Writing That Protects the Innocent… and the Guilty By Alina Adams

“The characters depicted in this book bear no relation to anyone living or dead.”

Yup, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Except, OK…. maybe not exactly.

announcersHere’s the deal: From 1995 to 2000, I worked as a writer/researcher/producer for a variety of televised figure skating events, from professional shows to National, European and World Championships to the 1998 Nagano Olympics. I got to know a lot of people. Skaters, parents, coaches and TV personalities. We worked together, we had meals together, I visited people at their homes, met their families, and stood next to them during some of the most stressful moments in their lives.

fsmysteryomnibuscoverThen, from 2003 to 2007, I wrote a series of Figure Skating Mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime, including “Murder on Ice,” “On Thin Ice,” “Axel of Evil,” “Death Drop” and “Skate Crime.”

Naturally, I used what I’d learned about the competitive figure skating world as fodder.

Naturally, I based some characters on people I knew.

Naturally, I hid that fact.

I stopped working in televised figure skating after a two week business trip to film four different shows in four different cities resulted in my then-18 month old acting like he didn’t know who I was when I came back (said then-18 month old is now applying to college, and he certainly remembers who I am every time he needs someone to write a check…. But I digress).

The point is, I gave up travel for a job I could do from home. But I brought my job along in spirit. Of course, I based characters on people I’d met. Of course, I dramatized events I’d witnessed – and some I’d only heard about. It didn’t matter if they were true or not. This was fiction!

But then it got even more confusing. In 2014, all five Figure Skating Mysteries were released as enhanced ebooks. What are enhanced ebooks? Enhanced ebooks are books where videos are included alongside with the text as part of the story.

I formed a partnership with The Ice Theatre of NY, and they gave me access to their entire video library. Why merely read about figure-skating, when you can actually watch it!

So now, I had real people, acting the roles of fictional people, who were, in turn, based on real people. Got that? (See an example here to make it a little clearer.)

Many of my readers are figure skating fans. And they’re not idiots.

“Is So-and-So based on So-and-So?” They want to know.

I smile demurely.

alinadickBecause I might want to return to figure-skating one day. (In fact, in 2014, I produced 2-time Men’s Champion Dick Button’s Olympic Twitter commentary, and used it to promote my books. Find out how, here.)

And because I might want to return to figure-skating one day, I’m not about to spill long-held secrets about some of the biggest names in the sport. By using their real names.

I suspect this is an issue that comes up whenever anyone writes about a field in which they’re an insider. They say you should write what you know. But how much knowledge is too much? When is it just fun, and when is it hurtful – to both the people you’re writing about, and to your own career?

Where should writers draw the line?

What do you think?

****

Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure-skating mysteries and romance novels for Pocket, Dell, Avon and Berkley. Visit her website at http://www.AlinaAdams.com.

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How Can I Write Better Dialogue? 4 Quick Tips

Dialogue matters.  A lot.  In fact, I have stopped reading many an otherwise solid novel due to sub-par dialogue, and I wanted to provide a friendly warning to authors out there: even casual readers can sniff out sloppy dialogue, and that could cause said readers to stop reading, which could mean they write a bad review, or worse, no review at all.  And what happens to the novelist then?  Well, that lack of reviews could lead the writer in question to quit writing and take up drinking, which could lead to the downfall of his marriage, which could lead to him losing custody of his kids, which could lead to more drinking and financial problems, which could lead to getting behind on the mortgage.  The end result: the writer ends up homeless.  . . .all because he wrote piss-poor dialogue. Tragic.

dialogue new

Anyhew, I’m in the midst of new writing project, and to remind myself not to screw up dialogue and end up drunk, divorced, destitute, and only seeing my adorable son Harry on every other weekend, I’ve jotted down 4 quick tips. Enjoy.

tension

Tip #1: Dialogue creates tension.

  • Speaking in completely reductive but useful terms, I lump all novel writing to do with tension-building into two broad categories: characters either DO things that create tension, or characters SAY things that create tension. So when writing dialogue remember to allow a character’s true personality to come out to play. If they’re mysterious, dole out their words carefully, and with utmost attention paid to timing. If they’re a smartass, dialogue is an ideal place to showcase that particular talent (yes, it qualifies as a talent; otherwise, I would have no discernible talent). All of these should help increase tension between the characters.

character counts

Tip #2: Dialogue builds a character’s backstory.

  • It takes a seasoned novelist to achieve what I’m about to suggest, but it can be done and done well: use dialogue to help round out a character’s backstory. Now I’m not suggesting nor do I advocate for information dumps; those take readers out of the story, which defeats the purpose. But if you can weave in memorable (and, occasionally, important) bits about a character’s biography then dialogue is wonderfully efficient place to do so. Plus, it saves time and space. Being lazy, I like that.

dialogue new newTip #3: Dialogue helps create separate and unique characters.

  • Every character, from the protagonist to a minor character with only a few lines, should have a distinct way of speaking. This helps brand them as unique characters, and it helps readers differentiate between characters, especially recurring ones who have lots of dialogue. Find ways to make every character’s speech memorable. Does a character stutter? Talk really fast? Speak in clipped phrases? Whatever, just make it memorable.

feelings

Tip #4: Dialogue, on occasion, reveals a character’s most important thoughts and feelings.

  • Again, a seasoned novelist will do this sparingly. Unless, of course, the character in question is someone who wears his or her heart on his or her sleeve and keeps up a constant monologue. But still, dialogue is a nice place to, on occasion, toss in how a character feels about an issue (say, the crime in question, for example). This will help cement a reader’s feelings toward the character, and it will also help other characters who are involved in the dialogue parse their own feelings.

talk

So how important is dialogue to you as a reader? Got any tips on how to create meaningful and memorable dialogue? Have any Italian sandwiches you’d like to send my way? (What, I’m hungry.) Would love to hear from you. Drop a comment.

 

SlumpBusters: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Recommends Flash Fiction for Getting Out of a Writing Funk

Prepare for some shameless self-congratulation: a story I wrote last month was just accepted for publication by Shotgun Honey, an excellent website that features crime/noir/mystery flash fiction.

Why do I care, you might ask, and rightly so.

Answer: you shouldn’t. Unless you’re a writer who is or ever has been in a writing “funk.”

If you are, fear not. I have a solution for what ails you, one that helped me break the cycle of bad writing and even worse moods. (By the way, writers tend to be moody SOBs, or DOBs, if you’re a female scribe. My old man has somewhat charitably labeled me mercurial, which is a college man’s way of saying I’m a moody SOB.)

Oh yeah, back to my point: write a flash fiction piece to help get out of a writer’s funk. Below are some bullet-pointed reasons why.

inspire

Benefits of Writing Flash Fiction

  • They’re short. No s—, Sherlock. But yeah, for those who don’t know, flash fiction stories are 1,000 words or less, and that is advantageous, particularly for a novelist struggling to break out of a funk. Because of its abbreviated length, flash fiction is a manageable goal; it’s easy to see the finish line while working on it, and when you finish one, you feel a much-needed sense of accomplishment.
  • They’re stories. Meaning they still must have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. They must have interesting and dynamic characters. They must, on some level, “mean something.” Sounds similar to a novel, no? Also, flash fiction forces you to focus on the story, on writing a scene or scenes with no fat, no filler, no frills. That, too, will aid in your novel writing, especially those penning fast-paced mystery novels, which is what we here at MMO pride ourselves on writing, and writing well.
  • They’re fun. This is crucial because whenever I’m in a writing funk, I’m definitely not having any fun. I get bogged down on deadlines and bad reviews; I shrink under the weight of self-doubt, and whenever I wrote my flash fiction piece, all of that crap went away, and I had fun writing again, which is why I started this hobby in the first place.

So give it try. Write a flash fiction piece. Best part is, if it sucks, at least it didn’t take that long to write.

 

Random List: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Offers Up a Mixed Bag of Advice on Improving a Writer’s Craft

Be mentally-ill.  Believe me, if you want to be a writer, having a reasonable, manageable amount of mental illness is a God send. (Note: being neurotic can and often does reek havoc on your personal and professional life, but the fleas come with the dog).  Here’s why being afflicted with a mild to moderate mental illness is beneficial to a writer: because you suffer, you better understand the suffering of others.  Your suffering allows you to better understand human frailty, and that, in turn, fosters empathy for others, which will help improve the depth of the characters you write. Plus, do I really need to list all of the great writers, male and female, who struggled with depression, anxiety, OCD, and other neurotic ailments?

toddler

Have a toddler.  Or, if parenting isn’t your thing, then babysit a friend’s toddler for an hour or two.  Playing with a toddler is an excellent crash course in the art of improvisation, and there’s only one rule when it comes to improv: ALWAYS say yes.  This is important to remember, especially when writing a first draft. Don’t try to control everything; don’t dictate every little thing your characters say and do and think.  Allow your characters to surprise you, allow them to hurt themselves, make mistakes, say boneheaded things. In other words: improvise. You’ll be amazed what those figments of your imagination will get up to once you stop helicoptering over them all the time.

Listen to Rap music.  My old man forced John Prine and Jimmy Buffet and the Allman Brothers Band down my throat when I was a kid, and, eventually, I grew to love that music, too, but really my first love was rap. I love the rhythm and attitude in hip-hop, the bravado, and all of those things have helped improve my writing. I’ve been told my books have a pretty strong voice, that the words create a rhythm when read, and I credit my love of rap for that. Plus, whenever I write a hardcore villain, I try and channel the devil-may-care-attitude of classic rappers like Public Enemy and NWA.

letter

Handwrite letters. It’s a tragedy that people don’t write letters anymore. A real shame. I still write them though, and I love receiving them as well. Writing anything by hand helps you develop patience, the ability to slow yourself down and reflect before simply, for example, pecking away at a laptop or tablet. Letters are more personal, too, and the best writing, whether it’s a mystery novel or an email, has an element of the personal to it.

Read outside your genre. Yeah, I know: this is a mystery blog, and I like mysteries. I’ve written several. I’m writing another one as we speak (well, it’s sort of a mystery, sort of a meta-spy, break-all-the-rules novel of complications).  But anyway. Reading outside your genre: this will only improve your writing, expose you to new ideas, new styles, and new modes of storytelling, and that is always a good idea. Too, I get bored reading the same types of stories over and over and over again. Am I the only one?

watching-tv-clipart-watching-tv-2.png

Watch TV. Before I get lambasted for suggesting something as crass as staring at the Idiot Box, let me clarify. Watch good TV. And actively, not passively, watch it.  Guess what, there’s plenty of great TV shows out there these days (movies, not so much). Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, and Silicon Valley are just a few of my current favorites. Watching good TV is a quick and easy way to improve your dialogue writing skills. Ditto storytelling. Good TV also teaches you to always, no matter what, focus on the story. No fat. No filler. Everything in a good TV show serves the story in some form or fashion, and the same should hold true for your novels.

Tell lies. Yes, I know: lying is bad. I’m not saying you should lie about anything important, but when you meet a stranger at a party, go ahead and tell a few whoopers. Why? Again: improvisation is a tool every storyteller should have in his or her toolbox. If you can tell a credible lie (or a series of lies) to a stranger, and they actually respond to them, that tells you you have created a believable fib, and, possibly, a fascinating character. That’s what we writers do, isn’t it?

INTROVERT-WRITE-BETTER-THAN-I-SPEAK

Be an introvert. My opinion, you want to be good at writing, you need to spend a lot of time alone honing your craft. Sure, workshops are. . .no, I can’t even tell that lie with a straight face. I don’t like workshops, never have, not even when I was required to attend them in order to obtain my so-called Master’s degree in English. But full disclosure, I do not and never will work and play well with others. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Period. Hell, that’s at least half of its appeal to me; I get to be alone for a few hours every day. You can talk to writers and readers and hang out at conferences, and all that’s fine by me. But if you want to get good at this tricky thing called writing, go inside, shut the door, and write. And you need to be alone when you do it.

Which reminds me, I need to be alone for a while, so the next sound you hear will be my door shutting.

 

The Truth About Lies: How They Help Create Better Mysteries by Maggie Thom

Maggie Thom 2Usefulness of lies in mysteries: . . .although you were told lying isn’t a good thing, it sure can give a story and the characters, depth and ultimately, give readers situations and people that they relate to. The fun thing as a writer is we get to play with all of those lies and see how we can slide them into our story where they are going to have the greatest effect.

I know that you were told that lies are a bad thing but I’d like to tell you differently. Now don’t go and tell your wife, mother, friend, sibling, boss… that I said it was okay not to tell the truth! In some cases, though, lying can be dynamite… just maybe not so much in real life (although it sure can start some fireworks).

What I’m trying to say is that lying is great in stories, especially in mysteries, thrillers, suspense… It’s a great way to build a story. A lie can really hint at the type of person the character is and/or how they handle being in certain situations. Lies help to give that misdirect and mystery as to why the character would do that. Is anyone in the story going to figure out that lie? How will it affect the situation? The story?

As you read through the list, what type of person do you think of when you see or hear this type of lie? We all know someone who epitomizes each type of lie and we might even be guilty of one or two of them ourselves.

So let’s look at the type of lies:

  • ‘The Little White’ Lie – everyone is familiar with this one. I guess this means it isn’t a big lie? I’m not sure what the difference is – a lie is a lie, right? In a story, it immediately puts you in that place of why did the character need to tell that ‘little white lie’? What are they avoiding? Or making happen?
  • ‘Withholding the Truth’ Lie – The person doesn’t tell someone all of the information. i.e. the person mentions s/he bought a new shirt just not that it cost $400. So in a story what would that tell you about the character? About the relationship they have with the other person?
  • ‘I’m Getting Even’ Lie – this one is often about revenge. The person acts like ‘no, it’s not a problem’ while inside they are boiling mad. This can be used in many ways but really can lend to the story when you have someone plotting revenge while acting like everything is okay. This can be used as a great misdirect in a story.
  • ‘I Don’t Want to Get In Trouble’ Lie – this one is plain and simple to save one’s own butt. So what type of character do you think would use this lie? Or in what type of situations?
  • ‘How People See Me’ Lie – This one is about trying to change people’s perception or potential perception of themselves.So they will either lie to cover up a mistake they did so they don’t look bad or they will lie to take credit for something they didn’t do. So is it always sleazy people who do this? Or someone who wants change in their life? Someone desperate? Spur of the moment decision?

lies

So although you were told lying isn’t a good thing, it sure can give a story and the characters, depth and ultimately, give readers situations and people that they relate to. The fun thing as a writer is we get to play with all of those lies and see how we can slide them into our story where they are going to have the greatest effect.

deadly ties

In my latest novel, Deadly Ties (available for Pre-Order, publish date is May 17, 2016) I use several of these types of lies to build my story. I love using them because they lend nicely to the many twists and turns in my novels and keep the reader guessing until the end.

How do you use lies in your novels?

Maggie Thoms Bio
Award winning author, Maggie Thom, took the challenge and leapt off, leaving a fulltime,
twenty-year career in management, to write full time. She grew up in a house full of books and often made weekly trips to the library to get more. Reading was her go to, when it was too cold outside to play. She started experimenting with writing at a young age, letting her imagination take her away on many adventures. Maggie has written everything from technical writing, to nonfiction, to fiction for children, youth and adults, along with poems and short stories. She finally settled on her love of puzzles, mysteries and roller coaster rides and now writes suspense/thrillers that will take you on one heck of an adventure. Author of The Caspian Wine Series – Captured Lies and Deceitful Truths with Split Seconds to be out late 2016 – and her other published novel, Tainted Waters (2013 Suspense/Thriller Book of the Year through Turning the Pages Magazine). Her latest novel, Deadly Ties, is available for Pre-Order. Publishing date is May 17th, 2016. Her motto: Read to escape… Escape to read…
Maggie Thom writes a fast paced thriller laced with romance that keeps the reader interested and on edge!” InDtale Magazine

 

Papa Was Wrong: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Challenges Hemingway’s ‘White Bull’ Metaphor

max picOn Hemingway’s metaphor for writing: But Papa’s whole bit about the blank page being akin to a writer facing down a “white bull” is just bull—-. Worse, it’s macho bull—-.  Sure, the “white bull” is a useful metaphor, and it certainly jibes with the Tough Guy/Big Game Hunter/Hard-Drinking persona Hemingway cultivated. And yes, Hemingway did win a Nobel Prize in literature, so who am I to argue with the man?

By Max Everhart

Aside from leaving behind at least two literary masterpieces (The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea), as well as the only perfect short story in existence (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”), Ernest Hemingway was extremely quotable, and in today’s sound bite-driven culture where attention span’s are measured in nanoseconds, and celebrities become famous for their sex tapes and being witty on twitter, and. . .

Apologies.

Forgot where I was going with that.

Right. Hemingway.  Yeah, the man made for good copy, my favorite among his quotes being this gem: “Always do drunk what you said you’d do sober.” That has heft to it. Speaks to a person’s character. I like that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But Papa’s whole bit about the blank page being akin to a writer facing down a “white bull” is just bull—-. Worse, it’s macho bull—-.  Sure, the “white bull” is a useful metaphor, and it certainly jibes with the Tough Guy/Big Game Hunter/Hard-Drinking persona Hemingway cultivated. And yes, Hemingway did win a Nobel Prize in literature, so who am I to argue with the man?

Well, I’ll tell you who I am: a guy who took 3rd place in the Reflections Writing Contest when he was eight; a guy whose written countless short stories, mostly for now defunct publications; a guy whose novels have sold in excess of 100 copies. That’s who I am.

So, now that we’ve established my impeccable credentials, I can explain, in eloquent, yet pity detail, exactly why Hemingway’s metaphor is bull—-.

It annoys me.

Hemingway took himself (and his work) too seriously, and we all know how that turned out. Too, and pardon me while I trample on the man’s grave, the “white bull” metaphor just adds fuel to the fire of Papa’s legend as a writer/adventurer who valued (overvalued?) “grace under pressure.” (Sidenote: the whole Camelot-JFK myth rubs me the wrong way, too, as that pretty boy was NOT a good president; he was just a guy with a silver spoon in his mouth whose father bought him a Pulitzer Prize and a presidential election).

JFK

Which leads me back to my point (if I had one to begin with): don’t over-complicate things; don’t be pretentious and insecure, man.  When it comes to writing, forget about Hemingway’s white bull nonsense.  Instead, remember Max’s Dog Rule: Sit at your computer, and stay.

Okay, maybe bang your head against the desk if things aren’t flowing the way you’d like.

 

 

Give Up to Get Ahead: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Briefly Explains How to Quit Writing a Novel in Order to Grow as a Writer

Discipline trumps talent.

That’s my motto, anyway. You want to be a mystery novelist (or any kind of writer, for that matter) you need to work on your craft. Every day. No exceptions. No excuses. You need to apply your posterior in a chair and type, and type, and type, and stare out the window, and think, and then keep typing until something good appears on that stupid little white screen.

But here’s the rub: a good bit of what you write will, I can assure you with supreme confidence, be crap. At first. Write it anyway. And then edit. And then drink–for courage to soldier on.

inspire

So today’s post is meant purely to inspire those of you struggling to write your first book (or your second, or your eighteenth). Below is the first 350 words or so if my first attempt at a mystery novel. I wrote another 30,000 after this, but what you’ll read below is the only bit worth saving. The rest was crap, but writing that crap taught me something invaluable: that I had a “voice.” I just didn’t have anything else yet. The rest of it I would have to work on, and you should, too.

So enjoy this tiny glimpse into my first big failure as a writer.

boatSay you’re fifty-six years old and you’ve got something you love that isn’t a wife or kids.  Suppose it’s a restaurant: a huge hollowed out sailboat made of eighty-year old oak that’s docked in an inlet on the North Carolina coast.  Call it SHARKEY’s.  Picture a cartoon-y-looking killer shark with white fangs painted on the hull outside.  Three massive white sails up top, flapping in the breeze.  Go inside and order a strong pomegranate margarita from Kitty, the bartender.  Check out the autographed glossies of Jack Nicholas and Catfish Hunter behind the bar.  The circular windows to starboard offer a peephole view of the water.  Creaking floorboards and the smell of saltwater make you feel like you’re walking the plank for Blackbeard.  There are tuna steak sandwiches and homemade potato chips on the menu, plenty of Handy-Wipes for the greasy fingers.  When the weather’s nice, a solid eight months out of the year, there are picnic tables on the rectangular deck facing the water, a long pier adjacent to work off those extra jumbo shrimp.

Now, picture yourself there, with your old man paunch, a full head of gray hair, and most of your own teeth.  You flash those sparklers at everyone, wear Levis and boat shoes the whole year ‘round.  Like most poor boys that figured out a way to keep your belly full, you take pride in your work.  Slapping high-fives with little sluggers in ball uniforms.  Refilling sweet ice tea for the red-faced tourists.  Lying to the Country Club Set about your single-digit handicap, all the fish you’ve caught.  You turn a healthy profit and keep a bulk of the cash in a wall-safe at your second-story condo overlooking the Atlantic.  But somehow you pick up bad habits like drinking Jim Bean before noon and blabbing to everyone about your nest egg.  It isn’t long before someone cracks your safe and now the IRS says you’re in arrears.

So, about to lose the one thing you love, what do you do?

The answer: you invite Jack Burns, local millionaire and quasi-philanthropist, and his idiot son, Greg, over to your bar to see if there is anything you can do to help get Greg elected the Mayor of Kill Devil Island next week.