How You Met My Mother

Dialogue is crucially important for any story. In a written tale, it’s possible to go inside someone’s head to learn what he or she is thinking, but in real life, our thoughts are mostly communicated by the words we speak to one another. Dialogue can advance a plot or reveal information—sometimes clumsily, as when the forensic technicians on CSI would explain the tools to one another for the benefit of their audience. Dialogue can also illuminate character through word choice and style. If you pick your phrases right, your reader will get a vivid picture of the speaker from just a few key sentences.

Take, for example, my mother. I could tell you lots of factoids about my mother. Instead, I’ll relay the following story and let you form your own conclusions:

The summer of my seventeenth year, I drove a car into my house. I had completed the Driver’s Ed classroom course with a hundred percent score. With my freshly printed permit in hand, I was eager to try my luck behind an actual wheel. My mother said I could have the keys and we set out with my little brother in tow to visit the local library.

We lived on the corner of a fairly quiet side street and a much busier main road. I backed the car out of the driveway okay and maneuvered it to the corner. I had never even turned a car on before, so the idea that I should take it onto the open road seemed ludicrous to me. My mother, however, was game on. “Turn the wheel and give it some gas,” she instructed.

For the record, I said, “Shouldn’t I be in a parking lot?”

My mother said, “Just make a right turn. It’s easy enough.”

She did not say how far to turn the wheel or how much gas to give it, so I turned the wheel very far and gave it a heck of a lot of gas. We made a hairpin turn at high speed, wrecking the rear axel of the car as we jumped the high curb.

Now we were hurtling across my front lawn, heading for the cement steps. “Brake! Brake!” my mother hollered.

“I’m trying!” I hollered back, sure that we were going to die. Problem was, I had no idea which pedal was which. I gave it even more gas.

Just picture a red Taurus instead of witch’s feet.

My mother jerked the wheel at the last minute, and instead of hitting the cement steps head-on, we demolished a group of bushes and careened into the front porch. I knocked a support beam out from under the front of the house, and it collapsed on top of the car, which is what finally stopped it.

We all got out, miraculously unharmed. A Ford Taurus lay dead in front of us, sticking out from under the house like the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy lands on her after the tornado. Hand to God, the first thing my mother said was, “I never liked those bushes anyway.”

So there you go. Now you know my mother. This is a line only she would say, and so it encapsulates her in a way that a long list of adjectives never could. It’s the same economy of description that I aim for when I’m inventing fictional people.

Amazingly, the car lived to ride again, but there is a sad epilogue to this story. Are you ready?

Those bushes grew back.

Storytelling

All I Need to Know about Pacing I Learned from 80s Television

This is truly the Golden Era of television, with inventive hits like Stranger Things, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Orange Is the New Black lighting up screens across the country. Today’s TV has more diverse casts, complex storytelling, and often…a way to skip the commercials. In our household, we DVR most of the TV we watch so that we only encounter ads during live sports events. I don’t miss the advertising, exactly, but I have to say that the commercial breaks during the 1980s TV dramas taught me a lot about how to pace a story. Maybe today’s generation is missing out?

I watched a bunch of those action-adventure/mystery shows back in the day. MacGyver. Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Moonlighting. They all followed a predictable time clock. Top of the hour, we’d get the introduction to the story, usually with a quick hook. Someone turned up dead or in trouble. Maybe there was a robbery or a kidnapping. This is what we call the inciting event. It’s the change in circumstances that sets your story in motion, and it should happen right near the beginning.

We had to get up to change the channel.

After the credits, we’d have that first fifteen minutes of show until the quarter-hour break. During this time, Our Heroes would react to the inciting event in whatever way was appropriate. They’d develop some initial suspects. Look for clues. Right around the first commercial break, there would be some big development to shove the story forward—the kidnap victim is alive! We must find her! Dropping this oomph right before the break is not accidental; the show wants to make sure you stay tuned. Similarly, you want to keep people reading, so you need to make sure that your story has these ‘must keep going’ twists included in the tale.

The half-hour break is longer, so you need to pull out the bigger guns to keep everyone’s butts in their seats during those Energizer Bunny and Avis Rent-a-Car commercials. This means you probably want some bigger twist here, something like the introduction of a new suspect. Maybe the wife did it, not the husband!

Your third quarter is all about subverting expectations and making life even more difficult for Our Heroes. This is the ‘it’s always darkest before the dawn’ sequence, and the part of the story where it looks like the bad guy might get away with it, or that the kidnap victim may die before they rescue her. Things look grim heading into that break at the 45-minute mark!

During the final quarter of the story, things turn around for Our Heroes. They catch a break or find some new evidence and the path to victory becomes clear. In today’s stories, the end isn’t always as clean or simple as it was back on 1980s TV. Our Heroes may get their bad guy but they are altered for the experience. Not every wrong can be put right. Still, most stories close out near where they began: whatever the inciting incident was, it has been resolved, for better or for worse.

That it, the show’s over! Now it’s time for your nightly news…which these days is a bigger horror story than anything Stephen King could ever write.

Did you watch 80s TV dramas? What lessons did you take away?

Family Life, Writing Advice

Family Secrets

Family secrets form the backbone of many delicious mysteries, and for good reason. It’s shocking to find out your neighbor or your coworker is not the person you thought they were, but it can up-end your whole world if you discover your loved ones have been hiding a deep, dark secret. They are your intimates, the people you live with or see often, and you’re supposed to know them better than anyone else. So learning a scandalous tidbit about a family member can sometimes change not just how you feel about that person, but also how you feel about yourself. Occasionally in real life, and often in fiction, these revelations can have deadly consequences.

When Kristine Fitzhugh was found dead at the foot of the stairs in her Palo Alto home, her doctor husband Ken Fitzhugh claimed it was an accident, blaming her slippery shoes for Kristine’s demise. The subsequent investigation found that Kristine had been beaten and strangled, and that someone made considerable effort to clean up after the crime. Cops eventually arrested Ken, and his motive turned out to be a long-held family secret: the couple’s oldest son was not fathered by Ken, but by a man Kristine had an affair with early in the marriage. Kristine had threatened to tell the young man about his true paternity, and Ken killed her to conceal the truth.

Author Liane Moriarty has spun many intriguing tales that hinge on secrets kept within families. These can be large and ominous, like murder or kidnapping, or smaller but no less devastating, like an affair or other indiscretion. The Husband’s Secret in particular explores how one man’s misdeed ripples out across everyone else around him, those whose choices become shaped either by knowledge of his secret or by the lack of it.

I love mining family secrets for book ideas. Secrets that aren’t harmful can even be fun and a way of deepening someone’s character. My grandmother and grandfather were married for sixty years, but I discovered after his death that this had actually been a second marriage for her. My straight-laced old granny had run off with a beau at age fourteen to get married! I’m just as glad this didn’t work out, because if it had I wouldn’t be here, but I enjoy thinking about her as someone who took a reckless chance in the name of passion. Maybe I’ll put her in a book one day…

Writing Advice

What I Hate About You

Here is my one top tip to building fictional characters: their greatest strength should also be their biggest weakness. There are some quizzes that circulate on the internet, like this one, that purport to tell you what people secretly hate about you. There are always a bunch of silly questions thrown in about picking your favorite animal or your signature dance move, but the meaty questions, the ones that determine the answer, are the ones that ask you what people love about you. Because whatever trait it is that people love about you, that’s also the one that drives them nuts.

If you are charming, gregarious, and the life of the party, chances are that other people read you as shallow or self-involved. If you are quiet and reserved, like me, you probably come off as cold or snobby sometimes. Also apparently scary, from what I’ve been told! A person who’s a smarty pants may save the day in times of crisis, but on a regular day, some folks find him to be a giant know-it-all.

This push-pull of your best and worst traits holds true for fictional people as well. Characterization is most satisfying when it is rich and consistent. So if your character has a tendency to act first and think later, she might shine in an action sequence but create friction with her boss. Similarly, if your character believes passionately in the bonds of family, he’s probably willing to make huge sacrifices for those he loves—but may be blind to their faults.

Strength and weakness are interwoven, interdependent.

Characterization is also situational and relational. You don’t act the same way with your mom that you do with your friends, or with your boss. There are always shadings and exceptions and times when your actions may surprise even you. I have a petite, mild-mannered friend who chased a male intruder out of her home when she caught sight of him. She never would have imagined she’d do such a thing until she found herself shouting and running after him!

Broadly, though, who we are in terms of our core personalities don’t change much over time, and the things we do well, whether that’s socialization or analytical thinking or caretaking, have a cost to them. Considering this inherent yin-yang when building your characters can help you mold them into believable, complex people.

Family Life, Writing Advice

Grammar Counts…or How I Met My Husband

I met my husband via online dating about a decade ago, when the odds tilted even more firmly in favor of women seeking men. Does online dating really work? One of my family members wanted to know. I said sure, you could definitely find a guy on the internet. Of course, the catch was…you would find a guy—who was on the internet. I was inundated with replies from engineers, gamer geeks, coders and anyone else who was most comfortable behind a screen. I wasn’t judging these guys in the least—after all, I was a geek behind a screen, too—but they did have a certain sameness to them.

In this sea of anonymous men, my husband immediately stood out to me. On our fourth date, he wanted to know why. “How many replies did you get to your profile?” he asked.

I squinted, estimating. “Around 4,400.”

He made a choking noise. “4,400? Then why did you pick me?”

“You wrote in complete sentences,” I told him sweetly, because it was the truth.

He gaped at me, disappointed. “That’s it? That’s all? Wow, talk about a low bar!”

Except it wasn’t a low bar at all because so few of the guys actually took the time to construct actual English sentences.* They wrote in text speak or emojis or lacked any kind of punctuation whatsoever. Meanwhile, Garrett’s initial note to me used correct grammar, a wide-ranging vocabulary, and also demonstrated both humor and curiosity. 

See, he’s cute too!

You know who else has hundreds of would-be suitors in their inbox all the time? Literary agents. They may see hundreds of query requests per day, many of them from authors who do not follow the rules for submission. Their queries are too short or too long, or they leave off important information like genre and word count. Authors will send pages when pages are not asked for, or leave them off when they are required. I heard one agent say that almost 90% of queries fail to follow her preferred procedure, and of course, this is an easy way for the agent to reduce her reading list by 90%.

Writing a tight query that follows all the directions won’t necessarily land you a deal, in the same way that I didn’t marry my husband just because he writes coherent emails. Content still matters. But in each case, it’s a small step that shows you take the relationship seriously. Your novel can be experimental. Your query shouldn’t be. Take the time to look up the agent’s submission guidelines and follow them. Think of it this way: you’ll already be standing out from the crowd!

*Please note, however, that writing complete sentences did not guarantee you any sort of date with me. I had one respondent to my profile who wrote, “I like white feet.” This is a complete (and very creepy) sentence! I did not write back to him.

So What’s Your Novel About, Anyway?

I’m a bad writer in that I still don’t have a succinct elevator pitch for The Vanishing Season. On its face, it’s about a female police officer in Massachusetts trying to solve a set of disappearances from her small town. More broadly, though, it’s about issues surrounding identity. What makes us who we are?

Ellery Hathaway was kidnapped late at night on her fourteenth birthday by a famous serial killer. He became famous the only way serial killers can achieve real fame—by being caught—so Ellery theoretically gets to resume her normal life. However, public appetite for the sensational story lingers on more than a decade after her rescue. The killer is in jail but he still manages to follow Ellery around—on film, in books, in pop culture references ala John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy. Ellery’s abductor didn’t succeed in snuffing her out but he did take her life, the one she would have had if he’d never kidnapped her. So Ellery’s journey is largely about whether she can reclaim her own narrative from under the weight of this infamous case.

Meanwhile, Ellery’s savior, Agent Reed Markham, is facing his own identity crisis. He’d played a hunch as a junior FBI agent and saved Ellery from certain death. In doing so, he’d also solved one of the FBI’s most infamous cases and his career rocketed to stardom as a result. He wrote a bestselling book about the case and Ellery’s rescue, telling himself through the years that he is the hero of this story. (Here we already see some conflict in their viewpoints, as Reed has helped further the fame of the case and feed public fervor, which hurts the very woman he waxes on about rescuing.) But Reed’s blown a recent investigation and his marriage is falling apart—maybe he’s not the rock star he’s always imagined himself to be. He’s on stress leave from the FBI when his greatest triumph emerges from the past, asking him for help in her missing persons cases.

What’s interesting to me about putting Reed and Ellery together is that they are bonded by the events of the night he rescued her, but they experienced that time in starkly different ways. The best time in his life is the worst time of hers. They’ve each told themselves stories about how the rescue went down and built up myths about the other one in their own minds. This book is about what happens when those myths meet reality. If Ellery remains damaged by what happened to her in the killer’s closet, does that lessen Reed’s heroics? Who is he without that label? Who is she apart from a famous victim? If public perception locks them into these roles, does it even matter what the truth is?

So, yeah. That’s what it’s about. Murder. Identity. Betrayal. The past coming back to bite you in the butt. All that, plus an extremely friendly basset hound.

Writing

How to Get Published in 1,372 Easy Steps

Last year, I read with interest The Usual Path to Publication: 27 stories about 27 ways into the publishing world. No two writers had the exact same route to success, and the road was not always linear. The book includes familiar tales of stacks of rejection notices and years of waiting to get an agent or editor’s attention. Success depends on an alchemy of hard work, talent, patience and persistence—and a little luck doesn’t hurt either.

I discovered I loved writing at eight years old. My old school notebooks are filled with tiny stories written in the margins around my more official homework. I had no concept back then of what it took to publish a book—I only knew that I loved to tell stories. In high school, I wrote my first novel, a romantic suspense yarn about a pair of lawyers on opposite sides of a murder case. I did a little research at my local library and discovered one needed an agent to get published, so I started researching agents through my various writer magazines. I found one who seemed to be a good fit and wrote him a query. Lo and behold, he called with an offer of representation! Pfft, I thought—look how easy this whole writer gig is!

Are you laughing yet? You should be. This agent was very nice and gave some thoughtful feedback on both my first book and the second. Before we could reach the part about selling the novel, though, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer, not an agent. (Maybe he was inspired by all the steamy action my lawyer hero was getting in the book!) He dropped all his clients. I was in college by then, and busy with a heavy course load. I figured I’d get back to writing one day. There was lots of time!

Fast forward ten years. I’m now in graduate school, writing fiction for free and giving it away on the internet. A writer friend who had recently completed her first novel wanted to go to a major writing conference to network and learn about publishing opportunities. Shopping one’s work was a primary goal of the conference, and if I wanted to attend, I’d need something to show. I quickly wrote a mystery novel about a woman whose husband was killed in a car wreck in the wrong part of town. Feedback from an editor at the conference: This has potential—you should keep going! Spoiler alert: I did not keep going. I finished my degree and got a real job.

Suddenly it was fourteen years after that first agent call and I still wasn’t published! I decided it was time to Get Serious. I signed up for a novel writing course through Grub Street and drafted about six chapters of a story about female police deputy trying to solve a string of disappearances in small-town Massachusetts. My instructor was enthusiastic. “This reads like a real book,” she said, and recommended I take the advanced class. Instead, I got married and had a kid.

I didn’t write anything at all for about five years. Then one day I woke up and found the words tingling at the ends of my fingers, as if they’d never left. I wrote a bunch of novels in quick succession. The one about the female officer in Massachusetts still nagged at me, and I dug out my notes from the Grub Street class. I started over at the beginning and rewrote the entire book in the space of about two months. Then I submitted it to the Mystery Writer’s of America/St. Martin’s Minotaur first crime novel contest, and four months later I got the amazing call from St. Martin’s saying The Vanishing Season had won.

So there you go. It only took two decades and around twenty-two intervening novels to find the one that clicked.