Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Being Teachable As A Writer

"Do you really want me to critique your work?"
"Okay, that's the stupidest thing I've ever seen written."

The above is the summation of several posts in a critique forum I was in when I was writing my first novel. The second sentence is mine. How does one take that kind of criticism? I had spent hours writing and editing the chapter. It was the set up of the entire conflict in my book. My response was something to the effect of "How else will I learn?"

I was a newbie at writing. I'd made stories up in my head all my life but had never written any down. Now I was embarking on a journey into writing for publication. What else is there to be except humble? I was in the forum to learn just about everything. The novel had been started in February and it was now August with quite a few chapters written and what I thought was a good plot, character development, subplot, etc. I knew, however, how much I didn't know. So I went where I could get some help. It was where I could find knowledgeable people to teach me.

The problem is that it takes humility to be teachable. It takes putting aside the pride you have in your work and letting someone less show you what you may not know. Maybe you do know but have forgotten and need a reminder. No matter what, being teachable's main component is being humble.

Several times in forums and other groups I'm in, writers have posted their work asking for critique. When given, they reject and are hurt if the replies are not glowing with praise. The refusal to accept the critique they asked for shows they are not teachable. They don't truly want to learn. Their pride cannot take constructive criticism. Therefore, their writing will not progress.

It is those who give you honest helpful advice care about you and your writing. Set aside any hurt feelings. Don't get your panties in a twist. Take the criticism and learn what you need to make your craft better. Be teachable. The day may come when you are the one doing the teaching.

The two writers who gave harsh critiques of my writing are now good friends. I still respect what they tell me. I still learn a lot about writing from them.

Are you a teachable writer?
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Friday, October 25, 2013

Defending Jacob, by William Landay

Not long ago, one of my favorite mainstream authors recommended a book by one of his favorite authors. Joseph Finder has never let me down. It was he who led me to Lisa Gardner's Love You More, so I didn't have any qualms about buying Defending Jacob, by William Landay, based on Joe's say-so. And again, he didn't let me down.
This is a "mind" novel, not a high-action, high-tension thriller, but it's a page turner just the same. Landay's writing is impeccable, his characterization is phenomenal, his use of writer's tricks is masterful. It was wonderful to simply turn off my editor side and enjoy an exquisitely crafted novel.
In A.D.A. Andy Barber's town of Newton, Mass., a fourteen-year-old boy is found in the woods, murdered. The boy is a schoolmate of Andy's son, Jake. Soon Jake is accused. Did he do it?
Depends on who you listen to throughout the pages of the book. The entire novel is told in the father's POV, and his bias toward his son is so obvious, he's rendered unreliable. Still, if you listen to him, of course Jake didn't do it. And there's enough ambiguity to allow the reader to believe this. There is an alternate suspect. The case is weak, but not totally impossible. The ADA prosecuting the case has an obvious hatred for his predecessor, who is now sitting at the defendant's table as second chair in his son's trial. It's possible Jake is being railroaded.
But the story isn't just about whether Jake did it. It's also a psychological study into the effects of the accusation on each member of the family--Andy himself, Jake, and Laurie, the mother, wife, hub of the family--as interpreted through Andy. The portrayal is in-depth, realistic, and heart-wrenching--and a sign of the author's mastery of characterization.
A parallel thread runs through the story, a thread in which Andy is testifying to a grand jury. As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that his testimony has nothing to do with Jake's trial, though clues to many questions about Jake's trial arise through this testimony. Still, what is the author up to?
This book is so layered, so intricate, I can't imagine that Landay wrote it without first outlining it within an inch of its life. By the time he finished structuring it, he undoubtedly knew what would happen in the third paragraph of page 257 before he even wrote page one. Seriously. I can't imagine an SOTP'er crafting this, not without substantial rewrite.
Score one for Ollie Outliner.
As with many of the books I present in this blog, this one is both for reading and studying. Authors would do well to dissect Landay's technique and learn from it.
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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Top Ten Writing Fallacies, by Kevin B Parsons

Youve read websites and blogs, attended seminars and conferences, read how-to books and youre confused! No wonder, some of the stuff youve learned may be off a bit, and some is just plain wrong. Youre confused. Heres a treat for you.  Without any more fanfare, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Top Ten Fallacies of Writing: 

1.) Write what you know.
Oh, sure. If that's true, Stephen King is a murdering, demon possessed zombie with a pedigree of werewolves. Write what you don't know. Write a suspense novel that includes the mating habits of sea lions. Check your Facebook friends. Get it over a thousand.  

2.) You must write with your voice.
That may be a good idea, unless your voice consistently says, "You're not a writer! That is crap! Step away from the keyboard and get a job at MacDonald's." You probably don't want to use that voice. Sing, I Just Gotta Be Me.

3.) Make sure your work is edited.
What if you WANT to write a word in all caps??? Or use three question Marks? Or capitalize a word like someone's named? Or use the wrong tensed up like a cheetah? Or is that cheater? Are you still wit me? Retweet todays joke.

4.) Avoid passive writing.
In our modern, PC world, we do not want to offend anyone or anything, even passive tense, as the Society For the Preservation of Passive Tense says in their Mission Statement. Come, on, give passive a shot. Just a little, once in awhile. Penelope was sad. Concise. Perfect. Practice turbo book signing. 

5.) Show don't tell.
What if your story is about a dog show, a car show, or a show of force? Where would our culture be without, "Show me the money!" Imagine Tom Cruise yelling, "Tell me the money." Doesn't work. Watch an old Tom Cruise movie.

6.) Avoid information dumps.
People have the attention span of an amoeba, so getting as much information to them is crucial. They need to learn right away that Trevor is a bisexual, narcissistic, red headed, thin, vegetarian, sensitive, kind, with a sharp pointed nose, serial killer.
Or how can the reader know that Heather is hiding in the cupboard off the mud room, on page, 256, unless you've described the house and each detail of each room, on pages 1-79? Dump it. Dump it all. Then get to the story. Eat a good sized bowl of ice cream.

7.) You need to start with a hook

This puts too much pressure on a reader. Think of a house. It starts with a foundation. Your story should too. Rather than have the terrorists blow up the daycare center, spend a few chapters describing how they bought the ingredients, made the bomb, rented the car, and dressed up like children to get inside and plant the explosives. Practice your speech, 'How I Got This Big This Fast.'  

8.) Stick to the story arc.

Oh, please! Mix it up, for crying out loud. People have read enough of a story that builds tension to a stunning climax, and sews everything up with a nice epilogue. Why not start with the epilogue? Its like foreshadowing, when your reader gets through the first seven chapters and says, "I have no idea where this book is going." Perfect. You've built tension. For a long time. Reward yourself. Shop online with the approaching royalty check.  

9.) You need to build a platform.

Politicians, missiles and offshore oil rigs need a platform, not you. Just write your excellent work, get it on Amazon, and once one person reads it, she tells ten friends, they tell ten, and so on. The time you've wasted building an audience will be better spent writing that sequel, assuaging the hunger of your ravenous fans. Run, dont walk to the end of the driveway. Wait for the check by the mailbox.

And now... the number one Fallacy of Writing:

10.) There's no money in writing.

Oh, please. Stephen King made $23 million last year. Nora Roberts uses hundred dollar bills instead of wash cloths. Jonathan Kellerman's chauffeur has his own chauffeur. You can too! Just avoid these fallacies. Any troubles? Email me at with your concerns. Now get writing... whenever you feel inspired to write, anyway. 

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Monday, October 21, 2013

How Much Detail?

I’ve been reading a book over the course of several months. That’s not like me. I can chew up a piece of riveting fiction in a matter of hours. If the book reaches most favored status, it goes in my collection to be read another day. This book isn’t going to make it. It’s not a terrible book, not at all, and I met and had a lovely chat with the authors, who were extremely gracious and bought a book of mine as well at the conference we attended.

This particular book is helpful to me in my current research, as it’s written by industry professionals in the arena of my fictional world. I felt obligated to read it, sure, but the book sounded interesting in a genre I enjoy, so I wanted to read it. Just not for so long.

There are a number of reasons I kept putting the book down, and after a while I realized the main one was due to Too Much Detail in the narrative. The kind of detail that occasionally includes bathroom stops; opening the cupboard to reach for a coffee cup; deciding how to get the suspect into the correct jurisdiction; and getting in the car, closing the door, putting on a safety belt, pressing the button to let the automatic garage door close, driving to the curb, signally, looking both ways, and then pulling out onto the street.

Did I mention the book is FBI suspense? Suspense needs intense action, not be a procedural handbook. Although, honestly, that’s been somewhat helpful, per above. It’s just that I found the stuff I needed for my book on the FBI website, so I didn’t particularly want to spend a page “learning” about technicalities in my recreational read. I just wanted action, especially since people talking about it was much less interesting than watching it unfold. This is a prime example of Resist the Urge to Explain.

Here’s an example from this book, the second conversation about putting these events in motion, about half way through the book:

Griff and Nick Tascoda tweaked their plan to use Skeeter to infiltrate the drug smugglers. Griff cradled the phone to his ear, leaned back in his chair. He was getting caught up in the hunt. Then a problem surfaced. The problem of jurisdiction. “The crime must be prosecuted where it occurs. In the Eastern District of Virginia, we’ve got tough judges. Their sentences live up to the crime.”
Before Nick could object, Griff relented. “But I know there’s no way you can steer the case up there. Even though I’ll supervise Skeeter, you should get credit for a big drug bust. After all, you work for the Drug Enforcement Administration.”
Nick let out a giant laugh. “I always liked your judgment, Topping. Listen to what I’ve been working on. You get Skeeter a new cell phone issued in the Florida panhandle where he lives. The FBI pays for it. The number is registered to Skeeter at his address. But the invoice gets mailed to you at your office.”
Griff grasped the plan immediately. “Skeepter accepts a free phone. I’m on the books as the owner, and create the PIN. That way, I check the account, see who he’s calling.”

(They go on for another half a page creating the set-up, the place—which includes getting out a map to tell the audience, again, where they are—and the scene ends with a reiteration of the phone deal. Eighteen pages later, the reader is returned to the set-up, which is briefly repeated in a couple of sentences to remind the reader what’s going on.)

Here’s an example from Steven James’s The King, also an FBI thriller and long, but faster-paced, at least in my opinion.

From our history of working together, I knew Ralph wanted to take Basque down almost as much as I did, but also understood that in his current position at the Bureau he had to follow protocol.
            So do you.
            Yeah, well, that’s never been my specialty.
            “I get it,” I told him.
            He eyed me squarely. “I’m not gonna say I know what you’re going through right now, okay? But you’re playing right into his hands.”
            “How’s that?”
            “Why do you think he went after Lien-hua? She’s never worked his case. He went after her to hurt you, to make you stupid with rage.”
            “Yes,” I acknowledged. But I wasn’t really focused on what he was saying. I was busy studying the geography of the land surrounding the treatment plan and comparing it with what I knew of the region’s neighboring roads and traffic patterns, trying to form a map of the area in my mind.
            “Are you hearing me, Pat?”

            (Goes on a couple of paragraphs about how Pat might go out of control, then he admits he might, then he simply goes after Basque.)

The difference, besides first person vs. third, is that their conversation in the first example explained things, while the conversation in the second example let me experience things. The first example talked about the set-up, which happened over a couple of chapters eighty pages later, while in the second example, the agents put their plan together shortly before this, then acted on it. Have you ever read a dialog between people who know each other well, but still felt the need to remind the other of their job title?

Different genres call for different styles of writing as well as level of details. Historical works need some description of setting and enough explanation of events or daily living skills so modern readers can relate. Romance calls for description to set the mood, as well as lots of physical characteristics so readers can see and be the people.

The level of detail can be shown through third person narratives, internal monologues, dialog, or exterior journal in diaries, articles, and so forth.

In my current work, a character has an unusual medical condition that makes her feel like a freak although she can mask it well. Since my story takes place when she’s in her late twenties, she’s lived with it. She wouldn’t constantly think, oh, my (condition) of (specific detail) makes me feel like a freak. Would you? She’d say or think about feeling like a freak, but not necessarily why, exactly, every time it comes up. But how do I let my readers in? I chose a bit of internal monologue as the character thought about how the condition affected her in gym class and on a date in college, and that allowed the reader to go through the experience. When it came time to reveal it to the male love interest, I had them dialog about it but not get technical enough to bore the reader. Besides, I think readers are smart enough to go look it up if they want to know more.

If a person who’s in the medical field, or in law enforcement, likes to read fiction (or non) within that realm, he or she will expect different levels of description. In a world that changes dramatically every few months, minutiae will soon date your book or be found not to be the case after all. If you want your book to have a shelf life, be general enough to weather a few evolutions of culture and research.

The proof to a challenge of detail is always on the questioner. It’s a fine line: How much to reveal to prevent skepticism and turn-off, or worse—ho-hum; versus enough to engage the reader. Genre and audience help you determine how, what, and how much detail in your work.

Readers, chime in! How much detail or fact or description do you like in your pleasure reading?
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Friday, October 18, 2013

Do You Nano?

November is just about here and with it the annual competition with yourself. There are some pretty good prizes if you win. And the entire event is about you being successful as a writer.

NANOWRIMO. National Novel Writing Month. Every November writers from all over the world compete with themselves to start a novel and get 50,000 words written in the thirty days of the month. Yes, Thanksgiving is in there and all the cooking and family time but it can be done.

NANOWRIMO, or as it’s affectionally referred to as Nano, began with 21 writers getting together in San Francisco in 1999. From that group of 21it has grown into a 501 c3 not-for-profit organization with nine full-time staff who co-ordinate the main event of NANOWRIMO as well as Young Writer Programs and Camp Nano.

The stats for 2012 had 341,375 participants beginning the month. In addition to NANOWRIMO, 82,554 students and educators participated in the Youth Writing Program and during 2013 there were 44,919 campers in the online Camp Nano Retreats. That’s a lot of writing going on.

I’ve participated in two Nanos and completed the goal in each. It can be challenging with life poking its head in when you really want to write. My first year, 2011, was really challenging as I hadn’t been writing very long. I had just met the goal with 51,147 words when my mother-in-law was in a terrible car accident which took the last ten days of the month away. That novel went on to be completed and released in September of 2012 as the second novel in my Cottonwood Series, Lord’s Love.

I made it my goal to be better prepared in my second attempt last year. My research was done ahead and I’d ‘plotted’ out the story, neither of which I had done the previous year. In 2011 I found out about the event three weeks before and was gone for a week during that time.

The first 50K words of Leah’s Peace were written in 11 days. The rest of the month I spent getting ready for the release of Giving Love, Cottonwood Series #2 and the companion to Leah’s Peace in the Stones Creek Series Chasing Norie. Enough with the self promotion.

50,000 words in 30 days sounds like a lot. It is but if you break it down into a daily average it’s only 1,667 words per day. By setting your personal goal at say 2000 you will have plenty of time to finish if you keep at it with some days when life smacks you upside the head and you are unable to write any.

A few of bits of advice:
  1. Warn your family you will be unavailable to settle petty squabbles. No blood, no cops, no problems and you won’t get involved.
  2. You might miss some sporting events (Hey, they’ll live and the world won’t stop turning on its axis.)
  3. Some meals may be peanut butter and jelly or they can cook themselves.
  4. Take October to teach them to do their own laundry. It’s a skill they’ll need in life anyway.
  5. Do whatever fall cleaning you feel absolutely, positively must be done now or let it rest until after the first of the year. Remember December is coming on the heels of NANOWRIMO.
  6. If  you listen to music while you write get your playlist ready now.
  7. Do whatever research you need to do for the story done now. That way you won’t have to stop to look it up.
  8. Make sure you have your computer defragged, de-virused if you run Windows 
  9. THE MOST IMPORTANT have several places for backing up your work.
After you’ve done all that look up Nano Word Warriors on Facebook. We have Word Wars all year but especially during Nano for two seconds of bragging rights for writing the most during an hour Word War. It’s fun and helps us keep motivated and moving the fingers over the keyboard.

So sign up at , and plan, plot or seat of the pants it with us in November.

Sophie Dawson is an award winning author of Christian Fiction. She lives with her husband and cat on a farm in western Illinois. Her characters demonstrate the courage and strength it takes to live in faith and obedience to the Word of God.
Sophie blogs one a week on her website as well as in addition to
She has recently released her fourth and fifth books, Leah’s Peace and Chasing Norie.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

There's No Mystery About Mysteries


Donn Taylor

            Nor should there be. The mystery as a separate genre has been around at least since Edgar Alan Poe invented the detective story. But its ancestry goes back much further, perhaps as far back as Oedipus's saving Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. The mystery is a specific instance of the quest motif in which the hero sets out to accomplish an objective and suffers various adventures along the way. Medieval romances are classic examples of the quest motif. But the specific quest of the mystery story is for the hero or heroine to discover who committed a particular crime, usually a murder.

           Mysteries overlap to some degree with suspense novels. In the suspense novel, the reader (unlike the hero) often knows what the forces of evil are planning to do to the hero or someone or something dear to him. The interest there lies in how the hero stays alive and defeats those forces. But in the mystery, the reader knows no more than the hero, and the focus remains on the hero's—and reader's—progress toward solving the crime. The mystery hero may encounter as many perils as the suspense hero, but the mystery reader will encounter them equipped with only the hero's knowledge.
            Authors of mysteries have a wide range of possibilities to choose from, for subgenres of the mystery vary in subject and tone from the hard-boiled police procedurals and tough private eye stories to satin-mannered "cozies" like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series.
            May I illustrate this variety of choices with a personal example? My choice for Rhapsody in Red (and its forthcoming sequel) was a kind of borderline cozy set on a contemporary college campus. One would expect colleges to provide a quiet environment protected from the riptides of the outside world. Indeed, each campus ought to be Shangri-La brought into real life. Unfortunately, colleges can become snake pits of turf wars and conflicting value systems. So my twenty years as a professor gave me a rich field of possibilities for the novel.
            That said, I firmly believe the business of fiction is to entertain rather than to instruct about social, political, or philosophical problems. If a reader wants instruction, he should read nonfiction. However, fiction can illustrate particular viewpoints on serious questions. So I began planning the novel with several serious questions as well as some less serious.
            Given the built-in conflicts between a college faculty and the college administration, what would happen if a professor actually said what the other professors were thinking but lacked the nerve to say? How should a college resolve such conflicts as commercialism vs. academic standards, education vs. indoctrination, and Christian orientation vs. secularism? What would happen if the political correctness diversity mania brought a Wiccan into a denominational college's Bible Department? And how would a person cope if he had a constant uncontrolled stream of music running through his head (musical hallucinations)?

            Such a mixture of serious, satirical, and comic questions ought to give a novel enough substance combined with enough comic relief to keep things interesting. I hope the result proved as fruitful as the prospect appeared. Only the readers can make that judgment.
            But the lighthearted narrative with serious overtones is only one of the many possibilities of the mystery genre. The genre promises something for everyone: there's the tough world of the police procedural, the violent world of serial killers, the quiet world of Miss Marple, and all points in between. That variety is the reason the mystery genre remains and will continue to remain popular.


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Monday, October 14, 2013

Author Choices: To Be (Crazy Busy) or Not To Be...

I recently heard about a multi-published author, Kevin DeYoung, who wrote on a topic that we all can relate to: Being excessively busy. The book is appropriately named Crazy Busy.

The title completely grabbed me since that is how I answer folks when they ask me how I am. “Crazy busy,” I reply, with a hint of panic in my voice. I realize I am not alone. As Pastor DeYoung states, he has yet to find anyone in America who claims to have time on their hands.

We can all blame social media. Or the economy. Or a myriad of other reasons. But what none of us ever blames is the person looking at themselves in the mirror with bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. That is where Mr. DeYoung’s words grabbed me: Perhaps I was not being discerning or wise in some of my day-to-day choices.

I am one of those authors who has way too much on my plate and usually it’s my own fault. I really don’t want to say “no” to doing a guest blog post. Or co-writing a promising book. Or going to one more writers’ conference so I can pitch proposals. Or learning the latest and greatest in Social Media.

Here is the reality. We can submerge ourselves into our writing so deeply that, when we come to the surface for air, we’ll realize we’ve missed a huge opportunity to spend time with our loved ones. We were so busy saying “yes” to everyone and everything else, that we forgot we were saying “no” to those who mean the most to us. And sometimes those opportunities will never be there again.

The writers that I know who seem to handle their busy schedules the most successfully are not just organized but they have their priorities clearly defined.

I recently came to the realization that I have far too many writing distractions in my life. It’s been a few months since I’ve worked on a very important manuscript and that’s just not acceptable to me. That is why this will be my last post at Author Culture.

I have greatly enjoyed being a part of this group blog with so many writers who I admire. But life is about choices. And I’m choosing to trim my schedule and re-evaluate my priorities. I’m learning it’s OK for a writer to say “no.”

You can still find me online at Hope to “see” you there—if you have the time. ;-)

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Book Review, American Sniper

An autobiography by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice

Reviewed by Kevin B Parsons

Chris Kyle looked through the scope of his rifle and zeroed in on an Iraqi woman. Friend or foe? He could hear the troops arriving as she took something from under her clothes and yanked at it.
A Chinese grenade.
Should he shoot her?
The book takes the reader into Iraq and other areas, through the eyes of Kyle, a Navy SEAL (Sea, air, land), fighting the war against terror. He’s been credited with the most confirmed kills as a sniper, over 150. Chris Kyle served in four deployments to the Middle East.
Good books contain tension and this delivers plenty, from him and his peers taking cities and moving toward winning the war. Other tension includes the loss of fellow soldiers, relations with his wife and the insanity of leadership. He declares military intelligence to be an oxymoron.
His emotions seesawed from emerging out of firefights convinced he’d die there, to thinking he was invincible. One thing he never vacillated about however, was any doubt about killing the enemy, whom he described as, ‘savage, despicable, evil.’  
Kyle did a good job of taking the reader into his mind, holding nothing back. At his fourth deployment, his wife put her foot down, enough is enough, time to come home, be a husband and father of his two children. He makes the wise decision yet struggles with feelings of failure, as he didn't return to help his brothers in blood.
He rebuilds his life by organizing retreats for injured veterans in rural Texas, his home state.
And now a huge spoiler alert, not in the book.
Chris Kyle was murdered on the shooting range at one of his retreats from a Marine, a hideous irony after surviving so much danger in war.

An excellent read, with a terrible ending that takes place after ‘The End.’  
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