Tuesday, October 26, 2021

What Did You Say?

 

Terry Shames here, with my tips for writing good dialogue. Every writer has aspects of craft that come naturally, and some they struggle with. Some writers make settings come alive with lyric prose. Others have an ability to get to the heart of their characters, through back story or narrative and still others do killer plots (pun intended). Dialogue can help with all of those. It helps the reader understand characters, further the plot, and even bring the setting to life. 

 For me, dialogue has always come naturally. I think it’s partly because I grew up in a household with parents who, when someone said something, often seemed to hear something different from what I heard. This was especially true with relatives. My aunt would say to my mother, “You got a haircut. It’s different.” My mother would hear, “Your hair looks awful.” Conversations overheard in restaurants or standing in line would invariably be repeated with interpretations I didn’t hear. I learned early on to sift language for nuance and contradiction. I don’t recommend it for good mental health, but for learning to write dialogue, it was a good lesson. 

 So my first tip is to use dialogue to have people reveal who they are by putting nuance into their mouths. Here’s an example: Jerry’s shady friend, Louis, comes over while Jerry’s wife Sue is out. Sue hates Louis and has said she doesn’t want him in the house. As soon as Sue comes home, she sniffs the air and says, “Did Louis come over?” Jerry is caught, so he could say, “What makes you say that?” We know he’s stalling. Or he could say, “Of course not. It’s your imagination.” Sue says, “I can smell him.” At that point Jerry can come clean and say, “Yes, Louis dropped by,” or, depending on what kind of guy Jerry really is. He might even say, “I can have my friends over if I want to. It’s my house!” Their conversation can tell you a lot about them. 

 The next tip is about conflict. Plot consists of a series of escalating conflicts. The preceding example has plenty of potential for conflict. If Jerry says, “No, Louis wasn’t here, it’s your imagination,” Sue could say, “Oh, okay. I’m going to put the groceries away,” the conflict is between the reader and Jerry. We know he’s lying, and somewhere down the line, the lie will be revealed. But there’s all kind of potential for conflict on the page: If Sue calls him on his lie, they can get into a row. If Jerry feels guilty, he could pick a fight. The tip: Let dialogue lead you to conflict. 

Over many years, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts with what I think of as “wooden” dialogue. Invariably, it’s because writers try to write exactly the way people talk. I learned how not to do this in an odd way. One summer I worked at a secretarial service. One of my assignments was to transcribe conversations between a teacher and her students. She taped them and wanted transcripts.. When someone sat down to talk to the teacher, she’d say, “Hi, how are you?” The reply was usually, “Fine, how are you?” or maybe, “I’ve had a rough day, how about you?” There was an exchange of what I think of as “settling in” talk. Sometimes it could take several exchanges for them to get to the point. 

In real life, that’s the way we judge each other’s moods and attitudes. It’s a way of feeling out the atmosphere. On the page, it’s deadly dull. Writing down what people really say helped me to understand how dull most conversation would be if it was written down exactly as spoken. 

 I've read many works in progress in which the dialogue on the page goes something like this: Sam walked into the room. He looked as if he’d slept in his clothes. “Hello, Jim,” he said. Jim looked up from this work. “Hello.” “What’s new?” “Nothing much. You?” “What are you working on?” “I’ve got papers to grade. You look a little messed up. What’s going on?” “I got into a fight with Maggie last night and she threw me out of the house.” 

 Cut to the chase! Sam walked into the room looking as if he’d slept in his clothes. Jim looked up from his work. “Good grief! You look awful. What happened?” “I got into a fight with Maggie this morning and she threw me out of the house.” 

 And finally, use dialogue to illustrate setting: 1) Sue walked into the house. “This place is a pigsty. Can’t you ever clean up after yourself?” She sniffed the air. “Was Louis here?” 2) Sam walked into the office he shared with Jim. “Can we open a window in here? It’s stuffy.” 

 The point of dialogue is simple. It’s to: 1) Tell the reader something about the characters and setting. 2) To move the plot along. Writers need to remember this when they edit, and learn to be merciless in slashing dialogue that doesn’t do either (or preferably both) of these thing. 

 Next time you read a book you think is well written, study the dialogue for how it contributes to the story or character development—and how adept authors dispense with cheap talk.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Killing the Dialogue

"Dialogue is often hard to do right," he said. Give us your tips for writing killer dialogue.

 Brenda Chapman at the keyboard.


Writing killer dialogue is one of those skills that takes time and practice to perfect. One of the best bits of advice I ever received came from my friend and fellow Ottawa author, Mary Jane Maffini. She was giving a workshop on dialogue and said, "Leave out the usual bits of everyday conversation and pare down to the essential." In other words, don't have your characters go on chatting about the weather, or what they ate for dinner, unless this is necessary for the plot. Dialogue in books doesn't replicate a normal conversation exactly. If it did, the reader would soon be bored into closing your book and putting it in the recycle bin.


So how to choose what to have your characters say?

I think like description, the test is to leave out the parts readers skip over.  I'm constantly asking myself this question before I write a scene, "How is this going to move the story forward?" Dialogue must pass the same test. Every bit of dialogue should add something to progress the story, be it plot, character development, tension, conflict ...

I took this example from my latest Stonechild and Rouleau novel, Closing Time to show how a writer can use characters to get the reader asking questions and draw them in to the conflict. The characters, Martha and Shane, reference something that has already happened, a bit of history that I don't share until later in the story.


I'm using their conversation to set up the mystery and to start building the tension. I tend to use said and asked, sometimes added, and steer away from more descriptive verbs. This passage is unusual in that I rarely use adverbs, like softly, and only to hammer something home.


The following scene with dialogue from
Bleeding Darkness reveals a lot about Lauren's relationship with her mother without me having to say much else. The night before this scene, Lauren spent the night getting drunk at a local bar.

Lauren sat back down at the table with a full cup of coffee and took small sips while slumping in the chair with her eyes closed. She heard Clemmie’s nails clicking down the hallway toward the kitchen and then her mother’s footsteps. She straightened and tried to appear less ill than she felt as Evelyn stopped in the doorway and stared at her.

“My goodness, Lauren. You look as if you’re one step away from skid row.”

“Thanks Mother. You always know what to say to make me feel better about myself.”

“You’re not a child Lauren, although you often act like one. All I want is for you to pull yourself together and …”

“Find a husband, give you some grandkids and settle down to a life of servitude as you have. Not happening, Mother.” She stretched her fingers to the ceiling and yawned, feigning indifference while inside her stomach was churning and not only from the hangover.

This passage also shows that I avoid naming who is speaking after each bit of dialogue. I believe the rule is six (or is it eight) interactions before needing to clarify with 'he said' or 'she said', although descriptive text can negate the need altogether.


In my earliest books, I feel that I didn't use enough dialogue. I've gradually expanded the conversations between my characters. A good trick is to read the passages aloud to see if the vocabulary and rhythm sound natural.

I'm eager to read what my fellow bloggers have to say about this topic over the course of the week. Be sure to check back in as I will be!

Website: www.brendachapman.ca

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor




Friday, October 22, 2021

Evidence of My Duffusness - by Josh Stallings

 Q: Cringe – Is there any of your published writing that you’re not particularly proud of any more?



“No book is ever finished, it is ultimately abandoned.” Either Anaïs Nin or Gore Vidal or maybe Jean Cocteau said that, history is murky as to its author. Many years ago I heard it was George Lucas and about films not books, but it doesn’t matter who said it, it stuck in my memory, and I continue to feel its truth. There is always more that could be done with any creative work, but at some point you need to stop fiddling. 




In the early days of self-publishing there were several authors I knew who kept re-publishing the same book, with a rewrite, nip and a tuck, a bit of a rethink. I fully understand the pull of this. Listening to the published audio book for Young Americans I saw an entirely new way to structure the book. Would it have been better? Maybe, maybe not. But Tricky would never have been written if I spent my life rewriting Young Americans. 





Once a book is published I need to move on. Put what I learned into the next one. This also means, when I do rarely look back I try to neither cringe nor swell with pride. Instead I try to look at it from a dispassionate distance. This isn’t a sneaky dodge of the question, or maybe it is…


The bigger question is, are there things I’ve done and said that I am embarrassed by, wish I could do over? Hell yes. I used to wake up at three in the morning with every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done running through my head.


Let’s start when I was eight or nine, I was having nightmares. We were in a new house and my mom said if I took the only down-stairs bed room I could get a dog. Easy bargain. I chose  Torso a black labish mutt. He slept with me and the nightmares receded. That is context. On the embarrassing day in question my mother was taking our family to the beach in Pinky, her pink 1953 Chevy convertible, top down. Torso stood at the fence, eyes full of sad longing as he watched me roll away. Heart breaking, right? I called out, “Bye sweetheart. I’ll see you soon.” Before this sentence was finished we were parallel to the next door neighbor’s yard.  The girl next door smiled real big calling out, “OK, I’ll be here.” 


Cute right? No, it’s embarrassing. I’m not sure why but it still comes up when my psyche wants to shame me. Evidence of my duffusness.




Next on the hit list of radio KFKU is the time I was 15 and robbed my childhood best friend’s house. I used to say I “creeped” houses, instead of “robbed,” made it sound cooler, less heinous. So I robbed my friend’s house. I had a bunch of reasons why it was OK, but it wasn’t.


A combination of fatherhood and sobriety ended my criminal pursuits. 


One requirement of getting sober was to become rigorously honest and to take daily inventory of my actions. Self reflection is a bitch, but it helped me build a solid catalog of ignorant things I’ve said and done. 


Exhibit A) Talking about LAPD to my friend Nino I said, “You run from the police and they catch you, you’re gonna get a beatdown. That’s the way the game is played, everybody knows it.” (I was repeating something a successful screenwriter said over coffee.) 

Nino shook his head sadly, “Their job’s not to beat anyone. Serve and Protect, that’s their job. It’s even written on their car doors case they forget.”  

Nino was right and I felt stupid, I wish I never said that. Over the years I revisit this moment looking for why I said it. My first mistake was not thinking critically about what I’d heard. I was swayed by the cool macho cadence, “We all know the rules, run, you will get beat down.” Very hard boiled. This is why, as a teenager, I thought Dirty Harry was bad ass. Truth is, every cool line Eastwood hissed would have been an abuse of power in the real world. 


Me, my brother Lark, and Mark C. 


Second mistake took longer to face. I had to start to understand White male privilege. Yes I grew up hard, yes I was arrested, yes the cops were tough on me because I presented as a thug. I’ve had police guns pointed at me. But, and this is big, they have never hurt me. They arrested my father and brother, but they never killed a member of my family. I can extrapolate but never truly understand how Nino feels when the police roll up on him, or what it triggers when he hears news of another police beating.


My father getting ready to sail to jail

   


Exhibit B) “Suicide by cop.” A phrase I know I’ve used in conversations, and I even think it shows up in one of my books. Writer Benjamin Whitmer (Cry Father, Pike) said, “Suicide by cop? That’s not a thing.” At first I was embarrassed, but not sure why. It’s a phrase commonly used in crime novels and movies and tv shows, it must be a thing. It took a while to break it down. “Suicide by cop,” takes the responsibility off of the officer, making them an instrument, as in, “suicide by poison,” or “suicide by hanging.” We don’t blame the arsenic or the rope. But police officers aren’t inanimate objects, they are trained professionals. They are peace officers. I don’t mean to say there aren’t cases where they have no choice but to fire on a citizen, that is too broad a take away. I’m saying they bear responsibility for their actions. 


There are many other exhibits, but you get it. Words have power. I need to be careful of the words and phases I use. I need to ask myself, is that real? Is that true? Just because it sounds cool is no excuse. Save the really wrong ideas for my antagonists. 


To come full circle, have I written things that make me cringe? Yes. But if I’m willing to dig deeper and push harder I have the ability to write something better next time, and the time after that, and….







Thursday, October 21, 2021

Taking my Lumps, by Catriona

Cringe – 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?

There are two sides to this: the mistakes - mostly anachronisms - that will never stop bugging me but don't matter; and the decisions that I wouldn't make again but do matter. Here's one of the first and some of the other.

In Come To Harm I wrote a Japanese protagonist. This was actually the first thing I ever wrote, back in 2000. It wasn't even a crime novel. (It was called The Hook and The Slab back then.) Keiko Nishisato was based on the experiences (not the personality) of my friend Etsuko Oishi, with whom I shared an office in Edinburgh when we were both studying for our PhDs. 


Now, when I was done, I ran some of my Rumsfeld Bs past another Japanese friend, Mariko Kondo, to make sure I hadn't made any daft errors.

Rumsfeld Bs, you ask. I mean the known unknowns. The things you know you don't know. Like, for me, some bits of Japanese culture. (As opposed to Runsfeld As - the known knowns. e.g. other bits of Japanese culture. And the fascinating, but irrelevant for writing, Rumsfeld Cs - unknown knowns. Plus the dread Rumsfeld Ds - unknown unknowns. The stuff you don't know you don't know. These are what lead you to make mistakes you only find out about when the book's out and you get emails.)

The only way to avoid RDs is to get an expert to read the whole book. It's a good idea that's now widespread practice. I didn't do that in 2001. And so I still don't know for sure how cliched, offensive, risible, heart-sinking and wide of the mark in ten other ways Keiko Nishisato is. I suspect she is enormously A Japanese Character written by A Brit.

The next step should be lump-taking, same as with anything else you get wrong in a book. But that's where I've run into a problem. I know that some Japanese and Japanese American friends have read (tried to anyway) Come To Harm, but I've never heard their thoughts.This might be because they are all lovely and don't want to scold me. Or it might be that they are sick fed up of trying to tell stuff to white people, who then weep and faint and argue. The weaponised tears of white women are a real thing. Also, it's no Japanese person's job to tell me anything about my book unless I'm paying them.

So. I'm not not proud of Come To Harm. I just don't know whether I should be. I've got a case of Schrodinger's Rumfelds. 

And that's Cringe Type A. It matters.

Cringe Type B is just funny and embarassing. The first time I did this was in my very first published novel AFTER THE ARMISTICE BALL, the last time I did it was in my latest book, THE MIRROR DANCE, and the next time I do it, no doubt, will be in my new book SCOT MIST. Whatcha gonna do?

In ATAB, I had Dandy Gilver listening to a BBC radio station that hadn't yet hit the air in 1922. I also had her wearing a "cocktail dress", years before the OED's first citation of that phrase. She might conceivably have been wearing "a little dress to go to a cocktail party". But in the depths of Perthshire, she should really ahve been wearing "a little dress to go and drink nasty cocktails before dinner". Oh well.

In THE MIRROR DANCE, I really screwed up. It's 1938 and Dandy and Alec drive over a bridge that wasn't built until the 1960s. AAARRRRRrrrrgggghhhhh. I even went to Dundee and drove over it. It looked older than that to me. And I went to the library and studied things - includng the fact that the new bridge was built in Edwardian times. But that was for trains. AAARRRRRrrrrrrggggghhhhh. I got the first letter within days of the UK publication. (We fixed it for the paperback.)


I don't yet know what I've got wrong in SCOT MIST. It's not out until January in the UK and February in the US.. I wait with interest to hear all about it.


Cx


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

I am reviewing the situation... by Cathy Ace

Cringe – 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?

Okay – I’m just going to admit this is a dreadfully difficult question to answer. Why? To be honest I don’t go back and reread my books, unless I have to. I dare say I'm not the only author who'll admit they're heartily sick of a book by the time it’s published; we’ll all have read and reread, edited and re-edited a manuscript so many times before it’s published that there’s no way we want to return to it. Well, I don’t, anyway. But…sometimes I have gone back, because I have to – maybe I want to bring back a character, or revisit a past situation. And there they are – leaping at me from the page – sentences that don’t flow, phrases I now see as anything but well-turned. And I have no idea why they got past me the first twenty times. Nor my editor. Or publisher. Or copy-checker. But they did. And now they’ll always be there. Then...I cringe.

Or will they always be there?

My first short story appeared here! LOVE the '80s vibe

My first foray into a life of crime (writing) was a short story called Dear George. It appeared in an anthology in 1988, another in 1990, on BBC Radio 4 in 2004, in a collection called Murder: Month by Month in 2007, and another collection called Murder Keeps No Calendar in 2018. And I’ve taken the chance to tweak it every single time. It’s still the same story, but the language I’ve used to tell it has shifted over the years. (You can read the current version by using the “Look Inside” feature on amazon here: click here for amazon access

The same story was most recently edited here


Overall, I hope I write differently now than when my first novel was published in 2012. Of course I do my very best every time I write a book, but I also constantly try to improve my storytelling and use of language. How? I read. And read. And I write. And write. Improvement isn’t about wanting to “write like someone else”, it’s about knowing how to put your voice on paper – at least, that’s what I think – and I believe the more a person reads, and writes, the more certain they are about the nature of their voice. So I go on…and on…trying to get better every time.

All my lovelies...so far


When I’ve reread my work I haven’t cringed "very" often (editing should get all the cringes out) but I do wish I’d known/felt “then” what I know/feel “now” about language, pacing, character development, and so forth. But, ultimately, there’s no replacement for experience, and I just hope all my readers are happy to take the journey with me as I learn more, and develop as a writer – which is my ultimate hope.

Meanwhile – by way of going on…and on…please consider reading my eleventh Cait Morgan Mystery, which will be published on 5th November. Is it the “best book I’ve written so far”? Hmm…why don’t you be the judge of that…LOL! Click here to find out more about this book


The new one - coming 5th November!


THE CORPSE WITH THE GRANITE HEART

Welsh Canadian criminal psychologist Cait Morgan, and her retired-cop husband Bud Anderson, are in London, England, to meet their friend John Silver’s freshly minted fiancée, the daughter of a recently deceased Shakespeare aficionado, and captain of industry. The trip is supposed to be filled with art galleries, good food, and Christmas spirit. However, an untimely death at a posh dinner party threatens to send shock waves through the upper strata of London society.

Cait and Bud’s desire to seek out the truth is blocked by a shadowy figure who’s been tasked with keeping the incident hush-hush, but – as the body-count rises – the investigation develops a dreadful momentum.

This is the eleventh Cait Morgan Mystery, and it finds our usually unstoppable duo running up against the immoveable machinery of power…with tragic consequences.


Tuesday, October 19, 2021

No Looking Back (I Wish)

Cringe – 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 Frank

Cringe?

Strong verb, that.

A lot of us on this panel (perhaps all) have been writing a long time. My first novel was published in 2006. So, yes, when I look back at passages from that or other books written in the time surrounding it, I see things I'd like to fix. This is especially true of my first book, Under a Raging Moon. I've even considered doing a complete revision.

But I don't think I will.

Is it my best book? No. Might be my worst, in fact. And given that it is the entry point to my flagship series, there's another point in favor of a 2021 revision. At the same time, the book has its own charm. It captures who I was as a writer at the time. And if a reader continues to follow that series, she will see a marked progression in my writing craft and storytelling scope.

So while it doesn't quite make me cringe... check that, I guess I do get some mini-cringes at times but not full-on, despair-inducing level cringes... anyway, I do recognize it is inferior to my current work in terms of raw craft.

The one thing that does make me cringe in that earlier work is when I encounter uses of epithets. There are times in some earlier books and short stories that I was free with terms that I would be far less likely to use today. Granted, it was very much to do with the specific character, not me having fun with taboo insults. 

But still. 

Back then, I had no qualms having a racist character use the n-word or a bigot use the f-word (and I mean the homophobic slur not the versatile one that rhymes with truck). Today, I would be inclined to find another way to get that information across, or at least weigh the usage far more diligently before deciding if it was necessary for the book.

So, yeah, coming across a casual use of such epithets, even if it makes sense within the context of the character using the terms, makes me cringe.

But I'm not going to go back and change it. For one, I'm not going rewrite my own history as an author. For another, I'd rather spend my time looking forward and writing something new (applying lessons learned). 

Writing something that, hopefully, doesn't leave me cringing fifteen years from now...

-----------------------------------------------

BSP:  I'm pleased to announce that the audio version of Sugar Got Low is now available. This is a collection of thirteen of my short stories, a couple previously unpublished. There are seven different narrators for these stories, so for the listener, it has a little bit of an anthology feel to it.

For my River City readers, there are four stories set within that universe. There's also a third La Sombra tale (which is technically in the same universe), a Derringer finalist, and a story born from a misheard lyric...

I narrated two of these stories myself, so if you dig the novelty of an "author at an event" reading, there's that. Other narrators include Darren Meekin, who narrated Blood on Blood, and returns here to read a prequel story to that novel; veteran narrators David Temple and Craig Jessen; Jacob Daniels; newcomer Dave Mather; and my wife, Kristi Scalise.

I priced this title to make it accessible, so feel free to give it a try at $9.99.

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.


Website: www.brendachapman.ca


Instagram & Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor


Twitter: brendaAchapman