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Storytelling, Writing Advice

Show and Tell

As a parent, I can assure you the old “show and tell” exercise from elementary school is still going strong. Kids bring in a treasured toy or other artifact from home and stand before the class to explain it. As a writer, I see the old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” remains in the top five of writer advice maxims. But our kindergarten teachers were correct all along. It’s show AND tell, not show all by itself. You need both to tell an effective story, and the secret is in the balance of the two. But which is which? And how do you know when to show and when to tell?

A good rule of thumb is that the bulk of “telling” often comes between scenes to establish time, place, setting, mood, and so forth. Then there are bits of telling interspersed when you want to make a quick point but don’t want to weigh down the action. I’ve illustrated an example below with the scene where we meet Annalisa Vega in Gone for Good:

Detective Annalisa Vega had sworn off dating when the third guy in a row ended the evening by asking to see her handcuffs. Or maybe her stomach had turned during the last homicide she’d worked, in which the ex-husband blew out a glass door with a double-barreled shotgun, hunted down his terrified wife, and executed her as she cowered next to the bed they’d once slept in together. Hard to make upbeat chitchat over apps and cosmos after viewing the remains of a relationship like that. [This is pure telling. Establishes voice, character background, and POV.]

This guy is different, Sassy had assured her when she’d arranged the setup. I know him from church, which he attends with his mother. But don’t worry—he doesn’t live with her. Lured out from her reclusive lair by this ringing endorsement, Annalisa now regarded her date across the narrow two-person table and tried again to sell herself on his numerous good points. Todd Weatherby, tax attorney, had a full head of dark hair, nice teeth, no food on his tie, and he’d selected a lovely Wicker Park restaurant for their first date. Italian, with cloth napkins and a real candle flickering on the table. Her mother would be over the moon for him. [Still mostly telling!]

Annalisa wasn’t sure if this last point was for or against Todd Weatherby. Her mother, who had been positively apoplectic when Annalisa had up and married a cop at the tender age of twenty-one, now reminded her constantly that “the clock is ticking” since she had turned thirty. [Yep, here we are on the third paragraph with more telling. Why so much telling? We could leap in earlier with the conversation, but the set-up gives you a reason to care about it. By the time Annalisa and her date begin speaking, we already know she’s impatient for a real relationship and skeptical that this guy is The One. So we’re interested to see if her assessment is correct.]

“Annalisa is a pretty name,” Todd said gamely. “Is it Spanish?” [This starts the showing. We ‘see’ this conversation taking place rather than having it relayed to us.]

“Portuguese.” Her great-grandfather’s grandfather had emigrated to New Bedford in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s when the city boomed thanks to a thriving whaling industry. Family lore said Great Grandpapa Vega had once worked alongside Herman Melville, but Annalisa suspected this was just a fish story. Whatever the case, her own great-grandfather had jumped ship and moved west to Chicago to cash in on the surge of construction after the Great Fire. The Vegas hadn’t budged in the hundred years since, living and dying within the city limits like the place had a wall around its borders. [Here is a bit of telling mixed in with the showing.]

“Todd is a nice name,” she offered. “Is it, um . . . English?”

“Maybe? I’m named after my uncle. He runs a button manufacturing plant in New Jersey. Did you know buttons date back to almost 3000 BC? Their earliest known use was in Indonesia, back when they were made from shells. But later . . .” [More showing. Rather than telling the reader Annalisa is bored, we see her lack of interest in Todd’s topic of conversation.]

She repressed a yawn and drifted away inside her head. Maybe next time she could ask Sassy to recommend a good movie or a talented masseuse. I should just accept my destiny and adopt a cat, she thought. Or maybe two. They could keep each other company while she was at work. Todd was still talking, and she forced herself to focus on his words. He had his wine glass in the air as if to make a toast. Obligingly, she lifted hers as well. “To us,” he said. “We are fated to be together always.”

“Uh . . . what?” She held her glass back. [This is a pointed bit of showing. Annalisa taking back her glass from the toast shows us her unpleasant shock at Todd’s words.]

“Us,” he repeated, looking chagrined as he motioned between them. “You know—death and taxes. We’re inescapable!” He grinned at his own joke about their respective careers, and her smile became frozen in place. “Get it?” he prodded.

“Oh, I got it.”

He cleared his throat. “Are you interested in the dessert menu?”

Decision time. Ticktock. He looked at her with hopeful eyes. She knew she could do a lot worse, but she didn’t want a lackluster relationship just to say she had one. She wanted her parents’ marriage, soul mates for forty-four years and counting. George and Maria still held hands under the dinner table. Meanwhile, Annalisa went on these going-nowhere dates, making talk so small she needed a microscope to parse it. Her ideal dessert at this point was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, alone, curled up on her couch with a Netflix backlog. “I— ” In her purse, her work phone started to chirp, and she pulled it out for a look. Dispatch had sent a text asking her to call in, Code 10-54. A body. “Oh,” she said with what she hoped sounded like regret, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. It’s work.”

“Work? Even at this hour?”

She was already gathering her things. “Homicide doesn’t punch a time card,” she declared, maybe too cheerfully.

Todd deflated in his chair, unable to argue with this truism. “Death,” he said glumly, taking up his glass again. “It’s inescapable.” [Poor Todd. I don’t think he’s met his love match.]

In short, you need “telling” in your writing to impart backstory, inject character inner narrative, and to keep the action moving along. Use showing to illustrate key plot developments, emotion, and characterization. But, contrary to most advice out there, you absolutely do need both.

true crime

Ted Bundy Gets a Feminist Treatment

I just finished watching the recent Amazon Prime documentary on Ted Bundy, Falling for a Killer, which I took on because filmmaker Trish Wood set out to tell the story from the women’s perspectives. Its primary focus is on Elizabeth Kendall and her daughter Molly, who lived as a family unit with Bundy during the time of the murders, but it also included women who pursued Bundy, surviving victims, and female lawyers who worked on his behalf.
Elizabeth Kendall with fiancé Ted Bundy. She turned him in to authorities multiple times but couldn’t seem to break up with him.

The documentary is interesting because it contains perspectives from people who have never spoken before, like Molly and Ted’s first known victim. Because my Ellery Hathaway series focuses on what it’s like to live your life in the shadow of an infamous serial killer, I found these narratives particularly intriguing. I appreciate that Bundy himself isn’t given the star treatment. Wood places the crimes in context with the Women’s Liberation movement at the time. Women enjoyed more freedom and thus they were more available targets for predators like Bundy. There was also a kind of free-floating rage at women’s efforts for independence that the film suggests forms a backdrop for the whole Bundy narrative. Experts have documented an explosion of male serial murderers in the 1970s into the mid-1980s, and this timing has to be considered when trying to figure out where these men came from.

The film also talks a bit about how women are socialized to be nice and cooperative, and how Bundy used this trait against his victims by luring them to “help” him with various tasks. There is some discussion on how violence against women is prevalent in USA entertainment. As one girl says, “I thought it was normal for men to want to kill women.”

You might think we’ve come so far and we’re in a much better place now. Maybe in some ways we are. Serial murder is down nationwide, mirroring other violent crimes. But the reactions to the documentary in the comments reveal how very far we still have to go. There is a lot of fury, much of it from women, about how the film “glorifies” the victims. They are “whiners” with a “leftist agenda” when really Bundy is just a sick individual and there is nothing to be gleaned from examining societal influence on or reaction to his crimes. There is literal anger that the focus of the story is not on Bundy. Everything is fine now, so ladies should “relax and enjoy life.” The women are “boring” and these viewers wanted more of Bundy himself.

I think if you’re in the comments of a documentary deliberately focused on women’s voices complaining that we didn’t hear enough from the man who tried to murder them, you are part of the problem. As Bundy himself noted, he didn’t like it when the women talked. He knocked them unconscious so they didn’t ruin his fantasy of what he wanted them to be. He didn’t want their real selves to impinge on his forceful reimagining. I liked one woman’s perspective that ultimately Bundy was a thief. He stole dozens of young women from the world, people who would have potentially accomplished great things, and you have to wonder if that was part of his plan all along.

Lessons Learned

My fourth book baby is born. Sniff!

My fourth book is out today. Huzzah! It’s been an amazing three years in publishing, filled with ups and downs, joys and less-than joys. I figured I would mark this occasion by sharing some hard-won wisdom I’ve gleaned from walking my own path and by watching how successful authors do it.

1.     The writing doesn’t necessarily get easier. You’d think after “breaking through” and achieving publication that you’d unlock the secret code to writing a fabulous book with no struggle. Well, no dice, as the saying goes. Each book is its own joy and its own nightmare. Some are easier than others and that doesn’t have much to do with their chronological order.

2.     Everything else about publishing a book does get easier! Once you understand the workflow involved in bringing a book to market, there’s less mystery involved (ahem) and you appreciate your role in the process better. You get to know the people on your team and form real relationships with them. You make friends with your local bookstores and librarians. Maybe you even develop relationships with some of your readers. Knowing who to talk to about what makes the whole process less confusing and more enjoyable.

3.     If you read reviews from readers, pay most attention to what they enjoyed about your book. These are your strengths; lean into them. It can be easy for the nay-sayers to have the loudest voice in your head. If you have twenty-five readers who love your main character’s crotchety attitude, the one reader complaining that she’s unlikeable and too negative stands out. If a couple of readers complain you use too many big words, you might be tempted to tone down the language next time, despite the other 98 readers who luxuriate in your rich language. You are never going to please everyone, so don’t try. Be true to your voice and the stories you want to tell.

4.     No one cares about your book as much as you do. This means you have to be the most detail-oriented person in the publishing chain. It’s okay to advocate for your book as long as you do it nicely and not every five minutes. And speaking of every five minutes…go easy on the social media promotion. It’s normal to have a flurry of events, posts, etc., in the few weeks around publication. But if you are talking about your book every day, you will turn readers (and friends and family) off pretty quick. Instead, talk about things that are writing-adjacent. Books in the same genre that you have liked. Research you are doing.

5.     Be nice. I like this one as a life philosophy in general. But publishing is a small corner of the world. If you are a jerk, it will get around. As authors, we’re often tasked with networking up the chain, trying to catch the eye of a Big Name Writer who might blurb our books or Big Name Agent who might sell our books, etc. I have been to networking events where people I was trying to talk to were nakedly looking over my shoulder the entire time, searching for someone more important. This is dumb. For one thing, some of the most important people in publishing don’t look important. These are people who may not have a lot of fancy publications themselves, but they are book buyers for a library chain or they sit on committees that decide on conference panelists or they quietly judge the Edgar Awards. The little-known author today may be the bestseller tomorrow. Be nice.

6.     When you hit a bump in the road, write the next book. The writing is all we control anyway, so it can feel good to take the reins again if you’ve had a setback. Book didn’t get an agent? Write another one. Your novel didn’t sell the way you’d hoped? Write a new one. Publisher went out of business? Write a fresh book to capture a new one. The solution to pretty much all publishing disasters is a new manuscript.

7.     Each new book brings its own particular joys. Maybe you got to write a character you’ve always loved in your head. Maybe a reader writes to say your book got them through a tough time. Maybe you land a review at a site you’ve long coveted or are asked to give a talk at your local library. Each time, there is a new and precious reward…which should be motivation to write that next book.

Pets Are People Too

When you write about people, you make sure to draw them as individuals with a particular combination of likes and dislikes, strengths and foibles. If the people in your story have pets, you should treat them the same way. There is no universal “dog” or “cat” personality, and the key to writing a memorable pet is to make sure they have their own unique flair.


Winston and I attempt a selfie.

If you don’t happen to own the pet in question, looking up traits of the breed will help you with a starting point. Siamese cats are typically quite vocal, for example. Giant dogs—think Mastiffs or Great Danes—tend to be lower energy and obedient because they were bred that way. My own basset Winston shares a common trait with many basset hounds in that he likes to think for himself. He is slow to follow commands because he wants everything to be his idea. Bassets were bred as hunting dogs meant to roam ahead of their people and so their independent streak is strong. How strong? Well, there is one obedience school that simply won’t take bassets. But don’t confuse a basset’s lack of a desire to do what the human says with a lack of love for the human. Bassets are strongly bonded with their people (and other pets in the house) and will follow you from room to room.


But you can also have a 100% pure-bred animal that behaves nothing like its kin. If you don’t happen to have a dog, bird, cat, hamster, etc., you can find discussion forums where people share stories about their pets to learn the range of crazy behaviors that animals will evince. I lived with an average-sized cat for a while who could shake the whole house by “boxing” on a bedroom door that didn’t sit tight in its frame. Another cat I knew would take his human female’s dirty underwear out of the hamper and carry it around with him. He’d also come running like a dog when she returned home, so if she had company with her, they would be greeted by a Calico kitty with a bra in his mouth.


Maybe your fictional rabbit is crazy for green peas. Perhaps the cat in your novel likes to sit on top of the fridge and pass judgment on all your food choices when you open the door. My mother once had a cockatoo who liked to imitate the noise of the doorbell to make the family dog run barking to the front door. Then the bird would laugh and dance. Ha!


Pets = love. Unless your pet is a holy terror. That can be funny in fiction, too.

Winston gives me plenty of ideas for Speed Bump, his fictional counterpart. Winston will go belly-up if you try to pet him. The underside of the dog is the best part for scratching, in his opinion. He smells like a hound, which means he emits an odor reminiscent of corn chips. Speaking of chips, he will wake from a sound sleep at the scent of popcorn. And with his considerable nose, he can detect popcorn from two floors away. However, he hates bananas (but not banana muffins). He loves little kids, whom he views as fellow puppies, but is distrustful of men with beards—not to mention the fearsome plexiglass cow outside the ice cream shop. At doggie daycare, they call him “The Mayor” because he makes the rounds, talking to all other dogs on the premises.


The more individualized you can make your story’s pets, the more they will seem real. You want readers to hear the meows and feel the fur. You want the creatures galumphing, slinking, and skulking right off the page.


Reed and Ellery: Yeah or Nah?

With the advent of All the Best Lies, I’ve been getting more reader feedback on whether Ellery and Reed should be a couple or not. Sentiment runs about 90-95% “They belong together forever” with about 5-10% of readers firmly in the “Ew, that’s gross” category. I feel like both sides have a point, which is why Ellery and Reed are so much fun to write. If they were a perfect couple, they’d be boring. But are they too taboo? Let’s review the evidence on the “Ew, gross” side:

1. They met when Ellery was a kid. She was fourteen and Reed was a grown-ass adult in the FBI. For some readers, understandably, this is a non-starter.
2. He rescued her. This fact, plus the age difference, creates the impression of a power imbalance that is sometimes uncomfortable.
3. They met because of a serial killer. He’s always going to be between them.

Reed and Ellery generate plenty of heat, but should they be a couple?

Meanwhile, the “Aw, they belong together” side has points to offer as well:

1. They understand each other in a way that literally no one else on Earth does.
2. They like each other. You should get to date who you like, as long as everyone is a consenting adult.
3. They are both adults now.
4. They fill in each other’s blindspots. Reed’s monied background means he doesn’t understand what it’s like to go without, and he sometimes misses motivations or part of a case that Ellery sees better. He also has a bit of a “fix-it” complex. Ellery is a constant reminder that he can’t fix everything, nor should he try. Ellery rushes headlong into danger while Reed is more circumspect. She is something of a misanthrope. Reed gives her hope for humankind.

The yin-yang of these two points of view is what makes them interesting to me as a writer. I see the “Ew, gross” side even if I do not completely share it. To me, the deal-breakers would be:

1. If Reed had any authority over Ellery, now or in the past. He’s not her boss. He has no control over her job or her future.
2. They had interacted a lot when she was a kid. As it stands, they met once. It was a dramatic meeting, to be sure, but then Reed disappeared from her life. He had no bearing on the kind of adult she turned out to be. He did not know girl-Ellery in any real capacity. He knows her only as an adult.
3. If she were a new adult. If Ellery was twenty-two or twenty-four, still getting her bearings on the adult world, it would be a different story. Reed would feel like a creepy influence. But she’s thirty and stands firmly on her own two feet.
4. If she had nothing to teach him. If their relationship was all about Reed breaking down Ellery’s walls, if he had no emotional learning to do himself, then the relationship would be hopelessly unbalanced.

So, in sum: those crazy lovebirds. Will they make it or not? I have no idea! Stay tuned.


I get questions about my books all the time, but there is a frequent one that always stumps me: “Is your book scary?” I’m never sure how to reply. To me, they are not scary, but I go to bed each night with Forensic Files reruns on the TV. The first book involves a serial killer, which is a frightening premise and a non-starter for many readers. Yet others who like dark, disturbing stories find it tepid, like a Lifetime movie. There is no slashing of body parts on the page. There is no long internal narrative from the killer about stalking or dismembering the victims.

This creepy house just looks like a scary story waiting to happen.


It’s funny to me that the same book can be described as “a nice, light read” and “relentlessly sinister,” but it all depends on your point of view. I’m a firm believer in letting readers take what they want from a story. My intent shouldn’t matter. That said, I don’t set out with an intent to scare anyone. But the books aren’t meant to be entirely comfortable either.

As I’ve mentioned, Ellery and Reed are very loosely inspired by real people around the edges of the Ted Bundy case. I was reading a book on Bundy years ago and was struck by how he was a wrecking ball through so many lives. There were the murdered victims, of course, and their loved ones left behind. But also: the cops, prematurely aged by what they’d seen; Bundy’s fiancée and her daughter; Bundy’s own daughter, conceived on death row; Carol DaRonch, Bundy’s most famous living victim who ends up in every Bundy movie, even forty years after the fact; the young women in the sorority house in Florida who weren’t attacked the night he went through the place with a log, bashing heads in; the young women who were attacked and lived, including a dancer who could no longer dance.

I even met a man who happened to be named Ted who ended up on the wrong end of a cop’s gun, just because he shared a name with the infamous serial killer.

So, the books aren’t so much about the serial killer himself, at least not to date. They’re about everyone else who has to live with the crater he left behind. You can lock him up or even execute him but it doesn’t undo all the damage. Justice is imperfect.

I guess if I had to declare any kind of authorial intent, I would say I want the books to feel real. Crime is scary, and that fright can linger even after you survive it, even if the fear is mostly in your head. But surviving means you get to experience the other joyous parts of life, too, like sharing a meal with a friend or rubbing a warm dog belly. I make sure to put those parts into the story as well. Does that make it “light”? Or “grim”?

You get to decide.

Storytelling, Writing, Writing Advice

Happy Endings

As difficult as it is to begin a book, it may be even more challenging to end one, at least in a satisfying fashion. Not all “good” endings are happy ones, and indeed, if you force a happily-ever-after onto a story that didn’t earn it, the ending is unlikely to leave readers feeling satisfied. Here are some elements to consider when crafting your perfect ending:

Your last words are as important as your first.

1.     Has the central tension been resolved? If so, get off the stage as soon as possible. In a mystery, this is usually the point where the villain is revealed. In a romance, this is when the characters get together and admit their love. In a literary novel, the ending can be tougher to spot, but it’s usually when the main character has learned whatever insight they were lacking at the start of the book.

2.     Make sure your ending is earned. The rest of the story should be leading to the final point so that when the ending arrives, it seems just. My family watches baking competition shows where someone is eliminated at the end of each hour until finally a champion is crowned. At the start, especially, there are so many bakers that the producers would have hours more footage than they could use. They have to choose which parts to include in the “story.” We joke that so-and-so is getting the “going home” edit, but there is truth in this line. At the end, when a baker is voted off, viewers have to understand why this person is getting the axe. If the producers didn’t show you their struggles and instead focused on a different baker’s lovely meringue technique, you’d be confused when the final vote came in. It’s the same with a book. Your story needs to relate to the ending in a way that makes sense.

3.     Don’t tell all you know. It’s a good idea to leave some mystery at the end of your book, even if it’s not a mystery. It can be tempting to wrap everything up in a bow. Have your side characters fall in insta-love. Move your hero into a James-Bond-type pad. Have your heroine’s mother call her up and apologize for all those mistakes from years ago. Maybe the killer is caught but there is a lingering question of whether the dead man’s wife knew him long ago and may have arranged for the murder. Or the couple gets together but her best friend, who pined for the man herself, remains unsettled. Or your hero, who’d believed that money could buy happiness, realizes his error but it may be too late to save his relationship with his son. Readers like endings that make sense, but they also value some open questions. It gives them something to think about when the book is done—and makes for lively book club discussions!

4.     Think about your last line. Writers can spend ages tinkering with the opening sentence of a book because it’s your first impression. A killer first line can help sell a novel. Similarly, your last line is also important. It’s your parting shot. Your lasting impression, as it were. If you’re lucky, it can help sell readers on your next story.


When My Best Friend Didn’t Want to Be Friends Anymore

Amy and I were as close as friends could be.

As a kid, I had a close friend, the kind you send BFF messages to on cheap gray school paper when you’re supposed to be listening to the math lesson. We’ll call her Amy since that was her name. Amy and I attended a small elementary school, with only one class per grade, so we were together every year. She was more of a tomboy than I was—good at athletics, never wearing dresses or skirts, her hair styled short like a boy’s might be. We shared a love of scary movies, junk food, and imagination games. She was my only competition when it came to academics. We were the smart kids, constantly measuring ourselves against each other to see which one might be better. If there was any kind of school-related competition that required more brain than brawn, like ‘who can read the most books in one month’ or ‘who can spell the hardest word,’ either Amy or I would take home the title.


Pictures of us back then show two girls with their arms around each other, dressed up in homemade costumes for Halloween. Or the pair of us running into the distance, preparing to roll down some enormous hill. We spent every minute we could together, right up until we didn’t.


The change started when we were eleven and entered middle school, which was filled with older, tougher kids. Amy decided to overhaul her image. She permed her hair and started wearing short skirts and heels. She downplayed how smart she was. I didn’t recognize her anymore, and increasingly, it seemed she no longer recognized me either. We didn’t sit together at lunch. We no longer talked on the phone. Still, I considered her my friend and hoped we might rekindle our relationship. I invited her to my twelfth birthday party. To my wonderment and delight, she said yes.


I felt the old thrill when she agreed to come. It would be like the old days, the two of us making stupid jokes and stuffing ourselves with cake and candy. I’d been wrong to read her chilliness at school as anything personal. She still saw me. She still cared.


The party was a small affair, just a few friends and a cake at my house. The minutes ticked by and Amy didn’t show. Maybe she forgot, I told myself. Maybe she got sick. I would have to call her afterward to make sure she was okay.


Then more than an hour into the party, our doorbell rang. I ran to answer it with hope in my heart, the rest of my party guests hot on my heels. Sure enough, there was Amy on the other side. But she wasn’t alone. She’d brought along a couple of her new friends, popular girls with teased hair and thick makeup. I’m convinced they didn’t even know I was alive until that very moment.


Awkward and stammering, I invited them all in for cake. They didn’t move past the entryway.


“Here’s your present,” Amy said, thrusting a drug store bag at me. “I can’t stay.” She may have even said sorry. I can’t remember. What I do recall with searing clarity is how humiliated and awful I felt in that moment, how stupid I’d been to misjudge our relationship. Amy wasn’t my friend anymore. She hadn’t been for some time. I’d just failed to realize it.


I got the message that day. My mumbled thank-you to her as she and her new crowd departed from my mother’s kitchen were the last words I spoke to Amy, or she to me. True to her new identity, she no longer took classes with the smart kids, not even when we got to high school and there were lots of us—some of whom were even popular and cool.


I wonder about that moment at my party and what Amy’s point-of-view might have been. Had she felt pressured to say yes to my face when she didn’t ever want to come? Had she wanted to come at first but then her new friends convinced it her would be uncool? Did she just feel sorry for me, this person she was leaving behind on her fast-track to middle-school stardom? My guess is that Amy doesn’t have any memory of this party. Maybe she has some alternate moment of truth about our shattered friendship that I’ve completely forgotten because it was not significant to me. Perhaps she glimpsed a ragged stuffed animal in my locker. Maybe she sized up my hopelessly unfashionable clothes. She would have seen that I didn’t have the tools or vocabulary to be the kind of person she was becoming; indeed, I never would.


I think about turning points like this in relationships, and how momentous shifts can sometimes be one-sided. Amy wasn’t trying to be the villain in my story. She just wanted to survive sixth grade. I think about people’s attempts to reinvent themselves and whether that’s entirely possible. Was the Amy I had known and loved still in there somewhere, or did she have to be killed off for Amy to transform? I think about these moments of sudden clarity, how dizzying they can be. How they leave a brand on your memory that feels hot to the touch after decades have passed. I think about how they make for great storytelling, and how we as authors search for these moments to bring our characters to life.


I think about Amy.

Writing, Writing Advice

The Best Writing Advice

If all else fails, get yourself a magic laptop like this woman has, where the letters just fly in all by themselves.

Now that we’ve covered the worst writing advice that I’ve seen, here is the flip side: best writing advice I can share. It’s not nearly all the useful tips that you can find, but so much of writing advice is idiosyncratic. Outlines work for some authors but not others. Some writers succeed by writing every day. Others write prolifically in one-month bursts with long breaks “off” in between. As a writer, you have to try out different strategies to find what works for you. However, there are a few pieces of advice that are applicable to just about everyone:


  1. Read widely and with attention. Definitely read the kind of pieces you want to produce, whether that’s poetry, thrillers, romance or memoirs. Study the ones that are popular and/or critically acclaimed and ask yourself: what are the audiences responding to? How did the author successfully tell her tale? What structure did he use? Read outside your area as well to get ideas that will help keep your writing fresh.
  2. Follow the “because” and “but” rule. If you find your story has scenes that are strung together with “and then,” it’s probably not a story. It’s a series of events. To build a narrative arc, the scenes must be linked in meaning, not just chronology. Example: a detective at a murder scene believes the woman who called in the emergency is the killer so he decides to take her downtown for questioning, BUT then a second body turns up two miles away, killed in the same fashion. Or: He takes the woman downtown for questioning, and she confesses BECAUSE he tricks her into revealing her shameful secret past as a unicorn juggler.
  3. Get outside eyes on your work. Ideally, you want someone with editorial experience to critique your work before you trot it out in public. It can also be valuable to have feedback from a few readers who love the genre you are writing in. The editor will hone your prose and spot the plot holes. Readers will tell you whether they are dying to turn the page to find out what happens next.
  4. Pay as much attention to your last sentence as you do your first. It’s imperative to hook your reader on those early pages, but the last pages are what will linger with them after they have finished your story. A successful ending means that your readers are more likely to pick up your next one.
  5. Join a professional writers’ association. If you are interested in publishing, it’s vital to make connections with others in the business. These are people who once stood where you are, and they can offer advice to help you succeed. They’ll point out pitfalls and sand traps and help you figure out what path is most useful to you. Soak in their knowledge, put it to good use, and when the time comes, you can return the favor to another newbie starting out.
Writing, Writing Advice

The Worst Writing Advice

If you’re an aspiring writer, or even an established one, you run into reams of advice on how to improve your craft, sell more books, hook an agent, etc. Lots of this advice is valuable. Some of it isn’t. Here, I present to you some of the worst writing advice you will find in the industry.

Woman looks at her type writer in frustration.
This is me too often, glaring at the page. Why make it even harder than it needs to be?
  1. Write What You Know. This is a hoary chestnut from days of yore, but it still gets repeated often and everywhere. It’s ridiculous. Writers invent stories about realms that don’t exist and tales of adventure from the year 1066 when none of us was there to bear witness. I write about serial killers, and please believe me when I assure that you I’ve never even committed one murder, let alone multiples. This piece of writing advice is backward, you see. It should be: Know What You Write. You don’t need to write about your personal experiences. In fact, if you’re as boring as I am, you probably shouldn’t. But you do need to do your homework. If you’re inventing a new universe, you need to take the time to establish the rules of that world and understand how it works so that you can bring it to life for readers. If you are writing about a historical era, then you have to research that time in detail before you can put your story there.
  2. Don’t Use Adverbs. This piece of advice often gets traced to Elmore Leonard and Stephen King, and it’s just crap. For one thing, both Leonard and King use adverbs in their work. You know why? Because adverbs are an entirely useful part of speech. They add flavor and pizazz. You know who uses copious adverbs? JK Rowling. She seems to be doing okay for herself, writing-wise. Sure, like all words you put in a story, deploy your adverbs with intention, with care. If they don’t enhance the sentence, by all means, cut them out. But don’t toss them out entirely because that’s just silly.
  3. Focus on Building Your “Platform.” The caveat with this one is that for non-fiction authors, a platform is highly valuable. This is because the subject of your book and the subject of your platform are tightly entwined in non-fiction. (Example: mommy blogger puts out a book on parenting tips, or a recipe blogger publishes a cookbook.) But for fiction, your platform just isn’t as important. Your job on social media is to be a person, not a constant shill for your books. As such, social media itself doesn’t move many novels. Having a large audience doesn’t guarantee they will buy your books. A writer I know is friends with a famous comedienne, and he wrote a fairly funny crime novel. She hyped it to her TWELVE MILLION followers multiple times, but the book still tanked. So, don’t worry about amassing likes on Facebook or followers on Twitter. Go to the places where your people hang out and focus on being a person. This won’t get you necessarily build your “likes” but it will make you for-real liked, and it will slowly gain you valuable connections in the industry.
  4. Don’t Publish Until You Have a Bestseller Idea. Oh, that we could all be sure when we had a bestseller idea. The truth is you don’t know. And even if you have the idea, and even write the wonderful book, it doesn’t mean your book will turn into a bestseller. There is alchemy that goes into bestseller books, parts that not even the publisher or author control, and landing one is a little like getting hit by lightning. The best you can do is to go out with your pole in a rainstorm. Your book is your pole. If you keep them hoarded under your bed and never put them out there, then you lose all your chances. Besides, you learn something from every book, knowledge that is rolled into the next one, so if you sit around waiting at the idea stage, you’ll never get that deep knowledge that might transform you into a bestseller one day.


So there you have it. Writing is tough enough without having to worry about any of this stuff. What should you worry about? Stay tuned, and I’ll reveal that part tomorrow.