Friday, March 22, 2019

To Prologue or Not to Prologue

Which writing advice tropes do you follow, and which do you ignore in your books and short stories? 

by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to this week’s question: I did a post for SleuthSayers, the other blog that I write for, that’s very personal to me. The post is “Sometimes The Big Sleep Comes Too Soon”. And it’s something a little different. More personal. But something everyone can relate to. Friends. Friendship. Regrets. Mortality. I lost two friends recently, I talk about them there. I don’t usually tout another post here, but this one is close to my heart and I hope you’ll check it out. Thanks.  


And now for today’s question:

There’s all kinds of writing advice tropes. People tell you to write what you know, don’t use flashbacks, don’t use the word “was” or “is”. No prologues. Don’t use adverbs. Don’t open on the weather. Don’t end on a preposition. Don’t use a thesaurus. Stephen King says, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” I find that sophomoric – and yes I got that from the thesaurus when I really wanted to say absurd. But it’s not a word I would use generally. The thesaurus is a great help. Of course – I also tend to use ‘of course’ a lot – you don’t want to get those hundred dollar words when a two dollar word will do. But the thesaurus is extremely helpful in helping you see things a little differently. But then he’s a lot more successful than me so maybe he knows something I don’t.

I follow or ignore any particular writing advice, depending on the story I’m working on. It’s not that I set out to be transgressive and break rules as an act of rebellion. I just do what works best for a particular story. I’m going to focus on one of those elements here: prologues. Personally, I find this one especially annoying. I like prologues…sometimes.

I’ve heard all the advice about not opening with prologues. And I think that might be good advice sometimes, but not all the time. And people who stop reading when they see the word “Prologue” might be missing out on some good stuff.

In my novel White Heat I open on chapter one – no prologue. Things get moving right away when a potential client comes into private eye Duke Rogers’ office with a job for him. In the sequel, Broken Windows, I start with a prologue.

If the prologue is simply to give backstory and exposition then maybe it’s not a good idea to open with it. But if the prologue opens on action, as it does in Broken Windows, which opens with a woman climbing to the top of the Hollywood Sign and jumping to her death, then it’s a different story. This prologue, which doesn’t involve the main character, hopefully intrigues the reader to want to find out who she is and why she jumped. And, once we get into the main story in chapter one, how she ties into that story.

In my World War II homefront mystery that I may have mentioned here previously, which will be coming out in, I think, 2020, I have both a prologue and an epilogue. I think they’re both appropriate to that story because those two sections take place in the present, whereas the body of the story takes place during the war. So they set up the action with characters that are related to or were in the main story. But they’re not exposition dumps. I think they frame the story and give it a certain perspective that just opening in the war years wouldn’t do.

Back in the day, when I was doing a different kind of writing, there was a producer who said if he saw ellipses in a script he would stop reading. Maybe he had a good reason for doing that. On the other hand, he may have missed out on some pretty good scripts, maybe even something he would have wanted to produce. Being so rigid, whether it’s ellipses or prologues – or other things – limits your possibilities. The key is whether those things work in the context of the story.

So that’s the bottom line for me. There are rules. And sometimes rules are made to be broken. As long as what you do works, go for it and be true to yourself and your story.

What do you think?

And now for the usual BSP:

The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Thursday, March 21, 2019


by Catriona (kind of)

Craft: Which writing advice tropes do you follow and which do you ignore?

Okay first: I'm going to finish my book on Friday. It's Wednesday. On Saturday, I'm setting off on a book tour/road trip en route to Vancouver and Left Coast Crime. And there's something else happening on Friday that I can't talk about (yet).

That's my excuse for what follows.

The worst writing advice I ever hear - and I hear it a lot - goes like this:
  • 2nd draft is 1st draft minus 10%
  • Omit needless words
  • Editing is cutting
  • etc etc see what I did there?
And the best riposte to it I've ever read came from the blessed Nick Hornby in one of his BELIEVER columns, which I read in a collection called TEN YEARS IN THE TUB.

I highly recommend it. Hornby wallows in these great books for 464 pages, listing the books he reads every month (as well as the books he buys), critiquing, appreciating, and puncturing pomposity while never compromising. The first chapter - to give you a taste - is called "Some ground rules; predictions for a baby's future employment; the opinions of grown-up critics; Legally Blonde". Who could resist that?

Over to Nick . . .

"Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone. You can’t read a review of, say, a Coetzee book without coming across the word “spare,” used invariably with approval; I just Googled “J. M. Coetzee + spare” and got 907 hits, almost all of them different. “Coetzee’s spare but multi-layered language,” “detached in tone and spare in style,” “layer upon layer of spare, exquisite sentences,” “Coetzee’s great gift—and it is a gift he extends to us—is in his spare and yet beautiful language,” “spare and powerful language,” “a chilling, spare book,” “paradoxically both spare and richly textured,” “spare, steely beauty.” Get it? Spare is good.
Coetzee, of course, is a great novelist, so I don’t think it’s snarky to point out that he’s not the funniest writer in the world. Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you’re doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they’re the first things to go. And there’s some stuff about the whole winnowing process that I just don’t get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words—entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty, if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there’s nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because it’s such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It’s also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers—treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won’t mind! Have you ever looked at the size of books in an airport bookstall? The truth is that people like superfluity. (And, conversely, the writers’ writers, the pruners and the winnowers, tend to have to live off critical approval rather than royalty checks.)" Hornby, N. (2004), Ten Years in the Tub, Believer Books, San Francisco.
And now back to Catriona, who will get this book finished and isn't sorry. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

You've got to pick a pocket or two... by Cathy Ace

CRAFT: Which writing advice tropes do you follow, and which do you ignore in your books and short stories?

“A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.” Wikipedia


These days the word “trope” is often used to mean “cliché”, so I’ll take it in that form for the purposes of today’s post, which is therefore going to be all about this: it’s important to know what the clichés of your sub-genre are, so you can use them, play with them, or avoid them. Rather than talk about lots of them (and there are a good number, whatever your sub-genre) I’m going to pick on one, and talk about that in depth. It’s close to my heart, having been one of the pivotal factors when I was writing THE WRONG BOY, my most recent novel.

Having become “known” for writing a traditional whodunit series and a cozy PI series, it was a bit of a risk to write a psychological suspense standalone. I know this. So why on earth did I do it, instead of just writing another Cait Morgan Mystery, or another WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery? In all honesty, because I HAD to do it. The story had been squirming around inside my head for some time, but I had to fulfill contracts before I could focus on it…then I did.

If you’ve ever read (or even heard of) Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, etc. etc. you’ll know that the concept of “the unreliable narrator” is all the rage!  I've loved that premise since I first read THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, so decided to read across the sub-genre of psychological suspense for about nine months, and found myself an entire football-stadium full of these liars…but have to admit I got a bit fed up with them all, having seen too much drug-taking, alcohol consumption, somehow-induced amnesia, pure willfulness, and some truly bizarre physical and mental illnesses being employed to make the unreliability “play” better. 
Hallie Ephron's favorite book by Agatha Christie!
You see, for me as a reader, I began to open books expecting unreliability, and then the trope loses its edge. 

So – how did I plan to deal with it? Use it? Ignore it? Well, my approach was to write THE WRONG BOY from five distinct viewpoints – each one being “unreliable” in their own way, because each person possessed different knowledge about the facts, and none could see the whole picture not only of what was going on around them, but also of themselves.

I also enjoyed playing with the other key trope in this area I knew readers would expect – twists, turns and reversals. That was great fun! 

Oh, and one other thing, I called it The Wrong BOY, despite the fact the three core characters are female…because…well, you know, there are a LOT of books with girl, woman, wife, sister, daughter, mother etc. etc. in the title, and that was another trope I didn’t want to use – so I played against that one from the start, with the titular “Boy” only being shown to the reader through the eyes of other characters until the end of the book. 

Maybe you'll consider reading my work? You can find out more about me, and it, here:

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Advice or No Advice?

Advice or No Advice—that is the question! 
Terry Shames here:

I have a sneaking suspicion that Steven King doesn’t keep handy little post-it notes to remind himself of writing advice. I suspect he just starts writing and writes until he gets to the end. But I’m not Stephen King, so I’m always finding little “reminder” notes to myself, cryptic things like:
                    "Deep POV" or  "Action/Reaction/Emotion/Action"
Yes, these are two actual notes I found on my desk just now.
I’m always reading articles and books about “how to” do some aspect of writing—how to approach your writing (by the seat of your pants, or by outlining) how to build a great plot, how to make your characters come alive, how setting can enhance your story, how to write a great synopsis. I attend workshops and always think I’ve finally found exactly the right writing advice. I write down the information and sometimes type it out….and then never look at it again. Last fall I went to a workshop where the writing advice seemed brilliant. I wrote it all down. And occasionally I think about it—usually when I’m stuck. But do I go back and read my notes? Not really. I can only hope is that some of it took root deep in my lizard brain.
There is a whole lot of advice I TRY to follow, such as:
-Start the book with a punch. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a murder, but it should be something intriguing. (I recently read The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, and I think it’s a perfect example of this.                                                     
-Leave the reader hanging at the end of each chapter so they want to read “just a little farther.”
-Be fair to your reader: Give the reader enough red herrings to fool them, but also enough clues to figure out whodunnit.
And there is some advice I don’t think is very useful:
-Write what you know. I do think it’s good advice, but “what you know” is misleading. You can learn a lot of stuff. I think what the advice actually means is to write what comes viscerally to you. Write what feels like your true self coming out.
-Don’t start with the weather. Pah! “it was a dark and stormy night.” is a wonderful line. It has been maligned all of out of proportion because the rest of the book is so bad. My advice would be, start where you want to. You may not end up keeping the lines, but you have to start somewhere, and weather can be a great metaphor.
Here’s some basic advice I follow:
1) Dig deep, and find the story that only you can tell. I suppose this is some version of “write what you know,” but when I finally listened to the advice and followed it, it felt much bigger than that. It felt like I began to understand the story I wanted to tell and the way I wanted to tell it.
2) Write the damn book! There are lots of ways people can get to that. Some write a few chapters, then revise thoroughly before they move on. Others charge through full-tilt, wanting to get the story down on the page before they attempt to revise. Whichever method works, the important thing is to actually do it. Writing the same fifty pages again and again for five years won’t get the book written.
There is one other bit of advice I’m trying to follow this year. It isn’t actually writing advice, but life advice"
      In 2019 there are 365 days, 8,760 hours. Use them wisely.

To me, that doesn’t mean I have to spend every moment writing or marketing books. A wise use of my time may be to go to an art gallery or take a walk. It may be having dinner with friends and really being present instead of thinking about my book. I think the advice works on many levels, and can be useful in writing, as well. What it means to me is to be aware of how I am spending my time. Even if it’s frittering away an hour, I’m not just frittering mindlessly. I’m giving myself permission to use the time in a way that best serves me in the moment. I can’t think of any better advice for a writer!

Monday, March 18, 2019

Advice to Take or Drop

Q: Which writing advice tropes do you follow, and which do you ignore in your books and short stories?

- from Susan

Trope:  a word or expression used in a figurative sense : figure of speech. b : a common or overused theme or device : cliché the usual horror movie tropes

Let’s go with b. Here are a few we hear often:

Write what you know.
Show don’t tell.
Something must happen on page one.
If you introduce a gun in the first act, the gun must be fired in the third.
In a mystery, the reader must get the same clues the amateur sleuth does.
Don’t introduce too many characters in the first chapter.
Don’t switch points of view in the middle of a paragraph/scene/chapter.
Don’t split infinitives.
Avoid slang that will date your story.

By this time, if you’re a writer or a reader, you’ve heard all these and more many times. And, yes, where it works, I follow them. But following all these and more makes a work formulaic, just as ignoring all good advice can lead to a mess of a manuscript no editor will buy. If you’re a writer with some experience, you know what will work for your manuscript, don’t you? And you know what bad writing is, so you do your darndest to avoid it.

I tend to follow basic, sensible literary formats, updated for today’s communication-heavy world. I ignore what I think should be ignored to make my manuscript as singular as I want it to be. And that’s my advice, trope or not.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Always leave 'em laughing

What do you remember about the first time you read your crime fiction work in progress or finished novel/short story to an audience?

From Abir

The first time I read from my own work was t a month after my first novel, ‘A Rising Man’, had been published in the UK. I’d been invited to a summer party, entitled ‘What’s Your Poison’ at Heffers in Cambridge, England, a bookshop which is a bit of an institution in those parts.

I was extremely grateful for the invite but had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I was one of sixteen authors who’d be reading from their work that night. 

I planned on reading the first few pages from the novel. As RJ mentioned on Tuesday, it’s often the best place to start in order to introduce potential readers to your story, especially when you’re a debut author. I remember taking the train from London, reading the section aloud, possibly worrying the other passengers. I did a bit of editing, honing the passage I was going to read, cutting out a few sentences or extraneous words, just to maintain the pace of the narrative.

I arrived at the station with a good thirty minutes to spare for what Google Maps told me was a fifteen-minute walk to the bookshop. I set off and promptly got lost, my phone making me turn left instead of right. After walking ten minutes in completely the wrong direction, my keen sense of direction told me that something was wrong. I turned my phone upside down and found I was now almost half an hour away with twenty minutes left before the start. So I decided to run. I should point out that this was the end of July, the height of the English summer, and I finally turned up just as things were about to kick off, a jabbering, sweaty mess.

It transpired that I was thirteenth on the bill. Which seemed apt. We were told that we had five minutes in which to introduce ourselves and our books and to give our readings. All seemed fine, but as the event unfolded and I awaited my turn, I noticed that almost all the authors were reading from the openings of their novels and many were running over their allotted five minute slots. It was a very warm evening and the attention of the audience seemed to be wavering after the first half dozen readings. Maybe it was the impact of all the dead bodies coming in quick succession. After all, this was an evening of crime fiction and you’ll be amazed by how many gruesome murders can take place in the first few pages of a dozen crime novels. Then an author came on who did something a bit different. She opened with a joke and then chose a passage, not from the start, but from midway through her novel which contained a few laughs. The audience hung on her every word and she went off to what seemed like a heartier applause than some others. 

That taught me something. You see, humour works. Humour entertains, even when it’s spelled wrongly by North Americans and is missing the ‘u’! I decided then to change my approach. I spent the next ten minutes frantically searching for a light-hearted passage in my novel that didn’t give away the plot, finding an appropriate section minutes before it was my turn to speak.

I went up, introduced myself while standing underneath a sign for second hand books, and read out my passage – rather badly as it happens. But it got some laughs, and it got me remembered, and afterwards an established author came up and gave me the ‘you done good, kid,’ speech.

I was thrilled.