Write crap and grieveWrite? Crap! And grieve…

By P.J. Parrish

The other day I caught an interview with Tony-winning playwright Terrance McNally. His new play Mothers and Sons is now on Broadway and he and its star, Tyne Daly, were talking about it:

Daly: Terrance is great at punctuation.
McNally: Punctuation is very important.
Daly: If you follow what he does, it’s like a musical score.
McNally: That would be in my notes, that it’s a comma not a semi-colon. I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.

To which I said: “Yes!”

Did you notice that I used an exclamation mark there? That is because when I heard McNally talk about punctuation, I got really, really excited. Because I am one of those old-fashioned writers who believe that all those little marks we pepper in our fiction:

. ; : ? ! ( ) , “” 

all those little marks make a big difference. So forgive me if I go in the weeds today (yeah, I know, I do this often) but I want to talk about getting the little stuff right.

But first, I’m thinking we need a definition of “right.” Because even though all of us savvy folks here at TKZ know we need to be up on our grammar so our editors will accept our manuscripts and our readers won’t flame us with Amazon one-star reviews, we also know that when it comes to fiction, rules can be bent.

In fact, sometimes they need to be bent. Sometimes, you the writer are going for a particular mood or effect or style, and if you do that with confidence, then grammar police be damned!

Take a look at this opening line of a famous book:

Marley was dead: to begin with.

That’s the opening line of A Christmas Carol. I’m not sure what Dickens was trying to do with it, and technically it’s a misuse of the colon. It probably should be “Marley was dead, to begin with.” But that’s flat and prissy. That oddly placed colon is like slamming up against a brick wall in the fog. I think it works in a weird sort of way. (Hat tip to blogger Kathryn Schulz for this example).

Here’s another strange one that I’m sure you’ll recognize:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Again, misplaced commas, an inflamed colon, fragments and a plethora of periods. But it is music, no?

One more and then we’ll move on:

Grogan’s is not the oldest pub in Galway. It’s the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.
While as the rest go
     Uni-sex
     Low-fat
     Karaoke
     Over-the-top
it remains true to the format fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seat, no-frills stock. The taste for
    Hooches
    Mixers
    Breathers
hasn’t yet been acknowledged.

I can just hear the grammar gurus grinding their teeth over that one. This is from Ken Bruen’s Edgar-nominated The Guards. This is classic Ken, a style that ignores convention to create its spare lilt. Like George Saunders and Joyce Carol Oates, Ken plays with sentence structure, indention,  and makes up new uses for all the old punctuation symbols. Because when he hears his story in his head, he hears a singular rhythm that you or I would not if we tried to tell the same story set in that Irish pub.

But here’s the thing: (colon!) These writers all knew the rules before they broke them. Charles Ives was a church organist before he broke away to write The Unanswered Question.


Picasso painted this

Before he felt free enough to paint this

William Strunk, the éminence grise of grammar, says: “The best writers sometimes disregard the rules. Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.” Or, as I often tell folks in my workshops: Don’t start juggling machetes if all you can control is two tennis balls. So maybe we should take a moment — pause em dash — to look at some of those little marks and decide which ones we can play around with without slicing ourselves to bits.

The Period

This is my favorite punctuation mark. It is concise and emphatic without being overbearing. You always know where you stand with periods. Periods give you simple sentence structure and clear syntax. Periods can also create lovely sentence fragments, which can be a nifty stylistic tool. You can write a really great novel with just periods, quotes and maybe some question marks. Unless you’re James Joyce. Cormac McCarthy once said of Joyce: “[He’s] a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”  But hey, Joyce is juggling chainsaws in Ulysses. Don’t try this at home.

Commas

Wars have been waged over the poor comma. Some people are very strict about them, sticking them in every little compound sentence crevice. Others feel less is more, that fiction’s narrative voice allows you the freedom to “feel” your way around a phrase without the pause a comma injects. If you publish traditionally, your editor will have style manual and will inflict many commas on you. Some are bad:

Woman, without her man, is nothing

But some are good:

Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

The Colon
This is a pretty clear-cut fellow. It introduces text that amplfies something previously said or it tells you a list is coming up. I don’t think colons have much place in fiction, except maybe for that second use. A colon finds a better home in non-fiction. I think a better, less stodgy substitute for the colon is:

The Em Dash

I adore the em dash because to my eye and ear, it feels more like people really talk and think. Our thoughts tend to move forward and there is something pure and lively about seeing this     instead of this :  A colon bring your eye to a stop while a dash implies there is more movement ahead. Two examples:


“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds: the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.’

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.”

I think the second is better because it is dialogue. You also can use the em dash to show an abrupt break in the dialogue, when one person is cutting off another:

“Define insubordination.”
Louis wet his lips. “I did something — ”
“I don’t care what you did. Define the word.”

Which leads us to the ellipses. It’s a cousin of the em dash in that you see it used in dialogue often. But there’s an important difference. Whereas a dash implies an abrupt break in the dialogue, the ellipses implies a trailing off. It can also imply a slowing of thoughts.

“Why didn’t you quit?” Jesse asked quietly.
Louis shook his head. “Can’t…”
“Why?”
“He’s still out there.”

The Exclamation Mark

This thing can be like a rabid ferret…hard to control. Yes, you need a rare one to convey extreme emotion. But like a dash or italics, it can lose its effectiveness if you overuse it. As Elmore Leonard said: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

And last but least:

The Semi-Colon

I saved this one for last because I hate the damn things. Semi-colons are like some professor-types. They’ve got an inflated sense of importance from living in the academic world. Or maybe they’re like literary novelists who like to go slumming in crime fiction. I think I’ve used maybe two semi-colons in sixteen books and both times I had to take a shower right after. I am not alone in my attitude. Let’s go back to what the playwright Terrance McNally said for a moment: “I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.”

Our own James Bell called semi-colons the eggplant of punctuation. (Click here to read it). Why are semi-colons bad? Because the beautiful business of fiction is replicating real life on the page and in real life people don’t think or talk in semi-colons. Unless they’re using emoticons. And c’mon, don’t you want to punch out those people anyway?

Postscript: After I finished this, I was proofing one of my back list titles. It is filled with em dashes! The Em seems to be my default punctuation. That got to wondering why I hate the semi-colon so much and what this says about me as a person. So…

What Your Favorite Punctuation Says About You

Period: You are emphatic, decisive, fearless. In the life raft, everyone looks to you to figure a way out.  You bowl overhand.

The exclamation mark: You’re dramatic and get a lot of invitations to parties. You wear purple. You’re probably the person people glare at for talking on your cell phone too loud at the bagel store.

The Em Dash: You are creative and optimistic. Life is a cabaret, old chum. You keep fresh kale in your fridge, wait for a Kraftwerk comeback and you root for the Knicks.

Question mark: You are deeply spiritual and people in meetings always wait to hear what you think. You have read and understood everything George Saunders has written. Your favorite color is tweed.

Colon: You’re organized and make to-do lists. People always ask you to arrange the Christmas office party but no one grabs you under the mistletoe.  You do the Times crossword in ink.

Semi-colon: You are cautious and methodical but you change your mind easily. You have trouble ordering at a restaurant and often resort to eating off other people’s plates because you think you made a mistake in getting the sea bass. You think Rand Paul makes a lot of sense.

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Music As Inspiration

                                                  


Those of you who are kind enough to grace The Kill Zone with your presence on a regular basis know that we often discuss inspiration, and what one can do to jump start the writing process. I use music as a backdrop when I’m writing, not only for enjoyment but also to tune up the cerebrum. Jazz works well with this — Miles Davis isn’t for everybody, but give “Spanish Key” a listen just one — but for some schooling as to how to use words to tell a story I listen to a gentleman named Robbie Fulks.

Fulks labors in the musical mine, digging a sub-vein which has come to be called “insurgent country.”  You will not hear ANY of his music on your local Country station — well maybe, if you listen to 650 AM WSM in Nashville — but he’s worth checking out on Spotify and proceeding accordingly. He can be blistering in lampooning contemporary country, and at one point released an album of Michael Jackson cover songs. But. When he gets serious, there is no one whose lyrics stay with you, in three to five minute movements, like Robbie Fulks.

I’ve had Fulks’ latest album, Gone Away Backward, on repeat in the office, in the car, even while raking my freaking yard leaves, and can’t get the songs out of my mind. “Where I Fell” captures in just a little over three minutes a story of contemporary hard luck: “Some guy in Bombay is runnin’ that press I used to hate/now I sling hash for what-all spills off the interstate/we sold the family store left the building standing/ you can see the outline/where I fell.” Love lost, and with regret? How about this: “When I left that Brooklyn girl, I never thought it through/she had silk brocade in her bedroom, and a job that paid for two” from “Long I Ride.” Love lost, in the seconds before it ends? Listen to “Guess I Got It Wrong.” “Why’s the feeling never strong as when/you can’t have her anymore?/Sad goodbyes, shattered dreams/ Darker skies, I don’t think I’ve seen/I thought love was one sweet song/I guess I got it wrong.” We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Oh, and in case you thought that  I mentioned Fulks in the context of  southern gothic…there’s a bit of that on Gone Away Backward, but if you would like your synapses crunched, listen to a song titled “Night Accident.” It’s on Fulks’ Let’s Kill Saturday Night release. I won’t give you any lyrics from that song, but it involves two friends involved in a single car accident who are trapped in their seats, hanging upside down, while a train approaches. One of them makes a deathbed confession, and…well you have to hear it. It’s a bit of a long song — six minutes and change — that feels like two. You can also go back a way in Fulks’ career to the South Mouth album and listen a song titled “South Richmond Girl.” You get love, birth, murder, justice, and heartbreak covering over twenty years in a little over four minutes, done sadly and well.
I don’t know if Elmore Leonard ever heard Robbie Fulks’ music, but if there was ever a songwriter who cut out everything that sounded like writing, it would be Fulks. Even if you can’t stand what you think of as country music, you should listen to a song or two. See if it sparks you.
One more thing, while we’re talking music and inspiration: if you haven’t seen the interactive video for “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan you can check it out here. If you share the house or your television with someone who channels flips to distraction send it to them; they’ll never get away from it. And with respect to inspiration…it’s just amazing. Set a timer before you try it out, however; it’s a real time bandit.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy listening, and Happy Thanksgiving!

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Purging the Editor

I believe it is a given that those of us who aspire to write are also vociferous readers. A reader is a wonderful thing to be; however, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes this state of mind and being can be an impediment to an author aborning.  Reading a novel by James Lee Burke or Karin Slaughter or John Connolly or Chelsea Cain can inspire a reader to think, “I want to do that.”  Yet it can also be discouraging; one reads BLACK CHERRY BLUES by Burke and thinks, “I can never be that good; why bother?”  The fleeting dream is set aside, sometimes permanently. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is that in the case of a book (or a film, or a painting, or a music project) we rarely see what came before, the early stages that led to the final result.

Such does not hold true with respect to a construction project, to name but one example. We recently had the opportunity to watch an all but vacant shopping center in our area be transformed over a period of several months into a wholly done, over, remodeled, commercially successful unit. It was fun to watch. Readers generally do not get to watch the process by which their favorite author transforms a few hundred blank pages into a cohesive, occasionally unforgettable, experience. So it is that the novel, upon publication, seems to have sprung from whole cloth, seemingly effortlessly. We know better, of course. But it is difficult sometimes to fully appreciate it without seeing the ultrasound ourselves.

I hit an emotional low point this past week for a number or reasons that aren’t really important to this discussion; what is important is what brought me out of it, at least so far as creativity is concerned. I happened across an article in Slate entitled “Cormac McCarthy Cuts to the Bone.”  You can find the article here. It is an extremely interesting piece which, among other things, reveals that McCarthy’s classic novel BLOOD MERIDIAN was a far different book at publication than it was at conception. What really attracted me to the article, however, was the reproduction of two pages from McCarthy’s original draft.  They are instructive, even if you have never read a word that Mr. McCarthy has written or alternatively would not reflexively grab your copy of BLOOD MERIDIAN or THE ORCHARD  KEEPER if confronted with a fire and the resultant dilemma of what to save.  BLOOD MERIDIAN did not flow out of McCarthy’s mind without deep and dark consideration. If you’re having trouble getting your words out of you and onto the page, don’t let it be because you in your own mind aren’t “good enough” or “as good” as your favorite author. When your favorite author started writing, they weren’t good enough either. It takes several drafts, several cement pourings, if you will, before things solidify and become right. Don’t put your handprints and your initials into your work and ruin it before it is dry. Purge yourself of what playwright John Guare so brilliantly called “tiny obnoxious editor living in your head,” the one who tells you that you will never be as good as Stephen King or Elmore Leonard or whoever. Then let the construction begin. 

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Dutch Treat: Ten rules of writing

Elmore Leonard is gone. A moment of silence, she intoned gravely.
If you don’t get where I am going with that opening line then you definitely need to read on – at least as far as Nos. 3 and 4 below. The rest of you can go play Spider Solitaire if you’d like, but I’d really like it if you stick around. Because today, I’d like to talk about Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. 
Now I have to admit right off here that I haven’t read a lot of Leonard’s books; he’s one of those titans whose stuff is part of my cram-course in belated crime education. (I just downloaded “Glitz” on my Kindle in fact).  But like all writers, I’ve heard that he’s a master stylist, the Picasso of crime fiction, whose dialogue, in the words of one critic, is “like broken glass, sharp and glittering.”
But do his rules hold up? Well, I think this is a good time to go back and take a look. And I’ll be the first one to admit, I have broken almost all of them. 

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
I opened my book ISLAND OF BONES with a woman so desperate to escape her killer that she took off in a skiff in the middle of a hurricane. But generally I agree with Leonard here that in too many books, weather is a metaphoric crutch meant to telegraph the hero’s conflict or a mood of foreboding. (Blatant self-promotion alert: We have published the eBook of BONES this week.  Click here to read my “weather” opening — or you can even Click here buy the darn thing for $2.99!.)

2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
Sigh. Broke this one, too. In my book A THOUSAND BONES, I am telling the story of Louis Kincaid’s lover, Joe Frye. The entire book is a flashback to Joe’s rookie year but I felt I had to connect it to Louis so I book-ended it with a prologue (wherein she tells Louis about a crime she committed ten years ago) AND an epilogue (wherein Louis accepts what she did). But again, I think prologues are usually unnecessary; they almost always indicate the writer is not in control of back story or the time element of their plot (linear is almost always best). Or the writer tacks on a prologue where he throws out a body to gin up suspense because the early chapters are slooooow.
3.  Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.  The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
Have broken this one, too. But only with the greatest trepidation. I’ve used “shouted” and “asked.” But I’m convinced that if you feel compelled to use something stronger, that means that what you are putting between the quote marks ain’t up to snuff.

4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said”… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”
Guilty again. I have used “whispered,” “shouted” and “asked.” But I always hate myself in the morning.

5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
I hate exclamation marks! But yes, I have used them. Mainly when I have someone shouting. And what’s worse, I have probably written, “Get out of here!” he shouted. 
6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.” This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
I have never used “all hell…” That’s really amateur hour, akin to “little did he know that…” But yes, “suddenly” has appeared in my books. I didn’t realized what a stupid tic it was until I re-read Leonard’s rules. Suddenly, “suddenly” looks really bad in my chapters. And I now see that the action feels more immediate without it.

7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”
We did this in our first book “Dark of the Moon.” Set in the deep South, we felt compelled to drop some “g’s” and use some dumb idioms, and at least one reviewer took us to task for it. Here’s the thing: Dialect is hard on the reader’s eye. You can convey the feeling of it by judicious word choice, mannerisms, and sentence rhythm. We are in the process of preparing “Moon” for eBook and this has given us a second chance to go back and rewrite things. So y’all can bet we’re fixin’ to fix our mistakes. 
8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

Whew. Finally, one sin I don’t commit. I am a strong believer in less is more when it comes to character descriptions. I think if you tread too heavily in the reader’s imagination, you stomp out some of the magic from your book. Here is how I let readers know what my heroine Joe Frye looked like:

She had a flash of memory, of sitting next to her dad in a gymnasium during her brother’s basketball game, watching the cheerleaders.
I’m ugly, Daddy.
You’re beautiful.
Not like them, I’m not.
No. They’re easy to add up. They’re plain old arithmetic.
So what am I?
Geometry, Joey. Not everyone gets it.

 9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
This one is hard for me because I love to write setting descriptions. But I have learned to pull back some. The best advice I ever heard on this comes from Coco Chanel who said you should put on all your accessories and then take almost all of them off before you go out. So yeah, I over-describe but then I go back and pare it down.

10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
Like all writers, I struggle with this one. When we’re deep in the writing zone, we can fall in love with the sound of our own voices. And sometimes, a passage will come so hard that you just can’t bring yourself to delete it. But you must kill your darlings. Lately, my sister tells me I am “underwriting,” so maybe I am pulling back too far. But I still think it’s better to leave ‘em wanting more, not less.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

I have nothing to add to that last one. It might be the single best piece of writing advice out there. If you’re working too hard, your reader will as well.  Here’s the quote that hangs over my desk: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  It was good enough for Nathaniel Hawthorne — and Dutch — so it’s good enough for me.


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TV Shows I’m Addicted To

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I have my DVR set up with countless shows I record. My husband also knows my interest in the strange and peculiar NOVA Science shows or historical documentaries. As a writer, anything can stir your imagination and you never know what small tidbit can fuel a book or series. I once did a whole proposal after seeing a science show on venomous snakes.

Here are a couple of my fav TV shows adapted from books:

Hannibal – OMG! I am giddy for Thursday nights now because of this show. This is an adaptation of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, but it is a prequel where FBI BAU profiler, Agent Will Graham, is brought in to consult with his old boss, Jack Crawford, and hunt serial killers. We meet the infamous Hannibal Lecter in the wild, before he gets caught. Will is good at his job, depicted as closer to Asperger’s & sociopaths, and can visualize himself as the killer. This puts him in need of therapy, as you can imagine, but his boss picks Hannibal Lecter as his psychiatrist. This is graphic stuff, but the tongue in cheek dark humor is over the top and the psychological trauma worsens in Will, as we see him falling apart and under the care of Lecter. It’s mesmerizing to watch. Hugh Dancy is yummy as Will Graham and Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal redefines the role, big shoes to fill after Anthony Hopkins.

This show is beautifully shot and the acting is amazing, but the reinvention of the Red Dragon book, in such a creative way, has me coming back every week. I went back to read the book and got even more out of the show. 

Justified – This show’s season has ended, but it gets better each year. Writer Elmore Leonard is the guy behind this show and the writing is superb. The characterizations and the dialogue are worth every minute of your time to watch this show. One of my favorite things to do is tweet my fav lines as the show is one. Many of my writer friends do this. Marshal Raylan Givens and criminal childhood friend Boyd Crowder are two characters to watch. The season that just ended was my favorite (and that’s saying something). Pure Rayland and Boyd.

Cable Shows I Have Recently Become Addicted to:

The Borgias – Jeremy Irons is damned sexy as a Pope. And his son, Cesare Borgia, has me spellbound…especially when he’s naked. Family scandal and treachery in enticing scenes.

Game of Thrones –I hadn’t watched this show until I recently caught up in a marathon of recordings, but I got totally hooked. Some of the recent storylines left me so sad though and it reminded me how emotional our stories have to be to grip readers.

What are some of your favorite guilty pleasure TV shows…and why do you like them? Do you get something from them that helps your writing? Are you addicted to any of the shows I watch?

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I Am JUSTIFIED

Timothy-Olyphant-Justified-S4

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane


It’s been crazy since the holidays between my writing deadlines, promotion for my latest release Indigo Awakening, and all the relatives coming in and out of town. But this week I’ve been saved. Elmore Leonard’s Justified is back for Season 4 and the first episode – Hole in the Wall – did not disappoint. It was “happy dance” fun.

Yes, Raylan and his bad ass Hat-itude inspires me to dig deep for insanely evocative dialogue and characters that make me cringe and laugh at the same time. I see this series as pure writer inspiration. (I love Elmore Leonard.) There were shockers in this first show. Don’t worry. No spoilers, but for anyone who saw it, I’m already filling my Constable Bob “Go To” bag with all the necessaries to kick some fictional butt in 2013.

What would you put in YOUR “go to” writer’s bag this year? Any resolutions? Here are FIVE writer things I learned from being JUSTIFIED.

1.) Never discount the importance of a good secondary character. Constable Bob is a prime example of how a well-written secondary character can steal your scenes and maybe become a spin-off.

2.) Writing one book can lead to another if you plant the seeds. Add a super hot bail bonds woman, a hotel mini-bar, and a marshal with pliable ethics and you can have a future book plot. Leave threads or seeds to another plot in your current work-in-progress. It never hurts to have ideas and it may leave readers wanting more.

3.) Dark humor is gold. When a loaded hooker comes face to face with something “grizzly” in her place of “business” or a simple phrase like “take care of him” can be construed in more than one way, a well-placed bullet can be JUSTIFIED funny.

4.) Give your anti-heroes loads of baggage and a cast of characters around them that will push their ethics to their darkest depths. Test them. Right from the start, Raylan is tempted into “helping” bring a fugitive to justice, especially if he can benefit from a little bounty money on the side and sees no harm in taking a modest gratuity. What comes next escalates his woes into pure Raylan MO when he has to cover his butt from getting caught. (Hint: If you talk too much, you get a special seat in his car.)

5.) To get a great pace going, jump into the plot without too much back story. The sheer mystery will draw readers in until your reveal. Have patience and don’t “telegraph” where you’re headed. Readers love a twist they never saw coming.

For the premiere, I followed twitter hashtag #JUSTIFIED while I watched the show to see what followers found interesting or memorable. Die hard fans are hilarious and they often quote whole lines to let everyone know what got to them. Twitterville heated up with Justified fans and I had even more fun. Many writers joined in the fun.

So tell me what you’d put in your writer’s TO GO bag for 2013—to be ready for anything like Constable Bob. Or please share what JUSTIFIED has taught you, whether you’re a reader or writer. (I’m pretty sure I’ll never ask Raylan’s daddy Arlo about what he likes to read. Just sayin’.)

Here’s a sneak preview of next week’s episode. If you have trouble viewing it, here is the Youtube link: http://youtu.be/mtMFLlk5lKk

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Writing Dialogue – Tips

By Jordan Dane
@JordanDane



I’ve always loved writing dialogue. It’s the backbone to a scene for me. When I had my day job and had to sneak off to write during my lunch hour, I first fashioned the scene with dialogue, using it as a framework for the other layers. I wrote the lines like a screenplay. I usually only had time to draft a scene or two that I would work on once I got home.

The next layer would be the body language and how the scene would move between the lines, to add the nuance of the people being together to add more context. I’d also layer in setting. And the last thing I would add was internal narrative to give color to my characters. I called this method, BUILDING AN ONION FROM THE INSIDE OUT and it’s part of my FOR WRITERS resources page – the post on START WITH A BANG, IT’S ALL ABOUT PACE. I developed a sparse style that had a beginning, middle and close to each scene that usually ended with a foreshadowing or memorable image between the characters to add an element of pace. But the backbone to all of this was DIALOGUE.

Regardless whether dialogue comes easily to you or is a challenge to write, it is an essential element to a scene and a book. Internal dialogue adds color and voice to your work. And the dialogue between the characters can make each one distinctive and add rich context to the world you are building. An excellent example of memorable world building and dialogue that adds depth is Elmore Leonard.

If you have recommendations on other authors who have stood out in your mind for memorable dialogue, I would love to hear your thoughts. But here are a few four tips to start with:

DIALOGUE TIPS

1.) Make it Short & Sweet – Long, rambling dialogue can lose the reader. It’s my belief that the human eye needs the relief of the white page, otherwise you run the risk of losing the punch and pace. If you have one character with a long diatribe, I would suggest finding ways to break it up with discussion from other characters or action to give it pace and flow.

2.) Make it Real – Listen to real chatter between two people. They may use slang, contractions, or fragmented sentences. Too much slang can date the book or alienate a certain audience, so be careful not to pepper too much into your book, but learn what makes dialogue sound real by listening to others. Certain phrases, pauses, body language interludes can add depth here. Another way to listen to dialogue is focusing on the radio, the banter between DJs for example.

3.) Be Willing to Break Grammar Rules – Sticking strictly to proper grammar and the King’s English can make dialogue sound stilted and formal. Some characters demand real rule breaking, yet you may have one that is educated and proper. Seeing the contrast from that kind of character to a street kid, for example, can make the dialogue interesting, but the name of the game is to make each voice distinctive and interesting. It’s funny that I usually write dialogue without contractions, but have to go back and add them later. Not sure why that is, but it’s one of my edit reviews, to make sure the dialogue flows and sounds real.

4.) Read it aloud – I can’t stress how important I think this is. Read your dialogue aloud. If you stumble on certain words, change them. Make them roll off the tongue. You won’t regret taking the time and it will help with finding those pesky typos too.
 
DIALOGUE FORMATTING

1.) Start a new line when a new character comes on the scene. I also like to drop down lines to give more white space for the reader’s eye. So try not to embed dialogue within a paragraph of narrative.

2.) Keep tags simple but clear. With too many lines strung together, the reader can lose track of who said what. But if there is only one man and one woman, there’s no need to use their first names over and over. The generic ‘he’ or ‘she’ said will suffice. And overuse of adverbs and too many repeats of body language/movements can stick out to irritate an alert reader. For example, instead of a simple ‘he said,’ an author might make the mistake of using ‘Joe chortled mockingly.’ (Oy, the overwriting and too much repetition can wear on a reader. The basic use of ‘he said’ becomes part of the background white noise and not a distraction that could pull the reader from the story.)

3.) Pepper in a name once in a while, to remind the reader who is talking. After pages of ‘he said,’ they could forget who was speaking, especially if it’s two people of the same gender. Then, using first names becomes more important. Or use a generic description of the character to break up the pattern of first names, something like ‘the detective said.’

If you have any tips on writing dialogue and what works for you, or authors who write noteworthy dialogue, please share your thoughts with your fellow TKZers.

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The kid stays in the book

By PJ Parrish
Tell me if this ever happens to you:
You’re typing along, and you’re hearing the voices in your head. It’s a couple of your characters, chatting away. And you find your fingers flying just trying to keep up so you can record it all.
But sometimes — and this doesn’t happen very often — I am typing away and I actually SEE people come onto the screen in my head. These are people I have not summoned, characters I have not accounted for, and it’s like, wtf, who are you? You don’t belong in this story. Somebody throw this bum off my set!
But they don’t leave. They hang around. And they start whispering, “forget them, tell my story.”
The first time I got visited by one of them was during the writing of our third book, “Thicker Than Water.” This is a story about a dirtbag con who murdered a girl and twenty years later gets out of prison and kills his defense attorney. His son Ronnie hires our hero Louis Kincaid to clear his father’s name. I was writing a scene in which Ronnie was talking to Louis and suddenly, in my head I heard the screech of air brakes. My fingers froze over the keyboard, but I said, okay…

So I wrote that Louis heard a school bus braking outside. A second later, a boy was in my head, whispering to me. But he was so sullen and closed, I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I didn’t like him. I almost ignored him. But then I gave in and wrote him into the scene. Suddenly, Ronnie had a son named Eric.
The kid hung around for 300 pages, moving in and out of the plot like a small ghost. I didn’t have a friggin’ clue why he was there except to make the dirtbag con, his grandfather, look even meaner. I kept wondering if Eric was just what I call a clutter-character, and that I needed to heed Elmore Leonard’s famous advice to “cut out the stuff readers skip over.” But I let Eric stay. Then, on page 363, Eric said something to me that changed the whole book. He said:
“Can a kid get in trouble for something he knows?”
Damn. It came together in a blinding flash, the whole key to the book. This kid was it. We had to go back and redo the bread-crumb trail of clues to make it work. But this kid held the final great twist of the plot in his hands. And without realizing it, for hundreds of pages, I had been giving Eric motivation and layers that set up everything for the ending. Or maybe Eric had been giving them to me.
I now call this serendipity. I have learned to welcome these intruding wraiths. I have learned to trust them. Because they are the ones you didn’t build. They are the ones who came on their own. They are the ones that bring life to your story.

I just have to learn to listen more carefully when they come a callin’.
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A Freelance Editor Talks About Authors’ “Habits” & Predictable Writing

By Jordan Dane

I had the pleasure of working with Elyse Dinh-McCrillis (The Edit Ninja) on my short story anthology – Sex, Death and Moist Towelettes – and hope to send her more full-length novels. She came recommended from another thriller author – Brett Battles – so I owe him a beer. She is guest posting her thoughts on the patterns of authors. Enjoy!

This is Elyse laughing at my anthology…I’m sure.

Patterns in Writing
When Jordan approached me about a guest post, I decided to write about the patterns I’ve noticed in my clients’—and other authors’—work. These aren’t errors, but habitual things writers do that make their writing predictable. Most of my clients are surprised when I point them out, so it’s become clear these things happen unconsciously.

I’m not talking about a signature. One of Elmore Leonard’s signatures, for example, is his hip dialogue, with specific rhythms you can almost hear while reading. But the dialogue isn’t repetitive. I’d like to discuss things that show up repeatedly, and could potentially distract readers.

Here are some of the most common patterns I’ve seen, in everything from manuscripts by first-time authors, to finished novels by Pulitzer-nominated writers.

Reusing the same atypical word.

I was a beta reader for a friend and noticed he described many things in his novel as “dank”—basement, room, weather, smell, even mood. I suggested he substitute a few synonyms. He did a search and said, “I found only thirteen mentions in the whole ms. That’s not a lot!” I asked, “But how close were they together?” He admitted that in one instance, the word showed up twice in three pages. Astute readers would notice that.

A recent thriller by a New York Times bestselling author had an overabundance of “murmured” as a dialogue tag. After a while, I thought, “Is everyone in a seance?”

We all have words we overuse. One of mine is “just,” e.g., “I just saw that recently, and thought it was just a mole.” Be aware of your favorite words, do a search for them after you’re done writing, and replace if necessary.

Using the same descriptions and mannerisms for different characters.

In this one book I read, whenever the women were nervous, they bit their lower lips, and when the men experienced stress, they ran their hands through their hair. I started counting the number of times this happened, and could see it coming if characters started feeling stressed or anxious. I got so caught up in the counting, I lost track of what was going on in the plot.

A related pattern would be using the same descriptions as shortcuts for different types of characters. I edited an ms in which every good guy had chiseled features, every tough guy had a crew cut, and every bad guy had horrible teeth. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if a good guy had a facial scar, a tough guy wore glasses, and a bad guy looked like George Clooney? Not falling back on easy clichés to denote stereotypes increases the chances of fully dimensional characters being born.

Repeating the same sentence structure.

Many writers fall into a rhythm as they write, which sometimes results in the same kind of sentence over and over: always starting or ending with a participial phrase, starting or ending a line of dialogue with a direct address, too much passive voice, multiple run-ons in the same paragraph, three short sentences in a row. (“He looks. He listens. He waits.”) All those stylistic choices are fine, but when one occurs too often, the writing becomes routine. Mix up the kinds and lengths of sentences, use them in different order, keep readers on their toes.

Different characters speaking the same way.

Sometimes writers get tied to one kind of speech pattern. I recently read a book by a well-known author in which many characters would eliminate the first words in questions: “That him?” “Help you?” “Hell you talking about?” It’s fine if one character talks like that, but I think a little old lady might say, “Is that him?”

Being attached to a favorite letter, name, number, or color.

In a novel I edited, there were characters named Linda, Lita, Lynn, Lila, Laura, Leslie, Lori (they were not related). I have a good guess as to what letter might be on the author’s monogrammed towels. In another ms, several of the names rhymed: Boris, Norris, Morris, Doris, Dolores. The thriller read like poetry.

Make a character list to see if too many names contain the same letters, or if some of your minor characters are named the same. I worked on a book in which a couple of “under fives” (a movie term for characters with under five lines) were named John, because they were less important to the author and he failed to see he’d used the same name for both.

I read a thriller by an author whose favorite color was seemingly red, because two in three characters were redheads, and different characters drove red cars, had on red dresses, and owned houses with red doors. Another time, an author was stuck on the number 9. There was a countdown to a momentous event, and every chapter had a time designation that ended in 9—3:19, 2:29, 6:39, 12:49, etc. These patterns weren’t part of a theme, merely coincidences that became distracting. Sometimes people wear beige, and things happen at 5:42.

Overuse of italics for emphasis.

This one book I read averaged one italicized sentence for every two paragraphs. So many things were important. The italics soon became mundane, which defeated their purpose.

There are other patterns I can discuss, but I may have already overstayed my welcome. Thank you to Jordan for asking me to be here, and all of you for indulging me.

What patterns have you noticed in your reading…or your writing?


Elyse’s Website: TheEditNinja.com

Twitter: @EditNinja (official), @popculturenerd (where Elyse is more active) 
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Elmore Leonard’s Rules

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I borrowed Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing the other day from the library – although I had read many of his rules before, I realized I hadn’t actually read the whole (albeit very short) book. Since we have been doing our first page critiques, I thought it was probably a good time to highlight his rules – many of which we have already discussed in our critiques – and to also fess up to my own shortcomings…

Here are his 10 rules…
1. Never open a book with weather
2. Avoid prologues
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
5. Keep your exclamation points under control
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip

While these are excellent rules, I have to confess to breaking at least half of these in my own work. I have used a prologue and (mea culpa) even the word “suddenly” on the odd occasion.

As a writer of historical fiction I also admit to giving pretty detailed descriptions of places, things and people in order to give the reader insight into the time period. However, the hardest rules for me, are rule number 3 and 4. While I certainly try and avoid overusing adverbs and bizarre speech handles such as “asseverated” I find when I try and limit my dialogue to using only “said”, it becomes stilted and hollow. My solution has been to try and limit my adverb use and to highlight gestures, actions etc. to provide appropriate texture to the scene – but still, I fear my dialogue drafts are way more ‘flowery’ than Elmore would like:) As part of my editing process I am extra vigilant when it comes to this rule, but also equally aware that stripping my work down too much saps it of its color. It’s a balancing act, as with most things in writing.

So what about you? Which of these rules have you broken in your own work?

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