Sometimes as writers, we have to wait on others to progress with our current works in progress. When you are waiting for the copy edits from your traditional publisher, for example, is one instance of this. We play the waiting game when we send in submissions, anticipate our advance reading copies, or expect our edits to come any day. It’s part of the game. What you need to do during this time of inactivity is to either work on your next project or focus on marketing strategies.
As part of my goals for this year as mentioned in an earlier post, I plan to have five releases. Two of these objectives have been met. Silver Serenade came out in a revised ebook edition and Died Blonde made a revised paperback debut. What about the rest?
I’m waiting on my developmental editor for Trimmed to Death, the next Bad Hair Day mystery. I’m waiting on my narrator for the audiobook edition of Body Wave. I’m waiting on my cover artist for the expanded second edition of Writing the Cozy Mystery.
Am I planning a marketing campaign for any of these projects or working on the next creative endeavor in the meantime? Sorry…but no. This break comes at a good time. Our daughter is getting married. My spare moments are taken up with researching bridal shower venues and mother-of-the-bride dresses. This is a big reason why you’re not hearing from me so much on this blog at present. If you like, I can discuss the restaurants we’ve visited and the beautiful dresses I’m seeing, but it’s not writing advice. It is life experience. Depends on which journey you want to read about here.
I’m not totally lazing about, however. I have been preparing three PowerPoint presentations for upcoming events. See my Appearances page if you wish to know where I’ll be speaking. And I’m revising Keeper of the Rings, an earlier science fiction romance. So I am still being productive even if it’s not on the three projects above.
Things are bound to get more intense as the nuptials get closer, so I might have to put off one of my planned releases until later in the year. A book release requires a lot of effort if you mean to send out review copies, write blogs for blog tours, plan launch parties, and more. And all of these three projects will require special attention in that way. So their releases will have to be spaced out accordingly.
What do you work on while you’re in a holding pattern for your current project?
While writing a novel, you are plodding along during the first half of your book, and all of a sudden you come to a halt. Now what? It’s too soon to start the revelations leading to the killer or to the romantic resolution. You need more material to make your word count. It’s also a good spot for a turning point in your plot. So what do you do? You face the blank white page and experience a sense of fear that your story will come up short. You’ve reached the dreaded Muddle in the Middle.
Do not panic. Instead, read your synopsis over again or review your chapter-by-chapter outline. Haven’t done them? Do so now. Reviewing what you’ve written will reveal plotting elements you might have forgotten or personal threads you can expand on. Here’s what else you can do:
Raise the body count.
This is especially easy in a murder mystery. Just throw in another dead body. Who is dead and why? Who could have done it? How does this deepen the primary mystery? Could two different killers be involved? What if this victim was your prime suspect? Who does that leave? A whole new investigation will start based on who is dead, and it may throw your sleuth’s earlier theories out the door. Now she has to go in another direction for answers.
Have an important character go missing.
If a character disappears mid-point in your story, that’s going to disrupt everyone’s plans. Is this person in jeopardy, or is he guilty of perpetrating the initial crime? Did another bad guy betray him? Or is this act staged, and the person isn’t really missing after all? How do your other characters feel about this missing person? Was he loved or despised? What efforts are being made to find him? How are the police treating his disappearing act?
Introduce a new character who shows up unexpectedly.
Think about a secret baby, secret lover, or secret sibling. Or a secret spouse. What is this person’s role in the mystery? How does his appearance change the investigation? Who was keeping this character’s identity a secret? This would be the time for that secret baby to come to light or the past husband no one knew about or the former girlfriend with a grudge. Or it could be someone who’s heard about the case and wants to cash in somehow. Could this new arrival be a fraud? How does his presence affect the other characters?
Resurrect a character thought to be dead.
This is possible if a death was staged, meaning no body was ever found, or the corpse was not identifiable. Is it someone who’d been gone for years or whose alleged murder started the current investigation? What made this person decide to reappear now? Or, what is the clue that leads the sleuth to believe this guy isn’t dead after all?
Steal a valuable object or return one.
Why was this item taken? Is it a clue to solving the mystery? Does it relate to another crime? Who took it and why? Is it meant to be a distraction from the murder investigation? Or was it part of the same crime all along? In the reverse, you could have a valuable object turn up, like a missing will or a more recent one that names a different heir.
Build on secrets and motives already present.
If you’ve laid the proper groundwork for your story, your characters have enough secrets, motives and hidden depths that you can explore as the story moves along. Write down each loose end as you review the high points and make sure you go down each trail until that thread is tied. Usually you’ll find you have enough material already hiding among your pages. Snippets of suspicions your characters mentioned can be plumped out until laid to rest. So give your people enough layers that peeling the onion takes the entire book. Except just when you thought you knew it all, throw in another twist like one of the points above.
What are your tips for getting through the muddled middle?
Do you have trouble with color descriptions when writing your novel? I can see colors fine except when I have to describe them in a story. Then I’ll say a character has brown eyes, is wearing a green top with khakis, and has her nails painted red. Remember the childhood refrain you learned to help you remember the colors? “Red and orange, green and blue. Shiny yellow, purple too. All the colors that we see, live up in the rainbow…” Anyway, that might not be an accurate rendition, but it’s how I remember the song. Rainbow colors alone don’t do justice to the myriad of shades out there. So I’ve written color charts for myself as a writing tool for when I need more interesting variations. You can also classify by categories, such as: Jewels—pearl, amethyst, emerald, ruby, sapphire, jade, garnet
Flowers—rose, lilac, daffodil, hibiscus, orchid
Minerals—onyx, copper, gold, silver, malachite, cobalt
Nature—thundercloud gray or leaf green or canary yellow Food—grape, cherry, orange, lemon, lime, cocoa, coffee, fudge, chocolate, peach, nut brown, pumpkin One of the best resources is a department store catalog. You can’t get more imaginative than their names for towels, sheets and sweaters. Thinking white? How about pearl, ivory, parchment or snow? You get the idea. And so I’ve created a file listing colors which I’ll share with you here. My only request is that you tell me what I’ve missed. Here we go. · BLACK: Jet, ebony, charcoal, raven, crow, coal, pitch, soot, ink, velvet, cast iron, midnight, onyx, obsidian · BROWN: Chestnut, auburn, nut, mahogany, walnut, hazel, fawn, copper, camel, caramel, cinnamon, russet, tawny, sandy, chocolate, maroon, tan, bronze, sun-ripened, coffee, rust, earth, sod, dusty, mud · GRAY: Silver, metallic, gunmetal, steel, cloudy, ashen, foggy, slate, leaden, stone, mist, platinum, smoky, mercury · WHITE: Milky, chalk, frost, snow, ivory, cream, pearl, opal, parchment · RED: Blood, apple, ruby, rusty, brick, fire engine, pink, rose · ORANGE: Tangerine, fire opal, sunset, kumquat, pumpkin, apricot · GREEN: Emerald, jade, apple, leaf, sea, grass, sage, basil, pea, olive, malachite, forest, lime · BLUE: Cobalt, indigo, sapphire, turquoise, azure, sky, navy, royal, deep sea, ink, ice, denim, Cerulean blue
Colors also convey emotions. For example, mud brown and toad green have a less pleasant connotation than chocolate brown and sea green. Browns, oranges, and reds are so-called “warm” colors while blue and green are “cool” colors or more soothing. So choose your hues carefully to enhance a scene. CLICK TO TWEET What’s your secret to describing colors? Do you prefer rainbow colors or more specific shades?
When writing a cozy mystery, you need to decide upon crime scene details even though interpersonal relations and not forensic investigations are your story’s focus. Here’s an example of what this means. For my next book, I decided to start the tale at a bake-off contest, but the setting bothered me. Our city fairs are held on athletic fields or a flat stretch of grass in a park. This doesn’t leave much opportunity to stash a dead body. I was telling this to my manicurist and mentioned that I needed a more interesting setting. She suggested Bedner’s Farm as a possible model for my story. The next day, my husband and I drove north to visit this farmer’s market in Boynton Beach. See my post for a report on this visit. The varied structures and grounds were ideal for my purposes, but I’d move my fictional site nearer to Marla’s hometown. Marla Vail is my hairstylist sleuth and the star of the Bad Hair Day Mysteries.
Now what? Francine Dodger is the target of the festival’s Find Franny scavenger hunt. I got this idea by looking up harvest festivals online. This drove me to research living scavenger hunts until I had an idea of how mine would work. Think about the five W’s when you’re in this phase. Who ends up dead? Let’s say Francine is the victim.
Where is she killed? How does she arrive there? Is she lured on purpose, or it is a crime of opportunity? Did the killer follow her? Determine Where-dunit. How does he do it? She could be drowned in a ditch. Water-filled canals line the U-pick rows. But other customers might be milling around there. Will it look like an accident or right away be identified as a homicide? She can fall down a silo. But what would make her climb up there in the first place? Or she could be runover by a tractor. What knowledge does the killer need? If the murder involves an equipment accident, it’ll have to involve someone who knows to operate the machinery. Ditto the hazards inside a silo. You don’t want to point the finger at a particular suspect like the farmer, because it’s too obvious. Maybe give one of the other characters a secret history of working on a farm or of selling agricultural machinery. If you poison a victim, who has knowledge about the type of poison used as well as access to it? Is it fast-acting enough for the circumstances, or do you need a slower more insidious death? What are the particular symptoms? Consider your means of murder very carefully when you’re making these decisions so your story will sound plausible. When does it happen? Think about not only the time of death, but also why not a week or a month ago? Why NOW? How does the killer get away? Does he have blood on his clothes? Are his shoes wet or muddy? Is he able to blend back into the crowd? How does he act when he encounters the heroine? Now let’s throw a wrench into the works. What if it’s a case of mistaken identity? He thought he had killed one woman but he got somebody else who was similarly attired. How will he react upon seeing his intended victim alive and well? This leads to another set of problems. It means he can’t see the victim’s face before he kills her, or he’ll realize it’s the wrong person. So again, we go back to Howdunit? Once you figure out these details, you’ll have to determine how your amateur sleuth stumbles across the dead body. And this is when the story actually begins. If you missed my previous posts on this topic, go here: Writing the Mystery – Whodunit Writing the Mystery – Whydunit Five Stages of Writing CLICK TO TWEET Booklover’s Bench Anniversary Giveaway, Feb. 1 – 18 Enter Here to win a Galaxy Tablet from Booklover’s Bench in our anniversary contest Save Save Save Save Save Save Save
In the previous post, we discussed character development. As you figure out each person’s goals and secrets, you need to determine how that character relates to the others. Think of a spider web. The victim is in the center, and all of the other threads are the suspects. Or visualize it as a character wheel with spokes. Whichever model you choose, you’ll want to connect the characters to each other.
Here are examples from my WIP to show you how it’s done. The characters are involved in a bake-off contest held during the spring festival at a local farm. Tally Riggs, my hairstylist sleuth’s best friend, met Becky Forest at a local historical museum. She told Tally about the bake-off. Becky, a scientist, is a cookbook author and curator of the museum. She studies plant remains of ancient peoples, including early Florida food practices. Every time Becky has a new cookbook out, she’s a guest on Chef Raquel Hayes’ TV show. Raquel, a judge at the bake-off contest and a TV chef, did something in the past that could scandalize her. Francine Dodger recognizes her on TV and threatens to spill her secret. Francine, a contestant at the bake-off, is a food magazine editor. While researching an article on the farm, she uncovers something that could ruin the owners’ reputation. Zach Kinsdale, eldest brother of four siblings who run the family farm, hasn’t told his two brothers and sister Janet about this looming disaster. Janet is married to Tony, who runs an import-export business. He sells his imported olive oils to Zach for the farm’s marketplace. But Janet suspects something unethical about her husband’s business. She’s the one who organized the bake-off since her husband’s company is a festival sponsor. Tony,Janet’s husband, is worried about an exposé that Francine has mentioned. He’s also concerned about Tristan Marsh, pastry chef at The Royal Palate and a judge at the show. Tristan has been making inquiries that concern him. He’s not the only one. Alyce Greene, a blogger who supports the farm-to-table movement, has been troublesome as well. Alyce is a contestant at the bake-off. She’s married to Jon, a food truck operator. Jon got a loan to start his business from Alyce’s brother, Steve Madison. Steve, an investment advisor, manages Tony’s accounts. And so on. You get the idea. It helps when the puzzle pieces fit together as a whole, but this process may take a while. In the meantime, allow your subconscious to stew on these ideas until story magic happens. The connections will pop into your brain. It’s a joyful moment when this occurs. It always does; you have to maintain faith in the creative process. Now you know as much about these people as I do. Next comes Writing the Mystery – Howdunit. CLICK HERE TO TWEET
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When I’m editing my next novel, one of the things I look for are word repetitions. Here is a perfect example of what I mean:
Marla took the printout from Keri. They’d better head over to Liam’s house while the day was still young. Later, he’d be busy getting ready for his charity event. She fumbled inside her purse and took out her checkbook.
“I appreciate your getting this information for us,” she told Keri. “How much do I owe you?”
Keri gave her a warm smile. “My rate is discounted to twenty dollars an hour for new clients. This didn’t take me much time at all, even though Liam keeps his home address private. So let’s call this a complimentary visit. Any referrals you can make my way would be appreciated.”
“Are you sure? You gave up your free time to meet with us today.”
“No problem. I had a few things to catch up on this afternoon anyway.”
“I appreciate it. If you ever come to Palm Haven, stop by my salon. I’ll return the favor.” Marla put away her checkbook and rose.
What word did I repeat? I used “appreciate” three times. Here is the revised version:
“I appreciate your getting this information for us,” she told Keri. “How much do I owe you?”
Keri gave her a warm smile. “My discounted rate for new clients is twenty dollars an hour. This didn’t take me much time at all, even though Liam keeps his home address private. So let’s consider it a complimentary visit. Any future referrals you can send my way would be welcome.”
“Are you sure? You gave up your free time to meet with us today.”
“No problem. I had a few things to catch up on this afternoon anyway.”
“That’s generous of you. If you’re ever in Palm Haven, stop by my salon and I’ll return the favor.” Marla put away her checkbook and rose.
Look for these types of word repetitions when revising your work. This is separate from a read-through where you try to pick up snatches of dialogue that repeat conversations between your characters. Often when you’re writing chapter-to-chapter, you lose track of what’s been revealed. Your editing sweeps should help you cut through the clutter and expose these faults. So be diligent and comb through your work as a detective might comb through his list of suspects.
It’s annoying, when I’m judging a writing contest or reading a self-published book, to find common mistakes that could be avoided with editorial help. Unfortunately, many beginning writers don’t even realize they need assistance. They’ll ask a friend or an inexperienced critique partner or a local English teacher to proofread their work, and the result is considered ready for publication. Think again. If you write fiction, you want an expert in the genre to edit your work and not the local journalist who has published nonfiction or the lit professor mired in academia.This post doesn’t apply to indie authors who know the ropes and have an expert eye screen their story.
Revise and polish your work as best you can before submission, whether to a writers contest or a publishing house or even to an editor you might hire. Here are ten common mistakes to avoid.
1. Create an Identifiable Main Character
Get us into the action right away with a sympathetic viewpoint character. Put us in her head and show us the world from her unique viewpoint. Make sure we can identify with this character throughout the story, so stay in her head as much as possible. Even when you use multiple viewpoints, we want to root for the hero.
2. Make Your Characters Likeable
Remember to address your character’s goals, motivation, and conflict. What does your character want? If she wanders aimlessly through life with no particular goals, that makes me as a reader less interested in her. Give me a reason why she behaves that way. Maybe she lacks confidence because of a past event. Maybe she’s afraid of failure. Knowing this will make the reader become more engaged with her. Give her redeemable qualities so we’ll like certain aspects of this person. If not, the reader won’t care, and that’s the death knell to your story. This also applies to the anti-hero. What makes him redeemable? Why should I, the reader, care about him? By balancing action with reaction, you’ll motivate your characters and make them more believable. For every action, you need a reaction. Don’t focus on plot to the exclusion of emotion. Makeme care about your characters’ lives.
3. Avoid Bouncing Heads
Don’t switch viewpoints in mid-scene. If you must switch viewpoints, use a space break. Don’t leap into the head of every minor character. We cannot know a person’s thoughts unless we’re in their mind. You have to infer what the other person is thinking through non-verbal cues or dialogue. It becomes very disconcerting when every character we meet has an internal dialogue. Then the story loses focus. Stay in one character’s head. When you switch, indicate it with a space break.
4. Establish the Setting Up Front
As soon as possible into the story, establish the place, season, and time of day. Remember your five senses of Who, What, Why, Where, and When. Try to work these into the opening pages. Examples: Crickets chirped their nightly summer chorus, or late afternoon sunlight glinted off an icicle hanging from the roof. Also, don’t mention a street name or landmark and assume the reader knows where this place is. Be specific and give a location. Use the five senses to bring your settings alive, but remember to describe them from your viewpoint character’s perspective.
5. Watch Your Use of Bad Language
The occasional curse word may be acceptable for a hero who’s a hardass or for a heroine in the urban fantasy genre, but elsewhere it may raise a reader’s hackles. It can also turn off some readers completely, so this language should be sprinkled in judiciously, if at all. Add it only if it helps to define a character, not because you believe it makes your protagonist seem tough. Ask yourself: Is this necessary? If not, leave it out. Or deploy a substitute, like “frak” on Battlestar Galactica. Remember the old adage: Less is better, especially if you want to expand your readership.
6. Show, Don’t Tell
To keep the pace flowing, use dialogue and action and minimal exposition. If you have long passages where nothing happens except the protagonist thinks to herself or explains what happened in the past, the story comes to a dead halt. You want to imbue a sense of immediacy to your story, and that won’t happen unless you involve the reader. Long meandering passages of narration may have been acceptable centuries ago, but that doesn’t work today. Show us what’s happening; don’t tell us.
7. Avoid Flashbacks Like the Plague (and don’t use clichés, either)
The first chapter is your only chance to grab the reader so she’ll continue your story. If you segue into a flashback, the forward momentum is lost. Who cares what happened in the past? Throw in a line or two of dialogue or introspection to show us how the past is relevant to the current action, and then move on. Or make it part of the story action, such as a confrontation with a friend or a hesitation on the part of the main character to perform some act. Work backstory into your chapter with minimal intrusion. Flashbacks, too, will kill pacing, so remove those long passages that reflect past scenes and not the present. Only retain what is necessary to explain the current action.
8. Every Conversation Should Have a Purpose
When I suggest you use dialogue generously, I don’t mean that two friends should get together and chat meaninglessly on matters that don’t move the story forward. Dialogue must serve a purpose: to reveal information, define character, move the plot ahead, offer reaction and reflection on what’s just occurred. So ask yourself as you approach a conversation, what do you want to get across in this segment? If you don’t have a point to make, delete the scene.
9. Use Character Tags Sparingly
Try to replace “he said” or “she said” with actions. Avoid adverbs and show the tone of the conversation in dialogue instead. Don’t use “he thought” or “he wondered” if you are in the character’s head. Do use italics for inner thoughts.
“You’d better not stick your nose where it doesn’t belong,” he said in an angry voice.
You’re telling me to mind my business? she thought. “I’ll do whatever it takes to find Angie’s killer,” she replied. “You’re the one who should watch your back.”
“Oh, yeah?” he sneered nastily. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“You’d better not stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.” He towered over me, as though his superior height could intimidate me into behaving.
You’re telling me to mind my own business?You’re the one who should watch your back. “I’ll do whatever it takes to find Angie’s killer.”
“Oh, yeah?” He jabbed his finger in the air. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
10. Proofread Your Work
Would you enjoy reading a book riddled with spelling errors or misplaced commas? No? Then why send one to a contest where mechanics are judged? Proofread your work for typos, dropped quotation marks, missing periods, and misspellings. Same goes for your work before you indie publish it. Get beta readers to help if you can, and definitely hire both a developmental and a copy editor. You want your work to appear professional, not only out of respect for your readers but also for your future career as an author. If the goal is to increase your readership, you’ll strive to publish a polished product so readers will want more.
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More and more authors are discovering the power of short fiction to market and promote their work. I’m certainly one of them. Several years ago, I promised my readers that I would write a short story a month in the run-up of the release of my next Kiki Lowenstein mystery book. Folks loved the pieces, my sales benefited, and I learned a lot in the process.
Guidelines for Writing Short Fiction
1. Concentrate on “one.” In my short stories, I typically write about one main character, one big problem, one setting, and one span of time.
2. Set it up fast. When they’re reading a short story, readers want to settle in quickly. Therefore, I try to work the “who, what, when, where and why” into my first paragraph. That gets my readers engaged as we explore the remaining question, “Whodunit?”
3. Craft your opening images so that they both paint a picture and set a mood for the reader. Promise your reader action and conflict from the get-go. Here’s an example: “The snow was busy blanketing our spirea bushes with a gentle white coverlet, while my mother slammed around a pot on the stove. At thirteen, I’m too old for hot chocolate, but my younger sisters, Eve and Edith, love it. Mom’s usually even-tempered when she cooks, but on this particular day, Mitt Romney had decided he wouldn’t make his third run for President. That made Mom mad. Hopping mad.”
4. Grab the reader fast. Your opening sentence should be a real show-stopper. Think of it as a baited hook that you’ll toss out into the ocean. Here’s an example, “If Mitt Romney had done his patriotic duty to our country, my mother wouldn’t be in jail today.”
5. Tell your reader the story, AFTER you tell it to yourself. It’s easy to get locked into a chronological narrative when we’re telling ourselves a story as we write it. As a result, we don’t always tell the most entertaining tale we could. Before you start writing, make a list of the things that must happen in the story and put them in chronological order. Order your information so that it makes the most impact.
6. Use this formula to help you get started: “First (inciting incident) happened to (character) and then that’s how (action started), and so (fill in the blank/more action) until (a conclusion is reached).” Example: “First Mom heard on the news that Romney wasn’t running, and that’s how she discovered that Dad wasn’t really volunteering down at Romney headquarters like he said he was, and so she followed him, and discovered he was having an affair with…a registered Democrat!” Once you encapsulate your entire short story in a sentence, you can charge ahead with confidence.
7. End with a bang! Whenever possible, I like to end my short fiction with a pithy observation or an ironic comment. The reader should feel a sense of (twisted) satisfaction. For example, “If she hadn’t dropped her ‘Mitt Romney for President’ button at the scene of the crime, Mom would have gotten away with murder. As they slapped the handcuffs on her and walked her toward the waiting police car, she yelled back at us, “See? None of this would have happened if we’d elected a good Republican into the White House!”
Do I break these rules? All the time. But I’ve developed my list as a useful template for pointing me in the right direction, even if I do wander off the suggested path.
Is it worth the time and effort? My short stories have proven to be extremely useful for keeping readers engaged between my books. I like to use the short format to expand on my characters, or to write about a situation that doesn’t warrant being explored in a full length book. You can see how this works in my Kiki Lowenstein Short Story Anthology #2. It’s only 99 cents. In particular, you might want look at the reader reviews about that particular anthology. Their comments have encouraged me to keep offering fiction in this short format.
Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about writing short fiction or any questions you might have. Joanna
Get a FREE e-book from Joanna For a free sample of Joanna’s work, send an email to her assistant, Sally Lippert at SALFL27@att.net and request your copy of Ink, Red, Dead (Book #3 in the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series).