Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Come Over to the Dark Side...We've Got Cookies!*

Everyone has a dark side; without it we wouldn't be human. No one is good all the time and our characters shouldn't be either.

Old-time melodramas were written with the purer than pure heroine, the wickeder than wicked villain and the braver than brave hero. Audiences loved them because they knew from the beginning that all would end well. It was good fun for Ma and Pa Pioneer and their gaggle of children to attend a performance with such easily defined characters and afforded a relaxing break from the harsh rigors of pioneer life. But ultimately, wouldn't it have been a little boring?

I love books (or plays or movies) that portray people as far more complicated creatures. The sweetest girl in the world is capable of being jealous. The most loathsome villain might spoil his cat. All of us experience a range of emotions.

When I write I try to keep in mind that every character has a flaw. Maybe it's vanity, or a tendency to over-indulge at the table; it might be a too-active imagination; it could be as potentially disastrous as jealousy, voracious ambition or money-lust. A pretty face does not necesarily mean a pretty personality any more than an ugly face denotes a villain.

Every story must have an ending but I enjoy writing (and reading) endings that are logical, but surprising. I love to sympathize with all the characters, not just the ones on the side of the angels. The dark side of characters is the home to all their complexities and their closely-held secrets. It's the hidden center of the chocolate and worthy of exploration.

I love my characters all the more because they are flawed. Bless them, they can't help being the way they are, they're only human! How about you? Do you write characters with a few bumps?

*Thanks to my daughter, Patricia, for the title. This is a favorite saying among her friends at school.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Written into a Corner

In a book I read long ago a character told an interesting tale about writing cliffhangers. Back in the day when movie palaces were common, it was the usual practice for several short pieces to be shown before the featured attraction. One was the serial that recounted the fearless adventures of a hero as he fought various bad guys and got himself time after time into life-threatening situations. One in particular had the writers stumped. It appeared that the last time we saw our hero he was down a well. There was absolutely no way out. None. Team after team of writers tried to resolve the dilemma with various methods but given the situation none worked. Heads were scratched, tempers flared; after all, the audience was waiting for the next installment. What to do? It was resolved by a genius writer who simply said "We start the next episode with the words "Once out of the well..." written on the screen. Crisis averted.

I concede that this type of problem is more likely to arise in television scripts with their now-mandatory season-ending cliffhangers, but it can happen in books as well. What happens when you've written yourself into a corner? It could be that your protagonist has information that he/she couldn't logically have; it could be some character in a non-escapable situation or showing up somewhere utterly strange; something that has to occur for the sake of your plot but upon rereading you realize "This makes no sense at all. Now what?"

I find this type of problem usually manifests when I'm so busy moving ahead that my fingers are typing faster than my brain. I'm so consumed with 'and then this and then this and then this' that the logic gets lost and then I find myself with an issue; a nice plot with some major holes. Rewriting is obviously in order, but how much? Finding where you went off the tracks can be difficult because you know how the story goes. I've employed two methods. First I try to go back and fix it myself. When this doesn't work I give the manuscript to someone else and ask them to kindly show me where the problem begins.

Have you ever found that you've written yourself into a corner? How did you get out of the well?

Monday, September 28, 2009


Most of us do not live lives crowded with incident. The majority of our days are filled with the same events, most weeks pass by fairly innocuously. But mysteries are altogether another kettle of fish with a great deal occurring in usually a very short length of time. How do we handle this? Do we call attention to the ticking clock or do we let the passage of time slide quietly by?

Dan Brown (and many others) have enjoyed large successes employing the ticking clock technique. The result of which is these books having tremendous pace as the reader is being continously reminded at beginning of each chapter that time is running out. In my opinion this technique is really only effective when the plot unfolds and resolves with a very short period of time.

There are also the mysteries where time passes much less obtrusively. The plot takes place over several weeks or even months. Time isn't what is the focus of the plot, but rather the unraveling of the mystery. These mysteries need many plot lines and complex characters to keep the reader eagerly turning the page.

My current manuscript happens over 4 days but there isn't a ticking clock. I have found that a short time period helps to keep the plot organized in my own brain, but I don't think the reader will be aware of it. My focus is on the characters and the untwisting of all their motivations and secrets rather than the all-encompassing idea that time is running out.

What role does time play in your writing? Is it vital or do you pay it little attention?

Friday, September 25, 2009

In the Zone

It happened yesterday afternoon. The zone. I was slogging my way through my wip and suddenly I was away! I couldn't type fast enough. It was wonderful. It was also less than an hour till dinner.


Being in the zone is a rare occurrence for me. Usually I plod away and content myself with a nicely phrased sentence or a witty (in my opinion) piece of dialogue. My output is fairly steady but I'm not an express train. I can't sit down at my laptop and effortlessly pour out 30,000 words. I wish that I could! I pay little attention to word counts while I'm writing. I'll check it from time to time as I reach certain points in the plot but I don't become obsessive. I don't see much point in seeing numbers that coldly inform me I haven't written very much.

Yesterday's writing showed no hints a deluge was about to hit. I pecked away as I moved through my plot at my usual tortoise-like pace. Then boom! The zone reminds me why I like to write. Phrases come neatly to mind, the dialogue sparkles and characters show new facets of their personalities. There should be a rule that if a writer is in the zone someone else takes care of life's minutiae so they can continue to write. Unfortunately my fortune (although ordered) has yet to show up on my doorstep, so I am not surrounded by a large helpful staff. Making dinner is my responsibility and I have noticed that children tend to get cranky if not fed! Reality was I had to stop writing and go make dinner, knowing full well that the zone would not reappear whenever I got back to the laptop.

However, I had visited the magical kingdom which means that it's out there waiting for me again. Maybe it will visit again today. Maybe not. The memory of it is enough to get me back to my manuscript.

How do you deal with the situation of real life interfering with your writing?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Dichotomy of Deadlines

"There are those who make their own deadlines and those who have deadlines thrust upon them".
Elspeth Antonelli

I happily admit that I have two distinct sides to my personality. There is the side that is creative and the side that is business. The creative side is the one responsible for decorating the house, baking, and (in the past) acted, directed and designed costumes; now it writes. The business side is the one responsible for setting budgets and sticking to them, knowing when the car insurance needs to be renewed and making sure enough money is set aside for that 'rainy day'. In the past it ran a theatre company. I'm sure most people have these qualities. The business side recognizes the seriousness of deadlines; the creative side does the actual writing. However, there are two different types deadlines and that's where my trouble starts.

Imposed Deadlines

These have been around since school when a teacher said "The homework is due Friday." Everyone learned how to deal with it; some did it that night, some did it over a number of days, some did it Friday morning. Regardless of methodology, the homework was handed in. Now we deal with deadlines imposed by publishers, contests, etc. There is a date carved in stone and (with publishers) a signed contract. I've never had a problem meeting these, usually with room to spare (as I knock wood). I acknowledge a great amount of almost-last-second flurry and the inevitable panic when my brain decides to freeze; but the project always gets done and submitted.

Self-Imposed Deadlines

I concede to the world that these are my Waterloo. I can set them but it's rare that I meet them. I think it's because I know the world isn't going to cave in if I don't. The only person who knows I didn't meet my deadline is me. I admit a certain amount of self-loathing ensues, but I can move on. I know there are writers out there who set themselves deadlines or writing goals and meet them with ease. They write 2,000 words a day, or five chapters a week. They finish their first draft in a timely and effective manner. My envy has no bounds.

How do you deal with these deadlines? Are both types met with self-discipline and fortitude? If so, how on earth do you do it? Please share your magic formula!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I spent many years backstage as a part of different theatre companies. I've been backstage as an actor, a stage manager and even as a director. You learn many things from being backstage. You learn that everything is not what it looks. You learn to avoid certain people when they're doing their odd pre-show rituals. You become accustomed to hearing (shall I say) colorful metaphors. You learn very quickly that hearing "uh-oh" is the worst thing to hear. It means disaster. Someone dropping something heavy on their foot earns a colorful metaphor. Someone dropping dead earns an uh-oh.

I have learned over recent years that writing comes with its own set of disasters. There are the typos. The blatant mis-spellings. The overuse of the same words. Poor sentence construction. The list continues. All of these are mild errors in my opinion and easily fixed; much like rushing back to the dressing room because you realized that you forgot to put on your shoes. (trust me, it happens)

Then there are the bigger mistakes; the undefined character or (even worse) the lazily defined character. Messy dialogue. Too much description or way too little. These mistakes will take longer to fix but are still within the realm of repair.

But what about the dreaded uh-ohs? I had it happen to me a few years ago and it was not a pretty sight. Here followeth my confession. I realized that my solution to the mystery made no sense at all. None. I had been so enraptured with all my other lovely characters and all my lovely red herrings that the result was I had given scant attention to the guilty party or his actions because I knew he was the one. Uh-oh. I felt as if I (once again) was the winner of the "Dumber Than a Stick" award. This uh-oh took weeks to fix as major re-writing was in order as many, many choruses of "How Stupid Are You Really?" ran through my head.

It did get fixed.

How do you handle your writing disasters? With careful thought? With humor? With liquor?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


For a while they were everywhere on TV; those programs showing you how to de-clutter your life. They were full of helpful hints on letting go and moving on and organizational solutions for the stuff deemed worthy enough to stick around. Clutter - friend or foe?

After being brought up to believe that I was the world's messiest beast, I discovered a while ago that I'm actually quite neat. I like clean surfaces. I like everything to have a place. However, stuff accumulates at a frightening pace. When we first moved into this house many, many years ago we actually had to buy furniture in order to fill some of the rooms. Trust me, this is not the case now. I can go through the house and think "Where did this all come from? How did we end up with this much stuff?" Cleaning out feels good. Things that were vital 10 years ago simply aren't anymore - the children are older, the hobby has been left behind, and what is that thing sitting in the corner?

Writing can have clutter as well, although people are divided on defining it! It could be too many flowery phrases or descriptions of settings that go on for pages or a hair by hair description of a hairstyle or colour. I am certainly guilty of cluttery writing, but I do try to go through it and clean it up. It's hard. Just like getting rid of that ugly chair you've had for forever (but have fond memories of ), you remember how long it took you to write that particular paragraph or chapter. Then there's that phrase that you're so proud of, but in the cold light of editing realize that it doesn't do anything. It doesn't add to the plot or characters. It's just a nice phrase. I toss it.

My litmus test in editing is honestly answering the question:

"Does this sentence/paragraph/section add to the story? Would the story be the worse if it were gone?"

The answer decides its fate. I'm not advocating writing a book that's as sterile as an operating room, but cluttery writing gets in the way of your story. Filling in the details is wonderful and absolutely necessary. Overfilling leads to clutter.

What's your opinion? Is this a worry for you? Or are you able to write cleanly?

Monday, September 21, 2009

And Miles to Go Before I Sleep

It is the plaintive cry heard since the dawn of time: "Are we there yet?" I feel sure that Caveman Mom and Caveman Dad heard it from Caveman Child when they traveled to visit Aunt Maude who lived in the next valley. Tiny toga-clad Romans would have said it from the back of horses or chariots. It's been heard in carriages, stagecoaches and covered wagons. Today (if we're lucky) the children are being distracted by handheld computer games or portable DVD players...but you know they're thinking it.

Writers think it too. But, what is 'there' to a writer? What is the hoped-for, yearned-for destination? It could be:

  • Fame and fortune. Your writing is a huge success. Publishers are falling over themselves as they plead for the honour publishing your newest masterpiece. Or it could be...
  • Royalty cheques. The villa in Italy still hasn't materialized, but you do receive those wonderful royalty cheques every quarter. Of course, if you add up all the time it took to write the manuscript, edit it, etc. you make the sad discovery that the average goatherd in Nepal has a higher per hour income. Oh well. Or is it...
  • Manuscript completion. It's done and edited. You may feel like throwing it against a wall, but it's done. But before that comes...
  • First draft completion. In my opinion, this is the largest milestone. Who knows how long it took, but it's done. Editing is small cheese after this monster. Or do you celebrate...
  • Turning on the computer, or pulling out a fresh piece of paper. Let's be honest, there are some days when this is a huge achievement. You may not have written, but you thought about it. Thinking is good.
What is your 'there'? We all travel on different highways but the roads are remarkably similar. May you reach your 'there'. Happy traveling.

Friday, September 18, 2009

True Reflections

Characters; they're tricky beasts. What does he/she look like? What's his/her name? What kind of clothes are preferred? Easy to get along with or a bit ornery? Fussy eater? Overeater? The list of questions goes on and on and on.....

My characters are completely fictional. Not one of them is based on anyone I've known or know now. I stay resolutely away from familiar names simply because, for me, those names come with too much baggage attached. I will not slap famous faces on my characters for the same reason.

As I work out my plot by stalking around my house and muttering darkly, (trust me it's a scary sight) characters just start popping up and I give them temporary names like "eats too much boy", "snoopy girl" "loyal but annoying wife" and "falls down a lot boy". Each name reminds me how that particular character serves the plot or is my comic relief (always popular with me) and slowly but surely everything starts to jell. Plot first, characters second.

If I've enjoyed a book I will usually play one of my favorite games called "Who Do You Cast?" which is casting famous actors as the characters. I was asked once if I could play the game with my manuscript and I recoiled at the thought.

I'm fascinated that many authors base characters on real people. I do not have this talent. For me it's all pretend!

Thursday, September 17, 2009


This was the first morning of fogs which happen frequently in my part of British Columbia. The morning news had shots like the one I've got here and many of their traffic cameras showed nothing but grey. When I was driving my children to school this morning the only clue I had about other vehicles was the gleam of approaching headlights. Traffic lights were obscured. Fog was swirling around the high school transforming the landscape into the perfect setting for an old-fashioned ghost story.

Writers know about fogs as we all experience them from time to time. Where am I going? Who is here with me? Am I really the only person in the world?

Here are my ways of coping with the fog:

  1. Look for the streetlights as they will always guide you home. A good outline will get you to the ending every time. Guaranteed. It might only be the end of a chapter, but even a small victory is a victory.
  2. Pedestrians appear out of nowhere. Who is this character who has just shown up and insists upon speaking? Trust that they appeared for a purpose. It might only be to convey one piece of information and then they disappear again, but listen first. They may force you to look more closely at a plot point that you might have just driven through.
  3. Be aware of other vehicles. You're not the only person traveling this road. We may be alone in our own cars (or houses) but we all know the road. Take comfort that there are others out there. It certainly helps me.
  4. Don't rush. In my opinion, this applies to the entire writing process. Take the time to make an outline. Get to know your main and supporting characters. Attack that fearsome first draft with courage, but know that you have time to go back and change things. Slow and steady always wins the race.
Fogs always disappear. Bright autumn sunshine is now covering the roads and I can look up to a clear blue sky. May your writing be fog-free, or if you're experiencing a small weather disturbance be confidant that the road is still there if you look hard enough.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


"What's the title?" is the one of the first things a writer is asked after they've answered (or tried to, or avoided answering) "What's it about?". Titles are a book's introduction to the public. Tricky beasts.

Some authors have their titles from the beginning. Some have it jump out of them from their manuscript. Others have it thrust upon them by editors. I've never had the latter experience but the first two have happened. My games are titled from the beginning - simply because key words in the title help it to sell. "Death" is huge, as is "Murder". Clever titles do not sell murder mystery games. Clever titles can sell books, however. People wonder "What does that mean?" and pick up the book to look at the inside cover and you're half way home.

Titles can't be copyrighted, which is odd. Who is going to write "The Great Gatsby" (the story of a giant dog named Gatsby)? Imagine an author submitting a new manuscript to their editor entitled "Gone With The Wind" (story of a meteorologist) , or a screenwriter submitting "The Sound of Music" (about an orchestra). These are not likely scenarios. On the other hand "My New Book" is not apt to fly off the shelves either.

My book titles come from Shakespeare. Spy My Shadow is from "Richard III" and I like it because both the title and its source make sense on many, many levels. Keep the Key is from "Hamlet" and is one of the few things I know about that book, other than the presence of my detective and the setting. Keep the Key came early whereas Spy My Shadow came about half way through the writing process. I find the process very similar to the exercise of naming characters; when I get the right one I can almost hear a 'ding' in my head.

When do your titles present themselves? Is it an easy process or a difficult one? Do you use working titles ("This D#&@ed Thing") until you hit upon the correct one? Or do you just not care and leave the title selection up to someone else?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Real Job

It is an attitude that I run up against all the time - I don't go to an office every day therefore I must not have a job. There is a real belief out there that if you're a woman and you work from home you either:

a) Secretly spend your day lazing about, eating candy and watching daytime television. Or

b) You're a throw-back to a different generation and spend your day waxing the kitchen floor and vacuuming while wearing your big skirted dress, heels and pearls.

I've tried to explain that writing takes time. I've admitted I can't write a 500 page book in an afternoon. Some writers may be that gifted, but I am not among that lucky few. I've tried to get people to understand that just because I'm at home it doesn't mean that I'm not busy and therefore I'm not available to do every volunteer job that comes along. The typical response is: "Oh, I thought you were home during the day! Do you work now?" Grrrr.

I'm sure anyone who works from home has had this experience, regardless of profession. However a computer programmer or accountant seem to be far more acceptable lines of work. People understand what those jobs entail. There was training involved. A writer? Really? I mean you just sit down and write, right? A monkey could do it.

It has been my experience that any career in the arts gets little respect unless you're rich, famous and successful. After all, how hard can it be to be an actor, an artist, a musician, a writer, etc.? My reply to these people is "Try it and see."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Love 'em, Hate 'em, Gotta Kill 'em!

When you write mysteries, you write about murder. It's tricky to have a murder mystery without one. So kill you do. Sometimes you kill only one, sometimes more. Sometimes the method makes it a 'clean' murder (i.e. poison) sometimes it's grisly, and honestly (in some of mine) it's funny. But the unescapable fact is that as a murder mystery writer you transform into a fictional serial killer.

The problem can be: You created these victims. I've written many victims that were so nasty, so filled with evil that anyone's only question would be "Why weren't they bumped off years ago?" On the other hand, there are the hapless ones who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then there are the characters you love and how on earth could you kill them? But you have to...

"Stranger Than Fiction" is a wonderful movie about a writer

(pause for a moment of tribute to the amazing Emma Thompson)

trying to find a way to kill off her main character only to discover that she's writing about a real person and if she kills off her character the real 'Harold Crick' will die as well. Major dilemma. Major nightmare for a mystery writer. The first time I saw this movie I was horrified by the idea. How many deaths am I responsible for? How many deaths have made me money? Chilling thoughts...

Past victims ran through my head. My eyes widened as I started counting up the numbers and the even more un-nerving thought was 'I knew I wasn't remembering all of them'; so not only was I a serial killer, but one that couldn't even be bothered to remember the names of my prey.

I commend the screenwriter (Zach Helm) for a brilliant premise, but I really don't need these thoughts running through my brain. I have enough issues when I am forced to kill a character I like; so many issues that I put off writing that particular bit until the last possible moment...and then I cry as I write it. (This is sad but true).

How do you handle situations like this? Do you mind putting your characters in terrible situations or can you handle it from a safe and sane distance? Or do you discover, like Harold Crick, that love and warm cookies make any situation seem better?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Different Flavors

I read many many different genres of books, but I only write in one.

I love to read biographies, autobiographies, histories, humor, thrillers...the list goes on and on. For the past three years I have had a fascination with the first years of WWII - which has lead to the creation of my books. I started reading about English history (mainly the Tudors) back when I was in Grade 5. Cathedral architecture is another of my subjects - and I have spent many many hours in England's magnificent structures. You can feel the history seeping out of the stones.

But I don't write histories. Or chick lit. I write mysteries. These are the plots that come easiest to me and this has been the case for years. They come so easily that I never paid much attention to being able to do it. I wrote many 'murder nights' for various theatre companies and never gave it a second thought. After all, it was easy. It was only about 5 years ago that someone came up to me and said "You could make money doing this. Not everyone can write these things", which led to my murder mystery games (which now number 12 games and 2 scripts).

I'd like to try my hand at other genres. I've written two plays and I'd like to write more as I found the freedom of only having to write dialogue rather a relief. I can write fairly decent comedy - and comedic moments have found their way into everything I've written so far.

But I'll stick to mysteries for now - both the games and the WWII era books. Why do we gravitate to one genre? Is it our own personal history? Is it personal likes/dislikes? Or are there talented people who can write in many genres and leap nimbly between them?

It's a mystery to me....

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Crowds of Characters

How many is too many? Not children or pets; characters. Main characters. When does a reader just get fed up and put the book down because there are just too many people to keep track of? By the way, I hate those "Lists of Characters" that are at the beginning of some books. To me that's a huge indication that I'm going to have to keep flipping back to it as I try to keep everyone straight.

How many main characters is a constant dilemma for me since my book(s) have multiple plots and motives. Multiple plots breed multiple characters. I've tried to categorize them into 'serious contenders' (for being the murderer) 'possible contenders' or 'only if it was really weird' contenders. But still....

Keeping these characters and their motives separate and distinct isn't a problem for me, since I've been living with these guys forever. But what about my poor reader? And then there are the secondary characters and the characters mentioned but never seen. I've been counting characters in other mysteries and some have more and some have less. No help there. My dilemma is I can't get rid of any of them - the plots are too interwoven and I'm writing the book from the POV of six of them and these six interact with everyone else. My detective is one of the six and the first character we are introduced to (this is the Venetian who can't paint that I've mentioned before). I didn't plan to write it this way, it just happened. These six voices can tell the story. I can't make it five. Or am I supposed to? I certainly cannot make it one. But that's a completely different discussion...

Do you have a magic formula for figuring out how many main characters you need? Is there a magic number? Or does it just depend on your plot? (which is my way of thinking).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What's Happening?

Something happens to me around this time every year. I become determined to turn over a new leaf and get busy and morph into a person I don't even recognize.

I bustle around cleaning and vacuuming. I start thinking seriously about pulling out the fridge and cleaning behind it. I want shiny floors and gleaming tables. Fresh floral centerpieces are contemplated. I go and dig the weeds in my garden and make ambitious plans for new pathways and patios. I want to make warm nutritious meals for my family and bake pies and cakes. I think about sewing and that a major repaint of the upstairs hallway is an ideal project. In short, I am nauseating.

This determination extends to my writing. I will get those two new games up and running. I will finish fiddling with my short story and actually print it out and submit the sucker for publication. I set lofty goals for completing my novel within a month.

I know that after a few days I will return to my slovenly ways and the gleam on my tables and the shine on my floors will fade. I will think that ironing sheets is an insane waste of time and not worry if my linen cupboard isn't Martha Stewart-worthy. The writing goals will stay in place. Writing is like laundry - there's always something new in the basket.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Once More Unto the Breach

After the whining of yesterday's post I have resolved to shoulder my quiver of arrows and head boldly back into the fray. I thank all of you for your messages of encouragement, it truly meant a great deal and your kind suggestions shall be heeded!

I have found the trickiest part of being a writer is to put your head down and just keep going. There needs to be a confidence that what you're writing isn't complete garbage, or if it is, that the nugget of inspiration that started it is a good thing. Looking back can be frightening - I still remember the horror I felt when I discovered an old short story that I had written in Grade 11. I was so proud of it when I wrote it, but rereading it now was a big mistake.

It all comes down to self-confidence and knowing deep down that the story you're telling is worth telling. It's not enough for you to love your characters, you have to be able to write them in such a way that others will love them too. The continuing character in my books is a detective who lived in Venice for many years. He left because Mussolini built a road onto the main island. I grew up on an island and I know island mentality - bridges are evil. He also considers himself a wonderful artist and the reality is that his paintings are truly awful. I love him. I love his quirks and his wit. I love that he can't paint. He is loyal to his friends and his history has given him an understanding of human nature. I keep writing his books because I love writing him and the day I finish the third will be sad because that will be our good-bye.

How do you keep heading 'once more unto the breach'? Is there a trick I haven't figured out? Or is it a matter of simply ploughing through?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labouring on Labour Day

Welcome to the last long weekend of the summer, a day traditionally spent at picnics, fairs or some other sunny outdoor activity filled with bustle of crowds, the smell of popcorn and the joyous laughter of tots.

I am spending a greater part of the day hunched over my laptop editing and rewriting my most recent short story and let's just say's not going well. I'm now at the point of thinking 'why did you think you could write?' and dragging up every self-doubt that's ever crossed my mind in the middle of the night.

Why is it that writers (or me at any rate) are so quick to criticize themselves but so slow to praise? If I'm pleased with my efforts - if I've written something I find funny or I like a particular phrase - I quickly say to myself 'Okay fine... move on'. But I will linger over criticism like it's a fine chocolate souffle. It always appears to me that once I fix one aspect five others cry for my attention. Can't the characters be more colourful? Are they too colourful? Are they much of a muchness? Does the plot move too quickly? Too slowly? Or is it just so unspeakably dull that no one would ever get past page two?

You see my dilemma...

What floors me is that I put myself into this position on purpose. No one put a gun to my head and said 'Be A Writer'. I must need my head examined.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Leaving Breadcrumbs

Everyone needs to make a path through the woods so that they can come out the other side; I know my Hansel and Gretel. Hansel's breadcrumbs weren't the best idea of course, but his thinking was sound. How do writers keep themselves on track...on their particular path through the woods? Here are my breadcrumbs.

Breadcrumb #1: Know your ending.
It's impossible (for me, anyway) to start moving if I don't know where I'm going to end up. I know the ending of my books before I know the beginnings.

Breadcrumb #2: Know who is with you on the journey.
Know your characters, or at least know your main characters. Others may join you for a while, but they have to leave before the end of the journey. If they insist on staying (maybe they have a fail-proof method for getting everyone out of the forest) then they may deserve to stay and someone else may have to leave. Be brutal. There's only so many breadcrumbs.

Breadcrumb #3: Ignore the side paths.
I realize this is easier said than done, but side paths aren't shortcuts, they're just interesting diversions that keep you away from the main path and end up nowhere.

Breadcrumb #4: Make sure you don't throw down the same breadcrumb every time.
This is my way of saying don't forget red herrings or sub-plots.

Breadcrumb #5: Ignore the witch's house.
The witch's house is the greatest problem of all and for this metaphor it's whatever is calling your attention away from the path. It could be self-doubt. It could be fear of an approaching deadline. Just keep going along the path and soon you'll leave the witch's house far behind and reach the other side of the forest. That is the time for candy.

How do you make it through the woods? What are your breadcrumbs?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Onions and Mushrooms

I have learned the lesson. I know to never think that just because I invented them that my characters won't catch me off guard. I have mentioned before that I outline every project (be it book, short story or game) and that I write bios for my important players (and that can be quite a few bios). My rationale is I want to know everything I can before I plunge into the pool and I still get shocked by my characters' behaviour. (No, I don't mean that kind of behaviour - this blog is family-rated. Geesh.)

Characters that I thought would be easy to write often times aren't which leads to me having to figure out why. Does she/he have the wrong name? (this is the issue many times) Am I using the wrong vocabulary or writing in the wrong rhythm? Is she/he too similar to someone else and that's why I'm having trouble? (this can lead to lots of fun as if this is the problem I'm back at the drawing board).

Then there are the characters that are easy to write and they practically jump off the page. I smile as I write and it's wonderful. But then come...

The Mushrooms

These are characters that seem to pop out of nowhere and insist on staying. They're not major characters but they're not minor. They seem to have things to say that I can't assign to anyone else. Handy little creatures but always a surprise. If I'm very lucky I may also find...

The Onions

These are secondary characters who are so multi-layered that any of them could carry huge portions of the plot. Each time I discover an onion I am relieved as it's usually a sign that my secondary plots are realistic enough to support strong characters.

Every project is a journey with a known destination but these traveling companions can make what can sometimes be an arduous trek into a more gratifying experience.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Conquering the Dragon

The words that strike terror into many writers' hearts are "Have you finished that first draft yet?". Each of us have spent hours, days, months or years (yipes!) slowly vanquishing the beast and everyone seems to have their own line of attack.

Here's what has worked for me.

1. A detailed outline containing the order of events from the beginning to the end.

2. Written biographies of each of the major characters. My purpose here is two-fold - writing the biographies help me understand their motives and this knowledge will in all likelihood change the running order (see #1).

3. Research into special knowledge. I write historical mysteries so research is always involved. The challenge for me (being a history-lover) is to keep the research as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

4. Start at the beginning, go to the end and then stop. (with apologies to Lewis Carroll).

The last is the best advice that I was ever given. I have a tendency to polish and then re-polish before moving forward and this stops (or at least lessens) that tendency. It gives me a first draft. First drafts won't be perfect - that's why they're called 'first'.

What works for you? How do you defeat the monster?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


This is my favourite month of the year. The weather is still warm, but not hot. Early morning air teases you with that first hint that cooler times are coming. The sky can be that magnificent shade of blue that you never see in the spring or the fall - and kids head back to school.

The resumption of routines is a relief. I know how to do schooldays as I've done them for more years than I care to admit. Relief is also having the house to myself again - well, me and the cats. However cats don't come up to you informing you that they're bored or ask to be driven to a friend's house. My cats spend the day sleeping in strange places and opening one eye accusingly if I make too much of a noise. On second thought though, having talking cats could be the key to my dream house.

I always experience a fresh burst of energy at this time of year and new resolutions fill my head. I will get more organised. I will set new goals. I walk a little faster and dream a little bigger. I face the computer with a new sense of purpose and determination.

Enjoy autumn (or spring) where ever you are in the world. Take time to follow a leaf's path as it wafts its way downwards or examine a new bud closely. The year has turned another corner. Welcome to what lies ahead.