Location, Location, Location
In many novels and even short stories, location acts almost like a character. A great setting sets the stage for greater challenges whether it be physical places (Mt. Rushmore/North by Northwest), climatic as in climate (hurricanes/Key Largo or Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival), or the local natives (from Tarzan's Africa to the characters on Hollywood Blvd.)
For a short story, pick an easily understood setting because it needs less description; a dilapidated factory vs. a giant industrial firm making computer components for the military weapons used in…. If you get too technical, you will lose your audience and use up your word limit.
Get most of your facts right about places you only visit on the Internet; some readers are finicky about accurate descriptions of locales. If in doubt, fictionalize your locale. All the research you do will change your perception of that area even though you won't use every bit of information that you discover. But your understanding of a region will color the entire story whether it is the incessant rain, blistering heat or rugged rocks.
Description of settings can educate the reader, but don't get too detailed. Too much description stops the action. Some settings act as a general background. A short description such as: the local pub, conjures up a picture in the reader's mind so you don't have to go into elaborate detail. Some word pictures set the era and mood like the longer descriptions used by Anne Perry in her description of Queen Victoria's England. The type of book and the mood you want to achieve should dictate the length of your descriptions.
Setting denotes the background of the character living there. A person living in a penthouse and running a huge corporation has a different outlook on life than does a guy living in a garage apartment working in a filling station. Whether you are describing a residence or a business, a character from one economic background will view the same setting through his or her own eyes. Where one person sees an efficient, profitable corporation, another will see it as a greedy, industrial monolith.
Setting also tells us how much time has passed (After two days a thick layer of dust covered every surface.)
If your story gets bogged down with too much description and it starts sounding like that travel log, describe those locations through dialogue. It will set the scene and add information from a particular character's POV, so you not only see the surroundings, but you know how that character feels about it. Different characters can view settings differently depending on his or her personal perspective. (A woman in love can smell the flowers in the park, while her friend who just lost her job can see the wad of gum on the sidewalk.)
Use descriptions (sight, sound, smell) of locations to evoke an emotion, reaction, or establish mood. (A scummy swimming pool tells the reader the motel is seedy.) Setting can also take reader into another world (Tony Hillerman's Indian reservation, Dick Francis's racetrack.)
Remember "Chekov's Gun" story. Don't put something in a scene if it's not going to be used. "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." (Anton Chekov 1889.) This tactic was used constantly in Murder, She Wrote. The camera always zoomed in on the "clue" about eight minutes into the show. During the last seven minutes Jessica Fletcher would recall that "clue" and solve the case. You always knew that clue would make a reappearance before the final credits rolled. The "clue" was part of the setting.
Treat your locations like a character. They have a lot to say.
Dialogue - The Workhorse of the Story
By Gayle Bartos-Pool
Dialogue is the workhorse of the novel, short story, and screenplay. Even Silent Movies had dialogue.
Dialogue performs several functions. It provides: Character Development; Plot Advancement, and Action or Movement.
In other words: It brings the story to life.
Dialogue Enhances (Describes) the Character - How a character speaks and acts says a lot more about him or her than just the words. Dialogue tells the place of birth, type of education, her temperament, his soul. Speech patterns denote character just as costumes do for an actor whether it's a stammer or a dialect.
"Honey, somethin's happened to yer livin' room. Did ya'll get another dawg?"
Dialogue Advances the Plot - and Provides Pacing - Good dialogue always adds something to the plot, whether it builds tension, relieves tension, imparts needed information to the other characters (and the reader), animates the story, thus moving it along; or even slows down the pace when you need a breather.
"Why'd you get out of the fund?"
"Frankly, I was scared. They played too rough."
"They?" That got my attention. "Who's they? Does Racine have a partner?"
Dialogue provides real time action. You are in the room with the characters as they speak. You are eavesdropping or right in the middle of the conversation. Or the character might be speaking directly to you. And dueling dialogue between opposing characters brings the reader right into the action. But note: as the argument gets more heated, the length of the sentences gets shorter.
"I never loved my wife!"
"Did you kill her?"
Dialogue gets you Up-Close and Personal - Provides Tone and Mood while it brings the reader into the story. - How the words are delivered sets the verbal stage on which the scene is set; a whisper denotes mood just like a rant.
I lowered my voice before asking her my next question. "Do you outrank him?"
"No, I sleep with him," Trin whispered.
Remember: A character blurting out information that advances the plot is far more interesting than a long narrative description. But note: Dialogue is the illusion of conversation.
In order to know how a character speaks or acts, or even the words he uses, you must get to know your characters…intimately.
First, make the characters seem real to you as well as to your readers. Let them speak to you and trust them. Most writers will tell you they actually "hear" their characters, and it is that particular "voice" that makes a character unique.
Archie Wright's the name. Dishing dirt's the game. My sandbox: Hollywood. The most glamorous and glitzy, vicious, and venomous playground in the world. If you come for a visit, bring your sunscreen and your shark repellant.
Make a character sound different from the other characters with him by adding: a dialect or a foreign accent or words to denote an education or lack thereof. Add rhythm to their speech to show how the person is thinking at the time: hesitation vs. rapid-fire. Word choice might show a character's education level, but keep it consistent; a drugged out biker probably won't quote Shakespeare, but a professor in prison might quote Hamlet.
Speech should: Move the plot along by telling us something about the character; convey information about the plot; add to the mood; change the POV to get another character's side; and add to the reality of the piece. Just make sure somebody (a character or the reader) learns something new during any conversation. But if something is conspicuously held back, make sure it is found in the next chapter or at least by the end of the story.
If there is no purpose to the dialogue, rewrite it or dump it.
"Larry and I didn't have children. We had two 'vipers' instead, just to be different. And to tell you the truth, if they didn't kill their father, they hired someone to do it. But their funds are limited now. They'll have to do the deed themselves."
Language & Body Language
Simple gestures describe the characters more fully than words alone. Instead of: "Go ahead. Date my ex-wife!" he shouted. Try: "Go ahead. Date my ex-wife," he said while slamming his fist into the wall.
Body language or Stage Business Helps Dialogue.
"I love you," he said.
She blew smoke in his face. "How nice."
Instead of a constant stream of he said/she said, use stage directions to show how someone is reacting while talking.
"I'm crazy about you, too," she said, looking at her watch.
Internal monologue can shake things up.
I couldn't believe they found Brad's body. I thought I buried him deeper.
Things to Avoid:
Expository dialogue: "As you know, Fred…"
Pleasantries: "Hello. Nice weather we're having."
Long speeches - Unless you're Shakespeare; less is always more in dialogue.
Adverbial action tags like: "I loathe you," she said fiercely. - can be replaced with action: "I loathe you," she said, grinding her cigarette into the back of his hand. "Have a nice day." Instead of: he said gravely. Try: with his head bowed he said...
Sometimes what the character doesn't say is important: "I knew you wouldn't care if I left you," he said. She bit her lip.
Keep you, the writer, out of the piece. Don't let your thoughts get tangled with those of your characters.
Write a biography of your main characters, whether it's a paragraph or a page, describe who they are, where they came from, their background. Where a character was "born," went to school, and his neighborhood will dictate his speech pattern, whether it's a Southern drawl, a French accent, or a gangsta rapper from the 'hood.'
If you are having difficulty, start with a "stock character" straight from central casting. If you want a villain, pick a character from some old movie, like Edward G. Robinson, and than mold him into your own creation. You can always find a picture in a magazine that fits the type of person you want in a particular role. Cut the picture out and devise a background for him or her.
If you know your characters, you can find their individual voice, even if the character isn't human. Dogs, cats and birds have found their way into great stories.
After you have written your scene, read it aloud or have someone else read it to you, or use one of the many software programs that reads your work back to you. It will make a huge difference. You will hear things you didn't know you wrote (both good and bad) and you will pick up the redundancies and misused words. And you just might find out how good you are at writing dialogue.
Let your dialogue work for you. It has a lot to say.
Where Do These Characters Come From?
by Gayle Bartos-Pool
The final version of the character, Gin Caulfield, the private detective in my current mystery series, came from reworking clay I had been painstakingly molding for several years. But her original incarnation came from something my husband, Richard, said.
I had been working on a spy trilogy for many years, but agents and publishers weren't interested in the ponderously long tomes. That's when my dear husband uttered the words: "You used to be a detective. Why don't you write a detective novel?"
I knew the guy was smart, but he's also brilliant.
So I started writing a series about a former P.I. who gets back in the business. I fashioned Ginger after myself, and her husband, Fred, after Richard. Fred and Ginger were going to be a modern-day Nick and Nora Charles eventually (book number three) with Nora the pro and Nick the seat-of-your-pants type of detective.
But then I got an agent and she had other ideas. I wanted Ginger to be "over fifty and still packing heat." My agent put on the brakes and said, "No, no, no. That's too old. Publishers want younger protagonists." So I hid Ginger's age and continued my rewriting. Then my agent said she had to have a flaw or something that makes her edgy. I had her more of a female Dick Francis character…and I liked her that way. After all, she was based on me.
Okay, so I'm a little vanilla. So I rethought Ginger's personality. First, I started calling her "Gin." That changed everything. She was tougher (though I'm an NRA Life Member), she had attitude (I know every four-letter word there is, but usually keep that reserved for private rants), and she was shot in the back and left for dead a few years before the opening on the latest book, Hedge Bet.
That last little tidbit set her apart from me and let her have a life of her own. Now she can have a little drug dependence in her past, a dark side every now and then. It was good for both of us. We will still consult over a good martini. I didn't come up with the name "Gin" for nothing.
Men vs. Women Writers
by Gayle Bartos-Pool
If someone said: "Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men," how would you respond?
My response would be the same if I heard a woman say she preferred women writers to male ones. Read what you want. Some people like self-help books. Some like science fiction. Some like romance. Some people don't read at all. My response to the latter would be hand-over-the-mouth screaming to myself: How can you not read? But, let's face it, some people don't read.
I can't visualize a truck driver curled up reading a cozy, but I can see a woman reading a thriller. Women write thrillers. Men have written romance novels. But if someone, let's say a man, says he won't read a book - let's say a thriller - written by a woman, then he has a problem living in the real world. If it's a literary agent or publisher who says he or she won't consider a thriller written by a woman then a lot more people have a problem. Many good writers won't get published and subsequently enjoyed if that is the company policy. But it happens.
In the past twenty-five years women writers have gotten book deals writing cozies and chic-lit novels as well as standard detective novels and thrillers. The over-whelming majority of women writers I know write cozies. The reading public assumes that if you are female you will be writing that type of book just because of the vast number of those types of books on the shelves. Reviewers are going to think the same thing. They have seen years and years of top selling books, written by men, winning prizes. They will gravitate toward what is familiar and accepted when it comes time to reviewing books. Everybody wants to be around the popular kids in school or go see the hot new movie. But if our, meaning the females in the crowd, if our first response is to whine, then pardon me for saying this, but snap out of it, honey. Nobody owes you a review.
But there are things you can try.
Ladies, try sending a review of your book to women's magazines and see if they will print it. Send them a copy of the book, too. You will have to write your own review. This is basically the Press Release you should already have in your press kit. Not every review in a publication is written by an impartial reviewer. Your review should be a short blurb about your book. It is roughly the synopsis you sent in your query letter minus the conclusion of the book. Include the log line-elevator pitch that you should have for every book you write. It will grab the reader.
I worked in a bookstore for a year and a half many moons ago (1979-1980). Our romance section was just as large as our mainline fiction section. We sold down to the wall in the romance section most months, not so for the fiction section. The mystery section was fairly small at the time. Obviously women were buying women's books. I don't remember hearing men whine about only females getting to write romance novels.
What women should try to do is get known in a smaller pond first. And remember, you drop a pebble in a pond and there is a ripple effect. You make enough splash and the folks in the big publishing yachts will take notice. Or even Hollywood.
Some men write Gothic romance novels under a pseudonym. A man's name on the cover of a throbbing romance novel would probably be bad marketing. The same thing goes for a man's name on a cozy novel, but occasionally it has been successfully done. Men can be held back just like women, but many of them consider the marketing aspect and use a female pen name.
I use my initials rather than my first name to obscure my sex. My books aren't cozies nor are they dripping in blood. I thought initials made my pen name recognizable but it didn't put me in a box. Agents and publishers actually thought a man wrote the Johnny Casino Casebooks. They read the book before they read my biography. That's what I wanted.
Know the market where you want to sell the most books. If you are a niche mystery writer and write about knitting or cooking while solving a crime, try sending a copy of your book with a small review to a publication that features that hobby or skill. They might publish it. See if a local store will let you do a book signing. A knit shop might let you do an event if you are a local writer.
If you write a more traditional mystery and can't get any traction, see if your local paper will run a small review or maybe they have a reporter who would like to interview you. Even if you are published by a large publishing house, you might have to do all the publicity yourself.
Let me introduce you to Anna Katharine Green. She started writing very intricate plots with clever details and sleuthing techniques. She wrote stories about a young debutante who solved crimes, a young man who analyzed a crime scene down to the lint in the victim's pockets, and a spinster lady who helped out the local police in solving crimes. If this sounds a little too much like Nancy Drew or a young Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Marple, Anna Katharine Green was born in 1846. Her books predated these other great writers. She is considered the mother of the detective novel. Women weren't writing much more than poetry back then and there were very few male writers of fiction, much less mysteries. She had to discover new territories and did it unbelievably well. She did get reviews. In fact, the Pennsylvania Senate debated whether or not a woman could have actually have written her first book, The Leavenworth Case, her first success. She wrote it and 39 more stories.
So write your book. Others did it and overcame some pretty big hurtles. Be creative in seeking out reviewers or venues for your work. And remember, nobody owes you a review, but you owe it to yourself to give it your best effort. And don't whine. Men don't.
The Loneliest Profession
by Gayle Bartos-Pool
Writing is basically a one-man operation, unless you write for television or the movies, where a committee does it. But the traditional author sits in front of a computer, typewriter, or a piece of paper and writes all by himself.
Belonging to a writers' group, above and beyond the constructive criticism and brainstorming sessions, gives you people to talk to about your work, this precious commodity that you have created, nurtured, and hopefully someday will send off into the world to entertain and enlighten other people.
Having "a second pair of eyes" is a perfect way to see things that you missed, hear things that you didn't know were there, and point out things that aren't working. And if you are in the right group, they will see the good things in your "baby" as well.
I originally belonged to a larger group of writers. Their styles ranged from Science Fiction to experimental to Women's Fiction to Mystery. Good writing is good writing. I can read anything and enjoy it if most of the basic rules of English Grammar (and Common Sense) are adhered to.
There in lies the rub. When a portion of the group doesn't recognize the basic Parts of Speech, proper syntax, and know how to use Spell Check or even a dictionary…Houston, we have a problem.
A few of us broke away from the herd and started our own group. Two more writers joined us and we have the group we have today. We have watched each other grow, improve, learn, and it has made us all better writers. We learn from our own and each other's mistakes and achievements.
But of all the things a group, any group - sewing circles, car clubs, collectors' groups - brings to their members, the best thing is it gives you a place where people who are doing the same thing you are doing can come and talk about their dreams, their learning experiences, their frustrations, and their successes. It lets you know you aren't really alone in this wonderful world of writing.