Category Archives: What Not To Do in Writing Novels

The Benefits of Joining a Writers Group

As a member of a long-running face-to-face group and now an active online group, I can attest to the truth of what Cynthia Hilston says below: that good groups exist. I spent far too many years writing in isolation; never again. Maybe I don’t like every response; maybe sometimes I’m disheartened. But I’d rather be disheartened now when I can figure out what to do about the problem than when I get that “we’re not the right agency for this project” form letter with NO feedback as to why.

I’ve posted about my group several times (for example, see “In Praise of My Writing Group“), and I did a series on the founding of our group, the Green River Writers, and its leader, Mary (Ernie) O’Dell, here in Louisville.

And I just posted the 2017 Contest brochure for this year’s Green River Writers contest! A terrific contest with low entries fees and lots of cash prizes! Check it out!

A Writer's Path

by Cynthia Hilston

There it was for probably the hundredth time on the sign outside my local library: writers group, meeting 8/18 2-4:00 PM.  Okay, maybe not the hundredth time, but how many times did I drive past the library, which is about two point five miles from my house, and see that group advertised and not do a darn thing?  The sign was one of those LED types that showed all the happenings at the library, from book discussion groups to story times for children.  And my library had a writers group.

Of course, every time I saw that sign, I wondered, What do they do at those meetings?  Do they just sit there and write?  Do writing exercises?  Or do they read each other’s work while there and comment on it?

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Stupid Writing Rules: 12 Dumb Things New Writers Tell Each Other

Fortunately for me, the members of both of the writing groups I belong to don’t traffic in most of these pointless prescriptions and proscriptions. I do, however, agree that too many people have a basic fear of the word “was.” As Allen points out, there’s a big difference between “I was reading when she came in” and “I read when she came in.” Also “had.” Sometimes the past perfect is just necessary. Do you have any “stupid rules” to add, or do you take exception to Allen’s judgment on these?

🌼Colleen Chesebro Fairy Whisperer 🌼

I love Anne R. Allen’s blog. I learn something new every time I visit. This is an excellent piece about bad writing advice. Check it out. Just click on the highlighted link below. ❤

Stupid Writing Rules: 12 dumb things new writers tell each other. Ignore this bad advice from misinformed people in critique groups.

Source: Stupid Writing Rules: 12 Dumb Things New Writers Tell Each Other

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Language Warning! But You Better Read Anyway!

alarmed smileyAs usual, Chuck Wendig has his own way of saying things. So put your fingers in your ears so you won’t hear the bad words, and read! 25 Reasons I Stopped Reading Your Book!

I’ve posted my own reasons more than once. Here’s what I wrote on Chuck’s post:

I’ve posted more than once about my own answer to this question. Lack of voice is way up there. Too many characters and scenes feel pasted out of the Universe of Stock that we all have access to. No surprises, not in the characters’ actions, not in the diction, not in the rhythm. All stuff I’ve seen a thousand times (and don’t subject myself to any more).

What I call “illogic” fits several of these points: When something a character does or something that happens serves the prefabricated plot and not the story that wants to emerge from the characters’ interactions. I got into trouble myself once making characters do something they were screaming that they didn’t want to do. Ruined a potentially good novel, and boy, did I pay. Nothing in this post is truer than that the characters write the story. Listen to them.

And gosh, pages of exposition (and no, that’s not “literary fiction”). And too much info, too many characters, on page 1. And books that start with action before I can understand the conflict. And . . . and . . . and . . .

This post could easily be required reading in every “creative writing” class or critique group (though it would require a language warning in most settings, i fear).

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#amwriting: point of view

Connie does a terrific job of explaining POV here. True, very, very skilled writers can “head-hop”—Larry McMurtry does it all through the Lonesome Dove books—but for most of us, suddenly slipping from one POV to another without the kind of warning Connie suggests is jarring. I’ll add that one of the easiest mistakes to make is for a POV character, whether third- or first-person, to “see” him- or herself. For example, if we want to stay true to the character’s point of view, we can’t say about a POV character, “I gave an enticing smile.” The character can give a smile that “I hoped was enticing,” or “I meant to be enticing,” but only a viewer (another character) can tell if the smile actually was “enticing.” These slips can be subtle but disorienting.
Read Connie’s piece for a good review of this important issue!

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

Xpogo_RioA young author recently asked me, “What is head-hopping and why has my writing group accused me of doing it?” Headhopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene, and happens most frequently when using a Third-Person Omniscient narrative, in which the thoughts of every character are open to the reader.

It’s difficult to know whose opinions are most important when all your characters are speaking in your head as you are writing. They clamor and speak over the top of each other, making a din like my family at any holiday dinner. But you must force them to take turns speaking, and make a real break between the scenes where the speaker changes, or each rapid shift of perspective will throw the reader out of the story. But what is Point of View other than the thoughts of one or two characters?

Point of view is a common…

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10 Cliches in Mystery Novels

As a mystery writer, I love the analysis in this list! My favorites:

No. 2) Isn’t it great when the police are conveniently so stupid that the detective can look smart with very little effort? That dates at least to Arthur Conan Doyle (remember Lestrade?), but it’s a long way from the truth. Rachel is absolutely right that police work can be a difficult and thankless task.

No. 3) Follows from No. 2, as Rachel points out. The detective is the only one with the basic common sense to detect foul play.

What am I guilty of? Well, My Failed Novel had a depressed detective hero. Never again. I plead guilty to inserting some attractive female characters in my first two books, now online. I hope these women are just a little bit nuanced so that they’re not total clichés.

What would I add?

  • The info dump at the end where the hero lines all the characters up and exhibits his or her brilliance by explaining the whole case, which he or she was the only one smart enough to unravel.
  • That, and books where people just tell the detective what he or she needs to know rather than allowing the detective to work for his or her discoveries.
  • And finally, detectives who don’t share things they’ve learned. Of course they’re smarter than everybody else if they’re keeping secrets!

    What would you add?

Rachel Poli

Have you ever had that feeling of deja vu? You know, when you feel as though something has already happened, but it’s happening again?

Sometimes that happens in books, but when that happens it’s called a cliche.

A cliche is something that is overused and has no original thought put into it.

Cliches are everywhere. In books, TV shows, blog posts (like this one), and in real life conversations and actions. Some cliches we can put up with, some we can’t. The bottom line is, they’re never going to go away.

Then again, there are so many ideas out there that there are bound to be some repeats.

I mean, have you ever had that feeling of deja vu? You know, when you feel as though something has already happened, but it’s happening again?


10 Cliches in Mystery Novels Rachel Poli

Some cliches are easy to avoid, but as stated earlier, some aren’t. There are only…

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Survey Question-Why do you put that book down?

I’ve been writing about this issue quite a bit on this blog, mostly because I’ve been disappointed by a number of the books I’ve picked up recently. My own concern is whether I’m being too curmudgeonly, since the books I can’t make it through often seem to have many fans. Here, I posted about the value of voice for smoothing over glitches that would otherwise stop me. And here, just recently, about a plot device in mysteries and thrillers that made me quit in the final chapters.

Others include what I call “illogic“: people who just don’t act like normal people or events that couldn’t happen because the author needs characters to behave bizarrely or the world to reorganize itself to make the plot work out. Hate that!

And not too long ago I stopped reading a book where everybody was so terminally nice that even when conflict reared its leonine head, everybody smiled and and gave it a gentle hug.

Finally, when I read a scene I could have written myself based on the hundred+ times I’ve already seen that exact scene or read that dialogue (e.g., “I want to be there for you”), I have a hard time pressing on.

Am I being too persnickety? I’m eternally grateful for books that surprise me, even if only just a little, with a view of the world I couldn’t get anywhere else.

Jog on over to the original post and add your thoughts, or share them  here.

Lit World Interviews

Here is the first of our LWI Survey Questions. Never a list, just the one. Yes, I know there are two but the second is clarifying the first. The results will be shared, minus names provided.

Make sure to share this post around through social media and reblogging.

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Mystery Plot Slow Reveals: A Cranky Follow-Up


men silhouette in the fog

A post I shared earlier thoughtfully spells out ways to use unreliable narrators to build suspense in mysteries and thrillers by letting readers edge slowly into characters’ personalities and the dilemmas their personalities create for them, so that the journey through the story is one of ongoing discovery. Mulling this post, I found myself lamenting a plot device that in some ways is the antithesis of this slow reveal and, sadly, one I’ve recently encountered more than once.

emoticon face

Cranky Part: I HATE this plot structure.


Mea Culpa Part 1: I tried it once. Got shot down royally by my wonderful St. Martin’s editor.

Mea Culpa Part 2: Yeah, sometimes a little of this strategy sneaks by; sometimes a modicum of it is even necessary to tie up ends in a denouement.

But! In my curmudgeonly view, we should all be highly self-conscious about the degree to which we’re tempted to fall back on this device.

So what is this cardinal plotting sin?

Here’s how it worked in the latest iteration I came across:

Step 1: The heroine/protagonist/amateur sleuth roves around, earnestly enough, learning basically nothing—generally ruling out unlikely suspects.

Okay, I’ll go along. My interest flagged somewhat because throughout her inquiries, the protagonist/sleuth seemed to have nothing personally at stake except satisfying her suspicion that the relevant death had not been adequately explained. Still, I’ll go along. When a character dies in mysterious circumstances, the protagonist really ought to express and act on his or her doubts. In the history of mystery fiction, idle curiosity has uncovered and solved many a crime.

Step 2: Suddenly the identity of the villain is revealed.

In this plot structure, this revelation usually occurs when the protagonist/sleuth is in the company of the villain, inevitably far from help. In the worst iterations, it occurs without warning: “Now I’ve got you, my pretty! How nice that you didn’t suspect!” In the book on which I’m basing this analysis, the protagonist/amateur sleuth abruptly identifies the killer (but without letting us readers know what clued her in)—

At which point, all of a sudden, she realizes that her bumbling inquiries might inspire the bad guy to come after her. And voilà, within mere minutes after she realizes she’s in danger, he shows up. Before I could contain my frustration at being deprived of the basic piece of information that would have allowed me to share her revelation, he has her bound and gagged and completely at his mercy.

Now comes the worst part:

Step 3: For pages and pages, the murderer lectures his captive audience—

That is, his victim(s)—on what happened, why, how he did it, what clues they missed—in short, all the things that the best detective/mystery fiction stack up slowly so that when the final piece settles into place, the protagonist and the readers have done some work, the kind of work that makes both the journey and its resolution an achievement, intellectual but emotional as well.

Night driving on an asphalt road towards the headlights

Yes, many mysteries turn on a sudden realization, a moment in which the detective/sleuth chains together a string of loose clues or recognizes the importance of some minor incident or discovery. The best of these revelations, in my view, are the ones where the sleuth deduces the connection, à la Sherlock Holmes, instead of having the information told to him or her.

But the success of this turning point, regardless of how the sleuth arrives at it, depends on the quality of the groundwork we’ve laid. In other words, if our villain has to explain the case to our hero, we haven’t done our job. In the best mysteries, when the villain pops up, as he or she probably will, the reader and the sleuth, in concert, should be able to exclaim, without pages of tedious instruction, “Now it all makes sense!”

In the kind of slow reveal Jane K. Cleland discusses in “Writing Suspenseful Fiction: Reveal Answers Slowly,” we readers get the information as the protagonist encounters it. We’re not deprived of the building blocks that the protagonist will ultimately use to solve the crime. The beauty of using an unreliable narrator for this process, as Cleland illustrates, is that the information is filtered through the character’s misreading. As we slowly come to understand the character and the emotional or cognitive needs that drive him or her, we have the chance to read through to a coherent solution ourselves.

Mysterious park alley

But even without an unreliable narrator, we mystery writers owe it to our characters as well as our readers to take a hard look at that lecture we’re tempted to let the villain deliver and, instead, piece out the information so that we can lay it before our hero and our readers step by step, obviously with alluring wrong turns along the way. Revelations ought to come from within, not from some obnoxious bad guy pointing a gun at our readers’ bound and gagged and silenced bodies. The slow reveal of character and information gives readers voice. They become our partners, our eager allies, in solving the crime.

Magic book

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