About Dale Ivan Smith

Dale Ivan Smith is a retired librarian turned full-time author. He started out writing fantasy and science fiction, including his five-book Empowered series, and has stories in the High Moon, Street Spells, and Underground anthologies, and his collection, Rules Concerning Earthlight. He's now following his passion for cozy mysteries and working on the Meg Booker Librarian Mysteries series, beginning with A Shush Before Dying.

Finishing the First Draft Words of Wisdom

Like many writers, for years I had trouble finishing a novel draft. I had a lot of starts, and one half-completed novel. It wasn’t until I sat down with another partially written novel, and decided to write through to the end that I finally finished a first draft. I gave myself a three-month deadline, and wrote the remaining three-quarters of the novel in long hand. I repeated the feat a couple of years later by writing two short novels back to back in the space of two months, the second during National Novel Writing Month.

At last I’d figured out how to write a first draft all the way to “The End.” Learning how to write a novel that worked took longer, and only happened after an intense few years spent studying storytelling craft. At the same time, I’ve found there are always obstacles to overcome in finishing a first draft.

Today’s Words of Wisdom looks at that challenge, with excerpts from posts by Mark Alpert, Clare Langley Hawthorne, and James Scott Bell.

[F]iction-wise, it was a wonderful week for me, because I completed the first draft of my next novel. My daily word count always rises to extraordinary (at least for me) levels when I’m nearing the end, partly because I get caught up in the climax of the book and partly because I just want to finish the darn thing. I love writing 2,000 words a day, but it also makes me feel bad about how little I write at other times. I say to myself, “Why can’t you write this much all the time? Then you could knock off a novel in two months and spend the rest of the year on your tennis game.”

I can’t reveal any details about the book because I hate talking about my novels while I’m still writing them. And I know I’ll be revising this book for the next few months, so it’s not really finished. But completing the first draft is a big milestone for me. At least I know now how the book will end. I had a vague idea of the ending while I was writing the manuscript, but I wasn’t sure how it would all come together until I started the final chapter. Before that moment I worried I would hit some unforeseen obstacle — a logical inconsistency, or maybe a hopelessly implausible plot twist — and the whole enterprise would fall apart.

But it didn’t. At this point I have no idea whether the book is any good, but at least it hangs together. Now I have to wait to hear from my editor. He already read the beginning of the book, and he liked it, but I don’t know how he’ll feel about the end. I’m not even sure how I feel about it. I’m too close to the thing. But I’m cautiously optimistic. The reason for my optimism: bullet ants. The ending has a scene featuring bullet ants. You see, I just broke my rule about never revealing details of a novel-in-progress, but I couldn’t help it. Bullet ants are fascinating creatures.

Although I still have lots of work to do on the book, I decided to reward myself for finishing the first draft. So I spent three days biking and playing tennis. (I have to work off the five pounds I gained while writing the novel.) The best reward, though, was simply writing THE END at the bottom of the last page of the manuscript. I have no idea how many times I’ll be able to write those words in my life, so I intend to enjoy the experience as much as possible every time it happens.

Mark Alpert—April 20, 2013

 

I can’t count the number of people who have expressed how much they want to be a writer but cannot seem to actually finish writing a book – they have parts and bits in a drawer but nothing complete – either for further editing, submission or publication. I sympathize because this was me for many, many years.

I always wanted to be a writer, or at least I expressed that desire, but, apart from half written pieces, drafts and jottings, I somehow never managed to actually finish a project. This all changed when, though some weird serendipity/alignment of the stars, I quit my job in anticipation of starting a Ph.D and then discovered my brain was finally free to do what I had always wanted to do – write a novel. I was extremely lucky to have found an agent interested in my work at my first writer’s conference and this undoubtedly spurred me on to finish the project she and I discussed. (Who knows, if I hadn’t had this impetus, maybe Ursula’s first mystery would still be half-finished and languishing in a drawer…)

So what are the many impediments to actually sitting down and completing a manuscript? There’s the time factor obviously – but this is an excuse which wears thin as even established novelists have to carve out time from their lives (a task which is never easy) and most have balanced other careers, families and other commitments in order to complete the task ahead. For me, I think the impediment was always internal, rather than external. I lacked the confidence to complete a novel, and I spent more time self-censoring myself in some elusive quest to be ‘literary’ enough (a standard I set that could never be attained). Even today I still question my ability to complete the task, but I am fortunate enough to have the motivation and the support of family, fellow writers, editors and my agent to continue to write. Now I suspect it’s a mixture of stubbornness, accountability and ambition that keeps me writing – but that doesn’t mean it gets any easier to complete the task!

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—May 25, 2015

 

What is it that keeps us from finishing a project?

It could be fear … that we haven’t got a handle on the story.

It could be perfectionism … we want the story to be excellent, but sense it isn’t the best it can be.

It could be laziness … it’s easier to tell someone who doesn’t write just how hard it is to write, than it is to actually write.

Whatever it is, it holds us up. And that’s bad for everyone, including your characters.

I find endings to be the hardest part of the craft. They have to do so much–leave the reader satisfied or, better, grateful. Wrap up the story questions. Deliver a certain resonance.

And we all know a lousy ending can ruin an otherwise great reading experience.

My own approach to endings is to have a climactic scene in mind from the start, even though it is subject to change without notice. It usually does change, because as your book grows, unplanned things start to happen. Characters develop in surprising ways; a plot twist takes you around an unforeseen corner. I’ve even had characters refuse to leave a scene when I’ve told them to. I always try to incorporate these things because, as Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it. The book is usually right.”

As you make these changes in your plot, the ripples go forward in time to affect how the book will end.

So you adjust. When I get to the point where I’m going to write my ending scenes, I follow a plan I call Stew, Brew, Accrue and Do.

I think hard about the ending for half an hour or so, then take a long walk, letting the story “stew” in my subconscious. My walk inevitably hits a Starbucks, because you can’t walk in any direction on earth for very long before hitting a Starbucks.

Inside I go and order an espresso. Brew.

I sip the espresso and take out a little notebook and pen. That’s when I Accrue. I jot idea after idea, image after image, doodle after doodle. I’m not writing the words of the ending, I’m just capturing all the stuff the Boys in the Basement are throwing out at me because they are hopped up on caffeine.

Then it’s back to my office where I actually Do–write the blasted thing until it’s done!

James Scott Bell—April 3, 2016

***

There you have it, advice on finishing the first draft.

  1. Do you write at a steady pace while drafting, or do you have a big push of words to finish your draft?
  2. Do you reward yourself when you finish?
  3. What is your biggest obstacle to finishing your first draft?
  4. Does your ending change as you draft?

The Black Sheep of the Short Form—the Novelette

The two previous Words of Wisdom dealt with story lengths shorter than the novel: the short story and the novella. Today’s post, though not a Words of Wisdom one, will continue with a look at the “black sheep” of the short form, the novelette. While the novelette is recognized in various science fiction awards as a discrete length, this is not true for mystery and thriller, hence the “black sheep” in this post’s title.

Length-wise, short stories are usually defined as running from 2000-7500 words, while the novella is often defined as running from 20,000-40,000 words in length. Short stories are the typical length in many online magazines, and in story anthologies. Story anthologies can include longer lengths, of course, ranging into the novella length. But, in general, there’s a divide between the two forms.

The novelette lives in that divide, running between 7500 words and 20,000.

Masterclass discusses what distinguishes a novelette from a novella:

In terms of storytelling ambition, novelettes tend to split the difference between novellas and shorter forms like short stories. Novelettes tend to have a greater focus on character development, worldbuilding, and plotting than short stories. However, the stories are generally more concise and focused than a novella-length work, as the word count is often too restrictive to tell a long story. [The full post can be found here.]

Our very own James Scott Bell has written a number of novelettes, including the Force of Habit series and Trouble is My Business, each six novelettes long. In his March 3, 2013 KZB post, Jim touches on the novelette and its value in helping you train as a writer:

Training: A novelette is short form (about 15k words) and I’ve been studying that form as the e-book revolution has taken off. All writers now should be producing short form work in addition to full length novels. He goes on to discuss other aspects of his novelette—the post is well worth reading in it’s entirety.

In the Science Fiction field a novelette is defined as running from 7500 to 17,500 words.

The late science fiction grand master James Gunn felt that the novelette was the perfect length for science fiction: long enough to allow the writer to fully explore an idea but not so long as to become caught up in a plot that might be so complex and lengthy as to overshadow the exploration of that idea:

“Although there are some great SF novels, there are far more great SF novelettes, which embody the substance of a novel without taking on its burden to solve the problem it lays out.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Jim Gunn about this when I was at the University of Kansas for a two-week novel writing workshop in 2013. As a long time anthologist, editor and writer he was passionate that this was the case.

I feel the same might be true for mystery, especially the locked room variety. The novelette length is long enough to delve into a clever mystery and explore it without having to go to even the extent of plotting and number of characters a novella does. At the same time, there’s more room for characterization and world building then in a true short story.

In mystery or thriller, neither the novelette or the novella are mentioned in awards categories. The Edgar Awards short story category covers stories that run from 1,000 to 22,000 words. The International Thriller Writer Awards simply says that to be considered a short story it must be less than 35,000 words.

***

Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense film, The Birds, is based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novelette of the same name. In the novelette, the story is centered on Nat Hocken, a disabled WW2 veteran who works for a local farmer. Set on the windswept Cornish coast during a bleak autumn, Nat soon finds evidence of birds acting strangely, pecking at his bedroom window, and when he opens it, attacking him. At the same time, the autumn has turned a bitter, dry cold. Soon Nat notices gargantuan flocks of gulls riding the waves at sea, seemingly biding their time. What follows is a building horror as Nat realizes his family, and his community is under threat, and he takes steps to warn others and protect his family.

The POV is kept on Nat, and the focus on coordinated actions of the birds. The novelette takes place over three days. Radio broadcasts let Nat and the reader both know that the bird attacks are widespread, throughout the U.K., and perhaps the world, but we stay with Nat the whole time. The arc of the novelette is in Nat and his family’s evolving situation, as he becomes aware of the threat, and attempts to save his family and warn others.

I’ve published three novelettes, “Siloed,” which appeared in the Street Spells urban fantasy anthology, “Running Tangent,” co-written with K.C. Ball, which was published in the July 2015 issue of Perihelion Science Fiction, and the cozy mystery novelette, “Farewell, My Cookie,” which I published on BookFunnel last August. All three were in the range of 10-11,000 words. Both “Siloed” and “Farewell, My Cookie,” take place over the course of a single evening, while “Running Tangent” occurs over a longer span of time.  I find novelette length ideal for briskly paced stories that took place over just a few hours.

For me, the novelette’s allowing more space for characterization, exploring an idea or a world and more room for plot than a short story while being more concise than a novella makes it a form worth considering.

How about you?

  1. Have you read novelettes? If so, do you have any favorites?
  2. Have you written novelettes?
  3. Do you think the novelette length worth writing for mystery, especially locked room or puzzle stories?

Novella Words of Wisdom

I wanted to follow last time’s Words of Wisdom on short fiction with a Words of Wisdom look at the novella. I’ve written several novellas, and have published three of them, and have been hankering to write another. So, it seemed like the perfect follow up to short stories.

It turned out that Steve Hooley did that, after a fashion, not quite two years ago. His own post had an excellent definition and history of the novella, and then listed bullet points from James Scott Bell’s 2012 post on writing the novella, as well as Jordan Dane’s look at the novella in 2016, as well two points from a 2015 Joe Moore post.

After some thought, I decided it would still be worth giving Steve’s, Jim’s and Jordan’s posts the full Words of Wisdom treatment, with excerpts from each for discussion. I hope you will find this return to the novella not too soon. Certainly it’s a perennial favorite of mine.

Definition

The word “novella” is the feminine form of “novello,” Italian (masculine) for “new.”

The novella has been described as “a short novel or a long short story.” Its length is listed as 10,000 – 40,000 words (some sources say 20,000 – 50,000 or even 15,000 – 60,000). The novella usually has a single plotline, is focused on one character, and “can be read in a single day.” It may or may not be divided into chapters, and white space is traditionally used to divide sections.

Examples of novellas that used chapters:

  • Animal Farm – George Orwell
  • War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells

During its history, the novella has been used in different ways. Let’s see if it is the “load-it-up-with-everything compact utility vehicle” or a “fast-sexy-Italian sports car.”

History

The Britannica entry for Novella (summarized) states that the novella originated in Italy during the Middle Ages, where its form was originally based on local events (humorous, political, or amorous). Writers such as Boccaccio, Sacchetti, and Bandello later developed it into a psychologically subtle and structured short tale, using a frame story to unify.

Chaucer introduced it to England with The Canterbury Tales.

During the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare and other playwrights used plots from the Italian novella.

The content and form of these tales influenced development of the English novel in the 18th century, and the short story in the 19th century.

The novella flourished in Germany (known as Novelle) in the 18th, 19th, and 20thcenturies, often contained in a frame story and based on a catastrophic event. It was characterized by brevity, a self-contained plot, and ending with irony, while using restraint of emotion and an objective presentation.

Examples of novellas:

  • Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilich
  • Dostoyevsky – Notes from the Underground
  • Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
  • Henry James – The Aspern Papers

Steve Hooley—April 22, 2022

 

Yes, a novella is obviously shorter than a novel. A rule of thumb puts the novella between 20k and 40k words.

Here are the general guidelines for writing a novella. I say general because, like all writing principles, they are subject to change. But ONLY if you have a good reason for the exception!

  1. One plot

The length of the novella dictates that it have one plot. It’s a too short to support subplots. That doesn’t mean you don’t have plot complications.It’s just that you are doing your dance around one story problem.

  1. One POV

It’s almost always best to stick with one point of view. Both of my novellas, Watch Your Back and One More Lie, are written in first person POV. That’s because you want, in the short space you have, to create as intimate a relationship between the Lead character and the reader as possible.

As indicated earlier, more than one POV is acceptable if you have a reason for including it. And that reason is NOT so you can fill more pages.

A modern master of the novella is, of course, Stephen King. A look at his collection, Different Seasons, reveals three novellas written in first person POV. The exception is Apt Pupil, which is about an ex-Nazi’s influence over a thirteen-year-old boy. The story thus has a reason for shifting between these two points of view. However, I note that Apt Pupil is the longest of these, and I actually suspect it’s over 40k words, making it a short novel.

  1. One central question

There is one story question per novella, usually in the form: Will X get Y?

In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King, the question is, will the wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne survive in God-awful Shawshank prison?

In The Old Man and the Sea: Will the old fisherman, Santiago, land the big fish?

A Christmas Carol: Will Ebenezer Scrooge get redemption?

  1. One style and tone

There are novels that crack the style barrier in various ways, but a novella should stick to one tone, one style throughout.

In the old pulp days, novellas were common and usually written in the hard boiled style.

My two novellas are done in the confessional style of James M. Cain––the narrator looking back at his past sins, detailing the consequences of same, with a twist ending.

Romance would have a different tone. Ditto paranormal. Whatever the genre, keep it consistent.

The Benefits of the Novella

Digital publishing has brought novellas back into favor. There are some story ideas that don’t merit 90k words, but may be just right for 30k. The suspense story is particularly apt for this form. One of the great masters, Cornell Woolrich, practically made his career on novellas of suspense.

An indie-publishing writer can charge 99¢ – $2.99 for novellas. They can obviously be turned out more quickly than a full length novel.

Some Suggestions for Writing the Novella

  1. Make sure your premise is rock solid

You don’t want to travel down the road of a flabby idea, only to find out after 15k words that it isn’t working. Come up with a premise that creates the greatest possible stress for the Lead character. For example, One More Lie is about a man accused of murdering his mistress. He’s innocent of the crime, but guilty of the adultery. A bit of stress, I’d say.

  1. Write in the heat of passion

Novellas are great for the NaNoWriMos among us. Getting the story down quickly releases that inner creativity we long for. And there won’t be the need for as much revision as in a novel, which has subplot complications to deal with.

  1. Use white space to designate scene changes

Instead of chapters, the novella usually employs white space between scenes. Some writers do break up a novella into sections designated by numbers. That’s a matter of style. Just don’t say “Chapter 1” etc. It’s not necessary and interrupts what should be the flow.

  1. Keep asking, How can it get worse?

Whether your novella is about the inner life of a character (as in The Old Man and the Sea)or the outer life of the plot (as in Double Indemnity) turn up the heat on the character as much as you can.

Think of the novella as a coil that gets tighter and tighter, until you release it at the end.

James Scott Bell—August 12, 2012

 

Challenges of Writing a Shorter Story:

I have always been a novel writer. I never started out on shorter material, thinking it would be easier to write, as some people might believe. In my mind, a shorter story is more challenging. It’s only been this year that I’ve written shorter stories for Amazon Kindle Worlds. My novellas have been 25,000-30,000 words, at my option. That length forced me to change how I write, but I didn’t want my readers to feel that I’ve short-changed their reading experience because my voice or style has been stripped down.

Personal Challenges:

1.) Plots must be simpler – This has taken some new thinking and conceiving of plots in advance while I’m planning my story. More intense story lines with complex layers have to be shed in order to peel back to the essence of a story.

2.) Minimize subplots – Subplots can still be done, but they are more of a challenge, so I try to limit the way I think out a story. The subplot must be integral to the overall story and enhance the pace or suspense.

3.) Setting descriptions and prose must be simplified – Getting straight to the bare emotional elements of a scene or a story will stick with readers and provide them with a solid reading experience, without making them feel that the writing is too sparse. I must be truly selective on what images I choose and the wording I use to create the most impact.

4.) Novellas are like screenplays – My shorter stories are more like screenplays with a focus on dialogue and major plots movements, less on back story and lengthy internal monologue.

5.) Novellas are like the visuals of film – I like this aspect. Give the reader a visual experience as if they are watching a movie. The scenes must have memorable images to tap into their minds quicker, using fewer words to do it.

Jordan Dane—April 21, 2016

***

Thanks for revisiting the novella today. Now it’s your to weigh in.

  1. Do you enjoy reading at the novella length? Do you agree with the definition of novella that Steve shared above?
  2. Do you write novellas? What tips do you have ?
  3. If you do write at the novella length, what challenges have you encountered? How have you overcome them?
  4. Have you published a novella, traditionally or indie? If so, how has it gone? What differences, if any, do you see in how novellas are marketed versus novels?

Short Story Words of Wisdom

One of my writing goals for 2024 is to write more short stories, something I used to do regularly. Early on, that was all I wrote. My first sales were with flash fiction, and my first indie publishing efforts were with short stories in 2012.

Today’s Words of Wisdom gives advice on writing short stories, and ways to publish it. First, PJ Parrish looks at Kurt Vonnegut’s tips on writing short stories. Elaine Vets follows with thoughts on how to get past being blocked when trying to write short. Finally, James Scott Bell shares what a good story does and where to publish short fiction today.

As always, the original posts are well worth reading in their entirety, and are date-linked from their respective excerpts.

When I started this post, I had forgotten that Vonnegut had — despite his disclaimer of having nothing to teach other writers — issued his Eight Tips For Writing a Good Short Story.  So of course, I looked them up. I think they work well for any kind of fiction, actually.  With a few caveats for us crime dogs, maybe. Some you might have heard before, but they bear repeating:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The first one is great advice no matter what you’re writing — even a memo.

The second one I believe in wholeheartedly. Which is why I gave up on The Americans.  

Number three we’ve quoted many times here at TKZ when we talk about motivation. And the deeper you can plumb the depths of what a character wants, the richer your story will be.

Rule four is important. Every sentence should do something, be on the page for a reason. I read somewhere that Vonnegut disliked television, except for Cheers, which he called a comic masterpiece.  He said, “I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written. Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny.”

Now, we get to number five, which is critical for short stories but troublesome for novelists, given that we like to flap our gums sometimes before getting to the dramatic point. (ie weather, description, backstory).  But if you really think about it, you should never start your novel at too early a juncture. You should always find that prime dramatic moment to drop your reader into the action.

Six is a given. As James says here often, something must be disturbed in your protagonist’s world.

Number seven is about authenticity. If you set out to be James Patterson, you will fail. Yeah, be smart about today’s market, but write the book you were meant to write.

Now the last one is tricky. I am not quite sure what Vonnegut is talking about here. Because on its face, it goes against much of what we talk about here about NOT larding your early pages with too much information. You want some mystery in the beginning. You want to pose questions that beg answers. Maybe Vonnegut is just arguing for clarity in the writing itself?  The choreography (moving characters through time and space) must be clear. Confusion should be avoided. Maybe you all can help me out on this one.

P.J. Parrish—March 26, 2019

 

That happens to every writer. It certainly happens to me. Short stories are hard to write. In some ways, they may be harder to writer than novels. Here are a few tips for when you feel blocked working on your short story:

Think small – and think twisted.
There are good reasons why you can’t continue your short story. You could be blocked because you have too much going to on. In short, you may be writing a 5,000-word novel instead of a short story.
In a short story, you don’t need long, dreamy descriptions of the scenery.
You don’t need six subplots.
You don’t need to tell us your character’s awful childhood – unless it’s vital to the plot.
It’s a short story.
Think small.

Here’s another reason why your short story may be blocked: How many characters does it have?
If your short story has more than four major characters – you may — accent on may –have too many. It’s like being in a small room with too many people. You can’t move.

The short story is a small world.
Don’t make work for yourself. Giving all those people something to do is hard labor.

Think small. Cut back on your characters.
If your story is going nowhere, consider some pruning. Clear out all the extraneous details, the unnecessary characters, the descriptions of the weather.
If you’re still not sure, read the story out loud. Read it to your spouse, or your dog, or your wall. But tell the story instead of looking at it on the page.
That’s a good way to find out what works – and what doesn’t.

Lawrence Block is a master of the traditional short story.
Let me show you what he does in one paragraph – one – in a short story called “This Crazy Business of Ours.” It’s in Block’s anthology called Enough Rope. If you’re interested in traditional short stories, I recommend this anthology.

 “This Crazy Business of Ours”
The elevator, swift and silent as a garrote, whisked the young man eighteen stories skyward to Wilson Colliard’s penthouse. The doors opened to reveal Colliard himself. He wore a cashmere smoking jacket the color of vintage port. His flannel slacks and broadcloth shirt were a matching oyster white. They could have been chosen to match his hair, which had been expensively barbered in a leonine mane. His eyes, beneath sharply defined white brows, were as blue and as bottomless as the Caribbean, upon the shores of which he had acquired this radiant tan. He wore doeskin slippers upon his small feet and a smile upon his thinnish lips, and in his right hands he held an automatic pistol of German origin, the precise manufacturer and caliber of which need not concern us.

See how Block establishes a character in one paragraph? That is true economy of writing.
Make sure your story is about what it’s about. In a novel, you don’t have to get to the story right away. You have time to develop it. Time to build. Slowly.
In a short story, you have to hit them and run.

Elaine Vets—December 9, 2021

 

So what does a good short story do?

To make one strong impression on the mind of the reader, and to make that impression so powerfully that it will leave the reader pleased, convinced and emotionally moved is the principal aim of a good short story. To the production of that one effect everything in the story—characters, action, description, and exposition—points with the definiteness of an established purpose. All else is omitted, and thus all the parts of the story are both necessary and harmonious. Centralizing everything on the production of one effect makes every short story complete in itself. The purpose having been accomplished there is nothing more to be said. The end is the end.

Well now! If I may modestly mention my own book on the subject, How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career, this affirms the “secret” I found by analyzing thousands of short stories. I call it “one shattering moment.”

What that moment is depends on the type of story you write. If it’s a crime or mystery story with a “twist,” that’s one kind of moment, and usually comes at the end (see Elaine’s post on that subject here).

Another type of story is the one that lays you flat with an emotional punch. Here the shattering moment may happen in the middle, as it often does in a Raymond Carver story. The emotional shattering can come at the end, as in Irwin Shaw’s classic “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.”

Keeping one shattering moment in mind gives you all the direction you’ll need to write a short story worth reading. Just add your own stamp and creativity.

A good short story can be a gateway for readers to discover you and your full-length books. So where can you publish? There are established venues, like Alfred Hitchcockand Analog. These can be hard to crack and take a long time to hear from.

Some authors, like yours truly, use Patreon. (Hey, can I urge you to give it a try? No obligation, and I’d love to hear what you think!)

Many more use sites like WattpadMedium, and Comaful. Heck, you can start your own blog just for short stories.

Or why not go right to Kindle? Publish it in Kindle Select, price it at 99¢, and run a free promo every 90 days. Make sure you have links to your website and books in the back matter.

James Scott Bell—January 16, 2022

***

  1. Do you write short stories? What tips do you have?
  2. How do you “think small?” How do you get around blocks in doing so?
  3. Where do you publish your short stories?

My story collection Rules Concerning Earthlight is available in ebook and print. Stories of the science fictional, and stories of the fantastic including:

  • A young man lives alone on the far side of the moon, an artificial intelligence his only friend and companion.
  • A hex-slinger encounters his dead wife, sword in hand, standing at a twilight crossroads.
  • A young woman in prison for having superpowers is tested.
  • A former Martian marine and her brilliant husband investigate a mystery on a colossal space station orbiting Saturn.
  • A traveling medicine show where real magic happens faces evil in a frontier boomtown in 1901.

Endings: Words of Wisdom

“Sticking the landing” with a novel can be tricky. Wrong tone, wrong payoff, a cliffhanger that withholds some of the payoff and especially emotional resolution, too long a resolution are just examples of endings that don’t work as they should. Endings which can leave your reader unsatisfied.

My novel Empowered: Rebel, the fourth in my Empowered series, ended rather abruptly, immediately after a huge reveal which threw the entire series into a new light, and changed everything for my hero, Mathilda Brandt. Not only did I think this was a fine way to end the novel, I thought it was a fine way to end the series. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Fortunately, I saw the light and wrote Empowered: Hero, the actual final novel for the series, which resolved the series arc, but also had an ending which worked.

With that in mind I’ve found three posts from the wonderful KZB archives that discuss different aspects of endings to share today. Michelle Gagnon asks if thrillers need to have a happy ending, Clare Langley-Hawthorne ponders whether or not you need to provide a resolution, and Joe Moore gives a rundown on the elements of an ending that work.

Does a thriller need to have a happy ending?

Mind you, I’m not panning happy endings. It’s just that at the end of the great ride this book provided, everything was wrapped up so patly it struck me as false. None of the good guys had suffered so much as a serious injury. The bad guys all died horribly. There was even a marriage proposal. All that was missing were bluebirds flying down from the trees a la Snow White.

And to be honest, I felt a little let down. Not that I wanted something terrible to happen to any of the characters, but I wondered: must all thrillers end like this? Because as I started to review the list of bestsellers over the past few years, I couldn’t recall many with unhappy conclusions. (Although I’d love to have someone jog my memory).

Crime fiction films seem less leery of this: I’m not entirely certain that “The Departed” qualifies as a thriller, but it certainly doesn’t have a happy ending. Same with “Seven” and “The Usual Suspects,” two of my personal all-time favorite films.

I understand that there is a level of comfort in having everything tied up neatly at the conclusion of a book, and that happy endings are inherently satisfying.

But notable exceptions like “Sharp Objects” and “In the Woods” really stuck with me after I finished them, since they dared to end on dark and/or ambiguous notes. Neither of those is truly a thriller, however.

So what do you think? Does a thriller need to end on a high note to be satisfying?

Michelle Gagnon—January 14, 2010

This weekend I attended Booktown the annual book festival held in the small Victorian town of Clunes, where I heard Peter Corris, Jean Bedford, and Michael Wilding speak on the topic of the long arm of crime fiction. One issue which prompted some discussion was the issue of whether readers still look for good to triumph over evil in a mystery novel. The panelist seem to think that far more ambiguity is now allowed. They noted that writers such as James Ellroy have already upended the traditional mystery form and felt that it was possible now to end on a note in which evil, while not triumphant, certainly hasn’t been bested by the forces of good.

This got me thinking about the need for a satisfying ending and how, in many books, I have been more disappointed by a trite or glib happy ending than I ever have by books in which evil doers get away (at least in part) with their misdeeds.

Nevertheless, I do think resolution is critical in any kind of novel, and by that I mean that all the critical plot elements have been explained and resolved. I wonder though if I don’t secretly yearn for justice at the end of a mystery or thriller. Would I be satisfied with a conclusion that allowed the crime to go totally unpunished? Would I feel let down if the protagonist failed to succeed in bringing the perpetrator to justice? To be honest I’m not sure.

What about you? What kind of resolution are you looking for in a crime novel? Do you need to see justice done?

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—May 16, 2011

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to wind up with a dead ending.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying ending. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time and money.

There are a number of basic methods you can use to make sure your ending is not a dead end. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your main character to work toward and, in the end, are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the character and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.

Joe Moore—January 21, 2015

***

  1. Do you feel thrillers need happy endings to be satisfying?
  2. Do endings need to provide a resolution to work? If not, how do you help the ending satisfy the reader?
  3. What do you think of Joe’s tips? Do you have any additional ones you’d like to share?

This is my last KZB post for 2023. I’ve appreciated all the discussions and comments we’ve had together this year, and look forward to many more in 2024. Wishing everyone wonderful holidays and a very Happy New Year!

Brainstorming Words of Wisdom

Today’s Words of Wisdom brings three excerpts from the KZB archives dealing with a very useful tool for writers: brainstorming.

Steven James gives ways to inject creativity into your writing which can help with brainstorming, PJ Parrish shares a classic approach to brainstorming, and James Scott Bell provides more brainstorming tips.

The full posts are especially worth reading this time, since there’s even more advice in the originals. Each is linked from the respective date at the end of its excerpt.

Most of us know what it feels like to be uncreative—our ideas are stale and dry, our writing is boring and predictable. We long to inject our stories with ideas that are fresh, original, inventive, and spontaneous.

But how do you do it?

Here are four ways:

  1. Explore Your L.I.F.E.
    When you don’t know where else to turn, explore L.I.F.E., an acronym for Literature, Imagination, Folklore, and Experience. L.I.F.E. is a limitless well of ideas waiting to be tapped into.
    Coax new stories from classic plots by setting them in a different time and place; examine your imagination for themes that pique your interest; search through the timeless motifs of myth, fairy tale and folklore; scour the expanses of your own experience to spark new ideas. Let your memories come alive!

Some memories inspire us, others haunt us. Some memories cling to things we own, others hover around places we’ve been. Start with what you have, nurture that fragment of a memory: your teacher’s face, the smell of your grandmother’s cookies, the charming way your father used to whistle, the chill in your soul as you rushed to the hospital, the taste of salt spray that summer at the ocean, how it felt to hold your daughter’s hand for the first time. Turn those memories over in your mind, flesh them out, allow them to breathe.

Every vivid memory is a garden of ripe plot ideas waiting to be harvested.

  1. Change Your Perspective
    A few years ago while visiting a hotel in Denver, I noticed “EXIT” signs not only above the exit doors, but also at their base. “How odd!” I thought. “Only someone crawling on the floor would need a sign down there!”

Aha.

Whoever placed those signs down low had looked at the doors through the eyes of someone crawling for safety during a fire.

Creativity isn’t “seeing what no one else sees,” it’s “seeing what anyone else would see–if only they were looking.” New ideas are born when we view life from a fresh perspective or peer at the world through another set of eyes.

Keep ideas alive by working backwards and sideways, by peering over your shoulder rather than always staring straight ahead.  Remember, you don’t dance in a straight line.

So take a moment and look at your story from another person’s perspective. Step into the shoes of your main character and write a journal entry, a complaint letter, or a love note. Switch your point of view. Write a few paragraphs in first person or third person. Think of how you would respond if you were in the story. Walk through the action, stand on your desk, crawl on the floor. And keep your eyes open for the doors no one else has noticed.

Steven James—February 10, 2014

Here’s my main take-aways from Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming.

  1. Think up as many ideas as possible regardless of how ridiculous they may seem. It’s unlikely you’ll get the perfect solution right off the bat, so he recommends getting every idea out of your head and then go back to examine them afterwards. An idea that may sound crazy may actually turn out to work with a little modification.

Doesn’t this make sense when you’re plotting? I know when Kelly and I talk, we throw everything on the wall. You need to take the same approach with yourself. Write down every idea and let them bake for a while. Sometimes, the most outrageous thing leads to something useful.

  1. Don’t be judgmental.All ideas are considered legitimate and often the most far-fetched are the most fertile. Ideas can be evaluated after the brainstorming session but judgments during the process should be withheld.

Are you sometimes too hard on yourself? Do you think, “Oh, that’s so stupid, no editor will ever buy it.” Or maybe you are a self-doubter, telling yourself, “I don’t have the chops to try this technique.” Or: “This is a great idea but it’s so complex so I won’t even try.”

  1. Go for quantity not quality.Don’t get hung up (like I often do) on coming up with the most clever solution to your writing problem. Let your brain waves flow so the bad stuff bobs up to the surface along with the good. Osborn said: “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud. Forget quality; aim to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.”

Osborn’s books were geared more toward corporate types trying to get their teams to think more creatively on things like how to get traffic flowing better in big cities. But take a look at his suggestions for improving creativity and see if there’s not something here for us mere writers:

  1. Break up the problem into smaller pieces. For writers, this can mean tackling each plot or character problem as manageable bites, not getting overwhelmed by the idea that you’ve got 400 pages to fill. Get that first draft written then go back and fix your plot holes or layer your characters better.
  2. Search for alternatives.If you’ve painted yourself into a plot corner, look for a different way out than the old ways.
  3. What can be borrowed or adapted?Read other writers and learn from them.
  4. Modify with new twists.There aren’t many new plots in crime fiction but there is always a way to put your own fresh imprint on them.
  5. Is there something that can be magnified or minified?Maybe the stakes in your thriller aren’t high enough. Maybe you need to play down a secondary character who is overshadowing your hero. Are you larding in too much research?
  6. What can be substituted?Maybe if you changed your location the story would suddenly come alive. Would your mystery work better in a small town where you could exploit the English village dynamic? Is your setting banal and underwritten? Are you hitting all the wrong clichés if your book is set in Paris or some other iconic place?
  7. What can be re-arranged?Maybe you’re writing in the wrong point of view? Try switching from first to third. Or maybe the guy you think is your hero is really the bad guy?

PJ Parrish—March 10, 2015

She asked, “Would love any brainstorming tips and tricks if you have them! How do you start building your story and characters? And how do you feel productive and intentional when brainstorming is such a creative (often stubborn…at least for me) process?”

It’s a great question. Here is what I wrote to her:

I wonder if part of the deal is what so many of us have expressed over the years with each new book, that it seems to get “harder.” And the reason for that, I believe, is that with each book you’re better and your standards go up. You know what goes into writing a whole book, all the constituent parts, and think, “Man, I’ve got to do all that again! And better!” So every idea in the brainstorming phase gets tested, when it should be a time for getting as many ideas as you can without judgment.

FWIW, I do the following at the beginning of any project.

– A free-form journal, interacting with myself, asking myself questions, going deeper into why I think I want to write this, and also putting down plot and character ideas as they come. I take several days (at least) for this, writing without stopping, but re-reading the journal each day, doing some editing on what I wrote the day before, highlighting the best ideas, and so on.

– At some point I take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to Starbucks and just write down scene ideas. Random. Whatever vivid scene comes to mind. I might prompt myself by playing the dictionary game (opening a dictionary to a random page, picking a noun, and riffing off that). When I have 30-40 scenes I shuffle the deck and pick two cards at random and see what the connection suggests.

– Finally, I want my concept in a three-sentence elevator pitch that I know is absolutely solid and marketable. Sentence 1 is character + vocation + current situation. Sentence 2 starts with “When” and is what I call the Doorway of No Return––the thing that pushes the Lead into the main plot. Sentence 3 begins with “Now” and the death (physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual) stakes. Here’s an example based on The Insider by Reece Hirsch:

James Scott Bell—August 30, 2015

***

  1. What do you do to juice your creativity?
  2. What do you think of Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming? Is there one approach you want to try?
  3. Do you have tips on brainstorming? What works for you?

“Can’t Put the Book Down”

Last weekend I once again had the privilege of being a panelist at Orycon, our local science fiction convention, and, among other things, moderated panels on writing and pacing your story. Creating a compelling story and keeping a reader turning the pages, to the point of missing sleep to read through to the end, are goals I believe all of us here at TKZ share.

Today’s Words of Wisdom considers three tools to help achieve those twin goals of creating a compelling story that is a page-turner. First off, Joe Moore looks at when and how to actual slow the pacing down. Then, Jordan Dane gives advice on managing narrative drive. Finally, Elaine Viets shares tips on creating cliffhangers.

Slow things down when you want to place emphasis on a particular event. In doing so, the reader naturally senses that the slower pace means there’s a great deal of importance in the information being imparted. And in many respects, the character(s) should sense it, too.

Another reason to slow the pacing is to give your readers a chance to catch their breath after an action or dramatic chapter or scene. Even on a real rollercoaster ride, there are moments when the car must climb to a higher level in order to take the thrill seeker back down the next exciting portion of the attraction. You may want to slow the pacing after a dramatic event so the reader has a break and the plot can start the process of building to the next peak of excitement or emotion. After all, an amusement ride that only goes up or down, or worse, stays level, would be either boring or frantic. The same goes for your story.

Another reason to slow the pace is to deal with emotions. Perhaps it’s a romantic love scene or one of deep internal reflection. Neither one would be appropriate if written with the same rapid-fire pacing of a car chase or shootout.

You might also want to slow the pacing during scenes of extreme drama. In real life, we often hear of a witness or victim of an accident describing it as if time slowed to a crawl and everything seemed to move in slow motion. The same technique can be used to describe a dramatic event in your book. Slow down and concentrate on each detail to enhance the drama.

What you want to avoid is to slow the scene beyond reason. One mistake new writers make is to slow the pacing of a dramatic scene, then somewhere in the middle throw in a flashback or a recalling of a previous event in the character’s life. In the middle of a head-on collision, no one stops to ponder a memory from childhood. Slow things down for a reason. The best reason is to enhance the drama.

A big element in controlling pacing is narration. Narrative always slows things down. It can be used quite effectively to do so or it can become boring and cumbersome. The former is always the choice.

When you intentionally slow the pace of your story, it doesn’t mean that you want to stretch out every action in every scene. It means that you want to take the time to embrace each detail and make it move the story forward. This involves skill, instinct and craft. Leave in the important stuff and delete the rest.

Joe Moore—March 18, 2015

Each author strives to create a compelling narrative drive (whether they understand what the term means or not) because they want readers eager to turn the page. That means the author MUST manipulate the world and the characters into the optimal story that involves mystery, suspense and intriguing relationships. This covers all genres of writing.

The author controls what is revealed to the reader and parses it out in the most optimal way by their judgement. They make choices on when to reveal things and how they are to be doled out. Natural born story tellers know how to do this instinctively.

The author is in control of EVERYTHING. He or she manipulates the reader with a titillating story and how that story is shared and how it affects the character relationships. Nothing should come as a surprise to the author.

To create MYSTERY elements, the author is guarded about what to share with the reader and when to share it. There’s misdirection with red herrings or through unreliable narrators, for example.

To create SUSPENSE, the author can have the reader follow along and reveal what they want the reader to know as the main characters discover things. This builds on suspense elements.

To give the reader an INSIDER VIEW, the author may reveal things to the reader that the characters don’t know. Let the readers play God from afar and watch the play that is told in the story.

KEEP A READER CURIOUS and/or WORRIED – Readers are naturally curious folks. Give them something to uncover. A wise author will let a reader’s minds be piqued by carefully placed clues. Or an author might make readers worry for the characters they’ve grown fond of. Make readers care and escalate the danger for the characters. Again, this post might sound geared for crime fiction, but it can apply to any genre. The threat does not have to involve life or death. It can involve the heart or the emotional survival of a family enduring a tragedy or a stigma.

WHAT KILLS NARRATIVE DRIVE
1.) Backstory dumps and long boring expositions can kill a strong page turner.
2.) When one scene doesn’t lead to a cause and effect, the plot may drift without cohesion. The reader gets lost in the amble. Actions must have consequences for the reader to want to come along for the ride.
3.) Cheating at mystery elements, where the author creates intrigue, but the outcome is a let down or a head fake for the reader. That’s when a reader will throw a book against a wall and may never buy an author again.
4.) Cheap surprises without build up is the same type of disappointment. Don’t pull a killer or a bad actor or a story element from thin air to end the book.
5.) No coincidences. An author might get away with a coincidence in the first few pages of a story, but a coincidence should never end the book. Major No-No.

HOW TO FIX A FAULTY NARRATIVE DRIVE:
I believe that each scene in a book should be like a mini-story. It should have a compelling beginning, a journey through the scene with purpose, and an ending that foreshadows what’s to come to create a page turner. Each scene should move the plot forward by 1-3 plot points, making that scene impossible to delete without toppling your story (like the wood block-building game of Jenga.)

I endeavor to build as many of these scenes as possible, even with scenes that build on a relationship as a subplot. The subplot should have a journey through the book as well.

Jordan Dane—October 3, 2019

Cliffhangers are the hooks that make your readers keep turning the pages, pulling them into the next scene or chapter. Most cliffhangers come at the end of the chapter. If your readers are hooked, they’ll continue reading.

Here are some tips for good cliffhangers:

A cliffhanger should catch your readers by surprise.

Something unexpected has to happen: Someone threatens to jump off a bridge. Their car goes into a skid on a snowy curve. A door opens unexpectedly. Then, bam! The chapter ends.

Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves’ new Vera Stanhope novel, has a perfect cliffhanger chapter ending. Vera follows a killer, who gets her alone and strangles her. I’ve edited out the killer’s name in this section, but you get the idea.

“As Vera began to lose consciousness, she thought that this was her fault. . . it was her pride again, making her think she was indestructible.

“Then the world went blank.”

I couldn’t wait to turn the page and see what happened to Vera. Not to mention the killer.

Someone unexpected arrives. A crook, an innocent person, a cop, just in time. This person is a surprise. They abruptly break up the scene.

Someone leaves.

A bride suddenly leaves the groom standing at the altar. A couple is fighting, and he walks out on her. She suddenly quits her job.

Sometimes, the cliffhanger is a new piece of information.

Your character learns something. She’s not married legally to her husband after all because he never divorced his first wife.

Or, he’s not the son of the man he called father: the DNA test proved it.

Your character notices something. The detective sees the scratches around the door lock and realizes the house had been broken into. A wife finds lipstick on her husband’s shirt – scarlet lipstick. She never wears that color.

Your character figures something out. She finally understands the key to the puzzle the dead man left behind. He finally knows why his dead father wanted him to listen to the CD he left in his desk drawer.

Your character decides something. She’s going to leave her abusive husband. He’s going to rob the store to get enough money to feed his family.

She’s going back to school.

Elaine Viets—May 14, 2020

***

  1. How much do you think about slowing your story’s pacing when writing or editing? Do you have a favorite technique?
  2. What does narrative drive mean to you? How important is it to you?
  3. Do you use cliff-hangers? If so, what sort and when?

***

Empowered: Agent, the first book in my Empowered series, is currently free at all major ebook retailers.

The world says those possessing superpowers are either heroes or villains. But what if you’re both? Mathilda Brandt isn’t the angry, out-of-control teenager she was before she got out of jail. She’s hungry for a chance at a normal life, but when a gang threatens her sisters, she has no choice but to use her illegal superpower to protect them. A secretive government agency gives her a choice: go back to prison for life, or infiltrate a notorious super-villain group in order to stop a psychotic Empowered. To save her city, her family, and herself, Mat must become the last thing she ever wanted to be again: a criminal.

Deadline Words of Wisdom

Deadlines have helped me publish. They can also stress me out if I’m not careful, as my wonderful, very patient wife can attest, and give me tunnel vision when it comes to priorities. I have a set of new deadlines now for my current work-in-progress, and am hoping to accomplish them without being unduly stressed out and still being able to participate in my various family responsibilities.

Today we take a deep dive into TKZ’s archives. Kathryn Lilley discusses deadline behaviors, Clare Langley-Hawthorne talks about setting and managing deadlines, and John Gilstrap takes us with him as he goes through a deadline crunch. As always, the full articles are date-linked from their respective excerpts.

Then I started thinking about all my other deadline behaviors that could be considered annoying, or even strange, by family and friends. My crazy-writer deadline behaviors include:

The Big Tune-out

It’s not that I deliberately don’t listen to people (Okay, sometimes it is deliberate), but I frequently tune them out. This mostly happens when I’m on a deadline, which means it happens a lot. I might even respond to someone during a conversation, but not remember it later. It’s kind of like brain on auto-pilot.

To Kill a Magpie

When I’m out and about with my husband, I frequently dive for a pen and write detailed notes about our surroundings: the full moon hovering between two palm trees at night, a bag lady sitting in a bus shelter, the timbre of silverware clatter–I take notes about anything I can use later in my writing. Inevitably, I have left my notepad at home, so I drag home notes scribbled on scraps of things: a napkin, a flyer, even the back of a business card. My husband must think he lives with a magpie.

Hair on Fire 

It’s predictable: Six weeks before any deadline, I go on a tear. This means that I’m a) Constantly hunched over the laptop, muttering, b) Setting the alarm for 4 a.m., then groaning my way to wakefulness over the course of several Snooze cycles, and c) Bounding out of bed at odd hours of the night to tap out some problem-solving idea that struck me.

I do not talk very much during this time. And when I do, it’s not pleasant.

So there it is. I could go on, but the length of the list is starting to make me feel bad about myself. I would like to feel that I’m not alone in my crazy-writer deadline syndromes. Have you any to share?

Kathryn Lilley—July 27, 2009

Deadlines make you both accountable and responsible. But what does that really mean when you aren’t as yet published? It means you know that in order to achieve your larger goal (writing the novel, getting it published etc.) you need to divide the task into manageable chunks and (here is where it gets tricky) you need to meet the deadlines you impose upon yourself. Otherwise you’re just like the billions of amateur writers whining about how ‘one day’ they will write a book but (insert excuse here…) they never seem to get around to it. In today’s post I want to deal with both publisher as well as personal deadlines.

Publisher Imposed Deadlines:

As John said in his blog post on Friday, these deadlines are pretty much inviolable. If, as the author, you miss these then there is a cascading effect on the whole publication cycle. Worse case scenario the publisher views it as a breach of contract and pulls out of the deal. Best case scenario you inconvenience a whole lot of other people. So if you do need to extend, you’d better have a pretty good excuse.

My rather strict view of deadlines also extends to how you fulfil them. I’ve heard of an author who views the submission date with her publisher with a bit of a shrug – sure, she gets them the manuscript, but she’s not too concerned about making it perfect as she knows the editor will get back to her with comments, so she views the deadline as a necessary evil and continues to work through the book even while waiting for the editor to peruse and comment upon it. I differ on this in that I go into each deal with the belief that, whatever I submit has to be as damn-near-perfect as it possible. To me this is how professionals fulfil their obligations – not with a half-hearted shrug but with a commitment to demonstrating their craft to the highest degree possible.

Of course when it comes to an authors first book, the initial draft manuscript is what was acquired but any amendments to this (based on editorial feedback) should be treated with the same level of professionalism and adherence to deadlines. If an editor doesn’t provide a deadline (which would be highly unusual) then I would request or set one – that way the author remains on track and accountable to a timetable.

So what do you do if you have to seek a deadline extension?

This is where a good agent can act on an author’s behalf to mitigate against this – but the author must still have a genuine excuse for seeking an extension given the potential impact it has on the publisher. When it comes to agents, I would also recommend setting deadlines (for the agent as well as yourself) to ensure there remains a level of responsiveness and accountability that demonstrates an author’s professionalism.

Self-Imposed Deadlines

As a professional writer I like to set myself specific goals for my WIP to keep me on track. Typically I lay out a timetable to complete certain chapters or parts of the books to ensure I don’t face the overwhelming panic of producing a novel. When the tasks ahead are in manageable chunks the path seems far less onerous (or scary). The first thing I do is also set the date I want to get the draft manuscript to my agent and then work backwards from there.

Sometimes I give my agent an initial deadline for the first 5-10 chapters and the proposed plot outline so I can get his read/feedback on the project ahead. Then I always tell him the date I propose getting the complete manuscript to him – it helps establish my own timetable as well as alerting him to my goal (and, I hope, demonstrate I am tackling it in a serious, professional manner).

As a terrible procrastinator, self-imposed deadlines are vital to keeping me on track as a professional writer.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—March 19, 2012

One constant in my life for more than a decade now has been a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave book.  I plan my entire year around that deadline.  A second constant is a July 1 publication date for the book that was submitted the previous September 15.  That early July drop date is important because of its proximity to ThrillerFest, and the boost in publicity brought by that.  But July is also Gilstrap Beach Vacation Month, so that’s another week gone from the ten weeks leading up to my deadline.  (I bring my computer and writing pad to the beach, but if I get 1,000 words written over those seven days, I’m lucky.)

On the far side of my deadline is Joy’s and my wedding anniversary, which almost always includes an exotic trip to somewhere.  This year, it was 16 days in Scotland, commencing September 12.  That shortened my deadline by three whole days!  That means there was no possibility of overshooting the deadline by only a day or two.  It was either submit two days early or four weeks late.  In my world, we call that “motivation.”

Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve figured out a system that (almost) always works.  If I can be at the 200-page mark by the opening of ThrillerFest, I can be at 70,000 words by August 1.  Given a 100,000-word manuscript length, that makes August busy but doable.  Plus, by then, I’m transitioning to the third act, which for me is the easiest to write.  I can usually have a polished first draft done by the first week in September, which leaves me 10 days or so for final revision.

This year, reality bitch-slapped me.  ThrillerFest didn’t start until July 13, easily a week later than usual, and from July 19-23, I was on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference in Muncie, Indiana.  When all was said and done, I’d effectively lost 16 writing days in July.

And September 12 still sat there, immovable.

I hit my 70,000-word milestone on August 8, three days after I taught an all-day seminar at the Smithsonian, and the one day after an all-day charity signing event.  Math was beginning to work against me.  I needed to write 10,000 words a week for the next three weeks in order to give me the cushion I needed for final revisions.  Sounds horrible, but doable.

Then came the long lunch with a grieving friend who reached out because he didn’t want to be alone.  And the long overdue birthday dinner with another friend.  The un-turn-downable invitation to a luxury suite at the Washington Nationals.  Let’s not forget the long-standing three-day commitment to the always-fabulous Creatures Crimes & Creativity Conference from September 8-10.

Tick and Tock were both laughing at me.  In fact, they were mocking me.

Oh, and God forbid the book actually pull itself together at 100,000 words.  Perish the thought.  The final count came in at 112,230 words, and I clicked send for Scorpion Strike on the evening of September 11, 2017.

Never in my life have I written so much in so little time.  That’s 42,230 words in what was effectively 14 writing days (as opposed to editing/revision days).  If I wrote evenly, that would be over 3,000 words per day, but that’s never how it works for me.  The last two writing days were each 6K-plus.  It was exhausting.

As I jetted off to Scotland, I fully expected to receive a polite but scolding email regarding the revisions that would be necessary.  And that was fine, because that’s what revisions are for.  Instead, the email from my agent included the phrase, “best book you’ve ever written.”  Surely, she was pulling her punches so she wouldn’t ruin my vacation.  No, she promised, she and her assistant both read it through in one long gulp, loving it the whole way.

When we returned from our trip, my editor called and told me that they were sending Scorpion Strike straight through to copy editing.  For the first time in the history of history, there would be no editorial letter.  No structural changes, no punching up of this character or toning down of that one.  Just spelling and continuity.

So . . . what the f-bomb?  How could my most hurried book turn out to be my least-flawed, in the eyes of my writer universe?  I don’t have an answer–not even close–but if I were one to be introspective about my creative process (have I mentioned that I hate that phrase?), it might be worthy of consideration.

John Gilstrap—October 11, 2017

***

  1. Do you find deadlines a help, a hindrance, or both?
  2. Do you have any “deadline behaviors?”
  3. Do you set self-imposed deadlines? Any advice?
  4. If you do have deadlines, how do you handle the deadline crunch?

Suspenseful Words of Wisdom

I began reading thrillers during my sophomore year in high school. One of the first I read was Thomas Harris’s Black Sunday, a pulse-pounding novel that was a race against time to stop a diabolical terrorist attack at the Super Bowl. Another thriller I read then was Paul Erdman’s The Silver Bears, which featured kind of scheme, one to corner the silver market.

I burned through both novels in just a couple of days. The stories were very different, yet the suspense in each kept me turning pages, unable to stop until the end.

Today’s Words of Wisdom looks at suspense. Jordan Dane gives you a few questions to ask yourself during editing in order to make your book more suspenseful, while Joe Moore discusses how having too much action can hurt suspense, and PJ Parrish considers formulas for suspense and surprise.

The full versions are linked from the bottom of their respective excerpts and very much worth reading in full.

If you’ve made it through your first draft of a novel and want to edit for suspense and pace to give your book a page-turner feel, below are questions to ask yourself.

1.) Did you begin your story at the right point? Opening in the middle of action is an attention getter, but don’t spoil it with excessive back story. You can also add an element of mystery or intrigue to your opener that will draw readers in if action doesn’t exactly fit your story, but remember that less is more. You’ll always have the opportunity to weave in back story if it’s necessary as the story progresses. It might be helpful to ask yourself if the start of your book is the last possible moment before your main character’s life is changed. Change is an excellent starting point. I sometimes start the story where I think it should, then consider adding either an inciting incident by way of Prologue or a standalone jumpstart to the story that precedes where I began.

4.) Do you have flashbacks that work or drag down the pace? Flashbacks can be tricky. We’ve all read books where flashbacks drive the novel and do it effectively, but make sure yours have a purpose and build on the tension of the main plot going forward. Flashbacks aren’t just another way to sneak in back story. Give the reader insight into the main plot with an effective and brief look into the motivation of the characters, if the flashbacks are necessary.

6.) Do you use foreshadowing to your advantage or is it a detriment that deflates your tension? The right balance of foreshadowing can add a sense of pace to your story. It can propel your storyline from scene to scene, but too much can burst the bubble of any mystery and telegraph your punches. Sometimes I look at my scene endings and see if I can stop them sooner at a more critical suspense moment. Or I split up an action scene at the bottom of a chapter and carry it over to the top of the next chapter. This simple idea of splitting scenes or cutting them off at a more appropriate spot can add a sense of pace, without any major rewrites.

Jordan Dane—March 7, 2013

I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with action to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across town or continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room while it’s pouring down rain outside.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The James Bond film Quantum Of Solace is an example. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences were visually amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is not to confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner?

Joe Moore–September 18, 2013

There’s the old Hitchcock formula: 1. A couple is sitting at a table talking. 2. The audience is shown a time bomb beneath the table and the amount of time left before it explodes. 3. The couple continues talking, unaware of the danger. 4. The audience eyes a clock in the background.

The surprise, Hitchcock said, didn’t come from the bomb itself; it came from the tension of not seeing it.

Speaking of formulas, there actually is one for suspense:

Suspense: t = (E t [(µ¿ t+1 – µ t)²])½

I didn’t make this up, believe me. It was created by Emir Kamenica and Alexander Frankel of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It is basically an equation about time and expectations: “t” represents the period of time a moment of suspense is occurring, “E” is the expectations at that time, the Greek mu indicates your belief in the next thing to happen, the +1 is your belief in the future, the tilde represents uncertainty, and the subtracted mu is the belief you might have tomorrow.

That made your brain hurt, right? Mine, too. But hey, you sat through my football metaphor, so stay with me a little longer. The Chicago guys also developed a formula for surprise, which is easier to stomach for us math-challenged types. It boils down to this: what your beliefs are now minus what your beliefs were yesterday.

Their paper “Suspense and Surprise” (co-written with Northwestern University economics professor Jeffrey Ely) was published in the “Journal of Political Economy.” It was inspired by their observation that in various types of entertainment – gambling, watching sports, reading mysteries – people don’t really WANT to know the outcome.

What they DO want is a “slow reveal of information.” As one of them put it in an article in the Chicago Tribune: “To be exciting, we found that things need to get dull.”

Information revealed over time generates drama in two ways: suspense and surprise. Suspense is all about BEFORE, ie something is going to happen. (the ticking bomb under the chair). Surprise is about AFTER, ie you’re surprised that something unexpected happened. (the bomb didn’t go off!) If you are led to believe one thing is going to happen (Broncos will win!) but then are surprised by the unexpected (Colts prevail!) that can be pretty powerful.

So how do you translate this to your own writing?

I’ll let Kamenica explain. He goes back to the Hitchcock formula: “Let’s take that idea and ask a mathematical question: How much suspense can you possibly generate?’ Putting that bomb there generates suspense, but how long can you leave it there? Can you leave it the duration of the movie? Or is that boring? Once you put it there, when do you decide for it to go off? One-third of the way through? One-half? If I am invested, as a viewer, how frequently should uncertainty be resolved? You have a threat, information that (a bomb) will explode, then it gets resolved, the movie continues. But will these people survive the next danger? How often can you do that — change an audience view?”

He has the answer, of course: Three times.

“Say you are writing a mystery,” Kamenica goes on in the Chicago Tribune article, “Zero twists is bad. And one thousand twists is also bad — again, for something to be exciting, it must occasionally become boring. So, three. The math delivers surprisingly concrete prescriptions. That number is constrained to a stylized view, characteristic mystery novel: Is it the maid or butler who did it? Does the protagonist live or die? A novelist must lead you in one direction then …”

Added his colleague Frankel: “The thing is, we also found that you can’t really have a definite number of twists. Three is average. Yet if you know there are three twists, those twists are not actually twists — you are now waiting for the twist.”

And that, to me, is the major lesson here. Not that your book must conform to a three-twist formula. Because if your readers know you have three twists, you’ve lost the suspense. The lesson, to me, is less might just be more.

PJ Parrish—November 10, 2015

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  1. Do you edit for suspense? Any advice to share?
  2. Do you feel there can be too much action in a thriller?
  3. Do you have a formula for suspense in your fiction?
  4. Any other tips for creating suspense?

For the Love of It–Words of Wisdom

Back in 2016 when I was working on the first two novels in the Empowered series and taking a self-study crash course in indie publishing, “writing to market” was the topic d’jour in indie author circles and on self-publishing podcasts. Chris Fox’s Write To Market laid out how to do this. I have indie author friends who were adroit at figuring out the tropes and trends in their particular sub-genre and successfully hit their particular market’ bull’s-eye.

Contrast that with advice I’d read years before, from agents and editors, to be aware of the market, but not chase it, since you’ll always be behind. Instead write the story that you most want to tell, which still seems like very sound advice. Another way of putting it is to know the reader expectations of your particular genre, but first and foremost, write what you love. Finding the place on the publishing Venn diagram where those expectations and what you love intersect can connect you with readers.

Today’s Words of Wisdom looks at the importance of writing “for the love of it.” Rather than the usual trio of excerpts we have a quartet of briefer ones on writing what you love, the different kinds of love you need, how writing what you love can rejuvenate and power your writing, and how love for a project can be a vital factor in your success. Two are from JSB, since they build nicely off each other. Even more than usual, given the short length of the excerpts, it is worth checking out the full versions, which are linked at the bottom of their respective enteries here.

I thought I’d follow on from Jim’s terrific post yesterday about writing with heart, and discuss an issue that is just as important in my view – writing what you love and not what you think the market will love. It drives me crazy when people say “you should write a romance – you’d make more money that way” or (even weirder) “You should write erotica – it’s really hot (no pun intended) right now.” For some reason there always seem to people wanting to make ‘helpful suggestions’ on what you should write – usually by pointing out the ‘hot’ genre on the current bestseller list, as if that is all it takes. Hey, if you just added a paranormal element to your mystery, shazam, you’d have it made.

If only it was that easy…For many wannabe writers the thought of becoming the next J K Rowling or Stephenie Meyers is enticement enough, as is the belief that somehow if you write to what you think the market wants, your future will be secure. Wrong.

Setting aside the obvious (that by the time you’ve written what the market loves now, the market has already shifted to something else) there is something more fundamental at stake. As my agent always says, you must write what you love. Why? Because it shows.

It shows if you are writing a romance when you think it’s ‘easy money’. It shows if you write a YA fantasy when you really want to write contemporary thrillers…If your heart isn’t in it, the readers will know you’re faking it.

Clare Langley-Hawthrone–June 14, 2010

The world is full of entertaining distractions, and many of them would give me more pleasure than writing my novel would, at least in the short term. Yet I convince myself that this isn’t true. I put down my newspaper and tell myself, “You know what? My novel is more interesting than the CIA director’s scandalous affair. So what, the guy fooled around with a fawning younger woman, what’s so interesting about that? Come on, stop searching the Internet for lubricious details. Stop exchanging snarky e-mails with your friends. Get back to work!”

And this brings me to the second lie I tell myself. At some point in the process of writing a novel I become convinced that this book is the best thing I’ve ever written. No — the best thing ever written by anybody. Crazy, right? The lie is so absurd I can’t seriously entertain it for very long. But it’s a useful delusion to have, especially when I’m struggling with the book and the deadline is approaching and I have to devote practically every waking moment to finishing the damn thing. Why put in all the effort if the novel isn’t fantastic?

Then I finish the first draft and stop telling myself the lies. They’ve served their purpose, so I don’t have to believe them anymore. I wait a few weeks, and then I’m ready to look at the manuscript again and confront the truth: the book is a mess. Some parts don’t make sense, other parts are boring. I don’t love the book anymore. But I don’t hate it either. Now it’s time for some tough love. An intervention. I have to whip the manuscript into shape.

And then, after all the revisions are done and the final changes sent to the copy editor and the advance reading copies distributed to the reviewers, then I’m ready to fall in love with the book again. But this time it’s not a blind, self-deluding infatuation. I’ve done my best to fix the novel’s flaws, but I know it’ll never be perfect. I love the book despite its imperfections and infelicities. I’m at this stage now with my next novel, which will be published in February. I’m still collecting blurbs and composing the jacket copy, but I can’t make any major changes to the book. This stage is the literary equivalent of zipping up your lover’s dress and clasping the pearls around her neck, getting her ready for her big night on the town.

Go out there, beautiful. Knock ’em dead.

Mark Alpert—November 17, 2012

 

We have to have that in our writing if we’re going to keep doing this for the long term. You’ve only got so much time. Give that time to the stories you’re burning to tell. Do that first, and the money will follow. How much, no one can say. But joy tips the balance in your favor. For example, in addition to my novels and novellas, I’m writing short stories about a boxer in 1950s Los Angeles. I make some scratch every month on these. But more than that, I love writing them. It’s a different voice and genre than I normally write in, which has the added benefit of keeping my writing chops sharp.

If you love what you do you’ll do more of it, and  you’ll do it better, and that will increase the odds of making a decent buck at this—either through self-publishing or finding a traditional publisher who believes in your voice and vision. Or some combination of the two.

So my question for you today is, do you love what you’re writing? If not, why not?

James Scott Bell—September 29, 2013 

  1. Love

An inner fire to make it as a writer will get you through years of cold reality. I suspect that the majority of writers who make it to full-time status love what they do. Writing is a part of them, a calling as well as a vocation.

It’s certainly possible to write out of sheer business-mindedness (I think, however, that this is much easier when you write non-fiction). Yet there’s a certain something that gets translated to the page by the writer who loves the work. I believe you can write what you love and, if you do so with the other characteristics listed below, earn a fair return.

  1. Discipline

“One of the big lessons of sports for dedicated individuals and teams is that it shows us how hard work, and I mean hard work, does pay dividends.” – John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach

Love is not enough. Ask anyone who’s married.

Work puts legs on the dream.

  1. Perseverance 

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” – Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture”

The true writer puts this thought in mind: I am going to write and never stop because that’s what I want to do. I will keep learning and growing and producing the words. I’ll keep carving out time to write, even if it means giving some things up. And it will always be too soon to quit. 

James Scott Bell—November 2, 2014

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  1. Where are you on the spectrum of writing for love – writing to market? Does writing to market work for you?
  2. Do you maintain your love for a project throughout the process of writing it? Any tips?
  3. Has love for a particular story or novel rejuvenated your writing?
  4. How important is it to you to write what you love?