Friday, August 24, 2012

Le Mot Juste

The title, Le mot juste, the right word, is attributed to nineteenth century author, Gustave Flaubert. He says “All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.”  
I’m not sure I agree that writing talent only consists of choosing the right words, but I do believe most  writers search for the “right” word. Or should I say the exact, correct, proper, acceptable, appropriate, or prophetic word./ Each of those choices imply something a little different, therefore meanings and usage must be considered in the selection of words. Meaning can be complex!

Some word meanings have more power than others. When we think about words and what’s inside them, what gives a word secret power or broader meaning, we may find the  subtle reason for choosing one word over another.

 Take the word countenance. Are you looking for the noun definition – face, features, facial expression, look, or appearance? Example:  “His striking, handsome countenance”. Or do you want the verb meaning of countenance: tolerate, permit, allow, consent to, or hold with? Example:  It is not something the people are willing to countenance.

If you were looking for the right word to describe what would make someone willing to face extreme danger and you chose the word courage, you would have several meanings to consider. You might choose a slang word like guts: He has the guts to stand up to his boss. You may want a more formal meaning like fortitude: He has the fortitude to stand up for his beliefs. Or perhaps you would choose pluck:  She had the pluck to volunteer.

 Many writers use the tools button on computers to choose Thesaurus for help with word choice. I do. When that doesn’t satisfy or if I’m having trouble looking for that right word, I rely upon my printed copies of Roget’s Super Thesaurus or Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.

 Some of us do not make our choices easily or quickly but in the end we hope that hunting for words makes for more interesting, powerful  reading. Maybe Flaubert is right. The right words make more powerful books.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Don't forget the fundamentals of the Writing Craft

As an author I am often asked to "read" or "review" new manuscripts or books for newbies. It's an honor to do so, but sometimes I become concerned that the writer has been so caught up in their wonderful creation that they forget fundamental principles of writing.  That is easy to do and that's why we edit, edit, edit and edit some more. 

Getting the story down from beginning to end without editing is a pretty good plan. You don't get hung up editing the first couple of chapters and get discouraged that way. Getting to the end is quite an accomplishment, but that's when the real story begins to emerge - during the editing process! I know, edit is a four-letter-word, but it's a good thing, really. No one creates the perfect manuscript the first time around. And there are always really great story bones you can flesh out.

When the muse is whispering in our ear we're listening and typing (or writing) as fast as we can, because we don't want to miss a thing. We use words over and over again because we don't want to step outside of the story to find a better one, but not to worry - we can catch them during the edits. I counted twelve times I used "and then" on two pages. There are other, more powerful words that can be used to depict a sequence of events, but it worked to get the story on the page. I'll fix it during the edits.

I've always had difficulty with "passive voice." After over a dozen years of journalistic and fiction writing, as well as two novels, it sneaks in there and I have to yank it like a weed; making phrases more "active" and more interesting for the reader. Re-write all those "he was" and "she was" sentences. Replace those lovely adjectives (-ly) with action verbs. Make every word count, because readers don't want to waste their time - and authors don't want them skipping pages, or worse - closing the book before the end.

Another fundamental item that comes back to haunt me is point of view (POV) shifts. When you have more than one major character, which we often do, then we can easily shift POV from one to the other. I'm told the only time it is acceptable is during a romance novel. In my first novel I had three major characters so I alternated chapters, one from Regina's POV, the next from Annabelle's, etc. They each got equal time. It worked out much better for the reader and I was able to clearly develop the character's personality and conflict.

Some of us struggle to make dialog interesting, realistic, and telling. It's so easy to have one character tell another all the reasons why they are acting like a jerk, but that's no fun. Show the jerk through the words they choose, snippets of information (not data dumps) that reveal the why's slowly. Make the reader want more. 

Don't forget the phrase "show don't tell." That one used to puzzle me. We tell stories, but letting the reader "see" what is happening to the character, how they react, the location, the tense situation is much more gripping than just saying - "he killer her". (Think of the story as a movie or play. Do you see the action clearly? Do you feel it?)

That brings me to "senses." We have five at our disposal and when all are stimulated, not once in awhile, but often, then the story comes alive. Can you smell the salty ocean air? Can you feel the humidity dampen your skin? Whatever it is, make the reader see, feel, smell, taste, and hear every scene. They will love it and you'll enjoy it, too.

Our job as authors is to write a "great" story. The first or second draft may be "good" but they may not be great - YET. We have to mine the gold from the garbage (and we do all write garbage from time to time). We want to write a story readers won't want to put down.

Robert Frost once wrote, "If there are no tears in the writer, there are no tears in the reader."
Enjoy the journey, writers! It can be an absolute blast....

-BD Tharp

Friday, August 17, 2012

Interview With Michael Haskins by Jacqueline Seewald

If you happen to visit Key West, Florida, you’ll want to visit the house once occupied by Ernest Hemingway. You might even run into him on the street. But wait, Hemingway is dead! The man you meet is likely to be near Hemingway double Michael Haskins who writes exciting “guy” novels.

Michael Haskins came to Key West fifteen years ago to be the business editor/writer for the daily Key West Citizen. After five years he left to become the city’s public information officer. Since 2008, he freelances for Reuters News out of Miami while he continues to writer his Mick Murphy Key West Mystery series. Michael grew older outside Boston, and has lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles and spent many summers in Tijuana, Mexico before moving to Key West. His latest novel, published this month by Five Star/Gale in hardcover, CAR WASH BLUES, garnered a favorable review in LIBRARY JOURNAL.

Question: What is the genre of your novel?  Why did you select it?

Answer:  I think of myself as a mystery writer, but am told my stories fall under thriller too. I am a member of both the Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.

Question:  Could you tell us a little bit about the heroine and/or hero of your latest novel?

Answer:  Car Wash Blues is my sixth in the series and I wanted to bring Mick Murphy’s past to him, but I also wanted a conflict between Murphy and his black-bag friend Norm Burke. I did this by having Norm use Murphy to draw out a Tijuana, Mexico, drug cartel.

Question:   Can you tell us about some of your other published novels?

Answer:   The first two, Revenge and Tijuana Weekend take place on the West Coast. The other four take place in Key West, Florida. It is a series, so many of the characters return in each book. In the Key West books, I draw on real people and places to add a touch of realism to the stories. Now bars, restaurants and friends ask about being in the next book.

Question:   What are you working on now?

Answer:  I am half-way through Key West Latitude (working title) and it is a lot darker than my previous books. So dark, as a matter of fact, the section one is told in Norm’s voice because Murphy has gone over the edge after what happened in Stairway to the Bottom. Section two will be in Murphy’s voice. Also, unlike the previous Key West books, this one opens in Ft. Lauderdale, goes to Tampico, Mexico and Baton Rouge, before getting to Key West.

Question:   What made you start writing?

Answer:  It all began in the last years of high school when I got hooked on Hemingway’s short stories, then his life and I wanted to writer and have chased the dream ever since.

Question:   What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?

Answer: Read. Reading is a very important part of learning to write. Of course, you need to write daily and become good at self-editing afterward. Read the type of books you want to writer and spend time understanding what impresses you in those books and then try to do it better in your story.

Question:  Where and when will readers be able to obtain your novel?

Answer:  All my current books are on Amazon and Kindle. Car Wash Blues will be available on Amazon, now for pre ordering but not Kindle for at least a year. Trade paperback copies of my books can also be ordered from Amazon via my website,

If you like mystery thrillers with lots of atmosphere, check out Michael’s books! Comments and discussion welcome here.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Keeping Track of All Those Characters

This is both a blog about . . . and an invitation for advice.

When I started writing crime fiction I had so much fun coming up with new and interesting characters that I couldn't keep track of them all. It didn't even occur to me to try. After all, weren't these people as real to me as my flesh and blood friends?

I didn't think much about keeping track of characters till I recalled a story a friend told me. She liked amateur theater and signed on for a play. Her most important scene was cued by another actor, a man, telling the story of how Mr. SoandSo met his end. When the actor finished his part, my friend had to step in with her lines. The trouble was, the other actor told a different story about Mr. SoandSo every night. And no one else knew when the story was coming to an end. It made for some very tense performances.

When I started writing, my information about my characters was something like Mr. SoandSo--it kept changing. I kept scribbling notes about names and ages and eye color (I wasn't going to make Conan Doyle's mistakes and change eye color in the middle of a story) but that meant I had to go flipping back through the pages to find the information. About one hundred pages and far too many characters into the story I knew I had to get organized. My solution--a stack of notecards in a shoe box. This was before good writing software, and I confess I haven't caught up. But I have a good system.

Every character gets at least one card on which I record all the essentials--all the basic demographic information we seem to think is important but also all the details writers add to a story to give the character life. If you read everything in a series you know how your favorite sleuth takes her tea in the morning or why the boyfriend drives a particular car. But what about the landlady? When she shows up, do I remember how she wears her hair, or why she wears funky sweaters? Does Mrs. Alesander still have brown hair at her age? Do I remember that Hugh Chase went to Vietnam and became a pacifist? Did I remember that Winston Windolow belonged to a bike club? If I'm not sure what I said about Archer Ames, do I know where to look? How many books does he appear in? Do I know what chapters he appears in? If he has a file card I do.

File cards do the obvious, and any good software will do the job just as well (and many will argue software will do it better). But file cards have another purpose. I can lay them out on my desk, sort them by any number of categories, and get an idea if I have favored names with certain letters, one gender over another, certain ages. Has one character been reappearing in story after story, and if the answer is yes, does this suggest I should do something more with this one?

I once thought, so naively, that if I wrote it I would remember it. I confess I can barely remember what I wrote yesterday until I see it. If I did not have my note cards for each series, I would be reinventing people on every page, changing eye color, introducing lisps and limps, and generally confusing everyone. It would be an editing nightmare.

Using file cards to track characters is one system, a very simple basic one. I know there are others. What sort of system do you use?

Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series; the most recent title is The Wrath of Shiva: An Anita Ray Mystery (2012). She also writes the Mellingham series, featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva; she perfected her notecard system during the first in the series, Murder in Mellingham (1993).