Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Merit Badges for Writers – Part 2

Last week, I began a series of merit badges for writers. I’ve expanded this week to include a merit badge for readers as well.

First Aid for Writers Badge

First Aid for Writers

First Aid For Writers

This is not a badge for ordinary events, like printer jams or sightly missed deadlines. We should award ourselves this badge when we’ve survived those worst days of days. We’ve lost an entire manuscript and the last time we can remember making a backup was three months ago. Our publisher declared bankruptcy and didn’t tell us. We found out about it on Facebook. The agent we love sent an e-mail saying she’s re-evaluated her life and is changing careers. Real life has dealt us such a blow that we’re not sure we’ll ever be able to write again.

Here’s how we can render first aid to ourselves

  • Stop.
  • Sit down.
  • Say, “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” ~Sylvia Boorstein, Zen teacher, author, and psychotherapist
  • Breathe slowly and steadily.
  • We are all part of a strong writers’ community. Trust other writers. We will be there to help.
Extreme Reader Badge

Readers need merit badges, too

Extreme Reader

Readers deserve merit badges as well as writers. Any reader can award herself this badge when she has completed at least 4 of these requirements.

  1. Someone has said to her at least once, “Turn off that light and go to sleep. Don’t make me come in there.”
  2. She finished a book sitting in the bathroom because she didn’t want the light to bother a significant other.
  3. She owns more than one book light. [I think our household’s current count is 7, but only 3 have working batteries.]
  4. She left clothes home in order to take more books on vacation.
  5. Her TBR (to-be-read) pile doubles as a piece of furniture.
  6. She’s left a bookstore or library thinking her collection is more extensive, and better organized.
  7. The first thing she does when moving to a new town is to find the library. Then she worries about non-essentials like schools, grocery stores, gas stations, and fire, police, and ambulance.
  8. The first gift she buys for a newborn is a book.
  9. When the clerk asks for her debit card, she automatically hand them her library card because it’s the most accessible one in her wallet.

Books are like lobster shells. We surround ourselves with them, then we grow out of them and leave them behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development. ~Dorothy L. Sayers, mystery writer

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Very Special Old Port (VSOP)

This is the fourth in our mini-series on critique abbreviations. It helps to know what VSOP stands for in the non-writing world.

Very Special Old Pale (VSOP) Cognac is a brandy, is distilled from Ugni Blanc grapes, grown only in the region of Cognac, France. To carry the VOSP label, the brandy must be distilled twice in copper pot stills, and aged at least two-and-a-half years in oak barrels.

When I write VSOP in the margin of my manuscript, it mean condense this material down. Find the key, the most important information or feeling in this material and extract it, so that every drop—that is every word—counts. VSOP often identifies back story that will work better if distilled down into context.

Back story is anything that happened before the book begins, whether it was five minutes before or twenty-five years before. Here are some common ways writers try to sneak in back story and hope the reader won’t notice:


A prologue, especially one that happened a long time in the past or that is from the victim’s point of view. Okay, I’m going to put on my personal opinion hat and say that I absolutely despise prologues, and I find this “taste of the past” particularly offensive. I’ve settled in to think that the book takes place in 1956, and it has a dark tone, when bam, I’m suddenly transported to an amusement park in 2007, as Chapter 1 begins. It makes me reconsider if I really want to read the book at all.


What my friend, the writer Candas Jane Dorsey calls Rod-and-Don, using dialogue to convey back story.

“Well, Don, every mystery reader knows that cyanide has a bitter almond smell, but very few people are aware that, due to an apparent genetic trait, some individuals cannot detect any odor to cyanide. Dr. Banton had that genetic trait himself, which makes it unlikely he he had any suspicion at all that his spiced almond tart was laced with cyanide.”

“Wow, Ron, who knew that about the professor?”

“Well, Don, anyone who had had his organic chemistry class would know. He always mentioned it in class.”

Expository Lumps

Very akin to Rod-and-Don, the expository lump. One of my favorite, read-again books is Written in Blood, by Caroline Graham.  In it a motley crew of would-be writers are in a writing group. A famous author accepts an invitation to speak to the group. One of the men in the group asks the famous author for advice:

“I write spy stories. . . .I’m very interested in armoured vehicles—the one-ton Humber Hornet especially. I’ve written roughly ten pages describing it’s various functions. Do you think that’s too long?”

“I do rather,” said Max. “I’d’ve thought your readers will be wanting to get back to the plot long before then.”

VSOP is Context Rather Than Backstory

Context is just enough detail to make sense to the reader plus the emotional response of the POV character. Just like Ugni Blanc grapes, a copper pot still, and an oak barrels are essential to make VSOP Cognac, the emotional response of the POV character is essential to context.

I was introduced to a woman at a party. I said, “How do you do.” She said, “My father raped me when I was five. I’m a recovering alcoholic and a breast cancer survivor. Who are you?” I thought, I’m the person who is heading for the other side of the room. She had revealed too much, too soon, and I had no desire to hang around and hear more.

I took a pottery class one winter. The instructor was an affable man in his thirties, who took time to get to know every one in class, but was very circumspect about himself. One morning, as I was making up a missed class, he and I were alone in his studio. As I worked on the wheel, fashioning a bowl, we chatted about families. I asked if his parents lived in town. He replied, “My mom lives in Vancouver, but my dad is dead. He was eaten by cannibals in New Guinea.”

I stopped the potter’s wheel. “You’re not kidding, are you?”

He wasn’t. His father had been on a cruise and his group, separated from the rest of the shore party, had been kidnapped. Because we had gotten to know one another, and because we discussed this tragedy in intimate circumstances, it hit with much more impact.

The woman at the party was back story; the potter was context.

Donald Maass, the agent, writer, and teacher, proposes a very strict ban on back story. Absolutely no back story for the first 100 pages. No prologue, nothing snuck in as dialog, no expository lumps. Okay, I can hear you whining, do I really have to do this? It’s a challenge, not a requirement. Try it and see how much better your book reads.

Next week, August 4, we’ll have part five of this critique mini-series with VAD, Violence as Dialog. Completely unintentionally, that blog will be posted on the day after the 100th anniversary of Britain entering the Great War.

This Thursday, July 31st, I’ve got another mini-series going on Level Thinking. It’s Merit Badges for Writers, and our badges this week are First Aid and Extreme Writer. Hope to see you there.

Art, I made this, Writer's life

Level Thinking – Merit Badges for Writers, Part 1

1950s Girl Scout Handbook

My old friend

For those of you who don’t remember the dim mists of time, the 1953 edition of the U. S. Girl Scout Handbook was the last edition published before there were Juniors and Cadettes, each with her own handbook. Daisies and Ambassadors weren’t even a gleam of a thought. Nope, back in 1953 you were a Brownie, then a Scout, then a Senior Scout.

I bought a second-hand copy of this book because I’d unearthed a denim jacket on which I’d sewn my badges and other awards; I blush to say I couldn’t remember what all of them were.

I loved merit badges. Not only was earning them fun, but it was neat, at the end of the school year, to hear my name called and receive the badges, a smile, and a Scout handshake from my leader. Then came the fun of sewing them on my sash. Long before there were sewing machines that embroidered for you while you did something else, these 1 1/2” green circles were miniature art.

A few designs, like Adventurer, were ambitious, the entire badge covered with pale blue thread over which a tent and two green trees were embroidered. Most were a colorful symbol on a green background: a telephone for Clerk, a winged ballet shoe for Dancer, or a tea cup for Hospitality. Since the tiny line drawings in the handbook were black-and-white, it was always a surprise to see what color the real badge would turn out to be.

Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas reclaimed the merit badge idea for adults. She began writing what would become the You-Can-Do-It!: The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls. Her idea was that women, particularly middle-aged women, should continue to explore the world in the same way girls explored it by earning merit badges. Lauren died in a plane crash before she finished the book; her two sisters collected her notes and got the book published.

They also founded the Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas Foundation to provide funding toward activities benefitting women and children’s health, education, and welfare.

I think Lauren was on to something. Goodness knows writers, who labor long hours in solitude, could use a few atta-girls. So this summer, I’m issuing a series of Merit Badges for Writers. My badges will have a purple background in honor of purple prose. Feel free to design and make yours any way you want. If you want some suggestions and instructions, go to the Merit Badge Page on my website.

Writers’ Merit Badge #1: Creativity

Merit Badge for Writers: Creativity

Let’s reward ourselves for our creativity

Award ourselves this badge when we’ve learned to think about writing in a new way.

  • Try keeping an idea journal with images instead of words.
  • Take a creative class, maybe dance or  pottery; make something that relates to the story we’re working on now.
  • Play in water or with colors.
  • Create an inspiration board.
  • Hold a tea tasting.
  • Do all we can to wake up our senses so we’re writing with our whole body, not just part of our brain.

Badge creation should be a fun, community effort. If you design your own badge or have an idea for one, get in touch with me. If we can work out a design, I’ll display your badge on my web site.

Next Thursday, July 31, Part 2 of Merit Badges for Writers: First Aid for Writers and Extreme Reader

But first, on Tuesday, July 29, we’ll continue our critique series with VSOP – Very Special Old Port. This one isn’t as obvious as the three we have done before, so come back next week to find out what that’s all about.


Writing quote for the week:

Ours is a circle of friends united by ideals.

~Juliette Gordon Low, who brought scouting to the United States from Great Britain


Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Perfectly Nice Syndrome (PNS)

This is the third in our mini-series of critique abbreviations. Today let’s look at Perfectly Nice Syndrome (PNS).

A fellow writer once described to me her elaborate plot, which involved jealousy, revenge, and a woman’s ruined reputation. I was enthralled until she said, “Of course, at the end, it turns out to be all a misunderstanding. None of the characters are really bad; it’s just a case of mistaken identity.”

Her characters suffered from a bad case of perfectly nice syndrome and, in the end, it killed her book. She was never able to publish it.

Robert Heinlein, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, referred to this as TANSTAAFL, pronounced tan-staffle. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. PNS (Perfectly Nice Syndrome)—a term I learned from the writer Sherry Lewis—is much shorter to write.

Free lunches served in bars was popularized in the United States in the last quarter of the 1800s. The Spanish had been doing for centuries with tapas. We see it today in the bowl of chips or pretzels found in many bars, pubs, and taverns.

Whether the free lunch was the oyster soup, roast meat, and buttered bread found in high-end New Orleans clubs or the sausages, pickles, and cheese in less lofty establishments, free food had one thing in common. Salt: a hidden invitation to purchase more drinks.

In the same way, getting rid of PNS invites the reader to be more involved with the characters and to keep reading. PNS shows up in three ways.

The isn’t really bait-and-switch

An easy way to spot it is isn’t really as in, the protagonist’s landlord isn’t really going to evict her; or boss isn’t really that mean; or the protagonist isn’t really in danger here. We can wring so much more drama out of her really being evicted, or his boss being really that mean, or him really being in danger.

If, as my friend wanted to write, none of the characters are really bad and everything was a case of mistaken identity, what we’re pulling on the reader is a bait-and-switch scam. We lead the reader through a series of events designed to make them mistrust the protagonist’s boyfriend only to discover that the women he escorted around town was not only his cousin, but a nun to boot. The final revelation is akin to Orson Wells coming out of character at the end of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast to say he’d dressed up in a sheet and said “Boo” to the listeners.

Bad things happen to good people

If the character’s coffee is always hot and tasty; there’s always a parking spot; people always cooperate with interviews; and, most especially, the protagonist always dodges consequences, our character has PNS.

Actions should have consequences, and characters should have flaws. Yes, the boyfriend really was cheating on the protagonist. Yes, he did go to bed with the other woman. Yes, she did catch a sexually-transmitted disease from him. Now the protagonist and boyfriend have to deal with the consequences. Maybe they will learn to trust one another again, maybe they won’t, but in either case, the writer has a lot more to work with than an actor, popping out to say, “Boo.”

No reaction to significant events

The third flavor of Perfectly Nice Syndrome is when we, as writers, have our eyes so firmly set on plot that we glosses over significant moments. Suppose our character is in heavy traffic and a guy cuts in front of her.


Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.


What? No reaction to almost creaming into the back of a pickup?

A significant moment tests a character’s perception of herself. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; in fact, most of us have dozens of significant moments every day. A guy changes lanes too fast and we almost slam into his rear bumper. A co-workers makes an comment that angers or hurt us. Our child’s school sends an e-mail that says, “Please make an appointment with the principal as soon as possible.”

Do we react? Of course we do. We might curse the driver or pray for his safety. We might turn on the co-worker or fume silently at our desk. We might grab the phone and demand to see the principal in the next ten minutes, or delete the e-mail, hoping if we pretend that we never got it, the problem, whatever it is, will blow over.

Does that mean our characters must react to each significant event, even a broken fingernail?

Pretty much.

The obvious thing is to leave out events that aren’t significant. Why have the protagonist break a fingernail unless it will lead her to the manicurist who leads her to the victim’s aunt, who knows a clue the protagonist didn’t even know she needed?

The good thing is most reactions can be short.


Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. Her heart pounded. She bent her forehead to touch the steering wheel. “Lord, slow that crazy fool down and keep him safe until he has the good sense to listen to You.”

The pick-up turned right, fading out of Pearl’s sight and thought. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.


Pearl’s reaction added four sentences, but we learned a lot about her from that short addition. She has good reflexes for a 72-year-old woman. She’s more religious than spiteful, she prays for her enemies, and she has a sense of humor.

Every rose has a thorn. Every beautiful sunset includes bats swarming out of the old mill. Every favor demands payback—preferably at the most inopportune time. For writers and their characters, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Next Tuesday, July 28th, we’re doing the fourth critique abbreviation — VSOP, or Very Special Old Port. This one is not quite as obvious as the three we’ve already done, so I’ll let you guess for a week what it means.

I’m having such a good time with this mini-series that I’m going to do one on Level Thinking, too. Starting in two days, on July 24, we’ll be doing merit badges for adults. After all, it’s summer. Time to go to camp and earn badges.

My point of view, Writer's life

Level Thinking – The Mystery Spectrum

The naive mystery writer

A while ago, say 2002, being a new and naive mystery writer, I thought I had a handle on mysteries. So confident was I that I reduced the mystery spectrum to a simple diagram, neatly tied up with qualities and a single word to embody different parts of the spectrum.

My simple view of mysteries a long time ago

My simple view of mysteries a long time ago

My basic premise was that each category was clean and could be identified by how much blood, violence and gore appeared on-stage; what emotion drove the plot; and how likely a reader was to laugh verses need anti-depressant therapy after having read extensively in a given category.

Mystery versus thriller
For a while after that simple beginning we had to deal with the mystery/thriller split, and periodic discussions over when does a mystery become a thriller and vice versa. Mystery and Thriller are, of course, marketing terms. Writers joke that the definition of thriller is “we want you to buy this book.”

Be that as it may, we’re stuck with those two terms, and often asked to explain the the differences to readers. I usually start my explanation with three definitions

How are mysteries and thrillers different?

How are mysteries and thrillers different?

Just about the time we figured we’d aced the thriller/mystery question, here came the world. Literally. Several years ago there was an explosion of popularity in mysteries written by writers living outside of North America, writing mysteries that took place outside of North America and Britain. We were treated to nordic, Italian, African, Indian, Chinese, and South American mysteries. High time, too.

Around this time each year — with a summer reading list in mind — I take a tour of what’s new and hot in mysteries. The easiest way to do this is to look at authors and books that have been nominated or received awards this year. There are a lot of mystery, thriller, and crime awards out there. The most well known are the Arthur Ellis (Crime Writers of Canada), Agathas (Malice Domestic Convention), Anthonys (Bouchercon), Daggers (Crime Writers Association of the UK), Edgars (Mystery Writers of America), several awards at Left Coast Crime, Macavities (Mystery Readers Magazine), and Thrillers (International Thriller Writers).

Once again, in my naivety, I thought that pretty much covered it. I found out recently that there are at least fifty less well known awards. For a complete list, go to the Crime Writers Association (UK) web site, and click the links to the organizations and awards in the sidebar at the left.

If you also looking for summer reading, I’ve put together a list of the 2014 nominees and winners. Happy reading.

Or maybe not, because the trends I see this year are dark. The most noticeable plot elements were the past catching up with the protagonists. There are lots of cold cases, often involving unsolved abductions and disappearances of children or young women. Characters are frequently returning to their home towns and being forced to uncover small town secrets, especially those from the 1960s.

I think what we’re looking at here is a desire for redemption; a longing to be able to unwind time and get something right that we got wrong the first time.

The second evident trend is families with dark secrets

  • adultery
  • bad marriages
  • child suicide
  • families that are not what they seem
  • family abductions
  • spousal murder

I don’t know. Maybe people don’t feel safe any more, even in their own families.

Minor, but noticeably trends are cop suicides that turn out to be murder and ghosts. New Orleans is getting a lot of play. Historical mysteries are still hugely popular, with a focus on the last half of the 1800s, and the first half of the 1900s.

Next Tuesday, July 22, we’ll be doing the third part in our common critique comments — PNS: perfectly nice syndrome or what happens when we are too nice to our characters. Hope you can spare some time from your summer reading to join us.


Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Stop Telling, Start Showing (STSS)

Show, don’t tell is the absolute queen of critique comments. I get it all the time. So does every person, in every critique group I’ve ever been in. The abbreviation I write in the margin for this one is STSS.

Let’s start with this event

Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia hated it when an ATM went bad.

The writer is saying to the reader, I, the author, tell you what Marcia felt when the ATM stopped working. She hated what had happened. That last sentence is a did this summary rather than a does this description. Settling for did this rather than does this

  • truncates the reader’s enjoyment
  • places the author between the reader and the words
  • opens up what’s happening to misinterpretation — Why exactly did Marcia hate that the machine was temporarily out of service?

Here are three other examples, all involving that blasted ATM machine

Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia’s stomach went from tight to rigid. The closed glass door behind her wasn’t thick enough to deaden the sound of Donald’s car motor idling. He was out there, waiting, and when she returned without any money, he would punch a few numbers on his cell phone, and her sister would die. The machine spit the card back at her. Marcia wrapped her hand around it, leaving one corner exposed between her fingers. Let’s see what damage a bank card could do to eyes.


Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia pounded on the machine, screaming obscenities at it. The louder she yelled, the larger the after-theatre crowd that gathered around her.

“This is my last chance with Donald, and no ass-hole machine is going to screw that up.”

She turned and grabbed a man’s coat lapels. The fabric felt soft and expensive. “I have to get to the airport. Lend me a hundred dollars,” she shouted into the man’s face.

Two police officers headed toward her. She unhanded the man’s coat and ran for the exit. Behind her, heavy duty boots pounded on the tile floor.


Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia stared at the machine. Blink. No money. Blink. No Donald. Blink. No mistake. This was what salvation looks like, a blinking green screen in the middle of a grey metal machine. Marcie leaned forward and rested her forehead on the cool metal.

“Are you all right, miss?”

She turned and smiled at the elderly man in the mall security uniform.

“I’m fine, thank you. My guardian angel just stopped me from doing something stupid.”


The first thing you probably noticed is that each of these showing examples was longer than the telling one. My rule of thumb is takes 3 to 4 times as many words to show as it did to tell. The original example was 22 words; the three final examples ranged from 92 to 116 words.

Second, the telling example gives the reader the writer’s conclusion. The showing examples view the world from inside Marcia’s head, even though all three are written in the third person. She’s desperate in the first example, a comic figure in the second, and relieved in the third, but I never came flat out and told the readers any of those emotions. I used Marcia’s own body language, dialog, and her interaction with people and things to convey what was happening in her life. The same techniques can be used in first person point of view as well.

Do we have to show instead of tell every single bit of our story? Not necessarily. Events that have no emotional significance; events whose only purpose is to slide the plot forward, to build segues can be delivered in a few words.

  • Marcia paid the cashier and took her tray to a table at the cafeteria’s far end.
  • The Monday morning meeting was a bust. Two hours and forty-seven minutes of unrelieved boredom. As soon as it ended, Marcia ran for the phone in her office.
  • Marcia studied her cold latte. Didn’t anyone drink plain, black coffee any more?

How do we recognize when telling, not showing is important?

  • Is this an emotionally-charged moment for the character? (Marcia has finally gotten up the courage to ask her boss for the raise she desperately needs.)
  • Has another character said or done something that, in real life would stop us cold? (Marcia’s finance, Donald, just told her that he’s wanted by the FBI.)
  • Has the plot just taken a sudden, and likely unexpected turn? (The detective thinks that the killer had to have an unusually good knowledge of chemistry. Marcia knows that Donald has a masters’ degree in chemistry.)

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it’s time to stop telling and start showing.

Here’s a quote, originally intended for actors, whichI paraphrased to writers

Writing is being driven by an urgent and immediate need to commit an action to achieve an objective that will fulfill that need. All external actions on the page need to be justified by the inner process of need that causes the action. … If we live in the world of the character and if we need what the character needs and if we do the things the character does to try to satisfy those needs, we naturally start to experience the life of the character and to modify our behavior and thought. This is known as the Magic If.

Our job is to do what the character does, completely and with the precise qualities required, not to show the reader the character or their feelings by indicating. Indicating is standing outside the reality of our character and playing the emotion or some quality of the character instead of immersing ourself in the experience of the action. ~ original quote from Robert Benedetti, The Actor in You

Next week, Tuesday, July 22, we continue with the third part of our common critique comment series. That one will be PSN (Perfectly Nice Syndrome) or how to tell when we’re making life far too easy for our characters.

On Thursday, July 24, Level Thinking is taking a look at how wide the mystery spectrum has grown in the past few years. I hope to see you here for both.

My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Lay down our swords and shields

I have an affinity for a techie-guy named Merlin Mann. When I first dove into the Internet and what it could or couldn’t do for me, he was the first guy that said things that made sense. Things like turn off that ding that seduces us to check every new e-mail as it arrives. Things like a simple formula for a successful blog is a successful blog = obsession x voice, which means we speak in authentic ways about something we care about to the point of obsession. Things like this quote:

“Managing time is good, but if all you manage is time, you stand the chance of making something that no one cares about. You can’t make art unless you manage your attention, too. Time and attention are finite. Expectations go up and up; resources go down and down. We get some help in learning the hard skills—the technical stuff—but we get no help in learning the soft skills—how to stand up and say that we’re drowning. If someone was stealing from your wallet, would you stop them? Why don’t we stop people who are stealing our time and attention.” ~Merlin Mann

I found a You Tube video of a speech about time and attention that he gave several years ago to Google employees. In 35 minutes, he covers five ideas. One, about managing e-mail, may not be especially relevant to what I’m writing about today, but it was interesting. The other four, which I am writing about today were

  • Time is a valuable commodity
  • Time is a limited commodity
  • We need to reformat the work we give ourselves or allow others to give us
  • We need to take small steps to change the culture in which we work

 The writers’ culture

I started this serious writing gig in 2001. In the past thirteen years I’ve seen huge cultural shifts in the writing workplace. We, as writers, in addition to that minor activity of turning out great books and stories as fast as we can, are expected not only to know about the following things, but create and use them.

  • Blogs
  • Blog hops
  • Book fairs
  • Book signings
  • Book tours
  • Book trailers
  • Branding
  • Business management
  • Business and marketing plans
  • Contests
  • Conventions
  • E-book conversion
  • Hand-selling
  • Interviews
  • Mail outs
  • Newsletters
  • Niche marketing
  • Platform development
  • Press kits
  • Publicity photos
  • Web sites

Social media sites deserve their own paragraph. The big emphasis is on the final “s.” Not site, sites. Those of us who remember back to Chicken Man, incredibly silly radio plays from the 1960s, may also remember each episode’s ending line. He’s everywhere, he’s everywhere. We can apply that same line to social media expectations that the current writers’ culture has for us.

All of us who think that sounds like a balanced lifestyle, please raise hands. Mine certainly didn’t go up.

Marketing is essential to being a writer, but isn’t it about time we make choices? At what point do we say to agents, publishers, and all of the other people who have advice on what we should or must do, that we are drowning? How do we bring ourselves to a point where we treat marketing as art by focusing time and attention on fewer things done well instead of everything done poorly?

Isn’t it about time we laid down our sword and shield and made our own peace with reformatting our work and taking small steps to change our personal culture? Here are three starter steps:

  1. Start with the above list. Pick three activities that are important to us, whether we are currently doing them or not.
  2. Research each of the three: What does it include? What is it supposed to do for us? All of the media sites have About pages. Take a look at them. If one makes no sense — some don’t — ask ourself how successful will a service be in meeting our needs if it can’t clearly explain it’s own purpose?
  3. Audition the experts. How do we find experts? We google them. Use the term “stuff you should know about [fill in Linkedin, or blog hops, or book trailers, whatever your current search is about].” Or try, “experts on [fill in the blank]. Names will start to pop up. Google +: Guy Kawasaki. Book Trailers: Facebook’s Book Trailer Experts. Find the experts and read what they write. If the first guy or gal doesn’t really turn our cranks, go on to the next one, and the next one, until we’ve assembled about five go-to people whose information makes sense to us, and who we’ve grown to trust.

Once we have the information and the trust, it’s going to be a lot easier to work on reframing and taking small steps to change our work culture.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: What body language conveys emotions?

This is the start of a six part mini-series on things I do over and over in writing; things my critique buddies always catch me out on. In fact, they are so common, that I’ve assigned each one letters to save me or someone else having to write long margin notes, explaining I’ve done it again.

What I’m writing about today is WBL. It stands for What body language will I use to convey the character’s emotional reaction?

In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at

  • STSS: stop telling, start showing
  • PNS: the perfectly nice syndrome
  • VSOP: ditch the back story; condense the context down, like Very Special Old Port, into something where every drop counts
  • BBS: build better segues, and finally
  • VAD: use violence as another form of dialog

“Good morning. My name is Sharon and I’m a short-hander. For years, I’ve expected my readers to figure out for themselves what was going on emotionally with my characters. It is the single biggest mistake I continue to make. Chapters I get back from my critique partners are littered with WBL written in the margin.”

Let’s start with with Jared, a thirteen-year-old boy.

Jared threw his jacket half on a hanger and kicked his trainers into the bottom of the closet. Food smells rolled from the kitchen. He sniffed. Beans-and-franks. A burning sensation filled the back of his throat. He raced upstairs, two at a time.

Before you scroll down past the photo answer the following questions

  1. What do beans-and-franks mean to Jared?
  2. What is Jarod feeling?
  3. What he will do next?
This photo has nothing to do with Jared. It's here so you have a chance to answer the questions before scrolling down.

This photo has nothing to do with Jared. It’s here so you have a chance to answer the questions before scrolling down.

Possibility #1

Jared lay stomach-down on the floor next to the twin bed he shared with his younger brothers. His hand groped under the bed until he found the locked tackle box. He unlocked the box, taking out precious jars of mustard, relish, and ketchup. Big glass bottles that he’d bought on sale. Seventy per cent off. A treat for his younger brothers and sisters.

It didn’t pay to leave glass around when his mother was high. Broken glass was dangerous. Tonight was going to be okay. Beans-and-franks meant his mother had stayed clean long enough to get a paycheck. He’d stay home tonight, wash the dishes, make sure the precious jars were spirited away after supper and locked up, waiting for the next beans-and-franks night.

Possibility #2

Jared made it to the bathroom before he threw up. Retching into the toilet, bile and saliva dribbling down his chin, he beat his fist against the top of the toilet tank. Why couldn’t Grammy listen? The nurse at the hospital had told her and told her that the chemotherapy made him sick, and that meat smells were the worse of all. He had to eat; Grammy would insist. He hoped make it to the bathroom in time after supper.

Possibility #3

Jared rooted under a pile of clothes for his ball and glove. Flipping the ball into the air as he came down the steps whistling, he bounded for the kitchen.

George Tolliver turned from the stove, “Hey, kid. Your mom’s running late tonight. I told her we could manage supper. It’s just beans-and-franks.”

“Yeah, I know. Omelets and beans-and-franks are the only things you know how to make,” Jared said, grinning so hard his mouth hurt. “How was your trip?”


“You got time to play catch?”

George dished out two plates. “Later. Sit down. Tell me how you’ve been the last couple of weeks.”

If I’d stopped with Jared’s throat burning, and him running up the stairs, in all likelihood the reader would have assumed a different emotional reaction, a different story, than the one I was trying to tell.

In my unfinished manuscript, I hurried through this scene, more a set of notes to myself about what I want the scene to show. Sure enough WBL showed up in the critique. For the rewrite I forced myself to slow down, to think about what George’s infrequent visits meant to both Jared and George.

  • Jared’s really glad to see George , but he’s also can’t believe his good luck of this guy being in his life. He’s afraid every visit is George’s last.
  • George is working hard to convince Jared that he has no intention of disappearing, but he knows Jared is skittish.
  • Hint that there is a problem with the mother.
  • Aim for a bittersweet feeling: the guy cares about Jared, but . . .

I will remember the power of why in plotting. I will try for at least 5 levels of why, in order to raise the stakes and go deep into character motivation.~Jo Beverly, romance writer

Why does Jared relate the way he does with George?

  1. Life is tough for Jared. Why?
  2. His mother is barely hanging on. Why?
  3. She’s overwhelmed raising a teenager boy, alone, working at a low-paying job. Why?
  4. Every man she’s partnered with left her, which destroyed her self-confidence. She passed those feelings on to Jared, which has made him insecure. Why?
  5. Jared thinks any good man who shows an interest in him will disappear out of his life.

Once I knew what was going on with the two guys, I picked strong verbs: rooted—flipping—bounded—skidded—manage: the first four imply movement, the last one has the bittersweet flavor I’m looking for. Jared and George aren’t on top of the world, they’re just managing.

This scene resolved itself easily because I was comfortable in the story and clear on my characters’ motivations. If I’m having real trouble rewriting a scene, this exercise helps break the impasse:

  • Assign colors to four elements that can be used to build a scene. Dialog = red; body language = blue; leftover emotions from previous scenes = yellow; and sensory texture = green.
  • Highlight text that I’ve already written, either on the computer, or a hardcopy with markers.
  • Tape the pages on a wall or, if I’m using the computer, I adjust the page size so I can get all the scene pages on the screen.
  • Walk away from the wall or screen, turn around, and let the colors hit me in the face. The predominant color is easy to see; in my case, it’s almost always red. Lots of dialog, not much of the other three elements.
  • If I still can’t figure out how to rewrite the scene, I assign elements at random: blue—green—green—yellow—red—yellow—blue and so on. Being an old gamer, I still having a jar full of dice. In cases of extreme writers’ block, I use the dice to randomly generate a color pattern.
  • Then I challenge myself to write what those colors represent, in this case, body language—sensory texture—sensory texture—leftover emotion—dialog—leftover emotion—body language.
  • Having done this, I can almost always take the elements, which may be out of order on the first pass, and rearrange them into some meaningful whole.

We need to write a character’s emotional reaction until we can’t add a single new thing to that reaction without changing the entire tenor of the scene.

If we go back to the second possibility, Jared throwing up as a result of chemotherapy, and, instead of ending with Jared fears about throwing up again after supper, we add a total non sequitur, something like . . .

. . .He hoped he’d be able to make it to the bathroom in time after supper. Oh, well, none of that really mattered. Maybe there would be a Simpson’s rerun on TV tonight.

If the reader’s reaction would be, “Huh? What just happened here?” this is a good clue that we’ve reached the end of describing a character emotional reaction.

I hope to see  you again next Tuesday, July 15th, for the next part in our mini-series: STSS, the dreaded stop telling, start showing.

And if you’re overwhelmed with social media and other marketing, I’ll have some thoughts on that on Thursday, July 10, with a piece I call Lay Down Our Sword and Shield.

Art, I made this

Art I Love – Cowgirl Shrine

Yesterday morning we started our annual descent into western madness with the opening parade of the Calgary Stampede — The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.

For the next ten days it’s non-stop partying, shows, midways, agricultural displays, rodeos, and some of the strangest food going. Here’s the new and (so they say) exciting foods offered this year on the midway.  Personally, I might have to sample the bacon wrapped corn-on-the-cob, but hold the maple syrup, please.

In honor of all things cowgirlish, here’s a shrine I made several years ago after reading Carol Owen’s wonderful book about shrines.

For the makers out there, the base is foam core board, with a mulberry paper covering and lots of Golden® matt gel to hold it in place. The writing was computer generated and printed on tissue paper, then attached with more matt gel.

I had so much fun attaching everything I could find that might relate to a cowgirl theme: western cloth on the roof, miniature white hat (the symbol of the Stampede), milagro charms, deputy’s star, miniature quilt made with Roy Rogers/Dale Evans fabric, beads, cow buttons, stars, letter beads that say “Go west, young woman,” a copper bracelet, a miniature lariat, and an air-dry paper clay face. The really spooky thing is how much the face turned out to look like me. Complete accident.

Cow Girl Shrine Front

Cow Girl Shrine Front

Cow Girl Shrine Back

Cow Girl Shrine Back

Cow Girl Shrine - One Side

Cow Girl Shrine – One Side

Cow Girl Shrine - Other Side

Cow Girl Shrine – Other Side

Detail of cow girl's face

Detail of cow girl’s face

Writer's life

Level Thinking: Slow News Packs a Wallop

Count to eight slowly.

Turn on television and watch some news footage, not the perfectly-coifed talking-head newscasters talking about a crate of suddenly freed chickens escaping their pursuers , but footage of a dramatic event, an event which changed the life of the people involved. While we’re watching, count to eight slowly again.

A cut in television parlance is moving from one visual to another. How many cuts were there in the eight-second segment we watched? Was there a line-feed of other breaking headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen while we watched? Did sports’ scores or the weather or anything else popup on a part of the screen during those eight seconds? Was our set displaying a second program in a mini-window, so that we were essentially watching two programs at once?

Back in the day, when I got my news from the Huntley-Brinkley Report—I know this tells my age—cameras would lingered for a full eight seconds, possibly longer, on one image. There would be a voice-over talking about the hundred elderly residents evacuated from the burning nursing home in sub-zero weather, but the visual would have been the flames jutting out of the upper windows and, perhaps, a slow pan to icicles forming on the fire ladders. One picture truly was worth a thousand words.

According to research done about five years ago by the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California, slow news, like slow dancing and slow food, packs a more powerful wallop.

Research subjects took six to eight seconds to emotionally connect with and develop empathy for another human being in distress. The original report  and a blog comment by a man named Brandon Keim were both fascinating.

If six to eight seconds of news coverage include lot of cuts and/or extraneous material, people watching don’t develop empathy. A hundred elderly people who have lost everything in a fire. Yawn. A mother who saw her toddler crushed by a cement truck. Wonder if I can find a rerun of Friends?

The ability to feel empathy is about as basic a human quality as we have. It’s not unique to our species, of course. We know that many animals, probably more than we think, feel, and express empathy. For all we know, the same could be said about insects, fish, and even plants, but it’s us, as human beings, who are most capable of turning empathy into helping. It’s vital that we keep that skill.

First, as human beings, and second, as writers, we have a responsibility to nurture empathy, in ourselves and in our children. Of only slightly less importance than empathy in our real lives is the question that if we become numb to experiencing empathy, how are we going to create and sustain empathetic characters?

Does this research mean that news programs will go back to the Huntley-Brinkley format? Of course not, but there is at least a simple starting point. The next time you encounter an emotionally-charged news item, close your eyes. Listen to it without the distracting visuals. Think about the people involved. Depending on your spiritual orientation, offer up a prayer or even just a thought for those people. Cultivate not just being in touch with current events, but being touched by events.

I, for one, would prefer not to sacrifice a part of my humanity for the sake of quick-cuts visuals and flashing hockey scores.


Quote for the week:

If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality.

~ Immordino-Yang, former teacher and researcher on learning and the brain

See you on Tuesday, July 8, for the first part of the six-part mini-series on techniques to improve our first drafts. We’re starting with how to use body language in place of adverbs.