Monday, October 18, 2021

Thoughts on Cringing

 Q: Is there any of your published writing that you’re not particularly proud of any more? Give us an example of something you’ve written that made you cringe. Why does it make you feel that way and what have you learned since you wrote it?

- from Susan

The question means my crime writing fiction, I think? I’ve written and had published a lot more than that over time. (At a convention bar, ask me about my hard-hitting investigative reporting on a local funeral home and crematorium.) 

Probably a few passages I’d like to do over, but I haven’t gone back to read all or most of any book that’s already in print unless I have lost track of something specific that I’m carrying forward. In general, some places in the early books were longer on flashbacks than I now think are the best way to keep a story moving forward. I found “echoes” (word used in close proximity to the same word) as soon as one book came out. I didn’t catch them and the person at the publisher’s responsible for re-flowing the text after the proofreader and I had a go inadvertently lined up a couple right underneath each other. That was a definitely cringy.

If I think about some early books, I am not happy some plots and sometimes think my solutions fell short, either too twisty or not twisty enough. I’ve had several commenters complain (or at least I think they’re complaints) that my French mysteries start slowly, but that was deliberate. In a way, those books are novels with unexplained deaths in them. My choice. With every manuscript, I’ve tried really hard to look at the text objectively, to be attuned to language, semantics, style, and tone before I even turn it in to my agent for her review. One hard part – and where I have had a couple of cringy moments – is when I use what I’ve been told by someone is a current slang word in French, only to find out it’s out of date or uglier than I understood it to be. So far – knock on wood – my editors haven’t given me pages of notes that would make me want to go hide, but who knows, maybe next time. 

Having said that, I’m sure that I would find things to squirm about in every book if I went looking in detail. I hope I’m a better writer in 2021 than I was in 2008 when my first book sold. I always want the next book to be much better than the ones before. I learn to write by reading other books, some of which are staggeringly good. Plots, settings, character strength and distinctiveness, slow burn humor…But even the novels that fall short of my expectations have much to show me, a lot of it positive. There are an awful lot of good writers out there, including those I share this blog with!

                                                The way I'd like to think of my books.

                    What my little Pumpkin thinks of the way I'd like to think of my books.






Friday, October 15, 2021

Style Counsel

 by Abir

Has your writing style evolved over the years? If so, tell us how, and what the drivers of those changes were.

I’m going to tell you a secret. I find it hard to read, A Rising Man, my first published novel. I only started writing it 2014, and it was published a mere five years ago, but I find myself cringing at so many passages: so many clunky turns of phrase; so many over-florid metaphors; so many over-detailed descriptions. 


I find it difficult to read the second novel, A Necessary Evil, too, though it’s a bit easier than the first book. The third book, Smoke and Ashes, I can read pretty much the whole way through without getting upset (don’t get me wrong, I don’t make a habit of reading my own books – I’ve got better things to do, but sometimes you end up having to go through the previous books in a series to make sure you’re keeping your facts consistent. I once sent my character, Sam Wyndham to a Buddhist monastery at the end of a book, only to forget and for that to become a Hindu ashram in the next book – that was fun getting out of.)


Back to the matter of writing style. I’d say that the greatest evolution in my writing occurred between the first and second drafts of my first book. I remember receiving the edits on the first draft and it was covered in red ink. At first it was rather soul destroying, but then, I set to work, absorbing the comments, distilling the advice, learning the craft of writing.


I learned about pace and the beats of a novel – the need to maintain tension and how to keep the reader turning the page. I learned how to say more with less – how one vivid line of imagery was better than a dull but factually accurate paragraph of description. I learned the need for tight plotting and to bear in mind that crime fiction readers are amongst the most sophisticated of readerships – they expect a high level of intricacy in the plotting and they can’t be taken for granted. I learned about dialogue and about the humour, especially dark humour, can help transform your characters and your novel.


I’d say that my journey to writing what I believe is a competent novel took those first three books. Smoke and Ashes is probably the book I’ve written that I think achieves its potential. But life, and writing, is about growth and improvement. That book fulfilled its potential, because the objectives I set when I wrote it were limited. I wanted to write a thriller, from one point of view, weaving real history with fiction – and that was fine. But with the next book, Death in the East, I set my sights higher. I wanted to write a more complex novel – one with two timelines, two geographically different settings and a story that was an allegory for what was happening in the world at the time and place I was writing (post Brexit vote Britain). That was a much more complex novel. I think it’s a better novel than the first three, but I don’t think I achieved the all of what I’d set out to do. There are parts of it I’m not happy with – and I suppose from a writer’s perspective, that’s probably a good thing. It means there’s room for me to improve.


My fifth novel, The Shadows of Men, comes out next month and once again I’ve tried to push myself to do things I have done before. Once again it’s allegorical – this time holding up a mirror to the rise of Hindu nationalism in modern day India, but for the first time, I’m writing from more than one perspective. This is the first book where we hear directly from my co-lead, Suren Banerjee, as well as from my detective Sam Wyndham. Writing in a different voice was a learning experience for me. Indeed much of the re-write for the second draft involved tweaking Suren’s voice – differentiating it from Sam’s, making it clearer and more distinctive. I’m happier with this novel than I am with Death in the East, but again there’s room for improvement and room to grow.


I’m currently writing a standalone novel – the first time I’ve written anything outside of the Wyndham and Banerjee series – and it feels like going back to the drawing board again. I’m learning so much, re-learning some stuff, and understanding the complexities of writing something quite different from what I’ve produced to date. In a way its humbling to realise how much I still have to learn, but importantly it’s challenging, and that challenge to improve, to grow is, I think, what keeps our writing fresh. The last thing I want is for writing to become easy, for me to write a novel which is no more challenging than the last one. Because if I’m not pushing myself in my writing, I’m not doing my readers the service of giving them the best book I’m capable of. And they would realise that.


So yeah, my writing style has evolved, and it continues to evolve – driven by advice from fantastic editors, feedback from readers, my own reading of the works of writers far better than me, and my general growth as a writer. I hope there will never come a point where my writing stagnates, where there is nothing new or more challenging in a novel compared to the last one. Fortunately I’m still so close to the bottom of the mountain that that's not likely to happen any time soon.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Talkin’ ’bout My Evolution

Has your writing style evolved over the years? If so, tell us how, and what the drivers of those changes were.

I know my writing style has evolved over the years. To quantify how much is hard to say, but I feel I have progressed, nay, improved, as a writer. That’s not to say I’m a fine writer or even a serviceable one. It only means I’m better today than I was yesterday. And certainly an improvement over what I was when my first book was published.

Let’s discuss how I think my writing has improved first, then which factors drove those improvements.

1. Characterization. I believe my characters—especially Ellie Stone—have become more nuanced with each book (seven to date) in the series. This is a natural progression, of course. The more I’ve come to know my heroine, the more distinctive and fleshed out she’s become. Ellie was raw in Styx & Stone, the first book of the series. The tragedies that had befallen her came to a head in that first installment, providing me with an opening to develop her story in a different direction going forward in time. Now her demons could live in her head, instead of in her reality. Those tragedies allowed me to maroon Ellie in a world where all decisions she made were her own, without concern for people who might make demands of her and judge her morality.

I also found myself building on the foundation of characterization that I’d laid down in Styx & Stone. At times that foundation hamstrung me. I couldn’t change what I’d already put to paper, so Ellie was not going to be an Amazon who brawled her way out of scrapes. And she wasn’t going to be transformed into a “nice girl” who conformed to society’s expectations. No, I’d made her bed, and—for better or worse—Ellie was going to have sleep in it.

So I worked hard on her professional growth, and I paid particular attention to her empathy, all the while trying to hone her devastating wit and superior intelligence. In Turn to Stone, she puts both on full display as witnessed in her dealings with insistent men and a grieving child who’s just lost her father.

2. Pacing. I have been guilty of taking my sweet time in telling my stories. I often say that writing a novel is an exercise in putting off the ending for as long as the reader will tolerate—and enjoy—the delay. But for my next book, Bombay Monsoon (December 2022), I was forced to confront my wordy inclinations and cut, cut, cut. I learned, for example, that while part of Ellie Stone’s charm is her idiosyncratic narration, the same would not work for a new hero in what I hoped would be categorized as a “thriller.”

3. Research. I’ve gotten better at challenging myself on every detail. Every word. Is that the exact term I want? Does it mean what I think it does? Is there a better word? A richer word? I’ve long urged writers to “know what you don’t know.” Too often, we  fall victim to hubris and believe we know what we, in fact, do not know. It runs the gamut from grammar to historical dates to science to anachronisms. And I’ve been guilty of these sins, too. Yet, I strive every day to stop myself and take that one extra step. Check the facts. I even leave notes for my editors in my manuscripts now, just to let them know I’ve verified the reference in question. Saves time and effort later on.

4. Sensitivity. I hope I’ve grown as a human being since I wrote my first book. I try to police myself and temper those words and descriptions that might offend others. I want to punch up instead of down, even if my past punching down was meant in jest and without malice. It wasn’t right. I know words can hurt. My books are set in the past, which means this is something I must bear in mind perhaps more often than if I wrote books set in today’s world.

5. Wordsmithing. I love language. I love words and grammar and etymology. I want to use the best words and make my prose sparkle. Of course, this is a dangerous desire. One toe over the line turns a beautiful sentence into an object of ridicule. Still, I care about every word, each clause, and all the sentences. I fail to perfect them, to be sure, but I’m always trying. There’s no such thing as a perfect book or story, after all. But if you’re not aiming for that—well—you’re settling, aren’t you? And, for me, a perfect novel or story needs a perfect story and perfect storytelling.

Now for part two. 

What has driven these changes in my writing? I’ll list them without comment. I’ve learned them and used them all. I recommend them to any writer, no matter how established and revered. 

1. Humility

2. Honesty/introspection

3. Experience/Maturity

4. Revision

5. Tears

6. Smiles

7. Reading

8. Ambition

9. Hard work

10. Professionalism

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Little Pizzazz

Has your writing style evolved over the years? If so, tell us how, and what the drivers of those changes were.

by Dietrich

I don’t know if my style has changed that much, but, there’s a different approach going from one story to the next — a different attitude, rhythm, tone, and pace.

The early novels were set in present time, and I used simple language and often relied on short, clipped or fragmented sentences, which lent a staccato rhythm. When I started writing historical novels, I went a little longer, using more imagery to paint the scenes of times gone by, altering the syntax and the tone which seemed to better suit the time period.

Whatever the story, I let the words find a natural rhythm and pace. And I’m aware that it’s easier to find that zone now than when I started out.

I’m not sure how much it has to do with style, but my confidence has gained ground over the years. I don’t delete or ball up nearly as much paper when penning that first dummy run, not thinking what I just wrote is shit. So, I’m better at knowing when something is working or not. And I’ve become better at self-editing, knowing what should stay, and what should go. As I work toward a polished draft, I get a feeling when I’ve got it right. When I started out, there was more guesswork, much more guesswork.

From the start, I relied on dialogue, having fun giving the characters their banter, letting their words carry the scenes. There’s often something implied by their own speech or actions, more than what the words alone are telling. When it feels like I’m just sitting back typing as they talk, then I know I’m on the right track.   

Since the early books, I started making a habit of reading chapters back out loud. When something isn’t right, it’s easier to spot, like hearing a false note. 

I’m an avid reader, more now than a few years ago. There’s so much inspiration between the pages of a good book, and luckily there are so many out there — new ones, old ones, in every genre. There’s nothing like reading a novel, putting it down at the end and going, “Wow!” And reading something outstanding has always had a way of making me want to pull up my own socks.

So, my approach may have evolved, and some methods have improved, and doing it every day has built confidence. One thing that’s stayed constant is the drive to do it, fueled by the pure joy of storytelling.

My new one is historical, and it’s based on a true story, and that’s something new for me. It’s called Under an Outlaw Moon (November 2, 2021, ECW Press). It follows the lives of Bennie and Stella Mae Dickson, a couple from the thirties who robbed a bank right after they got married, quickly spinning their way to the top of the FBI’s most-wanted list, and getting far more than they ever bargained for. If you want to find out more, please check out my website or ECW Press’s site.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Which Came First?


Terry Shames here talking about writing style—has it changed? And what drove the change? 

 Here’s a good definition of “style”: Style means the mechanical or technical aspects of writing, and may be specific to the requirements of the subject or topic. 

 A couple of years ago, I bought a new desk. In honor of it, I decided to go through all my old, abandoned manuscripts and see if there were any worth keeping. When I started reading, I was shocked at how amateurish the writing was. There were not just editing problems, but problems with style. These were stories that I felt good about when I wrote them. But now they disappointed me. They sounded like thin imitations of other writers’ work. 

 So what happened? Somewhere along the line I began to learn the technical aspects of writing that helped make a story come alive. I learned, and continue to learn, about setting, dialogue, character development, tone, atmosphere, plot development and developing a voice.
I’m going out on a limb and say that I think content drives style. Let’s break it down with a few examples of crime fiction sub-genres: 1) Thrillers demand fast action, a plot that rarely slows down, rapid-fire, often aggressive speech. These are best achieved with quick, punchy sentences and often a wry tone.
2) Cozies are slower, quieter, often with naïve characters who stumble onto criminal activity by accident. Cozies take place in a more cheerful setting, at least initially, and often involve writing humor and a light tone.
3) Noir stories inhabit a darker world, with characters who often have nefarious reasons for their actions, hidden not only from the reader and each other; but from themselves. Their dialogue is often convoluted and secretive. It’s a dark world; so it demands a dark style.
4) Domestic thrillers require subtle differences. They involve women (usually, but sometimes men) who are in jeopardy because the world isn’t what they think it is. For these, you need a style that reflects a sense of dread and danger, while the protagonist soldiers on, thinking she is taking the right steps to keep herself safe. The style is layered, depicting a surface setting in which everything seems fine; but with an undercurrent of puzzling danger.
5) And then there is the traditional—the kind of series I write. What you see is what you get. It involves a crime-solving professional methodically following clues to solve a crime. Dialogue is straightforward. Setting is exactly as it seems. Action is methodical and rarely scary.
I’m in the groove with the traditional series, but a couple of years ago I tried to write a thriller. I found out how hard it is to change your style. I can write action. I can write dialogue. But getting the atmosphere right was hard. Getting the language to reflect the thrill of the chase was tricky. Eventually, I decided to table it. 

 I’m now working on a domestic suspense story, and again, I’m finding it hard to get it right. I’m used to writing about a professional who takes his time, who works in a steady environment; who knows his strengths and weaknesses; who takes the measure of people and knows what has to be done. The domestic story is coming along, but it’s taking a painful amount of learning the subtleties of style.
So, to answer the question—has my style changed? Only with a lot of hard work. I’m constantly having to remind myself of the style that what I’m writing demands. I can’t help wondering if a writer comes to his or her work with a particular style that works best for them. But then I read someone like Catriona McPherson, who segues from cozy to domestic thrillers and makes it look easy. 

I guess to really answer my musing, I’d have to find out if Michael Connolly would feel comfortable tackling a cozy; if Leslie Budewitz would write a noir novel. I do know that many of the authors I admire the most seem to stick with their chosen sub-genres. I don’t know if it’s a matter of their being uninterested in branching out; or if they think it simply wouldn’t work for them. I do remember that I asked one famous author of a series set in England if she ever considered writing anything else and she assured me that she worked hard enough on the series; she couldn’t imagine trying anything else. 

 Style may drive what you write; but the opposite is true: What you write also drives style.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Cha ... cha... cha... Changes

Has your writing style evolved over the years? If so, tell us how, and what the drivers of those changes were.

Brenda Chapman starting off the week.

I'm certainly hoping that my writing style has evolved since I look at the craft as a moving target that improves with experience and practice. I'd think it a rare writer who comes out fully developed, writing their best work from the get go, never learning or improving. What's the challenge and fun in that?!

I started writing poetry and studied creative writing, focusing on poetry and short stories for a university credit. The professor worked on ridding our work of melodrama and overwriting, which I was guilty of back then. So, I'd say this was the first writing-style improvement to my work.

My first published pieces were short stories, and each one taught me something new about word economy, tight writing and plotting. I moved on to write a middle grade mystery series, followed by a couple of standalones, and then the Stonechild and Rouleau police procedural series. I also penned an adult mystery series of eight novellas, called the Anna Sweet Mysteries.

I was learning the craft as I wrote for different age groups and audiences, but came to realize that in order to create a name in the business, I had to focus on writing for one age group. In addition, each age category, whether young adult, middle grade, adult, not to mention each genre, has its own rules, 'fads', and requirements. I gave up writing for kids to focus on the adult audience, although I continued to split my time between adult literacy and mainstream mysteries.

Writing adult novellas with a tight word count taught me to use precise words and to be sparer with descriptions, to omit the bits that readers skip over. I had a terrific editor for all the Anna Sweet mysteries named Pam Robertson, and I learned a lot from her about checking all the story details and making certain that every part of the plot as well as character choices are logical and consistent. Each word mattered. This attention to detail is easier in a 14,000-word novella than a 90,000-word novel, but equally important.

Like many writers, I've got manuscripts in my drawer that will never see the store shelves. I've gotten constructive feedback on some of them, and while I might never get back to rewriting each one, I've taken the advice forward to later projects. A lot has to do with plotting, an area that I continue to develop. Dialogue is another area where I continue to work on improving, aiming for realistic conversations that cut out boring bits. 

I think I'm on the right track with all of this effort to learn the craft, reinforced by many people reviewing my books on Goodreads as well as friends telling me that my books are getting better and better. I put this down to all the hard work of everyone working on my books, my willingness to accept criticism, and my continual reading of other authors' works as I try to learn from their examples. 

Writing is a journey; the targets are always moving, and the results are never certain. Art resembles life, I suppose, with all its ups and downs, successes and failures. We all need to accept and give a little grace, to support one another, and give writers time to develop their craft. I know that I've been blessed by all those readers who've been in my corner from the start, and by all those in the industry who've given guidance and the leeway to develop as a writer. It's why I'm still writing and sharing my work and challenging myself with new projects.

You can watch this five minute video on local television from this past week where I speak about my two series and what's on the horizon.


Instagram & Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, October 8, 2021

Stop Rebelling and Learn to Take Editorial Advice. By Josh Stallings

 Q: Bad Advice – Not everything works for everybody. Give us some examples of writing advice, given to you in good faith, which just didn’t work for you. Tell us why you think it didn’t work.

“What am I rebelling against? Whadda you got?” - That’s from Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. Words young me lived by. I distrusted authority and advice sounded like rules to be broken. This allowed me to create inventive and award winning movie trailers in my early twenties. It also made learning tough.

I didn’t write anything worth reading until after I gave up on contempt prior to investigation. I still distrust authority, but I’m willing to listen to advice, then see if it helps or hurts the writing. I always reserve the right to toss it away, which doesn’t make it bad advice, just wrong for me and my process. 

When my mother read my first screenplay, it was about youth, drugs and rock music in San Francisco. She gave me advice she’d read from an in flight magazine, “You should write about what you know.” Two problems, A, I knew a lot about the subject matter even if I wasn’t a good enough writer to capture it yet. And B, that advice is total crap, or at the least it’s overly simplistic. Time has allowed me to rethink it and state it as, “You should know about what you write. If you don’t, learn it.” 

Want to write about the homeless and you have been lucky enough to never have been on the streets? Volunteer in a soup kitchen, and then spend a few days on skid row. Talk to people, no wait REWIND… Stop talking and listen to people. Every one of us wants to be heard and seen. It’s easy, start with, “Hi, I’m Josh, how’s your day going?” You’d be surprised how open people get once you reach out. Also I take back what I said about working in a soup kitchen. That’s too easy. Try lining up and eating lunch in one, without saying “I don’t really belong here, I’m a writer.”

Stepping out of your comfort zone is how you meet people you want to write about. When writing TRICKY I needed to learn about the LAPD. Walking into Parker Center the first time felt scary, entering the Death Star scary. My grandfather was a cop, but he never let that world into his home. My parents were activists, I was raised in the counter culture. As a teenager I committed petty and not so petty crimes. Two days ago a Highway Patrol car followed me up the mountain. I sweated bullets for ten miles. Uniforms freak me out at an animal level. And yet, I knew I needed to spend time with the LAPD if I was to write about them. Lectures by cops, cop camp, ride alongs are all good ways to find facts, but truth is easier accessed over coffee.   

“Cool, but where do we go to meet criminals?” you ask. First, talk to your family and friends, you might be surprised at how many solid citizens have criminal pasts. My grandfather the cop? As a kid, he sold bootleg hooch to sailors on the pike. His 6th grade teacher said he’d spend the rest of his life behind bars, and he did, he retired as Chief of Corrections. Or, if your family is squeaky clean but you are lucky enough to be a sober alcoholic, they have these meetings where you’ll meet all kinds of folks. Some of us used to be criminals. Get to know us and we might even share how it felt. 

However we do it, we need to break free of the notion that there is an us and them. Cops and robbers. Freaks and straights. There is only us on good and bad days. You are not your worst idea or your best. This isn’t an intellectual idea you can learn from a book or Google, it can only be learned hanging with people and getting to know them.

Moving on. Here is some other writing advice that chafed me, “Never start with a flashback.” Never, unless it works. Flashbacks are by nature problematic in that they can put a protective layer of time between the events and the reader. Get them right and they can be brilliant.  

I heard an editor I respect once say, “Never have multiple POVs. Every time you change POV you go back to square one for the reader.” I didn’t yell from the audience “Bullshit.” I thought it, didn’t say it and that’s growth. In Jamie Mason’s brilliant Three Graves Full she changed POV almost every paragraph. Hell she even had a police dog’s POV. It works. It builds rhythm and tension and humor alternately. 

That doesn’t mean the editor was wrong. We all aren’t Jamie Mason, so if we’re going to be switching our POVs we should do it with caution, run it by a reader we trust to tell us their true reaction. Notice I didn’t say a reader willing to tell THE truth. Writing is subjective, there is no one truth. 

On the day of my wedding to Erika, my grandfather pulled me aside and told me, “You will have a happy marriage once you realize she’s right.” I could have taken this as a joke, or bitter cynicism, but my grandfather was a deep thinker and he planted thoughts inside jokes like zen koans. Years later I finally understood it. If I approach disagreements with Erika from the position of, “I know you’re right, but I don’t see it yet, explain it again please.” Then we are having a discussion not an argument. 

Writing is easier than marriage. As the writer of record, I am the ultimate arbitrator of what gets published. This gives me the freedom to listen to anyone’s opinion. A publisher has the power to not publish the book if I don’t change it. An agent can drop me if I don’t take their advice. Readers may not flock to my work if I don’t listen to anyone's advice. All of these are consequences of my decisions. The reason I have the final word is I alone will be held accountable for the book.

The best writing advice I’ve ever been given came from Charlie Huston. We were sitting in an Atwater bar, I was going on about my book being nominated for some award. He listened for a bit then stopped me, “Enough, what are you working on now?” I must have looked hurt so he explained, “Awards are for things you already wrote. They’re in the rear view. The important stuff is in front of you.” 

I think that’s also true for our disappointments. No one picked up your amazing MS, got it, sorry… But what are you working on now?   

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Just do everything that I'm didactically telling you to. By Catriona

Q: Not everything works for everybody. Give us some examples of writing advice, given to you in good faith, which just didn’t work for you. Tell us why you think it didn’t work.

Give some examples, you say?  Looks to me like this is a job for a listicle. So, in acsending order of . . . hm . . . controversiality? . . . here are my top five pieces of bad advice I've been given. They don't work for me. They might work for you. (Listen to what I'm saying = the worst advice of all.)

5. Time Travel

I've told this story before but the sheer bonkersness of this advice still smacks me in the face whenever I think about it, even after getting on for twenty years. I wrote a time-travel caper. My then agent read three chapters of it and advised me that  "Emily, in Our Town, found out that changing the past achieves nothing. I think you should write something else."

I ignored the advice and agented with someone else instead. Who sold that book for a decent chunka change.

4. Cut, cut, (short)cut.

This is one of the many units of advice we could file under: "There's a shortcut to good writing. Pay for my workshop and I'll tell it to you." (Spoiler: there isn't. (Disclaimer: some writing workshops are fantastic.)) 

If you read books about writing, or attend classes, or even google "how to write well" probably, you'll hear things like "2nd draft  = 1st draft minus 10%". Or "Remove the first chapter." Or "Omit needless words."  It always makes me think of my sister, who was told that everyone underfills their washing machine and she should add twice as much dirty laundry to get full efficiency. She broke her machine, because turns out she'd been filling it up perfectly all along. 

3. Delete "that"

This is another example of the "trapdoor to success" bits of advice that you'll come across regularly. I heard it at a writing workshop. "Don't use the word that", the teacher said. I raised my hand and asked which that she was talking about.

  • Demonstrative article - Later that same day
  • Demonstrative pronoun - That's all, folks!
  • Relative pronoun - The mouse that roared
  • Complementiser - Tell me that you love me

What was worrying was that the workshop leader didn't seem to know. I'm guessing she had heard the advice and was passing it on, but it was an awkward moment. We got past it by me suggesting all the grammatical terms were different in UK and US English. But I still shudder. Anyway, I think, on reflection she meant the last one. But I'm still not convinced.

2. Just killing time

Another quick fix that will turn you from William McGonagall to William Shakespeare (allegedly) is to search and destroy any instance of the word just in your manuscript. Sometimes it's very too, but it's always just. I don't know where this came from, and I punched the air to see just in the prompt question for the blog this week. 

Writing just isn't that easy. Killing just changes the rhythm of a sentence. (None of the scalpelly writer-coaches ever talk about rhythm.) Killing just also changes the meaning. And worst of all, just proliferates because people use it when they speak. So killing just makes your dialogue less authentic. If your narrative is first-person and informal, that goes down too. It's just not worth it, but that's just me.

Incidentally, do have a look at William McGonagall's poetry if you haven't come across him. He's the Florence Foster Jenkins of verse. Wow.  

1. Show; don't tell.

I hate this rule. It's repsonsible for a lot of needless words. If you truly believe that you can't tell your reader anything - e.g. Lexy Campbell was drunk when . . ." - but have to show your heroine going out, buying drinks, feeling woozy, buying more . . . And then you can't tell the reader that she was hungover the next day either, but have to show her dry mouth, coffee emergency and the mad search for some Ibuprofen . . . you might end up struggling to differentiate what matters - show us; the detail is worth the words - from what doesn't - tell us and keep moving. 

I would change this rule to "Show or tell". If you've described the drinking you don't need to say Lexy is drunk. If you've told us she's drunk we'll work out how it happened without being shown. And even at that I'd have to add a bit and settle on something like "Show or tell, usually, unless there's a good reason to do both, which there very well might be, because there are no trap doors to good writing. Sorry."


p.s. I've got a book coming out in the US next month. There's showing, there's telling, there's just, there's that. There's no time travel. But int it purty?

Wednesday, October 6, 2021


It's my pleasure to welcome Clea Simon this week, as my guest. Although we enjoyed a lovely lunch together at Bouchercon, Dallas, in 2019, this photo was taken (at the bar - no surprises there!) at Bouchercon, St. Petersburg, in 2018.

As some wag famously said, “Writing about music is like bicycling about architecture.”   What that wit didn’t say is that it’s also a great opportunity for crime fiction.

The rock and roll subculture of the ‘80s and ‘90s, a world that I came up in as a critic and sometime musician, was rife with criminal opportunities, for sure. There were the sex and drugs long linked with the music, and there was money as well. Not just in the clubs and on the road, where so many transactions – at the bar or the merch table – were handled with cash, but in the industry overall, as a new trending artist could be leveraged for millions and could make or break a career, although the careers that hot young thang made weren’t necessarily hers.

That world has been blown apart, to some extent, by Spotify and other streaming services. But its grimy basements and nonstop tours serve as the setting for Hold Me Down, my new psychological suspense. Hold Me Down opens in the present day, as rocker Gal Raver comes back to Boston to play a memorial for her drummer and best friend, Aimee. At the show, Gal freezes at the sight of a face in the crowd. When that old acquaintance turns up dead and her drummer’s widower is charged, she is drawn into her own informal investigation. She and Aimee had a lot of history, and with Gal’s own memories clouded by years of drugs and drinking, she’s not sure what – or who – to trust.

Gal’s predicament, a common enough one for club rats of a certain age, is what convinced me that the rock world would be perfect for my murder mystery. Yes, it’s a world I know well, and I’m enough of a fan still to think there’s a dark glamour in those long-ago gigs. The scene also allowed me to put the characters in a pressure cooker, especially once they go on the road. There’s the constant touring, the compulsion to be “on,” to fit a certain image. And, yes, I can still relate – as Gal does – to the raw power of music to give voice to my most inchoate emotions. But more than that, the setting is perfect.

When we first meet Gal, her headlining fame may be behind her, but she’s still a star at heart – cocksure of her ability to hold the audience, seeing the “wild, wet need of their eyes.”

It was magic, in its way. Being up there, on stage,” Gal recalls. “Not just the crowd—though, yeah, to have them staring, wanting, at her mercy was a rush like no other. More than that it was the music itself. Like lava flowing through her. Relentless. Hot.”

But as my protagonist sifts through her memories trying to understand what happened, we flash back to the shy young songwriter Gal once was, and the comparison reveals that although the present-day Gal is confident – one might say overconfident – in her appeal, she’s blocked as a writer. The insecure young Gal pulled great songs out of herself, including the title tune, “Hold Me Down.” The older Gal “knows the tricks that turn a pop progression into an earworm.” But she’s not writing anything good – anything real. And, in rock with its emphasis on authenticity – a whole other topic for discussion – that’s all that matters. Which means that along with the murder is the mystery of how that insecure but talented girl transformed into this confident but blocked older woman.

The songs themselves also act as musical mirrors, reflecting memories as well as mindsets. In her review in the Sun-Sentinel, Oline Cogdill wrote, “Simon’s tour of the Boston music scene will make readers wish ‘Hold Me Down’ included a link to iTunes” – a great idea I may follow up on. But more important to me is how my characters react to these songs. What Gal meant to write – and what her friends and colleagues hear – allowed me to illustrate additional insights into both her and her crowd. If the songs evoke something readers can hear, so much the better.

Yes, Clea Simon plays bass!

Hold Me Down is crime fiction, not a music book. But the rock world gave me the opportunity to explore so many things: the tension between performing and creating (a tension familiar to many of us authors). The way in which nostalgia or love, pain or fear can warp our recollections of the past (a topic I explored in my previous music-scene mystery, World Enough). The many ways in which humans love and damage each other, how they move on – or don’t. Fame and the music industry only make everything larger. After all, even for the famous, the bright lights can cast very dark shadows.

A former journalist, Clea Simon is the Boston Globe-bestselling author of three nonfiction books and more than two dozen mysteries. While most of these (like her recent, A Cat on the Case) are cat cozies/amateur sleuth mysteries, she also writes darker crime fiction, like the rock and roll suspense novel World Enough, which was named a “must read” by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her new psychological suspense Hold Me Down returns to the music world, focusing on sexual abuse and recovery, as well as love in all its forms. She can be reached at, on Twitter at @Clea_Simon, and Instagram as @cleasimon_author.


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Advice Is NOT Universal...

Bad Advice – Not everything works for everybody. Give us some examples of writing advice, given to you in good faith, which just didn’t work for you. Tell us why you think it didn’t work.

From Frank

Look, I'm all for writing advice. It's how we get better - listening and learning from our peers (and especially our betters). And the basic tenets of good writing are what they are.


Like the headline says, advice is not universal. Nothing applies to everyone, all the time. And feedback is just someone's opinion, something that should be weighed as to the source and the context and its application to YOU.

I'm certain my peers this week will hit on plenty of bad advice they've received, and I don't want to be the Tuesday-I'm-hogging-all-the-good-low-hanging-fruit guy. So here are just a few pieces of advice that are often given as absolutes that I think are not absolute.

Never use adverbs. Go to hell, he said dismissively. Adverbs are an effective part of speech. They serve more than one purpose. They describe. They can break up the rhythm of the writing. They are worthwhile.

I think this piece of advice came into being because newer writers overused adverbs, cluttering the narrative with them. And I will absolutely agree that a strong verb is superior to an adverb eight times out of ten. Maybe nine (he mused thoughtfully). But trying to excise every single adverb from your writing is foolish. He said confidently.

Never use passive voice. See above, although I'd change eight of ten to nine (okay, maybe even 9.5), but it's the same point. If your writing is littered with passive voice, it will be weak. But the occasional use of passive voice, especially if the style of the book or story is less formal, isn't going to cause the manuscript to burst into heretical flames. There are even a few times when forcing active voice becomes an awkward construct, although this is usually when the narrative is mirroring common speech patterns as opposed to formal writing.

Point is, should you strive for active voice? Of course. Is it almost always superior? Pretty much. But let's not get out the pitchforks when the exception comes along. I mean, I had one editorial bit of advice early in my career to eliminate passive voice in my novel. Good advice, so I went through the manuscript with a vengeance. But then the editor came back with the directive to esentially remove every 'was' from the book.

Uhh.... There was no way I was going to do that. So we parted ways.

See what I'm getting at? Good bit of advice turned extreme becomes bad advice.

You have to write to market. Oh, just shut up.

Write what you love, what you find interesting. Write it well. It will find a market.

You need an agent/traditional publisher. No, you don't. Or maybe you do. See, this one is completely up to you. What's your journey? What's your path?

That's for you to decide. Maybe an agent is best for you. Maybe a big traditional publisher is, too. Or a smaller, still traditional publisher is a better fit. Maybe the better fit is neither one but indie publishing. Who am I to tell you what is best for you?

Sure, I can point out the objective pros/cons of each path. The differences that factually exist. Pitfalls to be aware of. These kinds of things are really the best sort of advice because it isn't telling you what your decision should be but sharing some hopefully accurate data for you to consider.

So, to sum up, my advice would be: strong verbs are better than adverbs most of the time, and active voice is usually better than passive. Write what you are passionate about. Choose the writing journey that best fits you, your goals, and your needs.

Final thought. I'm not a venerable, wise coot just yet but once you hit the half-century mark, you tend to have learned a few things about human nature. Having been both a cop and a writer, I think I've paid attention a little more than the average person, too. And it seems to me that, for some reason, people who give advice are often strangely invested in you following that advice. It's as if your adherence provides some kind of validation for the decisions they themselves have made. Anyway, it's something to be wary of, because if it's the case, it means the advice isn't really being offered for your own best interests but to buttress their own ego.

Contrast that with advice Jim Ziskin gave me and a friend once at LCC Vancouver about how he does research for his historical novels. He simply shared his own experiences and let us sift through the kinds of things that might work for us. It was a generous gift of his time followed by well-wishes on the project (which will get underway in 2022) but with no ego attached to whether we ultimately followed even one whit of the advice. 

Okay, enough rambling, I suppose. I think my overall point is that advice is well worth listening to but do so critically and remain your own person. As I'm sure you'll read all this week, blindly following advice, no matter who gives it, can lead to unhappy places.


Now here's some advice you can't go wrong following: grab my Ania series while it's on special (through Thursday of this week). The prequel, Harbinger, is FREE. The rest of the series titles are 99 cents each.

Yeah, three bucks for four books. Call me bonkers but that's the deal. I want folks to read these books (and hey, review 'em when you're done, even just a one liner -- thanks!)

I wrote these hardboiled books with Jim Wilsky. All of them are told in a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. If that makes sense to you, cool. If it doesn't, check out the books and it'll be clear... along with a lot of tension, brawls, chases, twists and turns, and a femme fatale.

The first two books are also available in audio, sil vous prefere. (Did I get that right, Susan? I didn't cheat with Google translate, so it's probably wrong).

Monday, October 4, 2021

Let Me Not Tell You How to Write

 Q: Not everything works for everybody. Give us some examples of writing advice, given to you in good faith, which just didn’t work for you. Tell us why you think it didn’t work.

- from Susan

Yes, these pieces of advice are always given in good faith by people who have benefited from finding them and are being generous in sharing them with other writers. But our brains work differently, and so the tricks and mental dances that spark our creativity, help us sweat out the stalled moments, and give us a measure of success are going to be as varied as we are.

A writer whose productivity and long term success I admire shared his foolproof system of outlining his novels before writing them. Real outlines with numerals and indents – the whole thing. I can see by his sales and fans that it works perfectly for him. I could no more do a formal outline for my stories than I could ride a horse bareback. (That would be a no.) My brain simply doesn’t work that way, and it's more than just being a “pantser.” I don’t think in such an orderly way. I also can’t diagram a sentence, so my spatial understanding of my own language is obviously deficient.

Another excellent and immensely popular crime novelist has explained that she does not submit to an editor’s desire to cut and trim. She has said we should trust our talent She makes all her own modifications and because she is a Really Big Name, she can do this. However, her novels, good as they are, are long and the physical books are about twice the thickness of about ninety percent of the rest of the shelf. She has earned the right to make her own rules, but I wouldn’t dare to try that, even if I had an editor who wouldn’t laugh out loud, because my confidence in the importance of every word I submit isn’t as high as hers is.

Other tips? Don’t get me started on the three-act and the five-act issue. I once asked why, if in the three-act formula, if you had your big turning point in the middle of the second act, you didn’t just call it a four-act form? A puzzled silence ensued. I’m not very good at fractions either.

There’s lots of good advice that I’ve learned from, and I actually learn a lot about writing from the advice that doesn’t work for me. I do try to remember, when I’m the one giving the advice, that my take on what works is only guaranteed to work for me, however. And any stated rule is worth breaking when your gut says to go with your instincts and creativity. 


Thursday, September 30, 2021

Rise Up, My Fellow Uglies!


Interesting question this week, and a timely one too, seeing as how all the video nonsense is here to stay.


I’m launching my new book next month, and the marketing campaign is being tailored to this new hybrid world. We’re still doing a book tour – but pared down – six venues as opposed to more than ten last time. But we’ll be filling the gap by doing a lot more online and international stuff. I’ll be doing online chats with US book groups and stores, media interviews and appearing online on panels at festivals as far away as Tasmania in Australia. So the video side of things is important and needs to be taken seriously. 

And that's where I have a problem. 


The first thing I’d say is, life is unfair, and if you’re ugly like me, then you’re at a disadvantage to naturally glamorous authors like my esteemed colleagues  Brenda and Jim and Terry and Dietrich, so you need to do whatever you can to level the playing field. To this end, start by going into your zoom settings and making sure that under video preferences, you set the ‘touch up my appearance’ toggle to maximum. I don’t know what difference this actually makes, but it makes me feel better and it’s free and it’s the best I can do until I can afford plastic surgery. 


Next – in the same preferences box, change your view to ‘mirror my video’. This essentially inverts the image so that it feels like you’re looking in the mirror. This feels more natural to me, and also I am slightly more handsome this way too. The only drawback is if you’re holding up documents or have a background with wording then all the letters appear backwards – like it’s in Bulgarian or something.


Talking of backgrounds – for a while, I experimented with fake backgrounds – like the covers of my book, or the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, but I’ve decided they’re rather cheesy. To be honest, I still use the Enterprise one when I’m doing a Zoom call and I can’t be bothered getting out of bed, but those are for non-book related calls. For book stuff, I always get out of bed. I often put on pants too. I tend to do important calls from my basement, cos the spiders that live down there seem to have better wifi than me. They even have ethernet, whatever that is.


So those are my tips for improving things for free. If you’re up for spending a bit of moolah, there are also a couple of other things I’d recommend. Investing in kit that makes you look and sound better are a good start. Marketing and publicity is part and parcel of being a professional writer. In the same way that you invest in a lap top or writing software, I think it’s important to invest in the hardware of videoconferencing. If you can, I’d suggest getting:


A decent web cam

I’ve got a 2 year old Mac Book Pro, so I thought the camera on it would be pretty decent, but I must admit, I didn’t realise how bad the camera actually was until someone bought me a stand-alone webcam. It’s a Logitech blah blah blah, plugs straight into the lap top and is pretty much ready to go. It’s amazing how much sharper and clearer the image is compared to the built in camera, especially in low light.


A decent microphone

Ideally (if you’re a man) you want something that makes you sound like Barry White lounging in a bath full of melted chocolate. My microphone – a Rode something or other, does a good approximation of this. It makes me happy.


A Ring Light to illuminate your face is probably a good idea too. The same effect can be achieved by shining a table lamp in your face, though this begins to hurt after about 30 mins, and after an hour, you feel like you’ve been questioned by the CIA and are willing to confess to pretty much anything,


No kids

This is probably a difficult one, but I find that having kids is detrimental to the quality of my Zoom calls. They’re always making so much noise that it’s hard to concentrate. So best not to have any. This will also help with your book writing productivity, sleep, finances and general mental health. If, on the other hand, you do have kids; do what I do, and lock yourself in the room furthest away from them.


I guess that’s pretty much it. Some people are born to be video stars. If, like me, you’re more suited to radio, just remember that looks fade, but you and me and Barry White will always sound like gods.