Does your story have a “wobble”?

Sometimes your story may get unbalanced in some areas, like a tire that’s gone out of alignment. Severe story wobble can kill the pacing and reading experience, so it pays to recognize the symptoms, and take remedial action to push your narrative back into shape.

When you’re doing any of the following in your writing, it’s likely that your story is getting off kilter:

  • Over describing the actions of the main character.
  • Over describing background information that you think the main character needs to know.
  • Under describing (or losing track of altogether) the actions of secondary characters in a scene.
  • Using repetitive sentence structure.

It’s easy to fix most cases of story wobble. Here are some remedies:

  • Use only minimal actions to show the actions of the main character.
  • When you have some background information that the main character needs to know, sprinkle it in, or create an SME (Subject Matter Expert) for your story.
  • If it’s been a while since you’ve mentioned a secondary character in a scene, be sure to “establish” the character in the reader’s mind before giving him dialogue or action. Otherwise the reader won’t know who the re-introduced character is.
  • Do search-and-destroy missions on repetitive sentence structure. It’s easy to fall into using the same sentence patterns repeatedly throughout a book, so make sure you change things up in every paragraph. This is also known as varying the sentence rhythm.

What are some of your story wobbles that you have to search for and destroy when you’re rewriting? Has there ever been one that has caused you embarrassment?

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When it comes to writing, what’s your point of view?

God, how I hate having to deal with point of view. Whenever I’m writing, POV feels like a technical constraint that limits expression. It forces me to make choices, to rein myself in and be disciplined. I really hate that.
And yet it’s critical that you set up POV correctly for your story. When you lose control of POV, you lose control of your story. And that’s when you lose your reader. (For an earlier discussion about POV, see our February Sunday writing blog.)
At one of my writing groups this week, we spent some time debating how to handle point of view in one of our member’s stories.

This particular story jumped in and out of the point of view of two characters within the confines of a two-person scene. On first reading, nothing seemed really wrong with the scene; I had to reread it several times to figure out why it lacked suspense and kept the reader at a distance. I finally decided that the real problem with the scene was its POV. In other words, there was way too much head-jumping going on.

So here’s a general guideline to help you avoid a POV trap:

Use only one POV per chapter or section (Sections separated by asterisks or a space).

The story we were reading in group had a POV that shifted between paragraphs (aka omniscient POV). That constant shifting created a confusing overall effect. I think it may be possible to present POV this way, but it probably takes an extremely skilled writer to pull it off. So why even play with POV fire?

Omniscient

The omniscient POV lets the writer enter each character’s head during a scene, and even lets the narrator provide direct observations. The story in my writing group is an example of a story that used an omniscient POV. It suffered from the same fate that omniscient POV stories usually do–the reader failed to engage with the characters or the story. Suspense was nonexistent.

Now that I’ve dissed the omniscient POV, however, I will admit that I’m considering using an omniscient narrative opening for my WIP thriller. In this case, the omniscient POV will function as a garnish, like the paprika sprinkled on top of the baked chicken to draw in the eye and make the dish look tasty.

First Person

Favorite of detective novel series (to the point of being cliche), the first person POV has decided pluses and minuses. It’s a very intimate POV (you know everything going on in the character’s head), but you can only know and see what that character learns and sees throughout the entire story.

It’s tempting to use first-person POV, but trust it from a writer of first-person POV mysteries, it’s incredibly awkward to try write your character into every single scene.
It’s also awkward to make sure that your character doesn’t “know” anything in the story that he or she hasn’t seen, read, or been told.

Limited Third Person

Similar to the first person POV, only it uses he/she instead of “I”. My sense is that this POV is getting less popular, but it may just be me.

Multiple Third Person

Lets the writer switch from character to character. This is probably the best choice for most thrillers. This POV lets you roam free on the range with the buffalo.

Mixed

This is a mixture of first person with multiple points of view. For example, some thrillers use a first-person POV for the bad guy while everyone else is presented in third person. This approach can help build suspense.
Second
This POV is so rare I forgot about it until Joe Moore reminded me about it in the comments just now, so I’m adding it back in. Second person POV is where the writer talks directly to the reader. No wonder it’s an unusual POV–I find it completely annoying.
To wit:
You’re walking along and then you realize someone is following you. You spin around and then…Blam-o!
Bleah.
So I’m wondering how you make your POV choices for your novels, and are there any POVs that you love? Loathe?
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Lost in outer-writer space


Speaking of Writer Hell, as Michael Haskins was in our Sunday funny, I had one of those days in Hell yesterday. It was so bad that I completely forgot to write my blog. I have no excuse except that I’m in the final throes of Draft Two of Makeovers Can Be Murder, the third installment of the Fat City Mysteries. This is the time when my brain becomes a bowl of guacamole, littered with random creative-chip debris. I am literally walking into walls. People who encounter me on the street probably think I need to be committed, or at least routed into some kind of 12-step recovery program for the fuzzy-brained.

But no, it’s just me during the last-gasp phase of the creative process. It’s final deadline.

I’m working my way through my editor’s notes right now. How do like your editor’s notes? I love my editor, but I always wait for her notes with nervous anticipation. I feel like I did when I was sixteen years old and waiting for the college acceptance letters. When it does arrive and I read through it, I usually do a little dance because it’s inevitably far kinder than I could have reasonably anticipated. Then I settle down and address the notes one by one. They’re always right on.

What kinds of experiences have you had with editors in your career? And hey, if your an editor, what kind of experience do you have with writers? Are we a bunch of whiners? You can post as Anonymous and tell us the real scoop.

Can we dish?

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Why did the writer miss her deadline? It was an icestorm. No, a sandstorm!

This morning I pressed SEND on my first draft for MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER. The manuscript should now be safely in the hands of my editor in NY. Ahh…sweet sigh of relief.

I was especially relieved to send this draft off. Because let’s just say that it was a bit…overdue.

Which brings me to today’s blog topic: the many rich, varied, and creative procrastination rituals that are employed by writers.

Yes, we writers have some amazing ways to delay the inevitable pasting of butt-on-chair-and-typing that is required to complete an actual finished work.

For example: I have a sitcom-writer friend who cleans every drawer, organizes every closet, and sharpens every pencil in her house before she starts working on her scripts for the Zack and Cody Show. And she doesn’t even use pencils.

Internet surfing has become a big-time Writer’s Time Sink. In fact the Internet is learning how to surf us. For example, even if you try to ignore those omnipresent pop-up ads, they know how to leap off their launchpads and grab hold of your cursor. It always takes me a half minute of muttering and banging around with the mouse to drive those damned Wells Fargo horses back to their window. I wonder if there’s some way I could customize my cursor into a whip?

Excessive procrastination sometimes causes writers to fall seriously behind on our overall writing output. We have even…gasp! been known to miss our deadlines.

When that happens, there’s a temptation to come up with complex and creative excuses for why one’s manuscript isn’t being turned in to the editor on time. But fair warning: Editors, or at least the editors in New York, have heard every excuse known to creative mankind for not meeting a deadline. These include:

* I was on the wrong side of the International Dateline (thank you Gary Busey)

* The lack of reliable mail distribution in your neck of the woods (not a workable excuse in a major metropolitan area)

* The impending demise of a close relative (but don’t make it too close lest it prompt the sending of an embarrassing bouquet of sympathy flowers)

* The onset of a persistent-but-vague immune-deficiency ailment that saps the energy required for sustained bouts of writing (but not for attending conferences where one is observed singing and pounding the bar with fists at wee hours of the morning).

So do you have any excuses you can add to the list? Any good procrastination stories you’ve heard?

Click here if you feel like procrastinating some more with the Marx Brothers.

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Male or female author? You vote!


Okay, so Clare’s post about male versus female writing inspired me to put it to a vote–contest time! You vote whether the the authors of some writing snippets are male or female. You have to post a comment to win. The prize will be my favorite Indie Bookstore tee shirt:


If it’s a tie, the tee shirt goes to the first person to guess the most correctly. Everyone who posts will get a Kill Zone bookmark, if you send me your address! I’ll announce the winners next Tuesday. (Please–No spoilers if you know the author!)
#1
A warm Friday night in April, the air still and perfumed by lilacs.
Emily had to pee. I fingered her leash as she circled and sniffed the ground for whatever peculiar scent would tell her she had found the right spot.
Peter was on his way out the lane. He slowed his old Volvo and thrust his left arm through the open window in greeting. “Hi, Em,” he called.
I returned his wave and watched the wagon’s lights trail away. Emily cocked her ears as she squatted in the dust.
She would have preferred that we continue on for a walk but I was eager to get back inside, where my wife waited for me with chilled pepper vodka, a video-cassette, and a cozy spot on the couch.

#2
Captain Frank Bentille leaned against the door jamb and stared at them. Gray and black tweed pants and a gray shirt hung loosely on his gangly frame, making him look like a greyhound long retired from the track. The striped tie had a red spot from some recent meal. His close-set eyes were dwarfed by the dense brows that nearly met each other over his nose.

#3
The sound came at us like a prizefighter’s punch—a thundering, out-of-nowhere explosion tha shook the earth and nearly deafened us.
I stood frozen, unable to comprehend what had happened. A cloud of dust and debris suddenly billowed over the meadow as the echoes of the explosion continued to rattle and roar through the mountains, until soon the sound seemed to come from every side. There were other sounds too—screams and the quick crack of shots fired.

#4


Mabel wanted to follow the sleepy kiss—even cupped Em’s tiny, pert breasts with the rosehip nipples—but she had business to take care of. Baby Emma was twenty but easily passed for ten or eleven. The girl-child seemed built of warm and creamy vanilla scoops, and the blond ringlets curling in a tangle around her face looked like thick caramel drippings. Mable touched her lips again, softly, not wanting to wake the young woman too quickly.
#5

The hair! It was fair, sun-bleached brown with shades of red, still showing a distinct ripply wave. Six swaths had been gathered at the crime scene and brought to the his laboratory. Kyle placed them on a windowsill, where, when he glanced up from his exceedingly close work with tweezers and bits of bone, he could see them clearly. The longest swath was seven inches. The victim had worn her hair long, to her shoulders. From time to time, Kyle reached out to touch it.

#6

Gerald Kelley was as Irish as one could be and still live in Boston and not Dublin. His hair was reddish blond and thick and curly despite the fact that he was fifty-four years old. His face had a ruddy hue, almost as if he wore theatrical makeup, especially over the crests of his cheekbones.
Kelley’s most notable feature and by far the dominant aspect of his profile was his enormous paunch. Every night three bottles of stout contributed to its awe-inspiring dimensions. For the last few years it had been pointed out that when Kelley was vertical, his belt buckle was horizontal.
#7
So once I figured out I was in the trunk of a car, I remembered the blue Civic and from there it was a swift re-connect the dots to Jesse and Sam and the girl with the briefcase.
I also remembered that I had been shot, or thought I had. It obviously hadn’t been by a very good shot, since I was still around to worry about it, but it did seem fairly pressing that get some sort of medical attention. I felt like someone was digging a fork around my right side just below the arm pit and it hurt like hell if I took a deep breath.
Examine your own writing for male vs. female “traits”
While I was looking for excerpts to try to trip you all up, I found a site where you can enter your writing and find out whether your writing is more “male” or “female.” The site runs your writing through an algorithm of some sort to determine your score:
I ran a section of my own writing through it, and my score was slightly more “male” than “female.” Who’d a thunk it? Try running your writing through it and let us know the results!
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Stomping out your writer’s tics

“Every writer has a writer’s tic,” a famous author once told me.

As a writer, you challenge is to identify your own writer’s tic, and stomp it out of your manuscript.

In my own case, when I’m writing my first draft, I give free rein to my writing tics. But in the second draft, I hunt them down and stomp them out.

Here are a few of my own writer’s tics that I have to wipe out in the second draft:

  • Worthless words.
    My first draft is always studded with superfluous words such as very, apparently, obviously, suddenly, and surely. In the second draft, I do a global search for these serial offenders. Out they go!
  • Ding-dong, the dash is dead. Also the ellipses.
    I have a bad habit of “dramatizing” the rhythm of sentences with dashes and ellipses, which have to be removed.In fact, you could me the Queen of Dashes—or the Empress of Ellipses…
  • Lazy-man’s time reference: “By the time.”By the time I get to Phoenix, I realize I need to delete all my instances of “By the time.”

How about you? What are your “writer’s tics” that you have to stomp out before you submit your manuscript to the editor?

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Oprah blesses the Kindle

The word sent a jolt through the author community:

“Oprah endorses Kindle.”

The Kindle, in case you’ve been marooned on another planet, is Amazon’s much-ballyhooed e-book reader. Oprah’s nod is likely to give the gadget a boost in sales. To quote one industry insider, a blessing by the Queen of Talk TV means that “the sale of Kindles will increase sales by approximately one bazillion percent.”

I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to gadgetry, so I haven’t tried the Kindle yet. But I was gratified recently to learn that my latest book, A KILLER WORKOUT, has been published in a Kindle edition. Now that my book has made its debut in the e-reader world, it feels like my baby has grown up and left home. And forgotten to send a postcard.

I’ve been a “slow adopter” when it comes to e-reader technology. Basically, this is because, 1) my daughter convinced me to buy a very expensive e-book reader years ago, and it broke within a month; and 2) I find it tiring to read text all day on the computer screen.

But I have to admit, there are some real advantages to e-books, particularly the Kindle. For example, when I heard that Kindle lets you increase the text size, I thought—“Okay, this is a winner.” Me and a silent majority of over-40 presbyopic-somethings, we’re yearning for text that is ten feet tall!

Plus, the Kindle promises that its “revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper.”

I will definitely give the Kindle a trial run (probably by giving it to someone close as an Xmas present).

Meanwhile, I’m interested to hear from folks who have tried the Kindle. What’s the reading experience like? Authors, have Kindle sales boosted your audience?

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A KILLER WORKOUT is out today in bookstores!

Today marks the official debut of A KILLER WORKOUT in bookstores across the country. It’s a brand new adventure for the series heroine, Kate Gallagher. In this story, our intrepid reporter heads for a boot-camp style exercise retreat to do a little downsizing on her butt, only to wind up sugar-crashing it in the middle of a gruesome crime scene. She soon discovers that exercise can really be murder!

To celebrate the launch, I’ll be at Bouchercon this weekend, meeting and greeting readers and booksellers. I’ll also be teaming up with my fellow Kill Zone authors Michelle and Clare for an author’s karaoke event on Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. But don’t worry, we won’t be singing (that would really be a crime, at least in my case!). We’ll discuss all aspects of a blog tour, from brainstorming niche blogs that might serve as hosts, to tailoring content, to building traffic that translates into sales. A few members from the audience can present their elevator pitch and we’ll help them craft some ideas.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re in the general Santa Barbara region today, Tuesday, you can catch me on the radio at 8:47 a.m. on KZSB Radio, AM 1290. My host will be the wonderful Baron Ron Herron.

Stay tuned!

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Ripped from the headlines

Nurse Kills Patient Over Grudge
That headline grabbed my attention a couple of years ago when it appeared in newspapers. Here’s the story behind it: a nurse in a plastic surgery office was accused of killing a patient following a plastic surgery procedure. It turned out that the victim had stolen the nurse’s boyfriend 30 years earlier, when both women were in high school. So this was the nurse’s way of getting some long-overdue payback.

Talk about revenge being a dish that is best served cold.

That passing headline spawned an idea that stayed with me and eventually emerged as a subplot in one of my Fat City Mysteries (I won’t tell you which one, although you probably won’t recognize it in its fictionalized version). Here’s a link to the original article.

I was particularly struck because the story underscored how powerful our emotions can be, especially when we’re young. Who would have thought that a jilted girlfriend would actually murder the “other woman” who happened to turn up in her medical care, thirty years later? In addition to fueling a subplot for my story, the article also made me start reflecting on what was to become one of the themes in my book: jealousy and revenge. To write the story, I had to cast back on my own life experience to flesh out the character of the young person who would turn into a murderer.

I’m one of those people who was utterly miserable during middle school and early high school years. I was withdrawn, and had trouble making friends. There was a group of “mean girls” who made my life a living hell, especially in gym class. I think I can remember every joke they made at my expense, and every slight that was directed my way. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I met any of those girls today. Probably nothing. But during the writing of this particular story, I made a conscious effort to dredge up those old feelings of rage and humiliation. The process helped me be able to see my fictional murder from the killer’s point of view. That was important, because I feel that in most murderers’ minds, their acts of homicide are justified. The victim has wronged him or her, and deserves to die.

I always try to get into my killer’s head, sometimes to the extent that I wind up empathizing with him. The killer may have used the wrong solution, but the homicide must seem justified, at least from that character’s point of view.

So I’m wondering to what extent other writers identify with the killers in their story? Do you have to tap into certain strong and scary feelings to portray the role authentically, the way an actor does? Do you want the reader to identify with the killer in any way, or at least find him sympathetic in some strange way?

Do tell.
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Writers who do way too much

Note: Sorry for missing my posting day last week. For the explanation, see Phase Three, below.

Everywhere I go, I hear it: Authors are cutting back on book promotion.

At conferences and on blogs, I hear published writers announcing that they are “scaling down” the time and dollars they spend flogging their books. They’re chopping their advertising budgets, attending fewer conferences, and abandoning blogs. In extreme cases, they’re even turning down contracts for new books—which guarantees that you won’t have to do any promotion.

In a world where most authors get little promotion budget from their publishers, some writers who previously spent tons of time “getting the word out” about their books are becoming more like Greta Garbo. They vant to be alone. Alone, in the company of their word processor.

I call this process the Quitclaim Syndrome. The syndrome usually progress in the following phases:

Phase One: Writer gets published, then spends first year in a giddy travel/networking/book signing spree.

Phase Two: Writer spends so much time promoting Book One that s/he risks falling behind schedule on producing Book Two, but manages to make the deadline by dint of superhuman effort. By now, Writer has spent more money on promotion than the combined advances for all the books, which haven’t even been paid out yet. Royalties are hiding somewhere in a La-La land called FutureWorld.

Phase Three: Writer begins to experience the physical tics of over-multitasking: chronic fatigue, self-medication therapies gone wrong, and desk rage, if she has a day job. Medical intervention may be required. Writer is so exhausted that she plans the promotion of Book Two with a more realistic—even jaundiced—eye. Kind of the way a guy regards the prospect of paying for a fourth or fifth failed date in a row. What’s this worth to me? he asks himself. For way less money, I could have more fun sitting at home on the couch with a beer and a copy of Debbie Does Dallas.

Phase Four: Writer reaches a fork in the road. To continue breathless promotion efforts, or not? Whereupon Writer either A) keeps promoting herself, but not nearly so breathlessly, or B) stops most promotion efforts except for the bare necessities.

Phase Five: Writer returns to more isolated, less frenzied writing schedule, and greater productivity.

Is anyone else seeing this as a trend? Is frenzied book promotion just not worth the effort as much anymore, because the costs are too high and there’s not enough payoff in terms of book sales? Does the whole thing interfere too much with the time it takes to write?
Thoughts?

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