Coincidence? I think not!

“But while I advise you to embellish, I forbid you to depart from what is plausible. The reader has every right to feel aggrieved when he realizes that too much is being asked of him. He feels that the author is trying to deceive him, his pride suffers and he simply stops believing the moment he suspects he is being misled.” An Essay On Novels – The Marquis de Sade

Isn’t that great advice? Whether you write by the seat of your pants (pantser) or you meticulously plot out your story (plotter), you eventually will come to a point where you write yourself into a corner or your plot hits a wall. You have a couple options: scrap it and start over from the point you got yourself into that mess, or write yourself out of it. If you choose the latter, the challenge is writing a solution without taking the shortcut of using coincidences to bail yourself out. I read this advice from Emma Coates –one of Pixar’s story artists– years ago, and I never forgot it: “coincidences to get your characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it is cheating.” Not only that, like the Marquis said, it asks too much of the reader. image

Nevertheless, good storytelling depends on the element of surprise. No one wants to have the ending figured out in chapter three. The writer’s approach may be to:  1) slowly reveal clues that gradually build to a logical conclusion, or 2) misdirect us with spurious information, or 3) obfuscate the story so that at the climax, the truth is dropped like a bomb on the reader. The trick is to reveal the truth -as shocking as it may be- in a way that the reader think to himself, “of course!” because finally it all makes sense. The worst thing in the world is to leave the reader scratching his head at the end, wondering how the hell he got from there to here in 100,000 words, and regretting buying it on Amazon.

Header image via the poisoned pencil, David Tenant image via Pinterest.





The Joy of Research

One of the most important things a writer must do besides actually write a story is to do research. Nothing can ruin a book, short story or non-fiction/opinion piece more than messing up on the details. A lazy researcher makes for a mediocre writer.


As I research my current project, a story that crosses time to the era during and around The Great War and its aftermath, I’ve been burying myself in books and articles about the battles, troop movements, the commanders, the subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic. I’m perusing books of photography, reading collections of wartime poetry and even collections of letters sent home from the different theaters of war. All of this material will give me a better grip on what the people of that era were enduring as they lived through those monumental times.

Granted, writing a story out of time and in such complex conditions requires a great deal of research and quite frankly, I might be going overboard with it. But here’s the thing… I am profoundly interested in The Great War, and therefore, the research is a joy, not a burden. When the book is finished, the characters that I create will accurately portray the attitudes and experiences of the people of that period.

It follows then that good writing, dependent on good research, naturally emanates from an author who writes about a subject, in a genre, during a time period that he or she is extremely interested in. Writers set themselves up for failure when they choose to write something they wouldn’t read themselves.

Before I go on, I must say that I’m not advocating limiting yourself to just one style of writing. For example, nothing says a romance writer can’t write science fiction. Or a science fiction writer can’t author a noir thriller. It’s important to test and stretch your writing skills, get out of your comfort zone. But, you have to love it! You can get into trouble if you choose to write something with which you don’t relate or in which you have no interest. Why would a writer do that?

Trends in fiction or pop culture can have an impact on what you choose to write about. If you feel compelled to follow those trends, maybe even for perceived financial reasons, the result will be a body of work that is not backed by your enthusiasm, your fascination and your love for the words you have penned. The research will be a drudgery, and likely will lack the scope and depth necessary to give the bones of the book flesh and blood. Without your passion fueling it, the project may bog down and never be completed. That, my friends, is a waste of your precious time.  The question is how much and what type of research should you do?

As an overview, here are some items that may need to be researched for your story and/or book.

Time and space/place – if writing in a period of history, a geographical location you are not familiar with, or both, extensive research will be needed to create the landscape, set the scene and the mood for the story.

Weather/climate – get your seasons straight! Related to place/space, weather for the locale should be appropriate for the seasons. It will determine what clothing your characters will wear, have an impact on their activities, driving conditions and so forth.

And speaking of driving conditions… what sort of transportation is common in the place where your story is set? Make sure buses, trains and subways actually provide service to that city. Is there an airport? Do flights really connect to the places where your characters travel? Does everyone depend on automobiles for transportation? If so, on what side of the road do they drive? Where does the driver sit?

Regarding characters:

What is their race/ethnicity? Is it the same as yours? If not, don’t make assumptions, or worse, write cliches and stereotypes. There are resources for writing a character of a different ethnic background online. Even better, interview a friend or coworker and get first-hand knowledge.

Even within a country there may be great regional differences. Language or dialects, religion, socioeconomic conditions can vary widely within a large nation.

Employment – don’t give your characters a job you know nothing about. Alternatively, make sure you have access to someone in their particular field that you can ask questions and from whom you can get detailed feedback.

Age – an older writer may have trouble relating to the experiences of a modern day child/teen/young adult, unless of course, they have children that age. Additionally, a young writer will not know what it feels like to be an old person. Ask parents, grandparents, older neighbors and friends.

Even habits like smoking, drinking, gambling… or exercise regimens like running, weight lifting, or sports like golf or tennis might need to be researched to get the terminology correct.

That is by no means an exhaustive list but it may give you an idea of the details that, even if they are not directly included in the narrative of your story, will give it the sound and feel it needs to be authentic and entertaining. I hope this demonstrates how being fascinated by your subject matter will make research a joy and not a burden!

Doing Our Level Bests

Source: Doing Our Level Bests   —  This post is by my friend Pam Kirst.  She is a former English teacher and an amazing writer.  Pam and I share the assignment of composing Creative Writing Tips: a weekly feature  on the Blogger’s World Forum.  She wrote this post for this past Saturday’s feature and I wanted to share it with you all.  Please visit Pam on her blog Catching My Drift and find the original post in the link at the beginning!


The cashier is young enough that she has to call for help to legally sell beer; the manager comes and rings it up for her, hands the six-pack to the departing customer. Then the tiny cashier, with her blast of curly blonde hair and long, long fingernails (I marvel at her ability to firmly grasp the groceries marching down the belt), twinkles at the next person in line.

That person is also tiny, but much older, a lady with a long, beautifully tailored coat, a halo of white hair, and hands that shake a little as they wield her hefty wallet. She looks fragile. She looks…venerable. I imagine her as a former teacher or librarian who once quelled unruly charges with one calm look.

The cashier pulls the lady’s first purchase over the scanner, dimples, and chirps, “Hi, Honey!”

The dignified customer straightens up; she’s a little nonplussed, I can tell, by the ‘Honey.’

But the cashier, oblivious, plows on. “How’dja like this weather?” she asks, cheerfully. “It was a BITCH getting here this morning.”

The dignified little lady goes completely rigid. She stares at the cashier for a moment, and then she swivels her head and happens, in the moment, to meet my eye. Her look speaks clearly. It says: Did this young person just say the word BITCH to me???

I do the universal eyebrow-raise-and-head-shake that says, ‘Oh-well: these days…’ . The lady puts her last item on the belt, waits in silence, and pays with a distant, murmured thank you. She declines carry out service (“Do you want someone to carry that for you, Honey?”) and leaves with a shake of her well-coiffed white head.

The cashier, turned a little red by now, starts scanning my items. “Sheesh,” she mutters. “STUFFY.”

My husband would be proud of me. Instead of launching into full English teacher Here’s-where-you-went-wrong mode, I clamp my lips shut and smile. I pay for my order, and I depart without sharing the lecture on levels of language that is pounding on the roof of my mouth, demanding to be let out.

The cashier had a problem many students I’ve met have: not knowing when to switch register. There are registers or levels of language (I lump them into four groups for my purposes), and knowing how to navigate them, when to switch from one to another, is an essential part of communication–spoken OR written.

Realtors might say, Location, location, location. As writers, we should always say, Audience, audience, audience. Our audience determines (or should determine, anyway) which level of language we use.

That perky little cashier didn’t know that she needed to switch from a completely unfiltered mode to something a little more restrained when dealing with her dignified older customer. That lack cost her in the long run,–cost her the friendly response she was seeking and cost her (and possibly her store) points in the estimation of her customer. In the same way, we writers can lose or engage our audiences depending on the level of address we choose.

So, here are my interpretations of the four levels, gleaned and morphed from reading and practice over so many years I cannot even remember to whom I should attribute them. I did not create these. I build, as usual, on the thoughtful work of others.

1. Nonstandard. This is the anything goes, locker room-friendly kind of language that is appropriate only at very certain times and in particular kinds of writing. It might be revealing to use in writing a conversation, for instance, giving us a real idea of what the speaker is like.

In non-standard language, there are no rules: grammar and punctuation be…ummm, darned. But if I were using this level, I could say something stronger. In non-standard English, even CUSSING or–Heaven forfend!–vulgarities are okay. (I have some thoughts on when and whether those kinds of things should be used, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
This kind of written language is fine for journals and letters to people we know so very well–maybe even in emails to intimates. Used indiscriminately, or in the wrong company, it can be offensive. I read a lot of it on FaceBook. Since the audience there is usually mixed,–intimate friends mingle with professional colleagues, former teachers and the nice lady who used to live next door read the same posts, etc.– non-standard English always conjures up my frowning teacher-puss. I think FaceBook posts ought to move up one notch, anyway, going into the level of…

2. Informal. I believe this is where my writing lives a good part of the time. In the informal stage, we’re clear and direct and we address our audience as ‘you,’ and we regularly invoke the first person. We use slang and contractions, and we throw in quirky local terms. There’s humor in this level, although we adhere nicely to rules of grammar. Our punctuation is correct. But we’re relaxed, and the written flow is easy to read.

This is, I think, the level of most blog posts; it’s the kind of writing that cuts through any imposed barriers and makes a clear, direct connection to a reader. The voice we develop in this mode, maybe–depending on the level of formality in our own personalities–is closest to our authentic personal voice, and to our spoken voice.
This, I think, is the most common mode for the kind of fiction that makes us think the narrator is someone with whom we’d like to have coffee. This is the relaxed language we use with a close friend for whom we have love and respect. Then we move up a level, to…

3. Standard English. Standard English follows all the rules, and a writer could still use first and second person. But there’s no slang here, no contractions, certainly no smiley face emoticons. This is the kind of writing instructors push us to use in our academic papers. It is bound, Standard English is, by rules of grammar and punctuation, but I really think there’s ample room for our authentic voices to emerge here.
This is the language we use in letters to former teachers, in reports to vice presidents, in pitches, maybe, to a publisher. It is cover letter language. Correct, yes, but there is plenty of room to be lively, as well. This is maybe NOT so true in the last and loftiest level, which is…

4. Formal English. When one is writing in formal English, one does not refer to one’s self as ‘I’. Third person rules here; this is the language of academic journal articles and doctoral dissertations and possibly, legal briefs (although I happen to think legal writing mostly exists in another realm entirely). All rules must be strictly adhered to in this register; the reader shall not crack a smile nor snick so much as even a tiny snicker should dread humor endeavor to insert itself. Here, one will read esoteric terms and high-faluting jargon, multi-syllabic words that only the very knowiest of know-it-alls would have any reason to know.
This level is not, perhaps, my favorite. But it DOES have its proper audience.

I ping and I pong, I think, in my writing, between informal and Standard English; my comfort zone is in kind of a Venn diagram intersect between the two. What’s your most common level; have you ever thought about this? When you write in that level, in that voice, to whom are you writing? Who is that reader you can kind of half-see, reading your words and nodding, because they get it, they really do get it????

It’s possible, if we’re not getting that reaction from folks who read our work, that we’re like the cashier–not reading our audience, not navigating our levels. It can be a lot of fun to cultivate voices in all four, and to see who seems to ‘hear’ us when we write within each level.

Happy blogging, my friends!