Rules can be broken

I’m almost to page 400 in John Grisham’s SYCAMORE ROW.  I’d probably have it finished by now if I hadn’t lost time to my troublesome stomach, but I have to admit, I needed a kick in the pants to pick the book up to read every night.  It’s good.  But I’m not used to Grisham’s style of writing, and after all the pages I’ve read, the book still feels like set-up to me.  Everything’s interesting.  The characters are great, but there’s still no crunch time, no ticking clock, and I’m getting the feeling that’s not going to happen.

The truth is, I’m so used to genre writing, his style feels alien to me.  He does a lot of the things that my writers’ group tells people NOT to do, but it works.  For him.

  1.  Show don’t tell.  My group repeats this like a mantra.  Showing pulls a reader into a story, makes him feel part of it.   Grisham sets a scene–like Jake walking into the coffee shop where everyone gathers to learn the latest news and gossip–and TELLS us what’s happening.   I’ve never been bothered by telling as much as some writers.  Author intrusion?  Eh, it works once in a while.  Jenna Bennett uses it here and there, and it adds an intimacy to her stories, like she’s talking just to you, the reader.  It’s efficient, too.  Showing takes space.  You have to let a scene play out to make a point.  Telling…well, you just say what you want the reader to know.  It creates more distance between the reader and the story, but it gives the reader a quick feeling of everything important in fewer words.  Still, all in all, most writers try to avoid it.  We try to show instead of tell.
  2. POV.  My groups’ view is that there’s singular POV or multiple POV, and you don’t mix more than one POV in a scene.  You wait to jump from one person’s head to another’s.  Grisham eliminates that worry by using a sort of omniscient POV and focusing in on one person and then moving to another.  It’s not one bit confusing.  It works.  But again, it creates more distance.  The reader’s not following one person or a few important players from place to place.  We pop from Jake’s thoughts to Lettie’s to someone’s in the coffee shop.  I don’t read enough thrillers to know if this is the norm for the genre, but it very well might be.  That’s the thing about genres.  They don’t all follow the same rules.
  3. Pacing.  My group focuses a lot on keeping the reader turning pages.   We build tension and conflict into every scene we can.  We have pinch points and turning points.  And everything keeps geting worse.  Grisham concentrates on his story and lets it unfold.  It doesn’t feel rushed.  It has more of a literary feel where the characters develop more than the plot.  I’m happy to roll with that, except I have to admit, as a genre junkie, I wish some key plot point was moving a little faster.  But that’s my own hang-up, and I know it.
  4. Would I change my advice to people who come to Scribes?  No.  Because show, don’t tell works for most writers.  So does POV and pacing.  But Grisham is talented enough to pull off his style.  His sales speak for that.  But most mere mortals have better luck following the rules.  It’s hard enough finding an audience, so why push your luck?

Whatever you write, however you write it, good luck.  And happy writing!

My webpage:

My author Facebook page:

Twitter:  @judypost






Writing: Things to consider

I had a group of writer friends over last Wednesday for a NovelCon.  We each brought pages and spent the day, listening to parts of novels that each writer wanted feedback on.  Brainstorming with  friends always reminds me of things I know make for good writing and forces me to think about them again.

In random order, here are a few of our comments:

1.  Get rid of filter words–He thought.  He saw.  He wondered.  He felt.–Most times, if you hack them off, your sentence is stronger and you have internal dialogue.  You live inside the character’s head instead of being reminded that you’re outside of it.  It makes your writing more immediate.

2.  Get the sequence right.  Write your novel from beginning to end without jumping around.  Start at the inciting incident and use cause and effect to reach the end.  Flashbacks are fine, in moderation, but most novels benefit from “this happened, so that resulted…,” etc.

3.  Don’t play it too safe.  Take risks.  Push your characters closer to the edge.  See how they react, what they decide to do.  Make them more real.

4.  Voice matters.  “Hear” your characters so that, even if you don’t use tag lines, each character will be distinct.  Your characters shouldn’t all “sound” alike.  And let the voice of each story fit its mood, the tone for that world.

5.  First chapters are killers.  If you get one right on the first try, do a happy dance and celebrate, because you got just plain lucky.

6.  POV depends on which character has the most to lose.  Single POV and multiple POV both work.  It depends on what kind of story you want to tell.  Multiple POV can build more tension.  It can show a few different characters all working toward the same ending for different reasons, in different ways.  Together, their storylines build to a crescendo.

7.  Show, don’t tell.  Writers always hear that advice because showing is what brings a story to life, so that a reader lives the story alongside the protagonist.  How do you show instead of tell?  This is an article that might help:

8.  Use active instead of passive verbs.  Every writer knows this, but we all slip into passive or weak verbs when our brain’s tired and we don’t have enough energy to be more specific and search for the strongest verb we can use to bring a scene to life.  But strong verbs make for strong scenes.

9.  Use short, punchy sentences for action scenes.  And don’t skimp on these scenes.  Most writers build to battle scenes (verbal or action), and readers feel cheated if the “pay-off” scene is rushed.

These are just some of the comments from our NovelCon–things writers have probably heard over and over again.  But one more time never hurts.  Happy writing in February!



Writing: when good enough, isn’t

Writing’s like Boy Scouts.  My grandson, Tyler, belonged to one of the most wonderful Boy Scout troops anyone could hope for.  He learned SO much.  But one of his leaders signed every message she sent him with “Good enough–isn’t.”  Thank you, Mrs. Dirig!  That was pretty much the motto for their troop.  Don’t just try to get by.  Excel.

I belong to a writers’ group–one of the BEST writers’ groups–and I’ve looked at pages for lots of writers who’ve joined us and stayed with us.  I’ve read writers with lots of potential who had no sense of sequence or grammar.  Those things are something a writer can learn.   Everything’s something a writer can learn, but some things are harder than others.  Using active verbs instead of passive verbs is something we yap about on a regular basis–so often, in fact, it becomes a mantra for us.  We go on and on about opening hooks and inciting incidents, about the book’s big question.  We ask about the protagonist’s outer and inner motivaton, pacing, plotting, the book’s big showdown–it had better deliver, word choice…you name it.   And we learn from each other.

The hardest thing to critique, though, is when someone reads and the words flow, everything SEEMS right, we can’t find a flaw, but none of us are excited about the story.  Clean, but boring, is harder to work with.  It’s taken me a while, but when that happens now, I know it’s not what’s THERE, but what ISN’T that’s the problem.  And that’s even harder to explain to a newer writer.

Sometimes, the yawn factor happens because the author tells, instead of showing.  We’re not living the events with the protagonist.  We’re not holding our breath when he’s in danger.  We’re not feeling heart palpitations because the guy who’s hot looks our way.  We’re kept at a distance while the author TELLS us what happened.  But even after writers master the art of Show, Don’t Tell, their stories can be flat.  Then our group has to take a harder look at what’s NOT there.

Are the stakes high enough?  Does the protagonist care enough?  Is the story too pat?  Has it been done to death?  Is there an original slant to it?   Or is it so out there, we can’t relate to it?  We ask all those questions, but when we’ve exhausted everything else, sometimes it comes down to something even harder to put a finger on.  Is the story immediate enough?  Are we connected enough to the protagonist?

I’ve said it before in this blog, but a lot of readers read for emotional impact.  They want to laugh, cry, and despair with the story’s main character.  I used to have problems with this in my own writing.  I tended to be too private.  I was more of an idea writer than an emotional one.  I started with mysteries that were plot driven instead of character driven.  When I switched to urban fantasy, it was hard to add the internal dialogue and feelings that drive those stories.  But that’s one of urban fantasy’s strong points.  The characters’ emotions are what ground the magic and supernatural action in reality.

To start the writing year off right, I’m including a list of great sites about the craft of writing and marketing.  I hope you’re inspired in 2014.  Happy writing!

Lisa Gardner offers one heck of a feast of advice on her site:

When Les Edgerton gets down to the nitty-gritty, I always learn something:

I don’t just use Victory Crayne’s critique advice to look at other writers’ work.  I use it when I look at my own:

While you’re at it, why not learn from one of the best?

And why not finish with one of my favorites?


May the Muses bless you for the year ahead.






In Writing–Show, Don’t Tell

If you read any how-to books on writing, one of the first rules given is show, don’t tell.  Easier said than done.  I still try to rush scenes at times and just tell the reader something that, in my mind, is small so that I concentrate on something that I feel is important.  And I get caught every time.   A critiquer inevitably circles that part of my story and writes “Telling” in the nearest margin.

If you’ve written long enough, you see scenes in your mind, and that’s how you write them–what you see, smell, and listen to.   A new writer joined our group, though, and “show, don’t tell” was one of the hardest things for him to learn.  He knew the stories he wanted to tell and all of the important plot points along the way, but he asked for help in bringing those scenes to life.

It always amazes me how much difference “showing” makes.  It puts the reader into the story instead of pushing him aside as an observer.  Showing allows the reader to live the story along with the book’s characters.  If the advice “space equals emotion” is true, a big scene needs to be big–not one line or one paragraph, sometimes not even one page, but enough space to give it weight.

The author doesn’t say, “When Jake walked into the room, someone tried to shoot him.”  Instead, the author shares the details of scent, sound, and emotions, so that the reader smells, hears, and sees what Jake does.

Jake pulled to the curb in  front of the house.  An overhead light gleamed in a back room.  Shadows swallowed everything else.  The driveway sat, empty.  Jake checked the address Heath had given him.  With a nod, he started up the sidewalk.  Worn porch steps creaked underfoot.  Should he ring the doorbell?  Why was the house dark?  He reached a finger toward the buzzer, hesitated, and pulled on the screendoor instead.  It creaked open.  He turned the doorknob and pushed.  The door swung wide.  Even in the gloom, he could make out the body lying on the living room carpet.  He grabbed for his cell phone when a shot rang out.  Wood splintered beside him.  Jake turned and ran.

Telling took one sentence to say what a paragraph showed, but telling doesn’t evoke emotions.  Showing does.  Ultimately, that’s what fiction is all about–grabbing a reader’s attention and letting him live vicariously through a character.  And to do that, a writer has to “show, don’t tell.”  Oh, and active verbs help too.  But that’s another matter.


Every writer has to find what works for him.  I was on a writing panel a while ago, and one of the authors said that he always works on three projects at a time, because when he gets bored with one and runs out of ideas, he can pick up the next story until the first one tugs him back.  Another friend of mine always rotates between two novels.  Me, I’m a one-at-a- time type writer.  I might start a new story while I let a draft sit, to let it “cool” and gain some objectivity before I polish it, but I don’t jump back and forth between chapters and scenes.  Come to think of it, though, I can’t multi-task all that well either.  Just saying….

My friends and I have different approaches to rewrites too.  Paula writes these deep, layered,  power house scenes, then does rewrites to connect them.  Two of my friends think BIG and words flow from their fingertips.  They use rewrites to cut and shape “too much” into order.  I tend to write sparely–if I get the basics of the scene right, I’m happy.  My rewrites are adding all  of the things I didn’t put in the first time around.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still think about word choice–did I use the exact word I needed where I needed it?–and verb choice–did I use active instead of passive?  I look at grammar and sequence, but those are the basics.  After those, I hit the things I’ve been known to overlook.

Did I set the scene?  And I don’t mean does the reader know where my characters are standing or sitting.  I want the reader to feel like he’s standing there too.  I want him to be able to picture the room he’s in or the field he’s crossing.  I want him to squint his eyes because the sun’s too bright and inhale the scent of crisp air and freshly turned earth.  If my character’s cooking, I want my reader to smell onions sauteeing and the spices on the sizzling meat.  Not every scene, of course, but enough that my reader is grounded in place.

Did I deliver emotion?  Tension?  By this, I mean–why is this scene important to my POV character?  It’s not enough to just have things happening in my story.  Those things have to impact my character.  Why does she care?  What difference does it make?  To do this, I often use internal dialogue or deep POV.  So many times, I look at a scene and everything’s right, but it just doesn’t work.  It should–important things are happening, but it’s flat.  Then I know that it’s not what’s there, it’s what’s NOT there that’s tripping me up.  And that’s almost always my character’s emotions.  What does she think about what’s happening around her?  Does it make her happy, sad, or frustrated?  What’s her take on it?  That’s when internal dialogue can make a scene significant.

And finally, for me and my rewrites, I check my story for transitions.  Did I jump from one place to another too abruptly?  Did I leave out a scene that would add to the story?  And lastly, the dreaded “show, don’t tell.”  Did I gloss over something, tell the reader what happened, when I could let him experience it along with my character?

This is my list of things I look for when I rewrite a story.  They’re things I know I tend to rush over or forget on my first draft of getting things on paper.   Each author has his own style and habits, so I thought I’d add a link that probably gives better information than mine on critiquing (for me, that includes how I critique my own stories to make them stronger).

When I first started writing, I dreaded rewrites.  Now, I recognize them as the difference between a good story and a great one.  I hope this link gives you even more ideas to make your stories better: