Pushing Your Boundaries

 

By J.T. Ellison

To prepare for an upcoming meeting, I’ve been looking at a few of my earliest books. Last night I was reading my debut, and it was somewhat frustrating. Now, I can see all the mistakes: the thought inversions inside paragraphs, how things start slowly because I was setting up all the characters, dialogue interruptions—typical rookie mistakes. Throat clearing, as I like to call it.

Then, I didn’t know these things. I had passion and verve for storytelling, but I wasn’t the professional writer I am now, not at all. Yes, I’m being rather hard on my debut self, but I’d love to take apart that first book and make it more in line with my later ones. Happily, it remains a fan favorite. These are tiny details readers aren’t going to fuss over. It’s just me and my overdeveloped sense of perfectionism.

Nineteen books later, I am a much stronger writer. I know how vital it is to get the story started immediately instead of worrying about setting things up. My voice is the same, but the stylistic choices have changed. I go for the impact immediately, don’t write nearly as flowery, work out the plots beforehand to assure the greatest story impact.

That’s what two million words and ten years does for a writer.

But it’s not enough, is it? It’s never enough. We want to learn and grow, to push ourselves. And to do that, you have to get better at your craft.

I liken this struggle to baseball. You can’t win the World Series every year. But if you have all the right components, you can make it to the playoffs regularly. That’s what I try to do. I try so hard to make every book the best I’ve ever written. I push all the boundaries, pull out all the stops, tweak and caress my story and my characters. I want the World Series every time, damn it, though sometimes that is out of the writer’s control. Life, the market, the world get in the way.

But the playoffs are achievable, if you work hard and never give up.

Every once in a while, that World-Series-possible book comes along. You pull together something new and different. A book that stands apart. These are the books that nearly kill you, that break every rule you’ve ever learned, that keep you up late, that drive you to the page daily. They help you level up your writing.

I’ve had three of these books. Three out of nineteen. Three books that I knew were the best work I had in me at the time. That I’d left everything on the page. The old “open a vein and bleed” adage stands true. When you leave it all on the page, it will show.

One of these three books comes out September 5. It’s called LIE TO ME, and I pushed every boundary I could with it. From structure to setting to topics and POV, I forced myself to take chance after chance to make it work.

Will it? I don’t know. Only the readers can truly affirm that for us. I do wonder if ten years from now, I’ll look at it and cringe. If I’ll see the mistakes, see the paths less traveled I should have taken.

Here are some suggestions for ways to level-up your own writing:

  • Read widely, in and out of your genre
    Though I write almost exclusively in the thriller world, I get some of my best ideas from reading YA fantasy. Fantasy world-building is an incredible guide to developing solid crime fiction. It gives you a new landscape to think about, and for me, that tends to jar loose all kinds of ideas on how to expand my own concrete universe. I also keep up with several brilliant crime fiction writers whom I greatly respect, to see how they grow over the years. Karin Slaughter, Lisa Gardner, and Daniel Silva come to mind. These are writers at the top of their game, and still getting better with each book. They are utterly inspiring to me, living proof it’s possible to grow as a writer.

 

  • Travel to new and interesting locales
  • This is writing 101, really, but putting yourself in the shoes of other people will truly allow you to explore different story ideas and expand your realities. Whenever I have a foreign locale in my books, I make a point to travel there while the book is being constructed, or during editorial. I’ve saved myself from major mistakes by doing this. Sometimes, the Googles don’t give you the best information. Plus, it is my firm belief you have to smell a city, taste its food, walk its streets, to get to its heart. It’s something no one but you can process and extrapolate onto the page, almost as important as the concept of voice.

 

  • Do some hands-on research
  • One of my books that leveled-up did so because I finally plucked up the courage to attend several autopsies. I write a medical examiner, and while I’d done a ton of research to make her character real––virtual autopsies, reading autopsy reports, detailed conversations with medical examiners and death investigators—it wasn’t until I stuck my head inside a chest cavity that I got a real sense for what my character’s job entailed. Hearing the saws, dissecting tissues, taking vitreous fluids, discovering the cause of death, it all changed me, and as such, changed my writing. The book I was working on came alive in so many ways when I had that textural context to pull from, and I still draw on those experiences to explore my character’s world. For my co-written FBI series, I visited the FBI in New York. For my homicide squad series, I did ride-alongs. New experiences are the easiest way to take a step forward in your work.

 

  • Get out of your comfort zone
  • If you only write first person POV, make a shift to close third. If your mired in past tense, switch to first. I literally just finished a novel draft that simply wasn’t working, because it was written in third close past tense. I shifted it to present tense and it was suddenly real, visceral, and lightning fast. Was it a lot of work to change 100k from past to present? Yes. But it was right for the story. Being lazy with your writing is a surefire way to get caught in a rut.

 

  • Move your series/standalone to a new locale, or spin off a character for a new storyline
  • My novels are mostly based in Nashville, Tennessee. There came a point, eight novels into the series, that it was getting rather hard to believe the characters were facing the same issues yet again. So I took the drastic step of spinning off a main character and moving her to another city. Bam! Immediately, the world grew larger, the canvas was broader, and I had a whole new set of people and locations to work with. This move probably saved my writing career, by the way… it breathed new life into a beloved but squarely mid-list series.

 

  • If you write series, try a standalone, and vice versa
  • When I got into publishing, series were all the rage. Now, standalones are wildly popular. The market shifts. Be willing to shift with it, and you could truly up your game. Now, this isn’t a recommendation to chase trends, not at all. You still need your own original, brilliant concepts. But if the market is clearly moving one way, and you stay put, you may see publishing stride ahead without you. Take a chance, and see what shakes out.

Have you written a book or story you feel elevated your craft? Do you have any leveling-up advice of your own? And for the readers, have you read one by a favorite author that’s a real standout?

So many thanks for having me on today! What an honor to speak to TKZ’s awesome audience!

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of eighteen critically acclaimed novels, including LIE TO MENO ONE KNOWSWHAT LIES BEHIND, and ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, and is the coauthor of the “A Brit in the FBI” series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. J.T. also cohosts the EMMY® Award-winning television series A Word on Words.

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Writing Backwards: Sometimes It Works (Guest: Laura Benedict)

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

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Before Laura Benedict joined TKZ as a new member recently, I had lined her up for a guest spot when her new book would be launched. I hope you’ll indulge us in allowing me to keep my promise in featuring Laura and her work. Take it away, Laura.

***

When I decided that I wanted to write a series of suspense novels, I didn’t do what many writers do: plunge a character into earth-shattering change, see how they respond, rebuild their world, have a successful conclusion to the story (meaning they survive), and move on to the next book. No, I wrote a different sort of series.

My vision of the Bliss House novels came to me all at once: five novels set in the life of a grand house that was built in Virginia in 1878 by a Long Island carpetbagger named Randolph Bliss. I knew Randolph Bliss to be an evil sumbitch, but he couldn’t be my series protagonist because of the extended time period, 1876-2014,—though since the supernatural is involved, I guess he technically could have been the protagonist. But the stories that came to me weren’t primarily about Randolph, or any other human. Their common actor, the character that drives the stories, stirs up and engages in conflict, and even changes over the years, is Bliss House itself.

I wrote three Bliss House novels: Bliss House was published in 2014, Charlotte’s Story in 2015, and The Abandoned Heart comes out next week, on October 11th.

Rather than start the saga of Bliss House with the house’s initial construction, I wrote the last book, first. Bliss House is a contemporary novel, set around 2014. By starting at the end, I was able to jumpstart the series with a story in which my protagonist was at its most powerful. (To be clear, though, the series is actually more of a collection of novels than a series. They all work as standalones.)

Oh, did I mention that Bliss House is haunted?

I had long wanted to write a haunted house novel. My favorite gothics—Jane Eyre and Rebecca—are set in houses that heavily influence the novels’ action. And then there are the novels with actively haunted houses: The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, Hell House, The Turn of the Screw. The Haunting of Hill House, and The Turn of the Screw appeal to me because it’s possible to imagine that their hauntings are psychological, rather than organic. One of the premises of the Bliss House novels is that a house can be imprinted with the personalities and acts of its inhabitants. Thus, by 2014, Bliss House is replete with acts of both evil and goodness. But imprinting can work both ways: a story’s characters can be heavily influenced and even changed—physically and emotionally—by a house’s personality.

Think about your own experience with houses or even other types of buildings. There are buildings that make us feel good, and energized. And then there are the places that seem to sap our energy—a house, a school, a garage, a basement—places where we’ve experienced trauma, or that signal that something is just not right. Sometimes it has to do with unsettling angles and corners. Architecture can be claustrophobic or unfriendly. Every building has a distinct personality.

Years ago I saw a film called The Enchanted Cottage and was mesmerized by its plot: a disfigured WWII pilot played by Robert Young marries a homely young woman played by Dorothy McGuire. They settle in a charming honeymoon cottage in the English countryside, and soon after their marriage, they begin to see each other differently. Whole and attractive. They’re certain that the cottage has worked some magic on them, and they’re eager to surprise their loved ones with the happy results. Of course, it’s revealed to them that they have not physically changed, but now simply see each other through the eyes of love. It’s an unabashedly romantic story, originally written as a play produced just after WWI. I am no eager fan of romantic stories, but I am fond of fairy tales with hints of darkness. Perhaps I’m the only one who saw the possibilities of darkness in this story, of the house that might have manipulated these two people for its own reasons. Was it to trick them? To expose their deepest fears and wishes?

But back to the writing backwards thing. I knew from the moment I wrote the first lines in Chapter One of Bliss House that whatever was manipulating the house’s inhabitants was threaded through the very ground on which it was built:

“The blindfold kept Allison from seeing, but the chilly air around her smelled sweet and damp. There were flowers nearby—roses, she guessed—and the drip drip drip of water. They might be underground, even in a cave.
How thrilling!”

I knew Randolph Bliss and his two (consecutive) wives were at the heart of the story that began nearly a century and a half earlier. There are elements in Bliss House whose significance isn’t seen until they’re introduced in The Abandoned Heart. And there are many things in The Abandoned Heart that I couldn’t see clearly until I had written Charlotte’s Story, which takes place in the 1950s.

I remember thinking that it might be somewhat easier to write the Bliss House novels starting with the last one, rather than starting in 1878. It was not. When a book is written and published, the story is pretty much set in stone. Family lineage of the characters is already chosen and established, including numbers of siblings, and physical traits. The geography is set. The house’s reputation as a dangerous place has to be carefully constructed in order to make it reflect the first (last) book.

The one constant had to be the house, even though its appearance and bearing changes with each book. When Rainey Bliss Adams buys it in 2014, it’s in considerable disrepair because its incarnation as an inn that was the site of a brutal murder meant it was vacant for several years. Rainey makes it the showplace it was when it was first built. In the mid 1950s, in Charlotte’s Story, Bliss House bears the gothic heaviness of a house that’s seen three generations of devastating secrets. But Bliss House truly shines in The Abandoned Heart. It smells of new wood, and new gardens. It’s filled with paintings and exquisite rugs and European furniture. It is surrounded by newly-planted orchards and centuries-old woodlands. Most of its secrets are unborn, and the ones extant are fresh, and perhaps not yet dangerous.

If you read the Bliss House books, feel free to start with the last. Or the first. Or even the middle one. I don’t mind.

To move back in time the way I did seems a little crazy to me now. But the only way to be true to a story is to tell it the way it presents itself. Sometimes stories aren’t logical or easy. Here, backwards isn’t a gimmick. It’s just the way the story happened. I was lucky this time around to have a publisher who didn’t mind my doing something a bit unconventional.

I haven’t decided if The Abandoned Heart is the last you’ll hear of Bliss House. A hundred-plus year-old house has a lot of stories living inside it, and clamoring to be told. Ghosts are…noisy.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Have you ever tried writing a series backwards? Or did you find new inspiration for a series by discovering a great backstory to write about?

2.) Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had experiences with the dead?

The Abandoned Heart is available for pre-order HERE, and will be in stores on Tuesday, October 11th. Laura will be touring throughout October and early November in Missouri, Southern Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia. Check her list of appearances HERE.

Charlotte’s Story, the second Bliss House Novel is out now.

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Website: http://www.laurabenedict.com/

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/laura_benedict/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurabenedict

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLauraBenedict/

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Evocative Suspense Author Sue Coletta on VOICE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

WingsOfMayhem

I’m proud to have longstanding TKZ member, Sue Coletta as my guest today. This is her first time here as a featured author. Not only is she usually one of the first to comment on each post, but I’ve seen her grow as a writer. I enjoyed her first book MARRED, with its strong voice and dark eerie tone, and I’m currently reading WINGS OF MAYHEM and thoroughly enjoying the voice of her protagonist, Shawnee Daniels. Take it away, Sue, and welcome!

Sue Coletta on VOICE

When we first begin our writing journey voice is one of things that’s nearly impossible to define, never mind discover. For years I kept hoping to find my writer’s voice, but I had no idea where to look. Deep within myself? Through hours and hours of practice would it suddenly appear? What was this mysterious “voice” everyone spoke about? And why didn’t I have one?

Perhaps what agents and editors were referring to was that perfect blend of style, rhythm, and cadence that make up the mysterious writer’s voice. Maybe it’s like trying to define the difference between graffiti and street art. I may not be able to put it into words, but I’ll know it when I see it.

When I look back on those days I wish someone would’ve told me, with a clear definition, how to develop my voice. And then one day something magical happened. I was reading the most amazing craft book I’d ever encountered, the book that transformed my writing life in an instant. I’m referring to Story Engineering by TKZ’s own Larry Brooks.

When I learned about the three dimensions of character I found my writer’s voice. I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?

Today, I would describe voice as the combination of syntax, diction, punctuation, dialogue, sentence rhythm, and character development within one story or across many novels. It’s unique to you. Just as a flute doesn’t sound like a clarinet, neither does one writer from another.

How awesome is that?

We all use the same 26 letters, and yet, no two authors will write the same scene the same way. One writer might use run-on sentences that go on for miles. Whereas another loads the story with short, punchy fragments. Neither is wrong; it’s a matter of personal style.

But style isn’t the only thing that makes up the writer’s voice.

By knowing our characters intimately, by understanding their hopes, their dreams, their backgrounds, scars, flaws, nervous ticks, religious beliefs, world views, what they fear, what they strive for, what they want more than anything else…we can slip into their skin and write using their voice. Not only in dialogue, but in the narrative as well—also known as narrative voice.

Take, for instance, my protagonist in Wings of Mayhem. Shawnee Daniels is a wise-cracking, snarky chic who was raised on the city streets. The way she views the world is much different than her librarian best friend, Nadine. Shawnee is overly cautious. She swears, has huge trust issues, and in a lot of ways, she’s her own worst enemy. Where Shawnee might see danger, Nadine, who was raised in a loving and often sheltered environment, would see an opportunity. Nadine never swears. Instead, she uses words like “ship” and “fleakin’”. She’s a glass-half-full type of girl. Shawnee’s glass barely has a drop in it.

Nadine’s dialogue is filled with words like “Woot!” She waves jazz hands and bounces on her toes when she’s excited. Shawnee is her polar opposite. She would never be caught dead waving a jazz hand in the air and she certainly would never use the word “Woot.” Because she’d never do these things in the dialogue, I can’t let her do it in the narrative, either, or the story would lose its narrative voice.

In Wings of Mayhem I alternated chapters between Shawnee, Detective Levaughn Samuels, and Jack Delsin, my antagonist. Each have their own way of viewing the world around them and, more importantly, the situation they’re in. I couldn’t write the narrative in the same way or it wouldn’t be unique to each character.

Where Shawnee believes everyone is after her, Detective Levaughn Samuels is more level-headed. In his narrative I used contractions like I did with Shawnee, but the tone is different. He views the world with a calm, rational, detective’s perspective. When he looks at a crime scene his stomach doesn’t scream in protest. But Shawnee’s does.

While examining a murder victim, Levaughn would narrate the facts, the wounds/injuries, his theory of the case, etc. Shawnee would be too distracted by the blowflies. She might gape at the victim’s smeared mascara, or narrow in on the thick, bluish film veiling the victim’s eyes. But Levaughn wouldn’t mention that because all corpses develop corneal clouding. It’s a natural occurrence that develops 2-3 days after death, depending on the environment in which the body is found.

By remaining true to our characters in dialogue as well as narrative we breathe life into the story. Thus, filling it with voice.

For Discussion:
Over to you, TKZers. What tips have helped you develop your writer’s voice?

Sue Coletta

Suspense Author Sue Coletta

BIOMember of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is always searching for new ways to commit murder…on the page. She’s the author of Wings of Mayhem, Marred, Crime Writer’s Research, and 60 Ways to Murder Your Characters. She’s published in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive, Murder, USA anthology, InSinC Quarterly, and in the upcoming dark fiction anthology, RUN. The founder of #ACrimeChat, which takes place every Wed. on Twitter, Sue also runs a popular crime resource blog, where she shares her love of research…forensics, police procedures, serial killers, and true crime stories. You can learn more about Sue and her books at: www.suecoletta.com

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Print and audio coming soon from Crossroad Press!

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