From the Blog
I’ve been practicing a new technique that I learned from my friend, Harvey Stanbrough. If you are a writer, Harvey’s website is full of excellent material he’s written and collected on everything having to do with writing. He’s a great writer himself, but as a resource, I highly recommend him.
The technique I’m talking about is called “Writing Into the Dark.” It’s a wonderful way of writing that actually frees up writers to do what we’re meant to do—write. When I’m writing into the dark, I’m not planning the story—any part of the story—I’m simply following the characters around and reporting on what they’re doing. I’m listening to their accents and trying to write them so they make sense to the reader. I’m watching the street they are walking down and reporting on what I’m seeing.
This technique is so freeing I wish I could convince every writer I meet that they should at least give it a try. If you’re interested in looking into it, go to Dean Wesley Smith’s website here and check out number #24 of his lecture series. (No I’m not getting a commission for recommending it)
But that’s not the main topic of this post. I realized something after being hit over the head with it by Harvey the other day.
I am someone who is focused on putting out the best, cleanest book possible. By cleanest, I mean one with very few grammatical errors. I’m also very precise with my words because I know exactly what I want to convey, even with a single word. Now, I have always been very aware as a reader, that there are times when I’m completely immersed in a story and then, wham, I’m jerked out of it by something. For this post, it doesn’t matter what that something is. Suffice it to say, it happens.
What I never realized before, is that the same phenomena can happen to a writer. When I’m focused on the grammar, or the punctuation, or on finding just the right word, I’m jerking myself out of the story. I stop what I’m writing and do something else. That was an epiphany for me, and Harvey’s whack with a metaphorical stick is what it took to allow myself to write. If I come to a word that doesn’t work, I type the wrong word in caps so I can find it easily later, and I move on. Punctuation? Same thing. I’ll bold the sentence and move on.
The result has been a 1/3 increase in word count per day. Before this concept I was struggling to fit 2000 words into my writing time. Now, 3000 words fly off my fingertips, and the key thing I’ve noticed, is that my writing hasn’t suffered a bit! It’s still tight or edgy or funny and well written. The only difference is that writing is no longer a struggle!
I highly recommend trying this process to any writer out there who is struggling with perfectionism. I still go back at the end of the day to find the right word or the correct punctuation, but I don’t do it in the middle of my creative process.
Let me know if you try it and how it works for you. I’m really interested to see if it helps your writing as much as it has helped mine.
Writing mysteries comes easily to me since most of my adult life has been spent unraveling true to life mysteries as an officer in a large metropolitan police force. Solving cases is really nothing more than methodical fact-finding and taking the time to follow-up on every tiny scrap of evidence you can find. Can three words a four-year-old lisps while you’re trying to talk to her mom break a case? Of course! Well, if she says, “Daddy did it.” that’s a no brainer. But what if the mother is telling you the mailman did it, and the child whispers to her pink elephant, “Thath not twru.” A good detective would hear her and make note of what she said. A great detective would ask the mother to excuse them a minute, get down on the floor and start playing with the girl to see if he could get her to talk.
The Alex Wolfe Mystery series has been fun to write because Alex is like a dog with a bone. She digs and digs and gnaws and chews until she begins to drive everyone around her absolutely crazy. She does and says things to her superiors that would get me or any other officer fired in a heartbeat. I’m the type of person who comes up with the perfect comeback about two hours after the fact when I’m driving down the road playing back the conversation in my head. Not Alex. Her comments to her bosses are witty, biting or just plain outrageous and they’re constantly a source of contention between her and her fellow officers. Her methods are definitely not found in the regulation police manual, but they work.
One of my favorite by-products of writing books is the chance I get to answer questions from other writers. I love to teach authors how to write realistic police scenes or dialogue. Most people are pretty well versed now on police procedures because of all the reality police TV shows. At a seminar in Arizona, I was asked how one officer could handle a particular call so differently from another. In other words, how can Alex be successful when she’s so definitely “not by the book”?
Within the confines of the law, there is no one “right” way to do police work. There are many, many different ways to handle the same situation. For example, a cop walks up to a local gang member on the street and asks for identification. The gang member takes off running down the street. If the cop has twenty years under his belt, he’ll probably watch the young man running away and think to himself “Tomorrow’s another day.” He knows he’ll run into the kid again.
Now take the same scenario, but make the cop a twenty-one year old rookie fresh out of the academy. Everyone knows, the chase is on. The rookie keys his mike while he’s running after the suspect, breathing heavily while giving his location and making sure everyone in his division know he’s chasing a bad guy. Alex on the other hand might run to her car, drive around the block and be leaning up against her car with her arms crossed waiting for the guy to run out of the alley. Three very different responses, all of them acceptable. “How can the grizzled old veteran’s response be acceptable?” you may ask. Actually, they did ask at the seminar, along with about a hundred other questions that turned into a fun discussion on how these fifty and sixty year old writers could best capture a fleeing suspect.
Anyway, I digress. If you go back to the original scenario, the cop simply walked up to a man who was dressed in gang clothes and hanging out on a street corner. The man ran. Nothing illegal in that. Suspicious? Yes. Illegal? No. The veteran has probably worked the same beat for fifty years. He knows who hangs out where, when, and why. If he didn’t know this particular gangster, he’ll know who he is by the end of the day, why he’s there and what drugs he specializes in. He’ll notify the undercover street narcotics squad who’ll set up several buys and get the man off the streets for good. It’s the difference between short-term and long-term thinking. Rookie versus Veteran.
To me, it’s these types of differences that make police procedurals interesting and I like to put all different types of officers into my stories. So like I always say—Pop some popcorn, curl up by the fire with Credo’s Hope and get ready to be entertained.
Being a writer isn’t easy. Most of us use our computer to write our great American novel. The trouble is, there are so many distractions on the internet today that many times what took us 3 hours to write ten years ago takes us six hours today.
We are distracted by
• Reading our email
• Answering our email
• Checking our social media
• Surfing the web
• Anything else that we can find to help us to not write
But honestly, there’s another, more insidious reason many writers fail to complete one book, one short story, or even one blog post. That reason?
THE SPOTLIGHT EFFECT
What exactly is this mysterious ailment? According to a study done by Cornell University, The Spotlight Effect is “An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance.” What does that mean in basic English?
• Most people think everyone is staring at them
When in Reality
• Nobody really cares or notices what you do, think, or say
How does this study relate to writers? Most writers freeze up when they start worrying about that next review. What will my readers think? I’ll be everyone’s fool. Everyone will say I should never have been a writer.
Honestly, take a minute and breathe. Now take a minute to set some goals. Decide to write 1000 words/day or 2000 or 3000. Then realize that if people don’t like what you’ve just published, that’s okay because you’ll already be off and running on your next project, on that next 1000 words, or half way into your next novel. Take control and silence your worst critics. Move beyond them, don’t listen to them, and don’t EVER let them stop you from attaining your goals and dreams.
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who has worked patrol for the past twenty years. As usual, the conversation eventually got around to my writing. He asked me if I still wrote about what writers do that really bugs cops on the street. When I said I did, he said, “Let me tell you one of the things that drives me crazy every time I see it on some cop drama or read it in some book. I hate it when they walk up to a door to talk to somebody or to check on a possible victim, and when they touch the door, it just swings open.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about. Every time I see that in a movie, I involuntarily roll my eyes. It’s like a subconscious twitch, and when it happens, I have to keep my thumb from automatically clicking the “off” button on the remote control.
Writers, hear me on this, please. In twenty years of police work, there was only one time that I pushed on a door and it squeaked open for me. And honestly, that was on a house check a neighbor had called in and when I contacted the owner to come home to check things out, we discovered that her husband just hadn’t pulled the door shut hard enough when he left that morning.
I have however had to climb through windows, bash open doors (granted they were hollow core doors) with my shoulder, crawled in through the doggy door, and rooted around in the yard until I found the secret hiding place for the key. Use your imagination. It is so cliché for your character to push on the door, throw an astonished look at their partner, and slip in an already open door. Have fun with it. Have your detective do something outlandish or even illegal. But get your character into the house any way other than through an unlocked front door.
If you do, my patrol friend will thank you from the very bottom of his heart.
Now, as promised, I’ve been searching for some great gifts for families and friends to give to the writer in their life. I told you I would add a few to each post in the days before Christmas, so…here you go!
1. I love this one. There is nothing so important to a good book as a great first line! This mug features opening lines of some of the greatest works of literature from “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” to “Call me Ishmael” and 22 more. Check it out!
Great First Lines of Literature Mug
2. As an incorrigible tea drinker, this is an absolute must have, in fact, if any of my family is reading this, this is it!
Novel Teas contains 25 teabags individually tagged with literary quotes from the world over, made with the finest English Breakfast tea.
3. And there’s always the great chocolate inspirational flag. Who could live without this hanging in their front yard?
If we are lucky, there comes a time in a writer’s life when we realize that, although we love our readers, we can no longer write simply to try to please them. Writing for other people can be a strangling experience, one where the hidden demons of self doubt creep into our subconscious and whisper crippling innuendos of fear and incertitude. “They won’t like it if I turn my character into this.” Or “They don’t want me to start another series, they want more of this one.” Or “This book is no good, the reviewers will tear it apart.”
Those thoughts generate the greatest excuse not to write known to man; the fearsome “writer’s block.” In reality, I don’t believe in writer’s block, and neither do the men and women who write thousands of words day after day, writing through their hesitations and fears. What I’ve come to understand is that they don’t write for their fans or for a large audience of potential readers. Those writers have learned to write for no one other than for themselves. They have an audience of one.
And yet even with that audience of one, doubt and apprehension try to wriggle into the writing process. A true writer has to push those doubts way down into the dark recesses of their mind and simply put pen to paper, writing word after word after word, and always coming back the next day to resume the process. There is no place in our writing for doubt. We have to believe that the stories are within us, that the gift of words we’ve been blessed with will coalesce into brilliant, wonderful stories that will transport our readers into another world, another time, or another dimension.
The best advice I can give any writer is to put away your doubts, your fears of your audience and your fear of failure, and write. Remember, the best audience you have is an audience of one.
I absolutely love this time of year. The idea of dressing up my house with beautiful lights and wonderful smells is something I’ve looked forward to ever since I was a small child. I remember my dad pulling down box after box of tree decorations while my brothers, cousins and I worked to shove the tree stand onto the trunk of our newly cut Christmas tree. Our decorations certainly never looked like the designer trees you see in stores today. We were happy if the red puff-ball nose we’d glued onto our cardboard toilet paper roll reindeer stayed on and the strings on the handmade popcorn garlands didn’t break.
Fast forward to our busy hustle and bustle lives of today. So many people don’t have the time to make homemade decorations or to bake gooey double chip chocolate chip cookies. Heck, as writers, we’re lucky if we even have time to go gift shopping let alone do all the little extras that make Christmas so special for your family.
I know I sit at my computer eight hours a day, sometimes more, where I live in whatever fantasy world I happen to be creating that day. When people ask me “What do you want Santa to bring you?” my response is usually a blank stare and a mumbled “Can I get back to you on that?” Which brings me to the reason for this post. I thought I’d give my writer friends a list that they can print out and give to their friends and family of various items that might be appreciated by a writer. Some are whimsical, some are practical, but I hope something here might tickle your fancy. I’ll try to add three or four ideas to each new blog post I put up before Christmas.
1. The first item on the list is this wonderful clock that doesn’t let us procrastinate, get distracted, file our nails, walk the dog or any of one hundred other excuses we find to get ourselves out of putting words to the page. I personally love this clock…
2. One of my personal favorites are these coasters that make my imaginary friends legitimate.
3. And here’s one for the more practical minded. I have learned an incredible amount from reading Dean Wesley Smith’s blog over the years. He is considered one of the most prolific writers working in modern fiction. If you really, really want a gift that your loved one can consider a great investment in your life’s passion, ask them to buy you one of the many available lectures in his WMG Publishing Lecture Series. You won’t be disappointed. http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/lecture-series/
4. How about some help with your writing? Here’s one that I found especially helpful whenever I write about a character’s emotions. The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have done an excellent job of illustrating the importance writers taking their innate skills of observation and transferring them to their characters in ways that are compelling to read.
I know holidays can be stressful, but try to look at the positive rather than the negative and most importantly, keep on writing!