big stick?

Guardian: Grammar sheep. He's cranky.

Sheep #1: And that one over there? Wearing the flowers and dancing around?

Guardian: Thesaurus sheep. Don't start him talking. Trust me.

Sheep #2: Something's happening. I'm feeling light. What's going on? What am I doing suspended up here? There's very little dignity hanging in the air.

Guardian: She's had her inspiration. It's lifted you out of the mud. Let us rejoice and carry on.

Sheep #1: Are we at the rainbow yet?

Guardian: It's closer. Every night it's a little closer.

Sheep #2: My hooves are ruined.

Guardian: New sub plot.

Friday, November 27, 2009

What Would They Buy?

The newspapers are full of reporting that today is the day we are all supposed to hit the stores and start our Christmas shopping in earnest. Please notice I'm not shopping, I'm doing my blog. I'll shop when I'm ready. I'm not there yet. However, this retail frenzy got me thinking: why not use this as a character exercise?

Here's a new way to explore your characters in your current WIP: take them shopping. Imagine them going into a mall: where do they go? What do they buy? How long do they stay?

I'm dealing with one character who would head straight to a used bookstore. I've another who would sit in a coffee shop drinking espresso and people-watch. He might venture into a kitchen store for new copper pots. I've two characters who would head to the designer boutiques. One would buy new clothes in every available store and put them all on a credit card. And there's many more...

I recommend giving this a try. It makes you think about your characters in a way I'll bet you've never thought about them before.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving on Television

In honour of today being American Thanksgiving, I thought I would veer away from writing about writing and give you, instead, some of my favourite television episodes with Thanksgiving scenes. All of the shows are no longer on the air; which probably says something about my age that I don't want to think about.

To all of you celebrating Thanksgiving today; have a wonderful day! I'm so very thankful to have discovered this online writing community and I'm constantly moved by your warmth and support.

So here's the list:

  1. Friends: The one where Rachel makes the trifle.
  2. Friends: The one where Brad Pitt guest stars.
  3. WKRP in Cincinnati: The one with the turkey giveaway.
  4. The Gilmore Girls: The one where they go to 4 Thanksgiving dinners.
  5. The West Wing: "Shibboleth".
All of these are funny, but the last one will also move you to tears.

Do you have a favourite Thanksgiving television show episode?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Word Cloud

This is the word cloud created by the first 10,000 words of my WIP. I did it for two reasons: first, I wanted to check what words were appearing the most and second, for fun!

I was pleased with the result; the biggest word is the surname of my main character (he's usually known by his last name) and all my other characters are there as well.

I would suggest you try it yourself. You can make your own word cloud at It's a fun way to see if you're over-using certain words or if your choices are correct.

See your writing as a piece of art! Amusing and informative; you just can't lose.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


People's moods change from day to day, even from minute to minute. A day that starts out clear and sunny may end with a ferocious thunderstorm; your smile may morph into a grimace. I've noticed my mood leaks into my writing. Is this common?

Characters grow and change. I do character sketches before I begin but the little creatures continue to astound me. As I continue along I've noticed each of them has their own rhythm; which has necessitated me going back and making sure it's consistent. Some are incredibly well-spoken, some are not. Some have trouble putting their feelings into words. Some (bless their hearts) just want to think about the food. However, they're all picking up my mood.

Yesterday was a very grey and rainy day here and my mood had the same forecast. It was one of those days where you think 'what's the point?' and 'I'm never going to finish this monster' even though my word count is getting fairly healthy. My characters picked up my mood. They began to quarrel. Someone who I had thought was fairly polite said something that made me take my hands off the keyboard and look twice. I may have uttered a colourful metaphor. Fairly polite and gently-brought-up girl has a bit of an attitude. Who knew? Other characters were saying things simply to get under one another's skin. Tensions rose. One character got up and left. These people are not getting along; which is tricky when they're stuck with each other for quite a few pages yet!

I'm pleased their polite masks are starting to slip, but what is going to happen if I'm writing when I'm in a terrible mood? I have visions of discovering instead of one murder, my poor detective is going to be surrounded by a bloodbath. On the other hand, perhaps everyone will shake it off and continue with their day.

I think, as writers, we're so deeply involved in our characters that we can't help it when they pick up our vibrations. I certainly feel for them and their situation. I have dreadful guilt about some because I know their endings. I'm very happy for others. All of them make me laugh.

Take a quick look at what you're working on right now. Can you tell what mood you were in when you wrote it? Are your characters sponges?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Not So Quiet Characters

Everyone had that kid in their class who sat quietly in the back of the room. They were friendly, they did their schoolwork, but they were quiet and happily followed the leaders. Sometimes, they would start to speak and an entirely new personality would emerge. You could discover quiet little Sheila studied karote or went to Egypt in the summer and now quiet little Sheila isn't being quiet anymore.

This is the situation I'm facing at the moment. Within my rather large group of characters I've had someone who had been dozing rather contentedly on the sidelines. A few weeks ago I had admonished him to either start talking or accept he would be leaving and suddenly he began to talk. I've discovered all sorts of things about him. He has a wonderful sense of humor and a large sense of pride. He adores his wife. He's an observer. He likes things to be done properly. Now my problem is he won't shut up.

Don't think I'm not grateful, because I am. He has added another dimension to my story coming from an older perspective. I suspect that he and my oldest female character are going to form some sort of alliance as there is a great deal being said in the argument of tradition versus moving with the times. I adore him and am feeling somewhat guilty I threatened him with the delete key. But he needs to know his place.

This is a secondary character. Secondary. I have enough characters vying for the spotlight, I cannot have another. I can't let him take the place of one of my top tier characters; it throws the balance off. I have considered it and so far, I can't see a way to make it work.

My hope is that he's going to fade back to sleep for a while and show up again later. I do, however, have the suspicion I'm being optimistic. I seem to have awakened a monster.

How do you make your characters go back to sleep? Or do you go along for the ride?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Who's in Charge?

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about my current WIP; far more time than actually writing it. I think about it as I making dinner, as I'm getting ready for bed, certainly before I go to sleep. I mutter dialogue in the car, which would explain why I am the recipient of the occasional odd look. (actually, that had better be the reason!) I'm happiest when I know where I am in the story so when I actually open up the laptop and start typing I've got a fairly good idea what I'm going to write.

Some writers prefer to create freely. They sit down and let the words flow and let the story lead them instead of them leading the story. Honestly, this method would never ever work for me. I like knowing how deep and how warm the pool is before I jump in. I'm sure an argument could be made that writing is a creative pursuit, so the more creativity in the process the better. I understand this; but it's not for me.

Of course, things happen. Characters say things I wasn't expecting them to say which may start a new subplot or show me a new motive. That's great. Humourous exchanges or situations occur when I wasn't expecting them; that's great too. I don't want to think of myself as a mindless drone endlessly tapping away on the keyboard, but I do want to be in charge.

I outline. I do fairly extensive character biographies. I know who dies and whodunnit. I know why. I know why every suspect would have committed the crime. I know who likes who and who dislikes who. In short, I don't start writing until I know the road. I'm all for surprises and inspirations, but I like being able to know immediately that an idea, although fun or interesting, isn't going to help the plot or the subplots.

Who's in charge when you write? Is it you or is it the story?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Actor Writes

As I spend more and more time focusing on becoming a decent writer, I spend more and more time being grateful for all the years I spent as an actor and a director in the theatre. I had never given it much thought, but upon contemplation I have realized my theatrical history has given me many advantages.

As an actor I spent years (and I do mean years) getting inside other people's heads. I've played career-driven women, women with relationship issues, women hungry for power and women looking for love. I've even played a man with emotional troubles; it was the psychiatrist Martin Dysart in Peter Schaffer's classic play Equus. I learned all different types of dialogue, from comedic to tragic to Shakespearean. I honed my sense of comedy. I learned how people react to different situations and how to portray that (both emotionally and physically) on stage.

As a director I learned to 'look at the whole board' instead of concentrating on one specific piece. I learned to ensure the pace was swift and the interactions between the characters were real. I learned how to build suspense or how to make the most of a comedic moment. I learned when people should be quiet or when they should be loud. Most importantly, I learned how to make the play a cohesive whole.

All this experience has made writing much easier. I can get inside each of my characters' heads and look through the world through their eyes quite easily. I know what vocabulary each of them use. I know their rhythms. Most importantly, I know what each of them want. My directing experience has helped me look at my WIP as a whole, and aided in my knowledge of when the plot has stalled or the pace is dragging. In a play every scene has to move the plot forward and I try to apply this rule to my writing. Every unit has to either move the plot or let the reader learn something new about a character (or characters). I try not to have large descriptions of settings, unless it's vital to the plot. Many times it's the people and the events that are important, not the colour of the paint.

Every actor learns how to discover their character by the phrase "what do I say about me, what do I say about others and what do others say about me". Take a look at whatever you're writing at the moment and apply this. It may change how you view your characters or it may help you realize you're writing it exactly the way you want!

In the theatre instead of saying 'good luck' we say 'break a leg'. In that spirit, to all you writers I say 'break a pen or keyboard'.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


*Many, many thanks to those of you who left comments on my post yesterday. Your kind wishes meant a great deal to me. I'm continuously amazed at the support of this wonderful online writing community.*

I spent most of yesterday in a state of fear; a lump in my stomach (which erased any sense of hunger), a heightened sense of awareness, short temper and feeling as if I was holding on to my sanity by my fingernails. It wasn't a good day. I dealt with the aftermath of a tree hitting our house the best I could; I got our electric wires reattached to the house, phoned about our cable service being fuzzy and surveyed the giant tree now covering our side yard. Luckily, none of the tree is touching our house and the only damage seems to be a broken gutter. However; another windstorm is supposed to hit tonight and there's still the other half of the tree standing in our neighbour's yard. I'm still terrified.

On the plus side, I can now write how characters would feel when everything goes out of control. Their tempers flare. Emotions rise to the surface. They would jump at the smallest noise. Despite the awfulness of yesterday, there was a part of my brain saying "You can use this. It will make your writing better." I guess if you're a writer you think about how to describe everything; or I certainly do!

Think about your characters and the situations you put them in. Do they have anyone to lean on or do they have to be frightened by themselves? How would they handle fear? How does it affect their relationships? Do they feel they must be brave for the sake of others or do they collapse?

Recognise how you deal with situations and use it in your writing. I believe the more real your characters the better your story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Sorry. No post today. We had a large windstorm here last night and our neighbour's giant fir tree split and hit our house. Luckily, the house stood. But I've got a day of phoning for electrical repairs (wires came detached from the house), gutter repairs and a side yard full of tree. To add to the fun there's another storm showing up tomorrow night.

Writing lesson? Expect the unexpected.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Words, words, words...

POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.

Every writer is told (either by contract or by reading publishers' guidelines) approximately how many words they need to write. That number, for some, sits out at the end of the journey with a large beacon shining up into the sky. "Here I am!" it says, "Come closer. Come to the light...". Some writers fixate on that magic number and worry only about getting closer and not about the quality of the words that are getting them there. Other writers tend to ignore the beacon and concentrate more on the quality of their steps, even if they're baby-sized.

The questions that many of us get constantly asked play into this fixation. Right after we get asked "Did you write today?" will often-times be the question "How much?". These are times I want to throw something heavy at the well-meaning questioner. Bless their hearts, but I'll tell you if I want. I'll give details if I want. Saying "I wrote 3,000 words today" to a non-writer is somewhat pointless; they don't know how long it took or if that number is significant - to you or to your manuscript.

I don't like fixating on word counts, but it seems to be unavoidable. I know where my total should be and given where I am in the plot I should be around X. Am I way over? Am I way under? At the end of every writing session I check to see how many words I've written. Some days the total is small; but they're good words. Some days the total is larger and I'm not as pleased with them.

I've tried to let the word count leave the front of my brain and just let my characters move through their plot lines; but it's tricky. For the sake of my sanity ( and the feeling I have some control) I like to incorporate as much logic as possible into my writing process and I'm afraid if I just let it go then my story will careen out of control and I'll end up not only with a tome that makes Gone With the Wind look like a light afternoon read; but also a manuscript that will demand months of editing and purging. The other fear is that I'll finish and realize I need to add countless chapters to make the manuscript the length its plots and subplots demand.

How often do you look at your word count? Do you think (like me) by this point I should be at this number, by this point I should be at that number? Or do you just let the words fly and worry about the actual count once you've come to the end?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday the Thirteenth

In honour of today's date, I thought I would share with you a list that I found on the internet of people's top ten fears. I found it rather fascinating. Here we go...

1. Speaking in public
2. Snakes
3. Confined spaces
4. Heights
5. Spiders
6. Tunnels and bridges
7. Crowds
8. Public transportation (especially planes)
9. Storms
10. Water (as in swimming and drowning)

I will admit I share some of these; snakes, heights and spiders are not my friends. I have no fear of planes when I fly by myself, but if I'm flying with my kids it's a different story. Tunnels and bridges are fine; which is good considering where I live. Crowds? Fine. Storms? Fine as long as I'm home and safe not stuck out on a boat or in a car with the wind howling and various bits of debris flying across the road. I swim very well, so water is fine. Confined spaces? I have no real experience, but I've been in some fairly cramped spaces in various theatre productions and I was fine.

I've always been grateful that the number one fear of public speaking has never been a problem for me. Put me up in front of a small or huge group; as long as I'm prepared I say "Bring it on!".

Do you share any of these top ten fears? Have a wonderful Friday the 13th. Revel in it!

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I admit when they were handing out the gift of patience I must have been hiding behind the door. When I want something I want it now, not tomorrow, not next week or next year; now. Now imagine my frustration when my WIP resolutely refuses to magically finish itself. Fun picture, isn't it?

I don't mind waiting in line at the grocery store; I read all the covers of the shiny magazines and discover who's breaking up with who and who's having another baby.

Digression: Why am I still supposed to care about Jennifer Aniston's love life? If I see one more headline hinting that she and Brad are secretly still in love I may spit. In public.

I don't mind waiting in line at the bank ( yes, I still have one account with no ATM card; it forces me to think whether or not I really want to spend money on something). I don't mind waiting for many things, but this one word at a time thing with writing can drive me a little nuts.

I have an on-going fantasy of opening up my word processing program and discovering my word count has increased by thousands overnight. So far, this fantasy goes unfulfilled but every morning I have fresh hope. My word count does climb every day, but slowly. Why can't I be one of these writers who sit down and, presto, novels flow effortlessly from their fingers onto the screen? I have good days and bad days, but never presto days. There are times I think I can see a light gleaming hopefully in the distance, but most days I'm fairly sure it's a mirage.

I'm trying to be practical. I tell myself everyone writes at their own pace. I look at my word count which is higher than it was a few days ago and say "See, you're getting there." But where are the word elves? Just one little elf...

Are you a patient writer? Do you rejoice in putting one word at a time onto the page? Or, are you too, looking under the bed hoping to find a word elf?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lest We Forget

When I was in school we never had November 11th off. The principal (who had driven ambulances in London during the Blitz) believed this day of all days should be spent working not sleeping in or watching television. We had a service at 11 o'clock and for many years I read the poem printed below as part of it. I recommend you read it out loud.

A soldier's prayer

(This poem by an unknown writer was found in the desert during the battle of El Agheila, December 14th, 1942. It was quoted by Field-Marshall Montgomery in his personal message to the 21st Army Group before the attack on the Rhine, and reproduced in the English Digest.)

Stay with me God. The night is dark,
The night is cold. My little spark
Of courage dies. The night is long,
Be with me God, and make me strong.
I love a game, I love a fight.
I hate the dark, I love the light,
I love my child, I love my wife,
I am no coward. I love life

Life with its changes of mood and shade,
I want to live. I'm not afraid,
But me and mine are hard to part -
Oh, unknown God, Lift up my heart.
You stilled the waters at Dunkirk
And saved your servants. All your work
Is wonderful, Dear God. You strode
Before us down that dreadful road.

We were alone and hope had fled.
We loved our country and our dead,
And could not shame them, so we stayed
The course, and were not much afraid.
Dear God, that nightmare road! And then
That sea! We got there... We were men,
My eyes were blind, my feet were torn,
My soul sang like a bird at dawn!

I'm but the son my mother bore,

A simple man and nothing more.

But - God of strength and gentleness,

Be pleased to make me nothing less.

Help me, Oh God, when death is near
To mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall - if fall I must -
My soul may triumph in the dust.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Alone Again, Naturally

I have been pondering the ironies involved with being a writer. We are exhorted to 'show, don't tell' and to fill our manuscripts with fast-paced plots peopled with interesting, extroverted characters. Yet, we write alone. Each of us sit with his or her pen and paper or computer and write without anyone shouting or dancing around us. I find it amusing that many introverts spend their days (or nights) writing about extroverts with lives crowded with incident.

You couldn't write a book showing the realistic life of a writer as they create a manuscript; it's too boring. Hours upon hours of staring at a blank screen or typing away. Certainly, there's cursing. There may be laughter. There may even be chocolate or cake. But this writer can never be a main character unless you're writing about the life that happens away from the computer. Ironic, isn't it?

We write about colourful characters involved in life-changing (or for us mystery writers life-ending) circumstances. Would you want to be living the life of one of your characters or would you rather be left alone so you can write? As for me, I'd take the lifestyle of some of my characters in an instant but not their problems. There are days, however, when I think it might be nice to be surrounded by people and have real conversations instead of spending my hours making up conversations for my characters. I never quite fit into the traditional 9 to 5 world, but the companionship was nice and there are days that I miss it. On the other hand, I'm extremely grateful that I am able to spend several hours a day writing (or trying to write). I know if I had a full-time job outside the home it would be impossible (for me).

So we continue to sit alone as we spin our tales; the only voices the ones inside our heads clamouring for their stories to be told. I do like being a writer. But sometimes, it would be nice to look up and see another face!

Do you cherish your time alone and wish you had more? Would you want the lives of your characters? Or is just the price we have to pay for being writers?

Monday, November 9, 2009

What's It Like Outside?

One of the first things I do every morning is check the weather; not only by looking out my window but by watching the weather on the morning news. Weather affects everything; what I'm going to wear, whether or not I'm going outside, what I'm making for dinner, to name a few. But, how often do we use weather in our books?

I admit I don't use it as much as I could.

People stuck inside because of inclement weather can lead to all sorts of interesting situations. A beautiful summer day is the time for picnics or rowing on a lake. People slow down in hot weather; there's always time for a cool drink or an extra ten minutes of conversation. On the other hand, hot weather can cause temper flare-ups; not many people are agreeable when they're dripping on the floor from the heat.

Imagine sticking your main character on a deserted road in a car that's run out of gas on a summer evening. Now imagine the same situation in a raging snowstorm. Which is the more threatening?

Windstorms cause power outages; always fun. Snowstorms isolate people; there's a reason Agatha Christie used them! Horror is always worse when it's juxtaposed with beautiful weather; sunny days are supposed to be happy days. But that's not always the way it works...

I'm not suggesting placing every mystery on a 'dark and stormy night'; but indications of the weather place our characters in the real world. Real people curse when it starts to rain and they've forgotten their umbrellas. Strangers become more talkative while they're waiting out a storm in a cafe. People get crabby when their feet are wet or cold. Everyone's lives are affected by the weather; shouldn't our characters be the same?

Take a moment and think about the project you're working on now. How would it change if you mentioned the weather? Or does it already play a large role in your plot? Make it real; let your characters get hot and crabby or shiver beside the fire. I think it adds another layer of reality to any story; regardless of genre.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Little Voice of Judgment

Every writer has it; that little voice in their head saying "Why did you write that?", or "That's an incredibly awkward sentence", or "This is possibly the worst thing ever written". It's not there all the time, but when it starts to shriek it is rather off-putting.

I am at that stage in my WIP where I am starting to question everything. Are the characters real people? Are their motives real or contrived? Are there enough plot twists or should I add more? Most importantly; will anyone want to read this???

I've experienced this before, of course, my little voice usually starts gaining in volume as I work my way through the middle of the plot (which is where I am now). I start worrying I've made the plot too easy, or too complicated. I question my choices on what methods I'm using to write it. I question everything. I worry my word count will be too low. I worry my word count will be too high. I really worry I'll never finish the damn thing...although I know I will.

I'm trying to tell myself that I've been through this before and I always find my way out of the quagmire. I try to reassure myself my plot is interesting and my characters are growing and changing as they travel through the plot. I re-read some of my chapters and honestly like what I see, although I'm making copious notes about inserting or deleting scenes.

It all comes down to self-confidence, doesn't it? Every writer must have self-doubts, but if they listened to them nothing would ever get written. I'm sure even the greats have had moments when they wanted to throw their manuscripts into the nearest fire. Unfortunately (or fortunately) my house doesn't have a fireplace. So I soldier on...

I shall remind myself that the only thing I can do is my best. I shall remind myself how much I love these characters and how I really do want to tell their stories. I shall try to ignore the shrieking voice.

But sometimes, it's hard.

How do you handle your little voice of judgment? How on earth do you tell it to be quiet?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

People not Characters

"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters."
Ernest Hemingway

It is one of the first questions any writer asks themselves when they are embarking on a new project: "Who are these people?" You suddenly have all these people popping up in your mind demanding to be heard; but who are they? It can be a complicated question with an equally intricate answer.

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a big fan of preparation. I figure out each of the characters in my plot long before I actually start writing the story. I know when they were born and where they went to school. I know their home situations; I learn about their hopes and dreams and their fears. They become real people, not flat characters on a page. All this work pays off once I start to write because I know each of their voices. I know who's funny or who's uncomfortable. I know who's never really gotten over their first love and who is only interested in creature comforts. I love them all, even the ones who drive me a little nuts.

It's easy to go with stock characters; the warm-hearted barmaid, the shallow social lion, the slightly chubby best friend. But I try to resist the temptation because I would like readers to meet people they've never met before in someone else's book. I try to write about 'why' and that doesn't work with flat characters. I need to write people with all their myriad of quirks or my plot fails.

Even with all my preparation there are always surprises. A scene I was going to write with two characters suddenly has a third one poking his nose through the door saying "I need to be here too!" I discover two characters are far more alike under the skin than I first suspected; or one I thought would be trustworthy is definitely not. There are new discoveries every time I write.

Think honestly about the characters that you are writing. Are they truly real? Are they serving the plot or is the plot serving them? How have they changed by the end of your story? No one is static; events inevitably change us for the better or for the worse. Get to know your characters; your people. It's time well spent.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

100 Days and Counting

It starts 100 days from now. The 2010 Winter Olympics. It was the top story this morning on every local TV news program. Here they come...

I'm a huge fan of the Olympics, both winter and summer. I spend hours every 2 years in front of my television. Any Olympics are magical, but some of my favourite moments of the winter games are:
  • The magic and theatricality of the opening ceremony. Watching the Olympic flag come in, the lighting of the flame and the entrance of the Canadian team always brings a tear to my eye.
  • The grace and athleticism of the figure skaters
  • The amazing speed of the downhill skiers
  • The sound of the cowbells ringing from the Swiss fans as their bobsled teams race down the track.
  • The ice hockey (I AM Canadian!)
  • The insanity of the luge and the skeleton.

This is Vancouver; I live about 50 miles to the left of the picture.

This is Whistler; home of the downhill ski-ing and bobsled, luge, etc.

The speed-skating oval; already the recipient of a world-renowned architectural award. Huge amounts of the wood used is from trees damaged by the pine-beetle (a nasty varmint that traveled here from Asia about 10 years ago).

The Olympic flame arrived in Victoria last Friday. It now travels across the country before arriving in Vancouver for the opening ceremony February 12, 2010. It comes through my town February 11. Trust me, I'm there.

100 days until it all begins. I can't wait.

All photos found on Google Image.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Need to Know

How sharp a picture do readers have of your characters' appearance? How sharp a picture do readers need? I don't decide this question, my characters do.

I want readers to know my characters from the inside out rather than from the outside in. I want people to know Charlie is always hungry or Suzanne is afraid of heights. Someone's fear of poverty is far more interesting to me than what colour of shoes they have on their feet. However, does this character have a fixation about shoes? If so, I'm going to describe each pair they choose to wear in detail.

I'm certainly not suggesting saying nothing about outward appearances; readers want to be able to develop characters' pictures in their heads. I'll let people know if Mike is so tall he needs to duck through doorways or Cynthia's feet don't touch the floor when she sits. Hair colour? Probably. If they're heavy or slim? Yes, but in an indirect way. I'll describe the character feeling the pull of a shirt that's too tight or admiring their profile in a mirror. If other characters take note of someone's startlingly blue eyes, then that's great. Someone has to wear thick glasses; readers will know about it because of the limitations that character faces. How well do they maneuver without the glasses? Ahh...perhaps he/she can function perfectly well and what does this mean? Or perhaps they can't function at all so what happens when the glasses get broken? Is she/he the type to have a spare pair (or maybe more)?

People can't help the way they look (well, in this day and age they can if they have the money, but my WIP takes place 70 years ago). Some people spend their lives blighted by their hatred of their nose; some simply don't give it a second thought. A character may have curly hair; I mention it if she hates it but constantly receives compliments about it. Everyone is initially judged by external appearance, but the story lies in people's internal workings.

Do you ensure readers have perfect photographs of your characters? Is it important? Do you have a different view when you're the reader? For me, inside wins over outside every single time.