Saturday, May 2, 2009

Writing Advice

There’s a wealth of good advice from successful authors to be found on the Internet. Here are some recent blogs that I’m saving.

Tim Hallinan visited Jean Henry Mead’s Mysterious People blog ( Hallinan writes the Poke Rafferty series and his newest book is BREATHING WATER. You can read more about it at his web site:

Here’s what Tim had to say during his interview with Jean.

(a) Write the book you'd most like to read. Some people waste years trying to create a Great Novel they wouldn't read if it appeared one morning beneath their pillow;
(b) Honor your writing by giving it an immovable place in your daily schedule and sticking to it;
(c) If you can't get it right, go ahead and get it wrong – but don't stop; the enemy, as someone has said, is not the bad page – it's the empty page. You can always go back and make it better;
(d) Give your characters their freedom, and remember that plot is what characters do, not a box to put them in.
(e) Finish your first novel even if it goes completely, spectacularly wrong; you'll learn more from the first one than from the next three combined, and you can't very well start the second until you've finished the first;
(f) when you're not writing, read.
(End Quote)

More good advice, this time from L.J. Sellers. She was a recent guest blogger at Working Stiffs ( on the subject of writing first drafts that don’t suck. Her first book is THE SEX CLUB, and a second book, SECRETS TO DIE FOR, will be out in September. You can find out more about her and her books at

I have L.J.’s permission to use her blog in a workshop proposal for a book fair next year, and I’ll summarize the high points here. She writes:

… here’s how I craft a great first draft without any gaping holes or illogical twists:

1. Create an outline. Once I have a basic story idea (comprised of an exciting incident, major plot developments, and overview ending), I start filling in the details. I structure my outline by days (Tuesday, Wed., etc.), then outline the basic events/scenes that happen on each day, noting which POV the section will be told from.

2. Write out the story logic. In a mystery/suspense novel, much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I worry that I won’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened. So I map it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page.

3. Beef up the outline. As I write the first 50 pages or so, new ideas come to me and I fill in the rest of outline as I go along. I continue adding to the outline, and by about the middle of the story, I have it completed.

4. Create a timeline. A lot happens in my stories, which usually take place in about six to ten days. I keep the timeline filled in as I write the story. This way I can always look at my timeline and know exactly when an important event took place (Monday, 8 a.m.: Jackson interrogates Gorman in the jail). It’s much faster to check the timeline than scroll through a 350-page Word document. The timeline also keeps me from writing an impossible number of events into a 24-hour day.

5. Keep an idea/problem journal. I constantly get ideas for other parts of the story or realize things I need to change, so I enter these notes into a Word file as I think of them. (Ryan needs to see Lexa earlier in the story, where?). I keep this file open as I write. Some ideas never get used, but some prove to be crucial.

6. Keep an evidence file. I make note of every piece of evidence that I introduce and every idea I get for evidence that I want to introduce. I refer to this file regularly as I write, so that I’m sure to process and/or explain all the evidence before the story ends. In my first novel a pair of orange panties didn’t make it into the file or the wrap up, and sure enough, a book club discussion leader asked me who they belonged to.

7. Update my character database. It took me a few stories to finally put all my character information into one database, but it was a worthwhile effort. Now, as I write, I enter each character name (even throwaway people who never come up again) into the database, including their function, any physical description, or any other information such as phone number, address, type of car, or favorite music.

As a general rule, I like to get the whole story down on the page before I do much rewriting, but I’ve learned to stop at 50 pages for two reasons. One, I like to go back and polish the first chunk of the story in case an agent or editor asks to see it. Two, I usually give this first chunk to a few beta readers to see if I’m on the right track.
(End Quote)

Lastly, Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog, The Dark Salon (, subtitled Screenwriting Tips For Authors, is a mini-writing course. Screenwriting is more like novel writing than you may think. Most recently she blogged about act breaks, turning points, act climaxes and plot points, with examples.

She gets right into specifics, as in:
“ACT ONE CLIMAX (30 minutes into a 2 hour movie, 100 pages into a 400 page book. Adjust proportions according to length of book.)”

Sokoloff’s ghost story, THE HARROWING, was published by St. Martin’s in 2006. Her newest supernatural thriller is THE PRICE. She has contracted with St.Martin’s for her next two supernatural thrillers.


Mark W. Danielson said...

This is all good advice, Pat. Thanks for sharing. Outlining works well for many authors. James Patterson is perhaps one of the most detailed. But as was mentioned earlier, the bottom line is to complete the manuscript, regardless of the method in which it was scripted.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks for the mention, Pat. Tim Hallinan sent me an ARC for Breathing Water and his work is exceptional.