Sunday, September 27, 2009

How Writing Non-Fiction Helps me Write Mysteries

I spend as much--if not more--time writing non-fiction as I do my mystery novels. At present, I write a monthly newspaper column, an online marketing column, my insurance courses, and several blogs.

I've found that writing non-fiction has greatly improved my fiction. Why? Well, first of all, when you have an entire story to tell in 500 words or less, you learn the importance of words. When I first started writing fiction, my books were LONG! Every edit that involved cutting a sentence, a paragraph, or (God forbid) a scene, broke my heart. Usually, these edits were initiated by my critique partner. Now I do it myself.

Then there's the internal editor. I can turn it off. When writing non-fiction, I churn out the piece quickly, allowing my unconscious to do its thing. Then I flip the editor switch on. Lawrence Block gives just that advice in his Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: write the first draft straight through and do the editing when it's finished. That's one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever followed. Of course, it's a lot easier to do with a 500 or 1,000-word article or newspaper column. But once you get in the habit...

Another item I was able to transfer from writing non-fiction to fiction was my Voice. When writing a column or article (usually in first or second person), it's so very easy to allow myself to come through in my writing. Of course, maybe you don't like the me that comes through--but I do, and so do one or two other people. I love to write in first person and, I believe, am a stronger writer when doing so than when I write in third person. I have seen my third person POVs grow stronger in recent years, however.

Finally, my non-fiction projects force me to write every single day. Perhaps I'm not writing more than a page or two a day on my current mystery, but I am writing.

Which is what we writers do, isn't it?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wasting Time

I'm one of those people who is hard-wired to do several things at once and to avoid anything that wastes my time. For example, I don't watch TV - I'm constitutionally unable to sit and just look at the TV screen. I don't visit the movie theater for the same reason. Well...that and the fact that people hate it when I talk during the movie.

I spent two days in Salt Lake City last week on business. One of the biggest time wasters in the world is air travel. You have to arrive at the airport 1-2 hours before your plane soars skyward to make sure you have enough time to check-in, check your luggage, and squirm through security. Even if you check-in online and only bring carryon luggage, you still need to get there early. wait.

I was sitting at Gate 5 forty minutes before my flight was scheduled to leave and I pulled out my laptop to work in my current book. Unfortunately, one of my fellow passengers decided to conduct business on his cell phone -- at the top of his voice, for twenty minutes. All 80 of us were treated to his conversations with three different clients and the details of their business situations. How much writing do you think I got done? BIG waste of time, sitting at Gate 5. Until I pulled out a book. (Not mine.)

Then, when I got on the plane and we'd reached the altitude where the flight attendants allowed us to use our laptops, I pulled mine out, planning on a good 90 minutes working on my current book. (The people who hired me to teach didn't send me direct to SLC, they decided to treat me to the scenie route via Seattle.) Unfortunately, the guy in the seat in front of me decided to take a nap and reclined his seat--practically into my lap. Which, you might think, is the perfect place for a laptop. But I find it much more comfortable to place my laptop on the seatback tray. I spent the same amount of time working on my book during the flight as I did at Gate 5. I did, however, get several chapters further along in my book. (No, not MY book - the book in my briefcase.)

My husband has been known to say that reading is a waste of time. Which figures, since he likes to waste his time watching the boob tube. And movies. Science fiction, shoot-em-up, testosterone-filled stupid movies.

I guess wasting time is different things to different people. Do you think these are time wasters?
  • Facebook
  • Watching TV
  • Reading
  • Watching sports (in-person or on TV)
  • Going for motorcycle rides
  • Having a beer (or several) at a bar/lounge

What do YOU think are times wasters?

Now that I have NOT wasted my time with this blog post, I'll get to work on my book. (Yes, MY book this time!)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Clustering - What is it and How Does it Work?

I recently read a blog post by Bill Kirton on his blog and it got me thinking about the wonderful technique called Clustering. Bill shared the story about how he recently encouraged several women, none of whom were writers, to create some fictional characters and how they met with resounding success.

Free-association allows the unconscious, creative part of our brain the freedom to access possibilities our conscious mind can't always access. Gabriele Rico wrote a book titled Writing the Natural Way. I've lent it to several people, some of whom never returned it--necessitating the purchase of a replacement copy. (More than once!) One of the creative writing techniques she teaches is called Clustering.

This is how her website describes it: "A non-linear brainstorming process, clustering makes the Design mind’s interior, invisible associations visible on a page. Clustering becomes a self-organizing process as words and phrases are spilled onto the page around a center. The Sign mind begins to see pattern and meaning, and the writing flows naturally into a vignette."

This is how she, herself, describes it: "A cluster is like an expanding universe, and each word is a potential galaxy: each galaxy in turn may throw out its own universe."

Even if you have no problems dreaming up plots and characters, even if your prose flows smoothly and swiftly at will, you'll benefit from this book. She also talks about many other creative processes and has written several books. Check her out at

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pets and Characterization

I've always marvelled at the number of writers who have pets. And I'm not talking about an occasional dog or cat here. I'm talking PETS, in the plural.
I recently discovered a blog, hosted by a Golden Retriever named Amigo, that interview pets who own authors. It's called Pets and Their Authors, and it's a riot. If you're a pet-lover, check it out.

Like many authors, I usually have a pet or three in my books and it wasn't until recently that I ever gave the practice more than a cursory thought. After some consideration, however, my conclusion convinced me--yet again--that my unconscious mind is far more adept than my conscious one.

Here's the revelation: using pets in a story is a delivery device for characterization. Without saying Mr. Mudd is a nasty, rotten, person, all we have to do is show him kicking Ms. Heroine's miniature Schnauzer when she's not looking. Instead of saying Mr. Right is kind and considerate, all we have to do is show him talking man-to-man to the heroine's French poodle--when she isn't looking, of course. Or, we can have a heroine who is accused of being cold and heartless and she can even act a little...cranky. But when we show her sitting on her front steps each evening as the sun goes down, stroking the cat on her lap, everyone will know she is a warm and caring person.

Pets bring out the best--or worst in people. Using them and their relationships with humans as a way to characterize helps us show and not tell. It also allows us to use animals as secondary characters--which adds variety to our stories, and presents some unusual challenges. It's also fun!
Tyson, the Rottie lying down in the top picture, had a thing for flashlight beams. Whenever he saw one (or mistakenly saw one--like the sun reflecting onto the ceiling off a knife sitting on the kitchen table), he'd flip out and chase it all over the place. Dusty, aka Oreo Cat, loved to slide between the bedspread and the blanket after the bed was made--when he wasn't hiding out in boxes and bags, that is. I'd come home from work and see a huge (20-lb) lump in the middle of the bed! Sammy, my husband's Moluccan cockatoo, is adopted. (Just like all the animals in our house.) Her original parents must have argued a LOT, because she role-plays arguments whenever we raise our voices--even if we're in a good mood. Whatever! Whatever! she'll shriek, flapping her wings and getting fluffy in the process. (I've omitted the X-rated words she also shrieks.)

Have any funny, or weird, pet stories of your own you want to share? Feel free.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What is Your Favorite Type of Book Setting?

Some people love the ocean; others prefer lakes or rivers. Some people would kill to live in smalltown USA and others gladly leave their entire family behind to move to the Big City.

Some readers love stories about the wild west and cowboys; others prefer books that take place in sophisticated cities, with fancy restaurants, designer clothes, and big bucks being tossed around.

Is the setting in your favorite book similar to the one in which you live? Or is it the polar-opposite? As a writer, do you use settings you know or are you constantly researching (and visiting) new locales for your stories and novels?

Sometimes, setting actually becomes a character, taking on a life of its own and foreshadowing events. It certainly sets the mood or tone of a story--everyone knows was a dark and gloomy night... Okay, so that one's overdone. But you get my point, don't you?

Personally, I hate it when the setting is overdone and the author leaves nothing to my imagination or personal preference. Yes, I'd like to have a rough idea of what the room looks like. But don't point out each piece of furniture in excruciating detail and then inform me of the precise locations of the five paintings in the room with respect to the three windows and two doors. Tell me the sky is blue and dotted with clouds and that the tree leaves are fluttering in the breeze. But don't describe the shapes of the clouds and list the fourteen different species of tress in the front yard. Or specify the precise shade of blue - I can handle that one myself.

What are your favorite, and least favorite, things about settings? Have any good ideas or tips? Please share!

Marketing: Carolina Conspiracy style

A number of mystery/suspense writers in North and South Carolina formed a group to help promote themselves. As you know, writers tend to be a bit on the shy and introverted side and self-promotion and marketing does not always come easy.

Click here to learn all about how to market in Carolina style.