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Monday, May 28, 2007

Finding Your Voice

An editor once told me that she had plenty of good manuscripts pass through her office. What she was looking for, though, was a great manuscript. One that stood out from the dozens of proposals she received every week.

What makes your writing stand out from every other “good” manuscript? It’s a question we each have to ask ourselves as we tread down this writer’s path. I read a lot of chapters from aspiring authors and there is one main thing I’ve noticed. There are lots of good writers, but in the end, they often all sound the same. Generic stories with average characters that I find a hard time caring about. Ouch! I know it hurts to think that an editor (or reader) might not care about the epic novel you’ve poured your heart into. (Trust me, I have manuscripts I love, but will never see the light of day for this very reason.)

So let’s get real.

In order for an editor to take a second look at your story, you have to stand out. Average isn’t good enough. A good story isn’t good enough.

So what does this mean? First off all there is hope. Many of these authors simply haven’t found their voice. That unique style that pulls them out of the pack and makes the reader want more of your heart-stopping, gut-wrenching story.

But how do we find our “voice” as a writer?

In the end, it all boils down to hard work, but here are a few suggestions I’ve come up with to help make your writing catch the eye of an editor.

1. Invest yourself in your writing. Plainly stated, writing takes both time and energy. Lots of energy. Consistency and practice will pay off. Write, write, and write some more.

Here are some questions to ask yourself. Have you finished a manuscript? Joined a critique group? Gone to a conference? Joined a writer’s group? Entered a contest for feedback? If not, then these are great places to start.

2. Read. Reading helps you to see what works in other authors’ writings. What makes their story stand out. What draws you to the characters.

3. Write what feels comfortable. In my own writing, I’ve learned to go with my gut. I know deep inside what doesn’t work even if it’s like ripping off my arm to delete a huge chunk of my story. Some people find their voice in first person. Others in third person. Some in suspense, some in historicals. If you haven’t yet discovered what works for you, try out something different until you find what feels right.

4. Match the tone of what you are writing to the genre. This is a suspense blog, so I’ll focus on that. What is the feel of your story? A bit of comedy relief always works, but a suspense novel can’t read like a long descriptive historical. Short sentences move the action and add to the suspense.

Any other ideas for finding your voice? Leave a comment and let us hear from you.

Coming next. . .Taking things a step further with three-dimensional characters.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Learning from the Masters

Someone once told me that if you want to learn to write thrillers, then learn from the A-list authors and not from the B-listers. I’m sure this applies to all genres, but we’ll stick to thrillers for this discourse. Also for the purpose of this discussion, let’s call the A-list authors “the masters.” Hence the title of this series, Learning from the Masters.

While there are many masters to learn from, I’ll choose from my favorites in future posts as well. Fortunately for us, many of the masters are more than willing to share words of encouragement and tips on writing techniques. If not, then we can always go straight to their book and dissect that. I’ve done it.


If you’re like me, it’s difficult to name only one favorite book. I have several favorites. One of them has withstood the test of time, meaning that I’ve read it again after several years, and it’s almost a whopping one thousand words. That novel is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Fascinating work. In another lifetime, I traveled back and forth between Seattle and Dallas, and someone offered Pillars to me as a good, long read to keep me occupied during the four and a half hour flight. Fifteen years later, I’ve read it again only for vastly different reasons—to study the work of a master.

Ken Follett is considered a master thriller writer by many. He’s kind enough to offer what he calls Masterclass on his website. You can also purchase a DVD from him, The Art of Suspense: a lecture on the history of the thriller, by Ken Follett.

In his Masterclass introduction, Ken refers to his writing as transparent:
My aim in constructing sentences is to make the sentence utterly easy to understand, writing what I call transparent prose. I've failed dreadfully if you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I meant….There are many writers who write complicated, rather elaborate sentences which are actually a lot of fun. . . .By contrast, my personal aim is to write transparent prose.

In my opinion, he is spot-on in his effort to write transparent prose. When reading Pillars of the Earth, I stopped to examine how many pages I’d gone into the story. I was amazed to see that I had devoured three hundred pages in a short time without realizing it. Three hundred pages is the length of an average book, and I can usually sense that I’m reading for a length of time. Not so with Pillars of the Earth.

Complicated or transparent? I love reading elaborate sentences, but I have to say that probably the best read will be the one with transparent writing. After all, isn’t it one of our goals to take the reader into the story such that he doesn’t even realize he is reading?

I’m being “transparent” here when I tell you that my own writing is far from clear—it doesn’t always go down like honey. I’ve heard that Dean Koontz will rewrite one page forty times to get the correct rhythm. How many of us are willing to go that far?


Next Ken talks about writing an outline. Now I know this is a matter of personal preference and half of all writers do not write an outline but merely write SOTP (seat of the pants).

Ken has this to say on the topic:

It is far easier to correct your mistakes if you write an outline than if you sat down and wrote, 'Chapter One' at the top of a piece of paper and started writing. If you work that way, it will take an awfully long time to correct your mistakes.

I learned this the hard way when first attempting to write a thriller. After writing half of the book, I scratched everything and started over—with an outline. I wholeheartedly concur with him about correcting all of those mistakes. When I began to look at the big picture that was my novel, I became overwhelmed at the thought of fixing all of the plot holes. SOTP may work in other genres, but complicated thrillers require an outline up front.


Another important tidbit I garnered from reading Masterclass is on pacing and what Ken Follett terms story turn:
There is a rule, which says that the story should turn about every four to six pages. A story turn is anything that changes the basic dramatic situation. It can change it in a little way or change it in a big way.. . You can't go longer than about six pages without a story turn, otherwise the reader will get bored. Although that is a rule that people have invented in modern times about best-sellers, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, follows the same rule. In Dickens it's the same; something happens about every four to six pages. Be careful though. If you've got two story turns in four pages, you are going too fast and are not drawing the full drama and emotion out of each scene. Above all, the most important rule when writing the first draft is to pace the action right. Do this, and the story will alway develop at about the right speed.
I strongly recommend that you read Ken Follett’s Masterclass. It always fascinates me to learn how others go through the writing process. As I read through his method, I found it strangely familiar—a close cousin to Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake. In fact, Randy is the “someone” who encouraged me to learn from A-list authors. I hope to focus on Randy’s work at some point in the future in my series, Learning from the Masters.


Interview with Ed Horton!

Today I’m happy to welcome Ed Horton to our blog. As the author of the Buzzy Ghent Mysteries for kids, Ed is enthusiastic about sharing awesome Christian writings with kids of all ages!

LISA: Ed, tell us a bit about the process you took to see your books in print.

ED: My experience is just a bit different because I have self-published both of my Buzzy Ghent Mysteries children’s books. I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to experience the publishing process, to understand it; and secondly, I wanted some control over the process—from the editing to the cover design. My self-publishing experience through Pleasant Word (a division of WinePress) was wonderful and I learned a great deal. Whether self-published or traditional, it’s exhilarating the moment you hold the published book in your hands—almost equivalent to holding a newborn for the first time.

LISA: Tell us some of the background behind the idea for your stories and about the story itself.

ED: Sometimes I just stumble onto the ideas. For example, a couples' baby shower my wife and I attended birthed the name for my outspoken one-armed, girl-sleuth named Buzzy Ghent. We played a game where our answers from two questions were put together to form choices for the baby's first and middle names. The couple selected my “Buzzy Ghent” as the winning name and it occurred to me it would make a great name for a protagonist.

The idea for my current suspense/thriller manuscript came from a childhood incident when family friends were brutally murdered by an estranged son-in-law. Using my recollections, I found the facts on the internet and they became the basis for chapter one. The rest of the story deals with the fictional impact upon the characters’ lives—most notably, revenge, forgiveness, and guilt.

LISA: I love the impact a story can have on kids. It's a great way to teach them spiritual truths in a relaxed atmosphere. I've also found I grow alongside my characters, especially spiritually. Is there a character who you relate to and who made an input on your life?

ED: I inject bits and pieces of myself into many of my characters. I can probably relate the best to the detective—Cliff Dakota—in my current wip. I can identify with some of the foibles and conflicted fears he struggles to overcome. Sometimes I shake my head in amazement at the manuscript’s words about forgiveness, realizing the Holy Spirit is ministering as I’m writing. And if the Holy Spirit is speaking to me, he will use the same words to speak to others!

LISA: What is the number one thing you’ve learned from your writing journey?

ED: Which of the three number one things would you like to hear? All of them? Okay!

To persevere. A great reminder comes from a Gilbert Morris quote in his book, How to Write and Sell a Christian Novel. “If you have talent, and if you will put in the hours and not give up, you can make it as a writer. You can do what you really want to do, and that's something that most people miss in this brief life.”

To live by faith. I wrote the following question down some time ago and it still haunts me, “Do I make decisions based upon what I know today, or on what God may do in the future?” Catch the “may” word.

To read. I have always loved to read. But now I read for more than pleasure or to gather information. I read to learn about writing from other respected CBA writers. I watch how they structure their stories. How do they handle POV? What do they do to develop strong, interesting characters? I read their writing to learn how to improve my own!

LISA: Great advise! Any future plans for your writing you’d like to share? Any specific dreams you’d like to accomplish in the area of writing?

ED: Since venturing into the world of writing Christian novels for grownup readers, I’ve begun looking for an agent to help develop my writing career. I started my writing career with devotionals, magazine articles, and short stories, and then I wandered into writing books. Now, it’s time to focus my writing on novels that both entertain and minister to the soul.

LISA: Because I know there are many aspiring writers out there, can you share any tidbits of wisdom on getting published?

ED: First, if you have the time and money, don’t be afraid to self-publish. Make sure to select a company that offers strong editing (sometimes at an extra cost) and one who will get your books listed on websites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. They should have a distribution network to take orders. Of course, you’ll want your own website and blog to promote the books.

Second, network like your writing career depends upon it, because it does! Great storytelling is essential, and so is getting the word out about your writing. Attend writer’s conferences and meet with agents and editors. Speak with other writers and learn their successes and failures.

LISA: Any writer’s resources you could recommend?

ED: I’ll quickly name a broad range of writer’s resources, and some examples of each, that are important to me…

• Books on Writing (i.e., Writer’s Digest Books, Roget’s Super Thesaurus, Pinckert’s Practical Grammar, Penelope Stokes’ The Complete Guide to Writing & Selling the Christian Novel)

• Books on Marketing (i.e., Sally Stuart’s Christian Writers’ Market Guide)

• Writing memberships (i.e., ACFW, CWFI)

• Writer’s conferences (i.e., ACFW, Colorado Christian Writers, Glorieta)

• Writer’s websites (i.e., ACFW, CAN, Brandilyn Collins Seatbelt Suspense)

• Blogs (i.e., We CAN Promote Blog, Charis Connection, Keep Me in Suspense, The Writing Life – Terry Whalin)

• Free e-zines (i.e., Randy Ingermanson, Terry Whalin)

LISA: What is the process you use when writing a mystery/suspense?

ED: I’ve used two very differing SOTP methods—Seat Of The Pants and Seriously Outline The Plot. I structured and outlined each chapter in the first Buzzy Ghent book. However, the second book was far less structured. I knew where the book was going and had a sentence stating the objective of each chapter. There is a wild charm associated with seat-of-the-pants writing that appeals to me. Although I may well end up doing more rewriting, I love the freedom of creating twists and turns at will!

LISA: What is your system to keep the story/clues organized?

ED: For the Buzzy Ghent books, I had no real system. However, for longer adult novels I’m writing the clues down to track them. I also depend heavily upon my wife’s critical eye to catch any inconsistencies.

LISA: Tell us a bit about the research you had to do for this story?

ED: There was not a great deal of research involved in the Buzzy Ghent mysteries. However, my as-of-yet unpublished Winnebago Boys series features the RV travels of a family with three boys to historical sites around the United States. The first book moves westward along the Lewis and Clark trail. I spent a great deal of enjoyable time doing research using the internet, reading informational books, and even taking a family vacation along a portion of the trail.

LISA: That sounds like something my ten year old would love! Thanks so much for stopping by Ed. For the rest of you, please check our contest page for a chance to win a copy of The Attic’s Hidden Secret AND Missing at Camp Winni, books one and two in the series. The drawing will be held on June 4th!

For more information on Ed’s books, stop by his website

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Forbidden Article

I’ve been censored.

I had a terrific article to share with all of you about characters we often see in mysteries but usually overlook. Who am I talking about?

Court security officers. CSOs. Think Bruce Van Axel on “Judging Amy.”

In mysteries with courtroom scenes, they’re sort of like the footmen in regency romances—always there, but seldom noticed and often underrated.

I found a real, live CSO to interview, and it was great! I was tickled to think I would bring you something different that would inspire you to write intriguing stories about these valiant men and women and give you a new perspective on courtroom drama.

But, as I said above, I can’t.

See, my interviewee told me last week that he needed to run it by his boss before I posted the article. That would be the ... oops, can’t tell you who the boss is.

And he said no.

Actually, I got the impression he said some other rather colorful things, but the upshot was, no WAY could I post an article on the Internet telling the world at large what CSOs do to make courtrooms secure and safe. Not even in a general way. Apparently just talking about it would make courtrooms less secure and give bad guys ideas about how to circumvent all those security procedures. Not only that, I couldn’t identify my interviewee, the courthouse he worked in, or the area where he lived. Period.

That sort of took the starch out of my article.

I did try writing a “toned down” version not giving away any particulars, but it still didn’t pass muster.

My next step was to apologize and tell the CSO I hoped I hadn’t caused him any friction with his boss. He didn’t say much, so I’m not really sure. But I haven’t heard that he’s been fired. Yet.

Ouch. I hate thinking I may have gotten someone in trouble.

And it truly WAS a fun article.

It’s kind of cool to be censored, though. I mean, I must have been writing something important for the big boss to care so much, right?

So I hope all of you mystery writers out there will do your own research on this topic and find out what the CSOs REALLY do, so you can make them a fascinating part of your next story. These guys are true heroes. And just talking about them should give you ideas, shouldn’t it?

You’re at least as smart as the bad guys they protect us from.

Happy writing! Susan

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Point of View (POV)

Besides "show vs. tell," which I wrote about Sunday, errors in point of view (POV) are the most common type of mistake I see in the unpublished fiction I encounter.

As with telling, POV errors have to do with a presence or lack of discipline, in my opinion. It's simplicity itself (as in laziness) to simply tell readers what they should be getting or understanding. It's harder to provide the clues so they can figure it out on their own.

It's the same with sloppy POV. It's much easier to simply jump into every character's head to explain to us what he or she is feeling and thinking. It's much harder to restrict yourself to a single point of view within a scene.

In POV, as with most things in life, the easy way is not the path to excellence.

Omniscient POV

The most common POV error I see is when the novelist attempts to use what's called omniscient point of view. In this style, the novelist hops from head to head to tell us exactly what everyone is thinking and feeling. We never miss anything. We're given a God's-eye view of the whole situation. Hence the name.

Strictly speaking, omniscient POV is not an error. It is a legitimate way of handling point of view in fiction. Many successful authors use it today, and it was the viewpoint of choice in previous generations of fiction. Our beloved J.R.R. Tolkien uses it some in Lord of the Rings.

Here's an example of omniscient:

"That's marvelous," Lucy said, thinking she could maybe parley this into a date, after all.

Johnny noticed her thoughtful look and felt she must be thinking of trying to get as far away from him as possible. "Yeah, it's pretty cool."

"You two are something else," Carlotta said, fearing that her chances with Johnny might be drying up. She had to do somehing drastic. "Hey, Johnny, come here a minute. I want to ask you something."

Oh, great, Johnny thought. Here it finally comes. "Why don't you tell me from there?"



That's the sound of us head-hopping into every character's perspective.

As I said, there's nothing technically wrong with that. It's just...lazy. In my opinion. In fact, it's a whole lot like telling. Maybe it is telling in another form.

It's also less realistic. Your reader is most probably not omniscient in real life. She is more likely accustomed to knowing only what she knows and trying to discern what everyone else is thinking and feeling.

If you want your reader to identify with your protagonist, let her get close to that character only (by being privy to only that character's thoughts and feelings and perceptions). Letting her in on everyone's thoughts doesn't create intimacy with all characters equally, as you might think. Instead, it creates distance from all of them, because the reader doesn't know who to pull for or get close to.

Finally, omniscient POV removes the mystery from your characters and deprives you of the ability to surprise your reader.

How can you conceal who the bad guy is if you've been giving us his nefarious thoughts all along? How can you keep the reader in suspense over whether John Black can be trusted or not if you've allowed us to hear that he's wholeheartedly on the hero's side?

Thinking to endear every character to the reader, and thus create a stronger connection to the story, omniscient instead creates a powerful psychological distance that the rest of your story will probably not be able to overcome.

Omniscient POV is like abstract art. Sure, anyone can slosh paint on a canvas and call it "Woman in a Hat," but only someone with extensive art theory training can actually make it work.

In the same way, it takes a grand master of fiction to pull off a novel in omniscient POV. Sure, anyone can hop around in every character's head and call it omniscient, but without mastering the other disciplines of fiction, it may feel like a hack job.

My advice: avoid omniscient POV until Publisher's Weekly refers to you as a grand master of fiction.

Third Person POV

Third person is the most common POV in modern fiction. There are books about fiction out there that subdivide third person into third person limited, third person objective, third person omniscient, etc. But for my purposes we'll just call it third person and be done with it.

Here's an example of third person as I define it:

"That's a lovely hat, Meredith." In truth, Tom thought the hat was ridiculous but now wasn't the time for candor.

"Why, thank you, Tommy," Meredith said, looking shy. "You don't think it's too much, do you?"

"Oh, no! Of course not. Not for you."

Her face clouded. Uh oh. What had he said? Her eyes narrowed. "You're not just saying that because you want to get close to me, are you? I never could read you, Tommy."


"Never mind. I prefer not knowing."


Okay, you see it, right? We get Tom's thoughts but not Meredith's. We see Meredith's face cloud but we don't know what it means. Because Tom doesn't know what it means.

This restrictiveness and uncertainty feel more realistic because it's how we perceive the world, too. Third person also allows you to keep characters' true motives and loyalties hidden, something the novelist needs to do often.

In third person, you are limited to what the viewpoint character can see and hear and know. Think of the viewpoint character as a camcorder. You can't show us something the camcorder can't see or its microphone can't hear.

Plus you get the element of thought: the viewpoint character can't know things the viewpoint character doesn't know. Like when a stranger walks into the room and suddenly the viewpoint character begins referring to her by her name. Um, that's a POV violation. The viewpoint character couldn't know it, so we can't know it, either.

I recommend you write just about everything in third person until you've got a couple of novels under your belt.

First Person POV

First person is the most intimate POV there is. This is the "I" and "me" POV. You're so close to the viewpoint character that there is no distance between you and him or her.

Here's an example:

"Lois, why did you buy that?" I figured I knew why, but I thought I'd best check.

She looked annoyed at my question. "I needed it for work. I told you about the presentation, remember, or weren't you listening?"

Next she'll attack my video game hobby. "Oh, okay."

"I don't know why you hassle me about these things. What was that memory card thingie you bought for your console last week? You didn't tell me about that. You just showed up with it."

Knew it.


With first person you're so close to the viewpoint character's thoughts that you're essentially one with him or her for those scenes. The vocabulary you use in these scenes ought to sound like that character's thoughts, words, and phrases he or she would use.

This is the Vulcan Mind Meld of fiction.

A great time to choose first person is when you're writing about someone very different and distant from your typical reader, but to whom you want that reader to feel close.

For instance, in Operation: Firebrand—Deliverance I chose first person for the scenes in which I was seeing through the eyes of a pregnant North Korean woman.

Talk about someone who was different from my reader—not to mention from me! But I wanted the reader to span the distance and understand how familiar and normal she was. I wanted the reader to care about her more than anyone else in the book. So she was the character I chose to write in first person POV.

With first person what you lose in objectivity (compared to third person) you gain in intimacy with the viewpoint character.

First person is also great when you want to create a claustrophobia—one similar to what your detective protagonist is feeling, perhaps—because you're stuck inside only one person's head.

Like third person, first person is limited to what the viewpoint character can see, hear, and know. If he doesn't see, hear, or know it, neither can the reader. This takes discipline but is well worth your effort.

First person is the second most common POV used in modern fiction. Try your hand at it. It's wonderful.

Cinematic POV

I've just made this term up. As far as I know it's not a legitimate style of POV. I wanted a way to describe what I've seen in some unpublished manuscripts.

In this style, the author zooms in on every character's reaction or action but does not give us his or her thoughts. It's like a camera that sees all, even if the viewpoint character can't see it. For example:

Jimmy tied his shoes and resumed his walk to school.

Behind the bushes, a predator lurked. It tracked Jimmy's progress with its eyes.

Inside the house, Mrs. Tucker washed dishes and rubbed her temples.

The mailman rounded the corner and pulled up to the first mailbox.


Whose head are we in here? No one's. We're in the director's head, I suppose. We see everything, but externally. We don't know anyone's thoughts. We're on the outside of everyone. But we don't miss anything.

This strange, distant spectator POV is cropping up here and there in the manuscripts I see. It makes sense, I guess, since so much of modern fiction is more like a movie than traditional fiction. Maybe things are moving in that direction.

But I don't like it. Fiction still does do a few things better than movies can do, and getting the viewpoint character's thoughts and feelings is one of them. I would hate to be limited only to what an external observer could see.

Mixing POVs

Finally, let's talk about using different POV styles within the same book.

In my first three novels I used third person exclusively. Then in my second three novels I used a mixture of third person and first person.

How do you mix POV styles? I did it by choosing one character to be my first person viewpoint character and using third person for all the other viewpoint characters.

I chose one person to feature, if you will, and used first person for that character. Every other viewpoint character just got the third person treatment.

If your novel has only one viewpoint character, then you're golden. Just pick third or first person and stick with it throughout. But if you've got more than one viewpoint character, try doing one in first person and the rest in third.

One warning: don't do more than one first person viewpoint character in the same book. It's confusing to the reader. Pick one to make your reader closest to. Do the rest in third person.

For more on POV, read the excellent chapter on the topic in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King. And for more tips on improving your fiction, read my weekly column.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Interview with Jill Nelson!

LISA: Welcome back Jill, to another interview on our KMIS website. And a big congratulations on the release of Reluctant Runaway!

Let’s go back a bit in time. What was your initial reaction in finding out you sold your first book? In other words, tell us about. . .THE CALL!

JILL: Stunned silence . . . for all of two seconds. And then if I’d let out the scream that burst inside me, the hotel staff would probably have called the police.

THE CALL came for me at a unique time and place. I was attending the Ohio Christian Writers Conference in the fall of 2005. Naughty me, I kept my cell phone on through the whole thing because I was expecting to hear from my agent one way or another. My cell rang during desert at the awards banquet, and I went out into the hall to take it.

The whole next hours were surreal as I got to share my news with the others at the conference and then make phone calls to family and friends who were likewise waiting to hear. I hope my big moment encouraged someone to believe that things like this really do happen, and it could be them next!

God’s got a great sense of humor. The theme of the writers’ conference was “Answer the Call!”

LISA: That’s a fantastic story, and I’m sure encouraging for many who were right there! Tell us some of the background behind the idea for your series and a blurb about the story itself.

JILL: The concept for the To Catch a Thief series came to me in a literal sleeping dream. I woke up all tense in the wee hours of the night after a dream about a woman in black sneaking into a mansion. She takes a painting off a wall and replaces it with another. In that odd way dreams have, I had bits and pieces of understanding about the situation, but not the whole picture. I knew she was taking the forgery down and putting the genuine back. I also knew that if she were caught disaster would follow for many, not just herself.

In my waking mind, questions haunted me. What sort of career might this woman have that would give her cat burglar skills without making her a criminal? And what circumstances could force her to take such an outrageous risk? The answers gave me Desiree Jacobs, museum security expert out to protect her murdered father’s reputation and save the family business, while dodging the lethally attractive lawman and a pack of bloodthirsty thieves. That was Reluctant Burglar.

Coming up with fresh capers for Desi and her hunky federal agent boyfriend has been a blast. The current release, Reluctant Runaway, has them scrambling to find a missing wife and mom connected to a bizarre cult and stolen Indian artifacts. I enjoyed concocting wild twists and turns, while weaving in some profound basics of the Christian faith.

There’s a nifty video trailer about Reluctant Runaway posted on my web site.

LISA: I just checked it out and it’s great! Now, I find in my own writing that I often grow alongside my characters, especially spiritually. Is there a character who you relate to and who made an input on your life?

JILL: In Reluctant Runaway, it wasn’t a single character alone that fed truth into my life. It was the interaction between them that made me grapple to effectively express the basics of my faith. My reader letter at the back of the book tells about my writing journey with Runaway.

Here’s an excerpt—I understood afresh the unique claim of Christianity: that God Himself became a man, the Christ . . . Without the understanding that Jesus is the Christ, there is no salvation. Christianity as that simple and that mind-boggling . . .

This is a truth that seems foundational. Kindergarten stuff to the believer. And yet, in conveying that concept repeatedly throughout Runaway, I built the knowledge more thoroughly into my own heart, and the understanding has added boldness and clarity to my witness in daily life.

LISA: Wonderful insight that I know the readers will be challenged with. Tell me what the number one thing is that you’ve learned from your writing journey?

JILL: It’s about Jesus. It’s not about me. I figure that’s the number one thing a person can learn about any undertaking. Keeping my eyes on the true prize—glorifying God—makes those rejection times go down easier. If one door closes, God’s always got a better plan in mind. You “get” that when you begin to know His character, and I’d say my writing has made me dig deeper into who He is.

LISA: Any future plans for your writing you’d like to share? Any specific dreams you’d like to accomplish in the area of writing?

JILL: I would really like to continue writing for the house I’m with. My editor feels the same way. We’re a good fit and so are exploring options for new books we can do together.

One day when I grow up, I’d like to publish something that affects people’s lives profoundly for generations. Like Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love. Only with me there would probably have to be some kind of who-dunit involved.

LISA: Because I know there are many aspiring writers out there, can you share any tidbits of wisdom on getting published?

JILL: Find a story that you can tell with passion and verve that also has solid commercial appeal. The rookie needs a strong starting mark. You can blaze new trails when readers and publishers have learned to trust you.

LISA: Any writer’s resources you could recommend?

JILL: An excellent dictionary and thesaurus. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Story by Robert McKee. Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas.

LISA What is the process you use when writing a mystery/suspense?

JILL: I need to have a premise, and I need to know my characters. Of the two, the characters are more important. Even if I only have a sketchy idea of what I want to happen plot-wise, if I spend time with my characters the story spins out from who they are and how they react in certain situations. I include detailed character sketches as part of my proposal package. Oftentimes, when I start a book, I only know the beginning, high points along the route, and how it should end. The characters walk me through the details in between. I’m just the lowly scribe who puts their adventures into words. Makes for a pretty interesting ride.

LISA: What is your system to keep the story/clues organized?

JILL: What system?

I think my style of writing helps me keep track of the details. Some writers start a story and zip straight on through the first draft. Then they go back and add and fix and edit. I can’t do that. To get myself into the story, I need to reread and edit a chunk of manuscript before I write anything fresh.

LISA: Tell us a bit about the research you had to do for this story?

JILL: For Reluctant Runaway, I had the opportunity to detour through Albuquerque on my way to the Colorado Writers Conference. I stayed for two days. What an intriguing city of mixed cultures surrounded by unique topography! I certainly discovered some details I would never have known any other way. My web site blog archives hold several entries and some photos about my trip, including a stop at the Albuquerque FBI office.

I also read extensively about the Indian cultures of the area—ancient and modern. Plus, I sought out input from several experts on technology and police procedure. Getting information from live bodies definitely fleshes out research (pun intended). Plus it’s fun to interact with live ones when you spend a lot of time writing about
dead ones!

LISA: Wow. Sounds fascinating as does your newest release. I’ve already read The Reluctant Burglar and can’t wait to pick up a copy of this one. Which reminds me. Be sure and check out our contest page for a chance to win a copy of The Reluctant Runaway. All it takes is a quick comment!

Thanks for dropping by, Jill!


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Show vs. Tell

Whether you write suspense, romance, or science fiction, you must have a mastery of the basics of the craft of fiction. Most basic of all--and something I rarely find new novelists taking time to learn--is the art of showing in fiction.

What Is Show vs. Tell?

In fiction, telling is when you give information in a straight summarized fashion: "Jim was a lazy slob." Showing is when you illustrate that through scene, action, and dialogue:

"Louise, where's my beer? I'm thirsty, woman!"

"Get off that couch and get it yourself, why don't you?"

Jim scratched his belly and enjoyed how it jiggled like a water balloon. "Just get it, all right? Get and I'll...I'll get out there and mow the front lawn."

Louise poked her head around the door jamb. "You mean today?"

"Yes, today. What'd you think I meant?"

"And you'd do the back lawn, too?"

Jim pointed the remote and changed the channel. "Don't get greedy now."

Louise went back down the hall. "Get your own beer."


You see that it took a little longer to illustrate that Jim is a lazy slob than it did to simply feed it to the reader on a spoon, but look how much more interesting the showing version was. We might know intellectually from the telling version that Jim is slovenly and lazy, but from the showing version we feel it. We know it in a deep way. Jim is a slob and a jerk and a lazy moron and he treats his family like dirt.

With showing, what you lose in brevity you gain in impact.

Showing is when you reveal things about your characters, the story world, relationships, etc., as you go about advancing your story. With telling, you stop the story in its tracks, kill whatever momentum you had going, and back up like a dump truck to dump a ton of information onto your reader.

Your reader thinks, "I don't care about this stuff right now! Get on with the story."

Categories of Telling

There are three main areas in which novelists generally resort to telling: backstory, exposition, and character motivation. But they all have one thing in common: they stop the story cold.

Backstory is background information about your story, the environment, the setting, the characters, and the relationships. Here are some examples:

Kevin had grown up in affluence. His parents had always given him whatever he wanted. So he was spoiled, too. When he was ten his mother bought him a... [blah, blah, blah]


The planet had been colonized two hundred years ago as part of a... [blah, blah, blah]


Jerry used to be Susie's boyfriend, but that was before Susie caught Jerry kissing Delilah, who had been Tom's girl before the operation. [blah, blah, blah]

Do you see how the story has shifted into neutral (or park, or even reverse) while the author spoon-feeds the reader information about how things were before the story began? Nothing is actually happening. The story is stalled while we are forced to endure a lecture on the lore of yesteryear. Yawn.

It would be like someone delaying the beginning of a movie in order to stand in front of the audience and say, "Before you can watch this you need to understand the distribution channels we went through to bring this to you. And you probably need to understand how distribution works in other industries besides the film industry." The audience would revolt, shouting, "Shut up and get on with the story!"

Good advice.

Exposition is when the novelist explains everything.

The movers had used heavy duty packing tape because sometimes the lighter stuff gave way and someone's belongings would come crashing to the floor.


The events that took place over the next month were the strangest the town had ever known.

As Browne & King say in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, "resist the urge to explain." R.U.E.

This kind of telling is like meta-information. Information about the story rather than something in the story itself.

Finally, telling happens in character motivations when the novelist brings the impulse to explain everything to his or her characters.

"Oh, my!" Twilene was impressed with what the general had said. "I'm so impressed with what you just said, General!"


"But everyone knows I'm not making this up, right?" Jerome said, looking for some support because he was feeling insecure.

In the words of Dilbert, "Gah!"

Death to Telling

Telling should die a horrible death.

The irony is that most of the time novelists later show what they've already told. They do both. Like Twilene and Jerome above. If you cut the telling, wouldn't their words have shown the very thing the novelist felt compelled to also tell?

I believe novelists resort to telling because they're concerned the reader won't get the point if they don't. That's why I used telling in my early (and unpublished) years of writing, and it's why other novelists tell me they've put that stuff in. "I was afraid the reader wouldn't understand that they'd once had a relationship if I didn't spell it out."

And so we go on being heavy-handed and treating our readers like dimwits.

Meanwhile, now that we think we've told them enough that they'll get it, we then proceed to show it, more confident that we'll be understood.

But the truth is that readers know how to interpret fiction. When you take out the telling, the showing remains. And that's all they need. You can remove just about every bit of telling in your book and you'll find that you've actually shown it adequately.

A reader who understands something because you pound it into her with telling is going to feel like her brain has been turned off or numbed. In contrast, a reader who "catches" something in the way two characters talk or who figures something out based on the awards on a character's wall will feel engaged and energized. Which do you want your reader feeling?

Don't Summarize, Dramatize!

Go back through your ms. looking for the telling. It will be hard to see at first, but you must work to develop the ability to spot it.

Now that you can see it, cut it all out.

Is your story hurt? Does the reader not know something that she must know to understand the story?

If so, if you've stumbled upon one of those rare occasions when something that you'd put into telling is actually necessary to the story, then you must figure out a way to bring that out through scene, action, and dialogue. In other words, make it part of the story.

Here's the rule: include the bare minimum that your reader needs to know to understand what's going on.

But hold on: that doesn't mean you can give three pages (or even three sentences) of telling so long as it's stuff the reader needs to know. No, it just means that you need to find ways to dramatize those few bits that really are important.

You may feel like you're speaking with a more limited vocabulary or painting with a broader brush when you restrict yourself to only what the reader can catch by watching your story play out. After all, you'd become accustomed to telling every last detail you could think of, but now you have to act everything out?

If you're feeling restricted, good! That's what discipline feels like. It means you're going to have to decide what things are really important and illustrate only those things. Back when you could throw in everything and the kitchen sink, you could be lazy and self-indulgent. Now you have to make hard choices.

Because it is harder to figure out how to convey something through scene, action, and dialogue alone than it is to just tell the reader exactly what you mean. Just for the sake of time and your sanity you'll find yourself tossing out the nonessentials and retaining only what needs to be there.


Odds and Ends

Novelists sometimes worry that their wordcount will go down too far if they cut out those pages and pages of momentum-killing telling.

Or they may worry that their wordcount will go up too high if they write out into full scenes all the information they'd originally given on a platter.

The truth is that the two will cancel each other out. It's easier to tell and tell and tell, but you give too much information and you stop the story. It's harder and takes more words to show instead, but you keep the story going and you cause your reader to become engaged in your book.

Are there exceptions? Is there ever a time when summary is okay or even preferred? Absolutely. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers covers this well, too.

In short, you can (rarely) summarize something if it's A) something the reader needs to know to understand the story and B) it's not important enough to play out in a full scene.

For instance, let's say your protagonist gets separated from his minor character friends for a couple of chapters. Then suddenly they reappear onstage and they're reunited. Now, we probably need to know what they were doing while they were separated, but we don't need to see it all played out in full scenes. That's a good place for summary.

But even there it's best if you can do it within the context of a story-advancing scene. Maybe the protagonist asks where they'd been and they can respond. Instead of summarizing it yourself, you let your characters summarize it. This keeps it as part of the scene and also gives you an opportunity to further characterize these minor characters.

Such occasions are rare, though. I'd say that 97% or more of your ms. should consist of showing.

Think of yourself as a filmmaker. You are allowed to include only that which the camera can see and the microphone can hear.

When you think about it that way, suddenly all those pages of nothing but narration in which you're explaining the world and its history become obviously out of place. How could you do that with only a camera and microphone? You couldn't. So cut it.

You can't push the analogy too far, of course, because fiction allows us to see through the eyes and hear the thoughts of our viewpoint characters, which film usually can't do. But it is still a useful rule of thumb.

Okay, time for you to go hunting for the telling in your manuscript. As you go, watch out for the little sneaky ones, too, like, "I did," said the plumber who had once been a sailor in the navy, "I surely did."

When you find the telling, delete it. That will probably be all you need to do, as you've likely shown the same information already. If you find you need some bit of what you've cut, figure out a way to dramatize it in a scene.

To get you started, rent Hitchcock's Rear Window and watch the opening camera move that pans across the inside of our protagonist's apartment. Before a single word is uttered, you know a ton about this guy. That, my friend, is showing. Go thou and do likewise.

For More

You can read more fiction writing tips like this at my main teaching site, WhereTheMapEnds.com. Come on over and visit!

Jeff Gerke
a.k.a. Jefferson Scott