Thursday, November 30, 2023

Managing Your Writing Time During the Holidays

Family get-togethers... But I just want to write...
by Sean Taylor

If you've been writing for any length of time, you know already how difficult it can be to create those magical blocks of time to commit to the actual task of sitting in front of the keyboard and writing. Particularly if you don't do it full-time, and you have to eke out moments of uninterrupted keyboard (or notepad for you Luddites) time.

But then.


B. A. Freakin' M.

Your writing train gets stopped cold by a herd of reindeer that won't move from the tracks. It's the holidays.

And all that little bit of leftover time for creating worlds and heroes and lovers and dragons and magic and dreams suddenly fills up with family events, shopping for gifts, and what feels like a million other things. And what's worse, it's time taken up by good things, so you can feel guilty about still wanting that time with the imaginary when there are so many, once a year good things that need doing. After all, you can get back the desk after New Year's Day, right? That's what resolutions are for, you know.

Bah humbug.

I choose to get grumpy and sulk (at least inside) about how little time I have to write. But how do I fix that and still make time to do that writing thing that we feel so called to do?

The following are only suggestions, and feel free to love them, ignore them, adapt them, or mix and match them with your own. The important thing is that you write... yes, even during the holidays.

School parties for the kids... But my story needs an ending...
1. Express to your family how important your calling to write is. Explain that regard of how much or how little you make from it, it's not a hobby. It's a drive. It's part of who you are. And just like you wouldn't dare ask your mom to step out of the kitchen and not make date-nut balls for the neighbors, you also wouldn't dare not take the time to do the thing that makes you, well, you.

2. Be portable. If you have to do a lot of traveling, take a laptop. Or get a Bluetooth keyboard for your tablet or smartphone. If you have to, write longhand on a notepad or in a notebook. However you do it, write.

3. Take advantage of mornings and evenings. If the family chooses to sleep in during the holidays, get up early, put on a pot of coffee or tea, and use the alone time to put words to paper. Even if it means you have to change your schedule. If they rise early and go to bed early, then flip that plan over to the darker times of evening. Instead of resting in front of the TV or binging Netflix, get in front of your small screen and tell the stories bottled up inside you.

4. If you don't have an inner ear problem or a queasy stomach, use the traveling office and let your significant other drive. (For the record, the traveling office is the passenger seat in your car.) Those hours driving over the river and through the woods to Grandma's house don't have to be lost.

5. Ask for a "Christmas present" of a block of undisturbed hours as one of your gifts during the holidays. You'll save a loved one some money AND pick up some time to put your characters through their paces.

So that's it. And don't worry about your plot notes getting lost. Just hide 'em under the fruitcake. Nobody will ever find them there. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Holiday Re-Runs: Writing Holiday Fiction

Let's get seasonal, all you writerly girls and boys and those along the spectrum. This week we're going to look at what goes into writing great holiday stories.

What makes seasonal-themed fiction popular?

Lucy Blue: I think seasonal fiction is popular for the same reason some people start listening to Christmas music the day after Halloween. Readers want to cocoon themselves in that warm, fuzzy holiday feeling, and publishers are more than happy to feed that to make a buck. And writers are as susceptible as readers. The first time I see those Hershey's Kisses playing handbells or hear Nat "King" Cole, I want to drop every other project and write a Christmas story. Sadly, that's only about six months to a year too late to effectively publish, but never mind - so far, Christmas always comes back around.

Alexandra Christian: Even kids want to write and read about Christmas. When I taught 2nd grade, my kids would write and read Christmas stories well into March.

Mandi Lynch: When you're in the spirit, you're in the spirit. Alternatively, when you're buried under 14 feet of snow, the last thing you want to read about is somebody sweltering in the hot July sun.

Selah Janel: I think it has certain themes, tropes, and archetypes in a way that a lot of people relate to. Everyone has some sort of relationship with the holiday, good or bad, included or excluded. At times holiday fiction can be a comfort during a stressful time, at the extreme, some types can be an anesthetic. Because the go-to is cozy holiday stories, it's also ripe for subversion in the dark fiction genres, too, because that inversion can be really jarring.

Sean Taylor: Seasonal fiction taps into the general positive vibe of the holidays. It is able to reinforce those happy thoughts of holidays past and, if done well, cause the reader to reflect on something else to make their season a little more exciting, or spicy, or romantic, or action-packed, or just plain on more filled with warm fuzzies.

Do you find it to be as good as "regular" fiction, or does it tend to be mere marketing and/or sentimentalism?

Sean Taylor: I'm a bit of a snob, so I tend to find a lot of holiday stories to be melodramatic drizzle designed to cater to the easy plots and tired tropes of either love lost and rediscovered just in time for the holidays or to the Christmas Carol model of someone learns the "true meaning" (insert the author's personal definition of that here) and makes a permanent change for the better. I don't, however, find some truly enjoyable -- even to my snobbish tastes -- holidays tales.

Selah Janel: Depends. I've read enough to be able to tell when it's hitting an obvious formula. There are tons of bland or plain not great holiday fiction out there, but that doesn't mean they don't speak to someone. When it's done super well, whether it's because of well-developed characters, use of obscure folklore (because this time of year is FULL of it), or just really taking a chance on an unconventional plot choice (and doing it well), holiday fiction can strike a chord in people and be really exceptional.

Mandi Lynch: Depends. I've found both - but then again, I find good and bad in all genres. Depends on who writes the story.

Lucy Blue: Some genres lend themselves more to holiday stories than others, and their publishers quite obviously know it--the mainstream romance Christmas cowboys start riding onto the shelf at Wal-Mart by mid-October. But my hubs played a Christmas-themed DLC mission for Hitman last weekend, so no genre or format is entirely immune. I think a lot of them ARE callous cash grabs, playing on our sentiment or feeding our contempt. The overarching theme to almost every holiday romance is "You don't have to be alone at Christmas." The overarching theme to almost every holiday horror or pulp story is "You're smart to hate Christmas." The overarching theme to almost every science fiction holiday story is "Christmas is an illusion." As readers, we look to these stories not so much for originality or art but to find confirmation of our own feelings about the holidays. And as writers, we do the exact same thing. I don't think this makes these stories worse than "regular" fiction; they just have a somewhat different purpose. But because of that, they aren't nearly as effective in July. (There are many, many notable exceptions, of course.)

What makes for bad or mediocre holiday fiction?

Mandi M. Lynch: A story that's too worried about the pretty to worry about the storyline. It's fine that you want to describe all 42947 ornaments on the tree, but there needs to be something beyond, too.

Sean Taylor: Tired tropes. More Christmas Carol redunits. Anything that is satisfied with the low-hanging fruit of just warm fuzzies. A lack of surprise for the reader. And most of all, anything so steeped in sentimentalism that it requires more suspension of disbelief than an episode of Gumby.

Selah Janel: For me, if it's supposed to romance or a cozy read, it's bad if I can figure out the plot immediately, if the characters are cardboard audience-inserts, or if it tries so hard to be holiday that it breaks from reality. A lot of anthology Christmas reads are this way for me - maybe ok once but they fall apart on repeat reads. In the case of horror or even romance, if people try to be too out there or too clever-clever without backing up the idea with great plot elements and characters, it's just as lame. Everyone has done evil Santa, so if you make that choice you'd better give me a fantastic reason for it and a gripping plot arc. Every conceivable type of holiday romance has been done so if you go too out there, there'd better be some balance with the Christmas crazytown. The old legends work whether they're medieval or from different countries or what have you because they're short narratives. The moment you build on that with any holiday story, you need to be able to do it with some substance or else it's sugary icing with no Christmas cookie underneath.

I've had mixed reactions to my title Holly and Ivy, but my intent was to show the good AND bad of the season. People struggle that time of year, just like any other. People still hurt, they still die, but there's also family and relationships and hopefully some comfort, as well. There's magic, romance, holiday cozy rituals, and some faeries, but at its heart, it's about the choices the main character has to make and how she tries to grow and do the right thing, just like so many of us do. It's about trying to find the bright spots when things are shadowing the season, and I hope that's something that people can identify with, because it's definitely something I face every year.

What elevates holiday fiction into something that still stands beyond the season?

Ryan Cummins: I'm going to use one of my favorite films here as an example, DIE HARD. People argue it's relevancy in the holiday genre constantly but what I love about this film is that it has a great story that just so happens to take place during the holidays. Would it have worked just as well if it was set during Labor Day? Probably, but the fact that they used the Christmas as a seasoning instead of the main course is what gives the story its charm. That's why no one ever debates whether DIE HARD 4 is a Fourth of July movie or not. As long as what is at the center of the story has an emotional pull for the audience, its place on the calendar should be of little consequence.

Mandi M. Lynch: A story where the main issue could fit without a holiday. Blaire could just as soon bring Enrique home in April, it would still make a story. Luther could still want to keep within his budget. Frohmeyer will still be an overbearing neighbor in summer.

Selah Janel: For me, if it connects with my actual life experience. I love On Strike for Christmas by Sheila Roberts because I know women like those characters. I grew up with similar traditions. I've seen that clash of wills. Likewise, I like the graphic novel Marvel Zombies Christmas Carol because it takes a gimmick but makes it make sense without going completely off the rails and destroying the original story. In both cases, you actually come to empathize with the characters and identify with the familiar holiday rituals.

Sean Taylor: Personally, I think the best holiday fiction uses the holiday itself as setting more than marketing or moral. It should have something to say about the people celebrating the season rather than merely becoming more "true meaning of Christmas" propaganda. The characters need to be fully realized people, not just Colorforms stuck into the same old manger scene rediscovery or "Scrooge learns his lesson" fable. Regardless of the time period in which they are set, they should say something true and honest and meaningful to modern readers. They should get beyond marketing and be good stories... period.

Case in point, I can watch It's a Wonderful Life anytime during the year, as well as Gremlins and Die Hard, and even Scrooged, but not The Bells of Saint Mary's, Christmas in Connecticut, or any of the Hallmark seasonal movies. Why? It's the difference between being steeped in sentimentalism and using the season as a springboard to tell a genuinely human story.

And yes, mentioning Scrooged sounds like I'm disagreeing with my own criteria, but that movie transcends it's typical Christmas Carol plot in so, so many ways.

From my own work, I tend to use the holidays to let my characters reflect, but not in the traditional sense. I've had them have to figure out the true nature of being a hero while dying during the holidays, rediscover the spark that died long ago because of a robbery and a captive's life in danger, and deal with the life choices that led to going from superhero to street bum (and was it worth it?) -- and that's a far cry from your visits with family in the snow-capped mountains or your big-city lawyer discovers the true meaning of Christmas in the idealized, pastoral setting where his car broke down. But, to each his or her own.

Lucy Blue: My own holiday-themed writing usually comes from something silly. For example, the one and only Hallmark-Channel-ready, contemporary holiday romance I've ever written in my life, Jane's Billionaire Christmas, came about as I was watching a Southpark Christmas episode with my digital artist/writer husband. We were discussing how obviously the guys who make Southpark have some female influence in their lives--every once in a while, Stan's girlfriend, Wendy, comes out with a monologue that Justin swears I wrote. ;) And as we were watching, I was thinking, geez, what WOULD it be like to be in a relationship with the brain that came up with Cartman? Laws, can you imagine taking that guy home to meet your parents at Christmas? And out of that came a Christmas story that is very sentimental and romantic and smooshy, but also, I hope, very funny.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

[Link] 7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

by Ellen Gutoskey

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

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Friday, November 24, 2023



Welcome to Moon City for the final time, courtesy of author and series creator Kimberly Richardson. Jackie Verona, Richardson’s breakout amateur detective, makes her final novel appearance in the latest release from Pro Se Productions - JACKIE VERONA: THE DANCE OF LILITH! 

Under the cover of night, a malevolent force in the form of a woman whirls into an unsuspecting city, bringing chaos, lies, and destruction. Yet, it’s nothing for author and sleuth Jackie Verona and her partner, Monica! Together, these two formidable women will do what they do best - kick butt and discover the truth, no matter how deep it goes!

The Third in Kimberly Richardson’s JACKIE VERONA series from Kimberly Richardson’s Pulp Gothic imprint and Pro Se Productions.

With an atmospheric cover and print formatting by Sean Ali, JACKIE VERONA: THE DANCE OF LILITH is available for 12.99 via Amazon.

Richardson’s final novel in the series is also available on Kindle formatted by Antonino lo Iacono and Marzia Marina for $3.99. Kindle Unlimited Members can read this exciting tale for free!

For more information on this title, interviews with the author, or digital copies for review, email

To learn more about Pro Se Productions, go to Like Pro Se on Facebook at Pro Se Productions.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Crime Fiction: Private Dicks, Armchair Detectives, and Cops on the Job

For our next writer roundtable, let's talk about crime fiction and mystery fiction. 

Which "slice" of this genre do you prefer to write, detectives solving mysteries (or cops solving a procedural) or a more general telling of the crime and folks involved? Why?

Danielle Procter Piper: I prefer to tell the story of the investigator. It's tricky, though, because sometimes it's difficult to stay one step ahead of a very intelligent character. You have to keep tossing obstacles at him or her just to keep the story going. It's also fun to pair him or her with a partner who keeps veering things off course, just to add to the struggle and fun. 

Paul Storrie: Hard-boiled detective fiction. As Chandler put it, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." (Okay, these days I don't object to a bit of tarnish and, of course, the "man" might be a woman or nonbinary. ) Though I have enjoyed some procedurals, I prefer the private investigator. The underdog. Not part of the system, but striving for some kind of justice nonetheless.

Van Allen Plexico: "Get caught"?! Dude--spoilers, but my criminals get away with it! 😅 I mean, things never go the way they expect, but they at least get away with something!

And so far, I've come up with the objective first, after a lot of historical research, and then puzzled out what they're trying to do and how they go about doing it. Then, once I'm telling the tale, I allow it to grow in whatever useful and interesting directions it wants to go.

Aaron Rosenberg: I definitely write "someone solving a mystery", I'm not entirely sure how you'd do a mystery otherwise. 🙂

Sean Taylor: I vastly prefer to write a mystery. For me, I dig a good P.I. tale, and often the more hard-boiled or at least hard-boiled inspired the better. That's my preference when writing AND reading. I don't think I could ever want to write a cozy or an armchair type of detective. I want grit and action and disillusionment. I also enjoy writing something with a more noir approach, where an everyperson ends up in the middle of some mess and must figure their way out of it, and often that mess involves crime and criminals. 

Bobby Nash: I like following characters as they solve a mystery or chase down a bad guy. For me, the characters are where it starts. The mystery, procedural elements, or even the chase all work in service to the characters. Not every character handles a situation the same way. How Snow approaches a problem is different than how Sheriff Myers approaches it. These character traits inform how the story unfolds. My stories tend to involve solving a case or mystery, but I try to spend time with both the protagonists and antagonists. Still, it all starts with the characters.

Snow is much more of an action/thriller. There are mysteries in the Snow stories, but not all Snow stories are mysteries. As with everything I do, I try to make sure it starts with the characters. Everything that happens in a Snow book does so through Snow-covered glasses. How do the things in the story impact Abraham Snow? How does he react to events? From there, the crime builds around Snow.

The same is true of my other characters as well. At least I hope so. As you mentioned, they have vastly different approaches. I could drop Abraham Snow, Tom Myers, Harold Palmer, Catherine Jackson, and John Bartlett, all investigators and law enforcement in their own right, into the same plot and I would come away with five different stories because of how these characters handle the plot would be different and therefore take the story in a different direction. Tom Myers investigates differently than John Bartlett or Catherine Jackson. Their personalities are different. They have different skill sets. Those attributes help define how these characters solve their mysteries/cases.

Jason Bullock: I have to say I'm drawn to writing mysteries that deal with seasoned investigators encountering the improbable only to find it was the most reasonable explanation at the time. I love a cliffhanger!

HC Playa: I have written a grand total of one mystery short story which I totally winged. Was that the best approach? No, not at all. My story for "The Dragon Wore a Badge" (an anthology that is not yet out), falls in the solve the mystery category, although the person who was the crime victim centers more in this story. So perhaps a bit of both mystery/crime telling for that one. Did I wing that one as well? Why yes, yes I did. 😂

Now, technically book two for Of the Other series that I am working on features a kidnapping that our MCs have to I guess I write "person(s) solving a mystery."

Ian Totten: I do crime fiction. There’s something about writing grittiness, and an honest portrayal of this that appeals to my mind. It depends on the story, but I rarely give the reader an idea of who the antagonist is.

When writing a mystery, whether procedural, cozy, PI, etc., how do you craft your tale and plot? Just jump in and wing it as you go? Or do you start with the crime and work backward to figure out where the criminal went wrong and what caused them to get caught? Or have a main character just putter along until that final clue or witness falls into place? 

John French: My first ever published story was a detective story for which I had a great closing line and then wrote the story to get there. Generally, I start with a situation or what I want to happen then choose the detective best suited for it. How it goes from there varies, sometimes I know what's going to happen, and sometimes the story or characters take over. But it's always an investigator - police detective, PI (licensed or not), or someone else who would naturally investigate or punish crime.

Bobby Nash: I start with the inciting incident. With In The Wind, Sheriff Tom Myers’ first standalone novella, the idea of the safe house being hit was what I came up with first. I then built the story from there. The first step was getting to know the guy in protective custody. Who is he? Why is he there? What kind of criminal is he? What will he do when the safe house is attacked? Once I had that in place, I started figuring out the rest. Who’s after him? Why? Where does he go? What parts of Sommersville do we need to visit in this story? We’re worldbuilding as we work the investigation. Then I start layering in the pieces until we get to the end.

In Such A Night, I started with the murder and worked outward from there. In the upcoming Standing on the Shadows, we start with a small-engine plane crash. That uncovers a long-buried secret. Then, I build the crime off of that beginning. In Snow Falls, it was with our main character getting shot and left for dead. Evil Ways started with an action scene designed to introduce the characters and also lay the groundwork for the sequel, Evil Intent. Deadly Games! started with a flashback to introduce the characters and their relationships before time jumping to the present situation.

I usually have an idea of the ending when I start, but there have been instances where the ending changed as a result of the story unfolding organically. I don’t do detailed outlines. I know certain plot points to hit, what clues need to be there, that sort of thing, but I leave the story open enough to make discoveries along the way. Some of my better twists resulted in trusting the characters. In one instance, the villain of the story was not who I, the writer, thought it would be. I was at the end of the story, a short piece, and realized that who I thought was the bad guy was not the actual bad guy at all. The twist was great so I went back to insert the appropriate clues so the readers could have the chance to deduce the bad guy’s identity. I like to play fair and have all of the clues appear in the story. To my surprise, the clues were already there. This is further proof that my characters are way smarter than I am.

Writing clues can be nerve-wracking. To me, because I know it’s a clue, they seem so blatantly obvious that there should be a neon sign pointing at them, flashing the words THIS IS A CLUE!  With Evil Ways, I was pleasantly surprised that some of the clues to the killer’s identity were not caught by readers on the first read-through. When I pointed them out in conversation with readers, I could see the dots start to connect. That made me happy.

Paul Storrie: I've got to map it out ahead of time. That way I know the clues and have a rough idea when it makes sense for them to be found. I also need a solid idea of how the story wraps. (I've never quite bought into the idea that if the writer is surprised, the reader will be too.)

Danielle Procter Piper: I'll get a basic idea in my head: For instance, in Venus In Heat, I knew I wanted to write a story about the concept of "obligate carnivores" or "obligate herbivores" and prove such things don't actually exist. Because of the thriller/mystery element, I went with a real fear—people getting eaten. To amp it up, I decided they'd be small children. So, that was the exciting part, the part that makes the reader squirm and wonder what's going on. Next, I chose my main characters and decided to go with ones I was very familiar with: An almost goody-two-shoes retired veterinarian, and a shady streetwise para-policing there's the combo I mentioned earlier with the intelligent investigator partnered with a near opposite who keeps throwing the case sideways. After that, I took the beginning of an older idea that never went anywhere and made it the start of an entirely new, wild story. It was author Tim Dorsey who told me he writes by just letting the story and characters drag him along, no plotting or planning, and I find that's the most fun for me, too. I'll see logical plot points manifesting in the future and write toward them, then drift along that stream until another starts to appear. Winging it, most people call it. 

HC Playa: In my hybrid planning/seat of the pants approach I know who did the thing, but they aren't the big bad, and why they did it and where, but it's the laying down the breadcrumb trail to my big bad that's tricky. I come up with the next two or three plot beats and then have to stop as I figure out how to keep the trail going and possibly send them on a goose chase. I haven't written that particular style story before, so it's a bit slower than just going, "Ooh, and now there's an explosion" 😁

Jason Bullock: I have to admit that I start my task by exploring an event, a crime, or a problem that could be currently being experienced by my protagonist. I then settle that character into the thick if things. Skipping to a major theme plot element catches readers right out of the gate holds them by the frontal lobe till I'm ready to go back to the beginning of the scene where it began before the main character was involved in the time stream.

Aaron Rosenberg: Oh, I have to know the details of the mystery--who, how, when, where, and why--before I ever start writing. Then I can see what clues got left behind, what hints there are, what trails--and what red herrings, as well. Trying to wing it would result in a ridiculous amount of backfill as you finally figure everything out.

Sean Taylor: I generally have an outline when I work. Yes, I'm not typically a pantser. I'm a notorious plotter. Because of that, I know the ins and outs of the crime, but I still like that surprise when something I didn't even think was important becomes a major clue like the watch in Rick Ruby's "A Tree Falls in a Forest." That started as a throwaway clue, then became more and more important as the story progressed. Rick is an odd blend of capable detective and putterer, working all the angles until he gets the right bite on the line. Then he's smart enough to know that's his new direction to focus on. 

Is it more important that the reader be in the dark along with the MC or should the reader have access to stuff the "detective" doesn't? Which ratchets up the tension best for you?

Aaron Rosenberg: I do mysteries from either first-person or limited third-person POVs, meaning they see what the main characters see, nothing more. I don't believe in hiding details from my reader, having the main characters figure something out or see something and not share it in order to dazzle the reader at the end, but I also don't believe in giving the reader more information than the main character. It's a shared journey, everyone has the same information at the same time.

Jason Bullock: I often times do the reveal of what's important when the MC is encountering the event. Disguising that key clue amidst a bevy of red herrings which are laid out for them to take a whiff at is a great way a murder, robbery, kidnapping, etc. The hidden clue in plain sight is what makes the reveal even better by the main character. "Tweak a strand on the web and the Spider will show itself."- Douglas Aldridge, (protagonist from my novella ENOCH Initiative ©2023)

Paul Storrie: I tend to go with the traditional hard-boiled, private eye, first-person narrative, so the reader gets the clues when the detective does. Haven't yet written a mystery where the reader has more info than the detective.

Danielle Procter Piper: I like to follow the hero precisely, allowing the reader to try and guess what's happening. Showing them how the character thinks and why, explaining how motivations and past experience play into his or her worldview but will take a side trip to write stuff the hero doesn't know if it's necessary to add clarity for the reader. If the reader knows just about everything already and is simply following the hero's path to resolution then I feel the story is not about solving anything or encouraging new ways of thinking and seeing things, but about caring for the characters instead. Either can work. I prefer to write stories of discovery instead of stories about emotions.

Bobby Nash: I prefer to play fair with my readers. All of the clues the detective uses to solve the case need to be in the book. I hate it when detectives use a piece of information or clue to solve a case that the audience did not see. That’s not fair to the readers. I like for readers to be able to try and solve things along with the characters in the book. Plus, if they didn’t figure it out, after the reveal, they can go back and see the clues. That said, I do spend time with the antagonists. In those instances, the protagonists will not have that information. It’s a bit of the best of both worlds, though can be tricky. In my novels, Evil Ways and Suicide Bomb, we follow the killer in each, seeing events through his eyes, hearing his thoughts, but I still keep the identity secret until the hero characters discover it. That can be tough. You have to be careful with how you write those scenes.

Sean Taylor: One of the reasons why I specified crime fiction not just mystery fiction for this roundtable is they are different animals but the same genus, so to speak. In a mystery, someone is trying to find clues and solve the crime. In thriller crime fiction (like Die Hard for a movie example) the villain is already known to the MC, and the only mystery is how the hero is gonna save the day. In a thriller, the reader is usually more knowledgeable than the MC since the POV will bounce from head to head as needed to keep a more "cinematic" pacing and plotting. In mysteries, as most have said before, clues come a little at a time, drizzle by drizzle, and often are packaged with red herrings or rabbit trails. Personally, with Rick Ruby, I like to see him do his due diligence as a capable detective, but sort of stumble into the final piece based on something he did intentionally earlier in the act of investigation, something that he doesn't know he knows yet, but the bad guys may think he knows so they make their move. 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

[Link] Sylvia Plath Reads Her Poetry: 23 Poems from the Last 6 Years of Her Life

In March of last year, Toronto collector Greg Gatenby auctioned off “some 1,700 LPs, 45s, and 10-inch discs”-worth of recorded literary history, containing readings by such canonical figures as “Auden and Atwood, Camus and Capote, Eliot, Faulkner, Kipling, Shaw and Yeats,” and the recordings featured here from Sylvia Plath. Gatenby’s entire collection went on sale for a buy-it-now price of $85,000 (I assume it’s sold by now), and while we might have preferred that he donated these artifacts to libraries, there may have been no need. Most of them are already, or we hope soon will be, digitized and free online. Sylvia Plath reading her poetry (now out of print) was originally released on vinyl and cassette in 1977 by prolific spoken word record label Caedmon, but of course, the readings they document all took place over fifteen years earlier, some at least as early as 1959, the year before the publication of her first book, The Colossus and Other Poems.

Many of the poems here appeared in The Colossus, the only collection of poems Plath published in her lifetime. Some, like “November Graveyard”—first published in Mademoiselle in 1958—were collected late, in the Ted Hughes-edited Collected Poems in 1981, and the rest appeared in Ariel and other posthumous collections. Oddly, the title poem of her first book doesn’t appear, nor will you hear any of the poems that made Plath an infamous literary figure: no “Ariel,” no “Daddy,” no “Lady Lazarus,” though you can hear her read those poems elsewhere. Many of these poems are more lush, less visceral and personal, though no less rich with arresting and sometimes disturbing imagery. Several of these readings took place in February 1959 at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room. The album’s official description tells us these are “selections from the last 6 years of her life,” and also include “readings for the BBC before she wrote her controversial novel, The Bell Jar.”

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Friday, November 17, 2023


We all know about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, War, Famine, and Pestilence riding on pale horses and all that Book-of-Revelation stuff. But why does it have to be four guys on horses? Why not the Four Cheerleaders of the Apocalypse? The Four Cats of the Apocalypse? The Four PTA Moms of the Apocalypse? The Four Lawyers, Librarians, or Lunch Ladies of the Apocalypse? The Four Drummers, Rock Stars, or Opera Singers of the Apocalypse? Or even the Four Squirrels of the Apocalypse or the Four Emojis of the Apocalypse? And so we present The Four ???? of the Apocalypse, as twenty-nine brilliant authors give us alternate takes on the legendary quartet of end-of-the-world avatars.

Anthology Contributors:  

David Mack; Seanan McGuire; Mary Fan; Jody Lynn Nye; Derek Tyler Attico; Peter David; Aaron Rosenberg; Laura Anne Gilman; Danielle Ackley-McPhail; Gordon Linzner; Michael Jan Friedman; Jenifer Purcell Rosenberg; Michael A. Ventrella; Gerard Houarner; Megan Mackie; Adam-Troy Castro; Gail Z. Martin; Hildy Silverman; Robert Greenberger; James D. Macdonald; Dayton Ward; Kevin Dilmore; Patrick Thomas; Ross Colchamiro; David Gerrold.

Check it out:

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Movie Reviews for Writers: Flannery


Flannery O'Connor is not only one of my favorite writers, but she's also the subject of a PBS documentary named after her. Known as perhaps the Grand Dame of Southern Fiction, O'Connor is THE voice to be reckoned with in the world of fiction seen through the eyes of the South.
But she wasn't what she seemed, neither a Southern lady nor a rebellious feminist. In fact, according to Conan O'Brien, discussing her and her work in an interview: "You think it's this bitter, old alcoholic who's writing these really funny dark stories, and then you find out she's a woman and that she's devoutly religious." Her work and her life didn't always line up with straight edges. There was overlap, and there were gaps where they didn't quite join up like they should. 

But to limit her to merely a Southern writer, as Harvey Breit says, isn't fair to her legacy:

I for myself think that although Ms. O'Connor can be called a Southern writer, I agree that she's not a Southern writer, just as Faulkner isn't, and that they are, for want of a better term, universal writers. 
They're writing about all mankind and about relationships and the mystery of relationships.

To Flannery, that universal mystery she was writing about had a lot to do with craziness, according to Alice Walker:

She was able to go straight to the craziness without always trying to make the craziness black or the craziness white.
She just saw the mystery of the craziness.

Like any good and gifted writer, she embraced that craziness and darkness and humor within her. She embraced all of herself, the dark and the light, and that's what made her fiction stand out. Says Richard Rodriquez: "What's happening here is something so remarkable that the profane meets with the sacred, and it's within that comic meeting that the stories operate."

It's a place many writers don't reach for a long time, having to first discover who they are through their writing first. Hell, some writers never get there. They may hide one part while focusing on what they think readers want to read. They may hide all of themselves and chase markets. But all truly talented writers eventually learn that your best work doesn't happen, can't happen until a person's fiction integrates all the parts of the one doing the writing.

It's the clips from during her life that make this documentary so much fun. One stand-out moment comes from a television show in which she is asked to talk about the art of short stories.

Breit: What does a writer try to do in a short story? Or what does a writer try to do in a novel? What is the secret of writing? 
O'Connor: Well, I think that a serious fiction writer describes an action only in order to reveal a mystery. Of course, he may be revealing the mystery to himself at the same time that he's revealing it to everyone else. And he may not even succeed in revealing it to himself, but I think he must sense its presence.

As a writer who prefers short stories to any other literary form, both for reading and writing, i think she's dead-on in her assessment. But I don't think it only applies to "serious" fiction writers. I think all writers have a subconscious writer living inside their heads that works that kind of thing into even so-called popular fiction or genre fiction. I tend to believe it's the kind of thing a writer can't avoid ultimately. 

Throughout the last years of her life, having been diagnosed with Lupis, the same uncurable disease that killed her father, the "all of her" that made up her life got progressively darker. However, that only reinforced her will to write, to create, to tell stories. According to Hilton Als, "I think she loved writing so much because it freed her from the corporeal." Writing was her escape from pain being tapped by her body. Creating was her winged bird (thank you, Langston Hughes) that was free to fly her imagination beyond her diagnosis. Telling stories was her way of travelling the world since her weakened body wouldn't allow that dream to come to fruition. 

The documentary spends quite a lot of its run time on her time writing Wise Blood (my favorite of her two novels). Her first novel, it was important to her to get it right, to capture her darkly comic intersection of realism, grotesque, and religious. In fact, according to Michael Fitzgerald, she ended up going back to rewrite from the beginning after reading and being so taken by Oedipus Rex. Says Michael: "She was so shocked by the Oedipus Rex that she reworked the entire novel to accommodate Hazel Motes' blinding himself, as Oedipus does."

In a discussion between Robert Giroux and Sally Fitzgerald, the two share this exchange about how her own thoughts on Wise Blood and those of her publishers and the reviewers didn't mesh. 

Fitzgerald: I think you can see in her letters about working on Wise Blood and the process that she went through, her first publisher who didn't get it. 
Giroux: Flannery said that, 'The editor at Holt treats me like a dim-witted campfire girl.'

FitzgeraldHe called her prematurely arrogant.

Gooch: And O'Connor, very young, I mean, completely stands up for herself and the possibility that this book will never be published and just says that, 'I'm not writing this kind of novel.'

FitzgeraldPublishers never intimidated her.

Mary Steenburgen (reading from O'Connor's journal): I am not writing a conventional novel, and I think that the quality of the novel I write will derive precisely from the peculiarity or the aloneness, if you will, of the experience I write from.

This isn't uncommon. Our intentions as writers and what readers and (worse) reviewers read can be polar opposites. The ladies of her Southern small-town life saw the book as vulgar and actively irreligious, failing to notice the ragged shadow that followed Hazel Motes around with every step and wouldn't let him get away from faith no matter how he tried. Others simply saw some of her dialog as "proof" of her own racist beliefs and wondered how a sweet Southern lady would write such things into the mouths of her characters. 

Some of the fault in that misunderstanding, according to Richard Rodriquez, comes from O'Connor's immense talent as a dialog writer and her ability to capture voice even in internal monologue.

Part of my worry as her reader is that she's too good, by which I mean that her mimicry of her voices around her is too acute.

In that accuracy, she doomed herself, because a lot of these stories are judged by modern readers as unacceptable.

Still, even with ticks against her, Flannery O'Connor's legacy is secure. I don't see "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" or "Everything That Rises Must Converge" disappearing from textbooks or bookshelves of voracious readers any time soon. Perhaps this quote from William Sessions best sums up her writing life:

The life of Flannery O'Connor and what she had to offer, in terms of her relationship to the greater mysteries of existence, are going to be things that people will tap into, because they aren't going away.

God, how'd I love for someone to honestly say that about my work one day. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Best Dialog Advice You Ever Received


I posted an open question on my various social profiles. I asked this: "What's the best advice you ever got for writing dialog?" Here are the results. 

Josh Nealis: Dialogue is tough. Generally, on my first draft, the dialogue is more or less kind of a placeholder for kind of what I want the character to say. Once the entire story is written and I know the Arc of the character on the second and third passes you can go back and fix the dialogue to Trend in the way you want it to. Always think about what the character is trying to accomplish in that moment or 

Anthony Taylor: This: ", he said."

Cully Perlman: Stick as best as you can to “he said” and “she said” for dialogue tags. Be sparse with anything else. Especially adverbs.

Ef Deal: Tags are not always necessary. Intersperse dialogue with action instead.

Shannon Luchies: Say it aloud. If it sounds wrong, rethink it.

Lucy Blue: If you’re not sure, try reading it out loud. Would you say it? If somebody said it to you, would it get the reaction you intended? Remember, people tend not to talk in long, complex sentences even when they “monologue.” You ain’t Shakespeare; you’re writing conversation, not poetry. Dialogue is my favorite thing to write; it comes most easily to me. It’s descriptions that hang me up.

Susan H. Roddey: It should always sound natural when spoken aloud.

Lainey Kennedy: Read it out loud. You will catch more weirdness from hearing it than reading it on the page.

Devin Hylton: Dialogue is not actual conversation.

David Wright: Find the rhythm in the speech. Don't overburden with tags. Let word choice be governed by character and setting.

John Morgan Neal: As has been said by many already, read it aloud. But I would add to try and read in character. That way avoids all characters 'sounding ' the same.

Angela Hope: Death to adverbs!! (via Stephen King)

John French: (from my high school freshman English class) When writing dialogue, the rules of grammar do not have to be strictly followed.

Jessica Hodges: To help the verbal exchange between characters feel more organic, replace repetitive dialogue tags with action beats.

Jesse Baruffi: Don't spell words differently based on characters' accents. Let word choice make their accents come out.

Characters should not be constantly setting each other up for clever wordplay. Such things occasionally happen, but it is best when it's surprising, and doesn't feel like the author's hand at work.

If all the characters sound the same, it's your voice, not theirs.

Let your characters listen poorly and talk past each other, so only the reader often hears them.

Characters, even honest ones, should usually hold back their feelings and intentions as much as they can until there's no choice but to reveal them.

Also, don't have the characters tell each other things the audience already knows.

Kay Iscah: I disagree with this to a point. Some authors do a fantastic job of conveying accent with dialogue, and it creates a richer experience. But it requires really knowing and understanding the accent.

Don't use an accent to mock a character, but there is a place for regional flavor. I think A Secret Garden is a book in which this works well. But it is extra grating if done badly, so if the accent is slight or unimportant to the story, probably best not to try to imitate it.

I used a very heavy, almost unintelligible accent for one of my fantasy novels, but it was done with purpose, not to mock anyone. But I had to craft rules for it to keep it consistent.

Listen to how people speak, but dialogue can be the characters saying the things you wish you had said an hour later. Unless you need to show nervousness, minimize the "um" and rambles that often come in real conversation. And this does vary a bit by genre, so understand if you're writing an adventure or screenplay dialogue should be very tight. If you're doing a leisurely slice-of-life novel, then you can meander more.

Taylor Mosbey: Read more Mark Twain.

Anna Salazar: I go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop.

Gordon Dymowski: Make a point of focusing on how a person speaks - what vocabulary are they using? Is that person's vocal rhythm unique? Thinking of dialogue like music is one of my key go-to strategies when writing dialogue.

Ali Marceau: Write the conversation that's in your head first...actions and reactions will come to you the more you "study the lines" and you're less likely to forget the feelings of the scene.

Bobby Nash: Walk around the house reading dialogue aloud.

Scott Rogers: Give each character their own way of sayin’ something so their personality comes through. Read what you have written aloud after you have written it.

Ruth de Jauregui: Read it out loud in the cadence and accents of your characters. Words too. So if the Latino across the street says oh my god, it’s in Spanish, then continues in English with his accent. And words spelled differently to mimic the accent, ok, maybe sometimes, but if the book is filled with it, it’s hard to edit and honestly distracts from the story.

Robby Hilliard:
Read it out loud. Listen to someone else read it out loud.

Eliseu Gouveia: I usually use movie actors as proxies. I had a dialogue scene where a guy was trying to convince his pissed-off girlfriend to quit smoking. So, in my mind, I projected The Shoveler (Mistery Men) for the guy role, and Morticia Addams/Anjelica Huston as the girlfriend. The results were... unexpected. 😊

John Hartness: Read David Mamet.

Jessica Nettles: Watch Aaron Sorken shows. Read Neal Simon. Listen to real conversations and language. Understand that every person has their own language music and patter.

Nancy Hansen: If I can see the character in my mind's eye, I'll figure out the background, and then the dialogue comes more naturally. Sometimes I'll hunt for the right look online, and either find it in a celebrity or other recognizable person, or maybe some random picture I stumble across. Ethnicity and local/period slang and phrasing will figure in, but as Ruth said, in small doses. Like adding spice to a dish, it gets overwhelming if you add too much. For example, in the Jezebel Johnston pirate series, which takes place in the mid/late 1600s I decided from the outset to not use the 'thees and thous' sort of parlance that was popular in the day. It's hard to do well and gets tiresome to read after a while. I do my share of pirate talk though, just not the theatrical stuff. I also dump in the occasional phrase in French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, etc to remind readers that seafaring was a melting pot affair.

Charles Santino: Less is more. Clever is bad.

Jamais Jochim: Be passionate.

Allen Hammack: Ninety-nine percent of dialog lines should use "said." The very rare substitution should emphasize something important.

Michael McIlvain: Keep it understandable. Eliminate any possible question in the reader’s mind.

Pj Lozito: Don't let any character give a speech...

B. Clay Moore: Don't work to emulate the way people "actually speak." Work to make the way your characters speak seem believable. Also, dialogue comes easily for me once I can "hear" a character's voice in my head. That comes from *knowing* who my characters are. Everything follows from there.

Michael Woods: Dialogue isn't what they say, but how they say it.

Sorella Smith: Writing dialogue and how you tag it are not the same thing. for me, simply saying 'said' can often understate the intent of the dialogue. For others, adding a descriptor devalues the dialogue, gives too much weight to the narrative. Figuring that balance out is separate from writing good dialogue. Dialogue should be suited to the character. Dialogue isn't what should define the character, but it should inform the character and everything about the character should inform it.

Hilaire C Smith: Not really advice for writing so much as personal insight... I learned I am a wordy b**** 😂 and use $5 words regularly... the "would YOU say it like that" doesn't help me. 😂

Also, most of my characters are Southern precisely because I cannot excise my Southern roots from my grammar/vocabulary. Along those lines, some advice: avoid regional dialects as it can be done badly and come off as bigoted if badly done. Ie, it's fine to toss in a "y'all," but making a character sound like Boomhauer might not go over well and will be tiresome to read.

Aaron Rosenberg: Listen to how people speak. Hear your characters speak in your head. Read what they say out loud. Then go listen to people more. 

James P. Nettles III: I’ve been known to dictate, poorly acting out the character voices to get the first draft. And also, listen to old radio shows - very tight dialogue.

James Tuck: if you are having a conversation between two people, once you establish who's talking trust your audience to keep up. You do not have to he said she said that shit all the way down the page.

Jen Mulvihill: I listen to other people interact in dialogue and take note of how they communicate then I play it out in my head with my dialogue then I listen to what I have written in audio playback.

Shannon Murphy: Don't worry about grammar. Nobody speaks in perfect grammar. Write dialog the way people actually speak. That is, if your book is contemporary. If you're writing of another time, you'll have to research how they spoke then. No one in Victorian England is going to say, "Hey, dude!"

Saturday, November 11, 2023

[Link] The 430 Books in Marilyn Monroe’s Library: How Many Have You Read?

If you’re a reader and user of social media, you’ve likely tested your lifetime reading list against the BBC Book Quiz.

Or perhaps you’ve allowed your worth as a reader to be determined by the number of Pulitzer Prize winners you’ve made it through.

The National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read, anyone?

The 142 Books that Every Student of English Literature Should Read?

The 50 Best Dystopian Novels?

Being young is no excuse! Not when the American Library Association publishes an annual list of Outstanding Books for the College Bound and Lifelong Learners.

So… how’d you do? Or should I say how’d you do in comparison to Marilyn Monroe? The online Monroe fan club Everlasting Star used photographs, interviews, and a Christie’s auction catalogue to come up with a list of more than 400 books in her possession.

Did she read them all? I don’t know. Have you read every single title on your shelves? (There’s a Japanese word for those books. It’s Tsundoku.)

Feminist biographer Oline Eaton has a great rant on her Finding Jackie blog about the phrase “Marilyn Monroe reading,” and the 5,610,000 search engine results it yields when typed into Google:

There is, within Monroe’s image, a deeply rooted assumption that she was an idiot, a vulnerable and kind and loving and terribly sweet idiot, but an idiot nonetheless. That is the assumption in which ‘Marilyn Monroe reading’ is entangled.

The power of the phrase Marilyn Monroe reading’ lies in its application to Monroe and in our assumption that she wouldn’t know how.

Would that everyone searching that phrase did so in the belief that her passion for the printed word rivaled their own. Imagine legions of geeks loving her for her brain, bypassing Sam Shaw’s iconic subway grate photo in favor of home-printed pin-ups depicting her with book in hand.

Commemorative postage stamps are nice, but perhaps a more fitting tribute would be an ALA poster. Like Eaton, when I look at that image of Marilyn hunched over James Joyce’s Ulysses (or kicking back reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass), I don’t see someone trying to pass herself off as something she’s not. I see a high school dropout caught in the act of educating herself. If I saw it taped to a library shelf emblazoned with the word “READ,” I might just summon the resolve to take a stab at Ulysses myself. (I know how it ends, but that’s about it.)

See below, dear readers. Apologies that we’re not set up to keep track of your score for you, but please let us know in the comments section if you’d heartily second any of Marilyn’s titles, particularly those that are lesser known or have faded from the public view.

Read the full article:

Friday, November 10, 2023


Airship 27 Productions is proud to announce the release of the 19th Volume in their bestselling series new of Sherlock Holmes adventures, Consulting Detective.

In this volume, the Great Detective and his amiable assistant confront four truly unique and bizarre mysteries. Each of these will challenge Sherlock Holmes’ observation skills. From a trip to the Vatican to retrieve a “lost gospel” to unravel the death of a famous author, there is no rest for the two companions. A young Olympiad cyclist is murdered with an African Zulu spear while in the final entry, a cunning murderer uses well-known poems as clues to the identity of the next victim. The game is afoot once again with

Writers Ray Lovato, Jonathan Casey, I.A. Watson, and Ray Lovato provide the excitement and the thrills.

Art Director Rob Davis provides 14 wonderful interior illustrations while artist Howard Simpson illustrates a dramatic cover. Once again offering fans a beautiful treasure of great Holmes tales.


Now available at Amazon in paperback and on Kindle!

Thursday, November 9, 2023

GoFundMe for Peter David (PAD)

Folks, Peter David was the first comics pro to remember me at a con and address me by name when I was working with Shooting Star Comics. He's a talented creator and needs your help. Thanks to Todd Nauck for reminding me to donate for this.

Hi, everyone. I'm fundraising for author Peter David and his family. He's had some compounded health problems, and the bills are piling up! On top of kidney failure, and the steep medical bills incurred from that, he just had another series of strokes AND a mild heart attack.  

As we wish him a swift recovery, and send our love and support to his wife Kathleen and his family, let's also pitch in and help with their medical bills and living expenses. 

Please give what you can to relieve some of the immense stress that this family is going through right now.  

On behalf of Peter, Kathleen, and the whole family, thank you!

        -- Graham Murphy

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Movie Reviews for Writers: Shirley

I do believe I have a new movie to add to my absolute favorite movies about writers. While Shirley may be a highly fictionalized telling of Shirley Jackson's life during the time she was writing her second novel, Hangsaman. This movie is a nigh-perfect blending of life and the sort of creep factor that Jackson wove into her stories, and the voiceover as she reads from her novel in progress while she and her "friend" Rosie go about their lives is nothing if not haunting. 

Don't be fooled when you see this one listed among thrillers or even horror in the categories on streaming services. It is thrilling and horrific, yes, but not in any kind of way that category implies. Instead, it's the active and passive shots the characters take at each other, the way they live with both known and suspected evils, the intertwining of the central mystery of Hangsaman and the lives of Shirley and Rosie that brings the thrill and horror. It's horrific and thrilling in the same way Monsters Ball was. It's the kind of movie that makes a viewer think, "God, as people, we pretty much suck." 

That said, this one isn't just sprinkled with writer stuff. It's the backbone, the meat, and the nerves of this flick. This movie only works because Shirley Jackson is a horror (among other genres) writer. 

My favorite bit comes very early in the film. Shirley and her husband, Stanley, are throwing a party, and one of the partiers asks Shirley what her next book is about. She responds: "A little novella I’m calling None of Your God Damn Business. How ‘bout yourself?" Shirley is exhausted with tourists wanting a peek into the writer's life that is somehow believed to be on public display simply because she exists and has been published extensively. 

Sometimes as a small indy writer, I think I would welcome that kind of attention as a validation of my chosen endeavor, but I also realize that too much of even that good thing could get annoying as hell really quickly. 

A few moments before that exchange, though, she had been in the middle of describing her inspiration for perhaps her most well-known and well-studied short story, "The Lottery."

Jackson: So I picked up a few things. And I’m trudging back up the god-damn hill. It was fucking hot out. I’m cursing my back, I’m cursing my feet, I’m cursing all of god-damn humanity -- when it hit me. The whole thing. I sat down at my desk. Two hours later there it is. The most reviled story the New Yorker ever printed! And all I could think was, god-damn I forgot to put the ice-cream up. I’m gonna have to face that Satanic hill again. 
Partier: I read it as an anti-Semitic parable... in the tradition of Isaac Babel.

Two things here I loved and that rang true for me. One, as writers we have little control over where inspiration can hit us. Sadly, it's seldom when we're sitting at the computer with time to write. I can't speak for you, but for me, it's usually in the car driving to or from work or in the middle of picking up groceries or something mundane like that. It may be a snippet of song lyrics, or it could be the way that the woman picking out oranges shifts from one foot to the other. It's rarely some king of thunderbolt like the fabled myths non-writers think accompany story ideas. Second, once the story is out and published, we lose control over what it means or doesn't mean, or maybe was supposed to mean. It's totally up to the reader to put their own thoughts and experiences on it. Call me a deconstructionist, but I firmly believe that. Once that proverbial toothpaste is out of the tube, the goop doesn't get put back inside. Its meaning and understanding belong to the people who read it and think about it, no matter how much they may (in our minds) miss the point. 

While Rosie takes an immediate dislike to the caustic Jackson, the two gradually become a sort of confidante to each other, never quite friends, but equals, the heads to the other's tails. When one strengthens, the other wanes, at least until... Well, that would be a huge spoiler. Nevertheless, Rosie becomes the author's spy, infiltrating the campus where Stanley and Rosie's husband works to get information about the missing girl Jackson is writing about. 

The two do their due diligence and research. It's almost as if they're trying to solve a cold-case murder. The only thing they're missing is a murder board and miles of string. 

So it is that Stanley, Jackson's regular reader and editor, tells her that she doesn't yet know her subject well enough, she snaps and lets him have it. 

Stanley: It’s the genre, darling that’s stymieing you. It’s not your arena. And frankly, it’s beneath you.
Jackson: You can keep your theories to yourself.
Stanley: You didn’t know her.
Jackson: Don’t tell me I don’t know this girl.
Stanley: I might have walked by her a dozen times on campus, in the commissary, the commons. Various halls. That’s the sheer probability of it. But that’s not a face I ever remember seeing. Who is she to you?
Jackson: There are dozens and dozens of girls just like her littering every college across the country. Lonely girls who can’t make the world notice them. Don’t tell me I don’t know her. Don’t you dare.
Stanley: Oh, so you think it might be that good.

Stanley, who is a professor and a critic more than a creator, sees the story from the outside. Shirley, not only as the writer but also as perhaps formerly one of those girls herself sees the story from a different, truer angle. Inside. Through. It absorbed into her quite possibly. There is no comfortable distance that allows her the safety of objective criticism at that moment. She knows the missing girl, not just the facts of the case. 

In a sports-themed movie, there is often the big training montage. It's a cliche, of course, but it's mandatory viewing to keep the fans happy. There's something similar here, but instead of running up the steps or weight training, viewers are treated to quick cuts of the author typing while reading the voiceover for what she has written, only to rip the page from the typewriter, crumble it and toss it in the floor to start over. She's determined to get the voice, the words, the tone, the girl's character right, no matter how many times she needs to trash the work to go back to square one. 

Ultimately the work pays off. When she finishes, she finally relinquishes her hold on the manuscript and allows Stanley to read it. 

Stanley: Your book is brilliant, darling. Fucking gorgeous. I don’t know how you did it. I have some notes of course.
Jackson: Of course.
Stanley: This is going to be the one. Don’t lose sight of that.
Jackson: It hurts. This one. It hurts more than the others.
Have you ever written something like that? Something that felt like you were struggling to get it out, not because of time constraints, but because of something intrinsic within you, something almost personal between the writing process and you? If you haven't, I hope you do one day. If you have, you know that feeling she is referencing. It's a sort of spiritual childbirth after a long, contracted labor that ended in an emergency C-section as the only option to get the baby out. The sheer act of putting that much intensity on paper takes something out of the writer. It's the kind of thing that can only be explained in metaphors and symbols. But it's real. 

The last bit is something this movie plays up to a hyperbolic level -- it's the myth of the eccentric writer. It's almost as if the screenwriter took every cliche about writers that non-writers believe. You never know what they'll say. You can't take 'em out in public. They are all drunken and unsociable loners. And so on. Ad naseum. Spew. Spew. Spew. 

I cry BS. Just getting to know a few writers will correct you of this mindset quickly. Sure, we can still be eccentric, but more in a collecting first editions or reading RPG manuals kind of way. And the folks I know are some of the best souls on the planet. We laugh together, talk together, have one another's backs. 

But yeah, we do drink together too. Maybe that part of the myth is true. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Do, Do, Do, Da, Da, Da: The Day The Police Taught Me About Character Dialog

Back in the 1980s, Missing Persons asked in their deconstructionist anthem "Words" the important question: "What are words for when no one listens anymore?" Two years prior, though, The Police had their huge hit "Do, Do, Do, Da, Da, Da" where they answered the question with: "Poets, priests, and politicians have words to thank for their positions."

I never really thought much about that line, just chalking it up to another triplet of alliteration (one of my favorite tools to use when writing). But, after years of telling stories, I see that there was something there I hadn't noticed before, something that has been a part of my writing toolbox all these years even if I didn't acknowledge it as such. 

What are words for?

Words are for distinguishing and differentiating characters. That's what words are for. 

Word Choices

When we do this writing task correctly, each character has their own vocabulary and way of speaking. This means that one person may know and use more words than another while another person may speak with a far more limited personal glossary in their brain. Some folks may even have access to a huge vocabulary but play those word options close to the vest and speak differently around different people in your story. 

For example, a character might speak normally around co-workers but rein in the level of words they use when around family, particularly if the family is less educated and sees using a larger vocabulary as showing off. (I have known people like this, who say things like, "Stop using those big words. This ain't college. Speak English when you're home.")

Or maybe you're writing a character who has a more basic English vocabulary but tries to use "ten dollar words" to impress a potential date or to show off to some particular other character (perhaps a competitor for that love interest). 

Regardless, word choices that a character makes can be a vital tool for us in revealing something of that character's, well, character.

Tone and Intent

It's not just the words your characters use though that reveal personality traits. It's the way they use them. There's a world of difference between a person who is well-read and who engages a large vocabulary as a matter of course and a person who treats a large vocabulary as a way to impress people. Same words. Different deliveries. 

Does your prose reflect that difference?

Some characters will wield words as weapons, beating their opponents with them. Some use them as shields to keep them safe from the world outside their bubble (Emily Dickinson, anyone?). And still others are as warm and friendly and sincere as Aunt Bee's (our your own sweet aunt) apple pie. 

But most aren't. Most of us in reality tend to use our words with a purpose. It doesn't have to be nefarious, but it is a specific purpose for a specific moment. And the tone, speed, and even timbre of our words will change based on that purpose. 

Some even play against what the person they're talking to would normally expect to get around this notion. I think of Colombo's unassuming "One more thing," which was the most polite nail ever pounded into a criminal's coffin. Also, many cozy mysteries use this to great effect as well, with kindly old ladies and unassuming caterers who can speak with suspects on a far more personal level than the detective officially investigating the crime. 

But let's look at the three examples we have been given by Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland. All three manipulate words for a specific purpose, but they do so in quite different ways. 


So, you've got a character who speaks with the heart of a poet. Just how would a person like that actually speak?

  • Hides truth in stories
  • Speaks ideas, not always concrete facts 
  • Has and uses a big vocabulary
  • Understands and uses metaphor and symbolic language


What about that character who speaks like a priest? Just how to they use words and ideas when talking?

  • Sells a dream
  • Uses words to box in and label the infinite
  • Use rules words, lots of imperatives and/or implied imperatives
  • Highlights delayed rewards
  • Invokes a higher authority


Let's say your character speaks like a politician. What does that look like?

  • Hide lies in truth
  • Use words as weapons
  • Obfuscates to render meanings pointless
  • Use us vs. them dichotomies
  • Takes things up the chain

Some Examples

Now, that's all well and good, but what does it actually mean for my writing, Mr. Smartypants? (Eventually, that'll be Doctor Smartypants to you, but I digress.) I hear you, and I offer the following examples of flat dialogue we can run through the Police's little exercise to give a little snap to.

1. Brenda and Charles realize their relationship has run its course and it's in their best interest to break up before they make things worse. 

Let's start with the basic dry-alogue. (See what I did there?)

Charles: What's up? You said you wanted to talk.

Brenda: I feel like we're drifting apart.

Charles: I've felt that too, but...

Brenda: But what?

Charles: I've been too afraid to say anything because I didn't know how you felt. 

Brenda: So, what do we do now?

What happens when we give Charles a dash of poet and Brenda a sprinkling of politician?

Charles: So, what's taking up all your thoughts? You seem like you're somewhere else lately. 

Brenda: I feel... Well... I feel like you aren't committed to this anymore. 

Charles: Me? I have always tried to be as committed to us as you are. I'm following your lead. 

Brenda: That's just like you to turn this around and blame me. 

Charles: I've let my timidness stop me from pointing it out, but now that you are of a separate mind about us...

Brenda: Fine. I should have known the first time you... (and so on and so forth)

Okay, so it's not Shakespeare, but they have some personality, and their word choices reflect that, and so does their new tone. Charles clearly wants to talk around it (like a poet), while Brenda wants to take no responsibility for anything bad (like a politician). 

2. Scarlet accuses Tina of stealing her lunches from the work refrigerator. 

First the bland and basic.

Scarlet: Someone has been taking lunches out of the fridge. Other people's lunches.

Tina: Oh?

Scarlet: Yeah, and I think you know who.

Tina: How would I know?

Scarlet: Because it's you. You're stealing my lunches.

Tina: I didn't see your name on anything. 

Scarlet: You know the blue bowl is my Tupperware.

Tina: Lots of people have blue Tupperware. I own one too.

Now let's give Scarlet a dose of politician and Tina a few drops of priest. 

Scarlet: Someone should do something about the way people are treating other people's property, namely their lunches. 

Tina: If it's a big deal, sure. Probably bigger things to worry about though. 

Scarlet: It's not like we don't know who's behind the stolen lunches.

Tina: We do? Since when did I become my sister's keeper?

Scarlet: This is a problem, and I will take it to HR unless it stops. 

Tina: Can anyone really own food anyway? It's out there for all of us.

Scarlet: I can own the bowl I brought it in. That makes it mine.

Tina: What is a bowl except for a cage for trapping something that God intended for all of us?

Okay, so Tina's a bit of a hippy-dippy priest, but Scarlet isn't having any of it. Like a good politician, she wants to manipulate the rules and appeal to a higher court if she doesn't get her way. Tina, on the other hand, doesn't see it as that big a deal and likes to keep the conversation vague and spiritual to avoid the physical and real. 

3. Ms. Wilson explains to her 12-year-old son, Colton, that she can't afford to send him on the school trip to the amusement park. 

Here's the basic conversation outline:

Colton: But I want to go.

Ms. Wilson: I'm sorry, Colton.

Colton: Everybody else in the class is going. Why can't I go?

Ms. Wilson: You just can't, son. We don't have the money.

Colton: I hate this. I wish I lived with dad. He has money.

Ms. Wilson: You don't mean that. 

Colton: I do too. I do mean it.

Sadly, I remember conversations like this with my kids growing up (except for the divorce part). Guilt aside, let's beef this up with some help from Andy, Sting, and Stewart. Let's make Mom a bit of a poet and Colton a bit of a priest. 

Colton: Mom, it's the experience of the year. I'll die if I don't go. 

Ms. Wilson: It may feel like it, Colton, but I'm sure you'll be back from the grave in no time.

Colton: You don't understand. My whole popularity depends on this. My whole life.

Ms. Wilson: Let me tell you a story about popularity, son --

Colton: I don't want a story, Mom. I want a different life.

Ms. Wilson: Our money is dried up, Colton. We're done for the month. 

Colton: This isn't fair. Other people have money to go. Even dad would be better than living with you.

Ms. Wilson: That hurts. That really hurts. 

Colton: Well, it's the truth.

Aunt Bee's Apple Pie, as hinted at above. Want her recipe?

Still not Pulitzer-Prize-winning prose, but I do feel like I know more about Colton and his mom this time. Mom feels things intently and wants to protect her son from the truth with softer language and personal stories. Colton elevates the trip to something above the importance of the real world and makes it more important than the here and now. 

Triplets in Action

Now, as you well know, "poets, priests, and politicians" is by no means an exhaustive list of character types with their own ways of speaking (or communicating by not speaking). You could pretty much choose any other triplet of your own choosing:

  • '50s moms, '20s single women, '70s bra-burners
  • prophets, priests, and kings
  • elves, orcs, and dwarves
  • married guys, single guys, divorced guys
  • poor, rich, middle class
  • college-educated, street-educated, blue-collar educated
  • the list goes on

The point is each has his, her, or their special patterns of saying things. Each has his, her, or their special common vocabulary. Each has his, her, or their special circumvention to avoid being direct or forcefulness to try to force the other person to be more correct. 

Each is different, and the dialog you create should reflect that truth.