If Walls Could Talk: Find Your Weird

M.H. Norris

A couple of years ago, I was getting ready to take a roadtrip when I discovered that Felicia Day had written an autobiography. Seeing that the audiobook was almost the length of my drive, I grabbed it and on that trip I listened. She was already an actress I liked, and I was excited to hear her story. After all, this was the point where I was really starting to embrace my inner nerd and she was known for embracing her weird.

After listening to her and hearing the similarities between our stories, I realized something. If she could make it, then maybe there was hope I could make it.

So how does one make their way into this field?

You do what Felicia Day did, and I try to: forge your own path, create your own place and don’t settle until you found it.

1. Find What Works for You

There are thousands, if not millions, of writing advice books, blogs, magazines–all of them telling you their thoughts and opinions on this craft. Anyone and everyone can tell you what works best for them. But you have to figure out what works best for you. That’s one reason I like the premise of this blog. I’m more or less telling you my thoughts and musings week to week with the intention that you know that that’s what it is.

I can tell you a lot of things about writing. But I can also tell you this. I’m still figuring out what’s best for me and sometimes it varies project to project.

2. Don’t Settle

Write what speaks to you. Chances are, it will speak to someone else.

Don’t let what you write be influenced by what “experts” say is selling, or won’t sell, or what they think is the next big thing. Here’s a fun fact that I don’t mention often these days, when I first started writing more seriously, I thought I was going to write Young Adult. I’m still not opposed to the idea of revisiting that idea some day. When I wandered into the field of murder mysteries, I honestly didn’t expect to find the home I’ve found in this genre.  But if you’re not embracing what you love to write, and are doing it because someone told that something was “in,” then you are failing yourself and your potential. That would be settling.

But, both Felicia Day and I have learned that things don’t always go according to the plans we make for our lives.

This is going to be one of those times where I’m very honest with you all. Over the last couple of years, I’ve struggled with figuring out just what it is I’m supposed to be doing.

Ultimately the dream, the goal, is to be able to write and what not full time. But until M.H. Norris can pay the bills, Mary Helen has to somehow. And while it may seem odd to refer to two different sides of me like that, sometimes they do feel miles apart. Maybe that’s part of me learning to “embrace the weird” and not stick to the status quo. Figuring out how to make the two mesh a little better. If you haven’t had the chance to read Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost) by (or listened to her read the audiobook), that is something I suggest you pick up and read.

Especially, if you’re like me and wondering where your place in the world is. Maybe her story can encourage you like it did me.

At Awesome Con last weekend, I had the privilege of finally meeting Felicia Day and I told her how she had been an encouragement to me, and that even though I was still trying to figure it out and find my way–her story encouraged me that I would. figure it out.

Let me leave you with her advice.

She told me to always be proactive, to try new things and to always be doing something.

So, what did my meeting with Felicia Day teach me about writing?

It told me to keep doing what I’m doing and to find my place in the crazy world of publishing. Felicia Day has seen the good and bad sides of the internet and I’ve seen the good and bad sides of the publishing industry.

But I’m finding my place. Mystery Maven, Sci-Fi Sorceress. Award-winning author and co-host of the Raconteur Roundtable. Titles I never imagined holding but now are ones I hold dear. Embrace your weird. Even if it’s not the one you expected.

If Walls Could Talk: Why Wandering Characters Aren’t So Bad

M.H. Norris

There’s a perk to working with a character over the course of multiple stories.

The Experience of Writing Rosella [(c) Bill Keane]

Yes, I do believe you can really get to know a character over the course of a single story. But to go beyond that, to start a series, there is just something extra about developing a character. It’s one thing to do it from start to finish and not necessarily worry about the repercussions of whatever fun things you have awaiting your protagonist in the climax.

With a sequel, with a series even, you have to take that into consideration. How does whatever happened affect them from that point further? How does it help them grow their character?

There’s different circumstances from story to story and as a result, the character might react different or show a different side of themselves.

I experienced that with Rosella this week.

Writing a scene, I had an idea of something I wanted to do and I thought she would react one way. And then, she surprised me and acted in a way I didn’t expect. Now whether that was to stick it to me and prove she does what she wants, that remains to be seen.

But I found it fun, and it does oddly fit her.

I think I’ve discussed it before, but it’s been awhile so I’m going to mention it again. Characters can take over your story and gain a life of their own.

And they like to wander.

And it’s annoying.

Rosella did that to me, she wandered off on a rabbit trail and I didn’t know what she was doing, and why she went there, and what she could see that had caught her attention.

What can you do when they do that? When they take over a scene rather rudely and without permission and wander off on their own adventure within the carefully constructed tale you’ve put together.

There isn’t much you can besides follow along. Let them take you where they are going and see where it leads you. Because, sometimes they can have a lot of fun and take you in a direction you didn’t notice previously.

Following Rosella’s rabbit trail helped me to set-up something earlier than I originally thought I would be able to.

Developing characters to use over multiple stories brings challenges you don’t see with one offs and those are what sometimes pushes you to work just a bit harder.

One thing I hate is when a character goes through this fantastic adventure and grows and learns something and then the next time you see them, it’s like it never happened and they haven’t changed a bit.

It drives me mad.

People are the sum of their experiences. Characters are no different. These moments make them who they are. Two roads diverged in a road…

Sorry, the Robert Frost cliche does actually fit here.

And with writing a series character, you get to explore that in a way you normally couldn’t can. There’s all the experience that led them to the point of the beginning of the series. But then each and every story in the series builds them more. Giving them more opportunities to show who they are, and wonder off away from your plans.

It’s a good thing. Embrace it.

If Walls Could Talk: Polishing Your Pitch ‘Til It’s Perfect

M.H. Norris

“Canada Water Library Shelves” by Barney Moss

Sometimes, writers have to go back to basics. It’s been awhile since I pitched a short story idea cold turkey without having been asked to pitch an idea and I found myself a bit rusty. What do I say in a pitch? What details do I include? Seriously? Just a page?

Let’s preface this post with this, pitches and outlines are two of my least favorite parts of writing but they are necessary.

James, stop chuckling.

Let’s talk about the all-important pitch. You see a short story anthology, you want to be in said anthology. They ask for a one-page summary.

What do you do?

Don’t panic.

Yes, the bottom of that single page can and will feel extremely close.

Yes, you will be forced to cut things and you’ll hate everything because you think the things you are cutting are vitally important and the editor can’t possibly do without and how dare they expect you to limit your brilliance to just one page.

Yes, yes they do.

This pitch is your chance to show the editor, or curator, just what you can do. In approximately 500 words, you must convey a story that will span several thousand.

So here are some tricks.

1) Do include information about the ending

Especially with a mystery. This may seem obvious, but trust me when I say it isn’t. They want a synopsis from start to finish.It should feature every major plot point.

If you’re writing a mystery, be sure to include who did it, maybe insight into the motive (let’s be honest if you have a good long idea for motive you won’t be able to fit it into the pitch – tease them, give them a hint at least, as much as you can).

Part of it is they want to make sure you can finish the story once you start.

2) Do not go over the limit

Yes, yes, I know. You think one or two lines over won’t make a difference.

It will.

Especially if you are trying to break into a franchise anthology or with a bigger publishing house, they are sticklers for the rules.

It’s hard, I know. Trust me, I’m working on a pitch right now for something and I’ve already cut once and I probably have to go cut again (I’m writing this and trying to avoid the fate that awaits me – sigh this reprieve won’t last for long).

But do it. You need to follow the instructions. That doesn’t mean these details are cut from the story; they’re only your synopsis for this pitch.

3) Don’t be afraid to repurpose ideas

Two stories on this one. Because yes, I made it this far without storytime this week. I pitched a short story idea and got rejected. I loved the idea of the idea and found a potential second home for it, but the idea needed to be repurposed. We’ll see if I get to use it this time.

Second story is actually one you can find on the commentary for the pilot of Psych. Steve Franks talks about a scene near the end where Shawn actually calls the cops on himself (yes, he does have a reason but it’s funny to pretend he doesn’t). According to Franks, he’d been trying to fit that gag in to projects for years but it never stuck and he was so happy he actually got to do it.

Sometimes, a story you think is perfect for one thing, actually belongs somewhere else, slightly different.

That has to go with the keep trying and don’t give up advice that I should put in here somewhere.

4) Make sure all your pieces connect and it makes sense

This is hard and a place where I struggle. Especially if I’m limited to something like one page. Badge City: Notches’ pitch was 2-3 pages if memory serves and I could get away with that. But often, that isn’t the case and you have to adapt.

That being said, trying to throw a mystery into a few words and include the who, what, where, when, why, and how is very tricky. Keeping that all intact and staying inside the word limit is even harder.

But it needs to make sense because if it doesn’t, you’re killing your story before it has a chance to shine.

So A goes to B goes to C and when you cut stuff due to space make sure you don’t cut something that makes your plot suddenly not make sense.

It’s a balancing act. Have someone read it over before you send it in to make sure it still makes sense.

5) Do have other details that don’t make it in

Keep in mind, that once accepted, you have to write this story. You cannot give away everything in a pitch. Those gems you cut? Keep them tucked away, just in case. You might get the chance to use them.

6) Do your research

There’s a good chance you’ll have to have some basic knowledge of whatever you happen to be talking about to make your pitch make sense. Granted, I’m one to talk since I pitched for Badge City: Notches using the information I’d learned on Psych about police procedure and murder.

Luckily for me, Steve Franks’ father was a cop. He knew his stuff. And it tended to slot in with my interviews with members of the police force and my stack of reference books.

If you’re writing a historical, those little details can make or break you. This is also the point where I once again point you in the direction of Jon Black’s fabulous blog here on the 18thWall site.

Hint hint, wink wink.

Pitches, synopsis, and outlines aren’t going anywhere in writing. Sad but true facts. Hopefully the things I shared here help you as you search for the perfect place for your idea.

Good luck!

If Walls Could Talk: Remember Why You Write

M.H. Norris

Grab a cup of tea and let me start this week off by telling you a story about a young girl who would one day become your favorite mystery maven.

But at this point, where our story is set, I wasn’t there quite yet. In fact, I hadn’t really written my first mystery at this point. We’re coming around to the point where I maybe was starting to work on “Puzzle Pieces” for The Lemon Herberts.

June 2012

Some of you who follow me on Facebook, or have caught me talking about my writing, might know the significance of that month. That was the month my grandfather passed away. In case you don’t know the significance of that, he is one of the reasons I fell in love with writing. He read everything he could get his hands on. That’s saying something, because he went legally blind and was still reading large print.

His love of reading was contagious. We would read together–especially mysteries.

My love of the genre was already there.

A few weeks after his passing, I discovered the USA Network show, Psych. It became one of my absolute favorite shows. For those of you who haven’t had the privilege, Psych is a show about Shawn Spencer,  a hyper-observant guy with a photographic memory (and was trained by his father his entire childhood) who solves crimes in Santa Barbara California all while posing as a Psychic Detective. Because Shawn has the attention span of the average five-year-old, they tended to only work on murder cases; those were the only cases shiny enough to keep his attention.

January 2014

Fast forward about 19 months. I had the opportunity to write a police procedural, but needed a case. This is also around the time Psych‘s seventh season was airing, and the big announcement that they were closing on their eighth and final season.

While making the decision, I turned to my favorite crime fighting team and saw them solving murders. After spending as much time as I have watching them at work, I thought a murder case was where I would be the most familiar–and thus at least have a foundation between it and my grandfather, the two things that made writing a police procedural even appeal to me.

So there it is, I also talk about this in this week’s episode of The Raconteur Roundtable!

But I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m telling this story, after all, it’s been awhile since I ranted like this. Over this last weekend, I started to rewatch Psych. I figured, since this is partially what inspired me to write my first mystery, maybe I’d find whatever muse was hiding in those eight seasons.

I’m about halfway through Season 1 and I’m having an absolute blast. It’s like revisiting old friends after a long time away.

So here’s my question for all of your and partially why I’m writing this today. What inspired you to write? Who?

We hit a point in our writing careers, or at least I feel like I have, where we seem to maybe step away from that inspiration. We forget that we decided to do this writing thing because we love it.

Somewhere along the way it becomes all about deadlines and the next project and your writing bucket list and what you want to do and where you want to go.

What about those days where you dreamed of writing, of telling your story and having your voice heard?

When was the last time you wrote for fun?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with all of the above, it’s part of what makes up a writing career.

But sometimes, you need to take a step back and find your muse. Find where you started. Sure, if you’re like me you’ve come a long, long, long, long ways since then.

But it’s your start.

What inspired you? What spoke to you then? Maybe it was two guys who constantly make 80s jokes, eat an obsessive amount of pineapple, and solve murders that might otherwise go unsolved in rather untraditional methods.

What is it?

If you’re like me and feel like you’ve been stuck in a writing rut, maybe you should join me in revisiting it and seeing if you can remember what it was that inspired you.

Normally here I give you advice and tell you my two cents worth on how to fix the problem in question. But not this week.

This week I’m going to issue you a challenge.

Find what inspired you

And maybe, take an hour or two this week and write something for the sake of writing.

I’ve done both this week. I think it’s made the world of difference.

If Walls Could Talk: Do Your Due Diligence: Research What You Write

M.H. Norris

Let’s talk this week about a topic that, in the last few days, has become near and dear to my heart.

When writing, do your research

Seriously, take some time, and do your due diligence and make sure you at least know what you’re talking about.

Otherwise, imagine me staring at you with a glare. And then think about what you’ve done.

Your writing without research.

Jon Black does a fabulous blog every other Thursday–right here–where he give you insight and looks into what it takes to write historical fiction. If you haven’t read any of his posts, I suggest you do, because I find them to be quite interesting and he covers things I wouldn’t necessarily think about.

And while I’m plugging him, keep an eye out for his upcoming book, Bel Nemeton which is due out with 18thWall soon.

When I wrote Badge City: Notches, I came in to it not completely sure what it took to write a standalone book, let alone all the ins and outs of a police procedure. The time when I got the assignment, to the due date the publisher set, was less than 16 weeks.

I had my work cut out for me.

To focus, I narrowed everything down to two questions:

How do I write a police procedural?

And what do I need to know to write it?

This launched me into a month-long mass-research session. I grabbed a couple of books off of Amazon, grabbed FBI papers, another scholarly research article on serial killers, a couple of case studies on some of the more well-known examples, documentaries, anything at hand.

And I also binge-watched about eight seasons of Criminal Minds when I couldn’t handle real research. You might have noticed that if you’ve read my stuff, because my protagonists tend to use the term UnSub. I think Rosella even loosely gives the BAU credit for the term in Midnight.

I still have the books, and I’ve gathered more. I’ve got books on police procedure and investigation, forensics, private eyes, weapons, and a couple other topics. Research for Badge City: Notches was the backbone of research I take with me into every mystery I write. Now when I approach Rosella, I can study things in addition to that.

When I started to begin to develop the idea of Dr. Rosella Tassoni, I grabbed a couple of Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan books. I also watched most of Bones (I need to finish the next to last and last season so no spoilers please and thanks–I’m also behind on Criminal Minds though I know a lot of their spoilers).

I even bought a forensic anthropology textbook. Honestly, I’m eyeing another one and might end up caving and spending the money on it eventually.

This isn’t me saying, I know everything. Because trust me, I don’t know about a lot when it comes to the field, but I learn more and more everyday. Google is my friend and I can easily find articles about various topics.

Do you realize just how small the internet has made the world? I can find a journal article from a British publication with one search and then turn around and go to a university on the West Coast with the next.

Different topics, different insights, all help me to get a well-rounded idea of what I’m talking about.

Every writer knows there’s some things you know about your characters, your world, your subject that your readers may never see. Information that you tuck away in case you revisit them or it just never comes up.

But we know.

And just knowing and feeling confident in what you know shines through in your work.

Because, if you don’t, it could drown out everything else in your writing. No amount of solid character development, no amount of carefully planning your plot can help.

We’d like to think otherwise. Shoot, even I’ve said people come for the plot and stay for the characters.

But if you are consistently getting things wrong. That might be all people notice or remember.

So where are some methods to collection information? Sure, we know the internet’s there. But how do you get great, useful information from it?

1) The Internet

Let’s take a moment to note that, yes, using scholarly sources is a good idea. Academic papers or articles are there for free. Others sites built up a reputation or are run by people who compile it into easy to read formats.

These are usually good for quick reference or to get a couple different views on something.

It’s made the world so small and let’s you check out information on far away places. For example, I set Badge City in California and was able to do research on the differences in their laws from what I’m used to and various policies change state to state.

Use the resource. It’s invaluable. Plus, there are other writers who spend their time writing blogs. I keep an eye on a couple, for various things. Here are some James and I especially recommend:

2) Print

Nothing beats an old classic.

And nothing quite beats the smell of books. Trust me, my room is full of them, they’re occupying various nooks and crannies battling it out for space.

But there’s valuable insights to be found and people have taken the time to write reference books on it.

Writer’s Digest has a ton of these resources and I encourage you to take a look. I have a handful of their books that I find to be very useful.

As a crime fiction writer, here are some of my favorites…

  • Police Procedure and Investigation – Lee Lofland
  • Howdunit: Forensics – D.P. Lyle (actually anything by him really – I wander to his blog now and then as well)
  • The Writer’s Guide To Weapons – Bejamin Sobieck
  • The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide – Martin Roth
  • Amateur Detectives – Elaine Raco Chase and Anne Wingate

Sometimes I find stuff at used bookstores, or i pick up other’s from various places. Amazon is your best friend. I once grabbed two books (including an autographed copy of one) for less than 10 bucks (shipping included, if memory serves).

Fiction works along with non-fiction. Like I said above, I grabbed Kathy Reichs and enjoy reading her. Another one I enjoy is Andrew Carmel (see last week’s post).

Another thing that goes hand in hand with this is magazines. Does your character have a specialty with knowledge you might need? Is there a specialized publication for that? Chances are, yes. Then pick up an issue or two or get a subscription. You stay up to date on the field and as a result, so does your character. James’ subscriptions to various archaeology magazines have fed more than a few of my upcoming stories.

3) Ask An Expert

Some have blogs for such a reason as this. Others publish articles for various publications. Maybe you know someone, or the character is inspired after them. I couldn’t have written Badge City: Notches so well without having some friends and family on call to walk me through their day, or answer the questions that come up on a 3AM writing binge.

There’s no source quite like a real person.

And so many professionals would be thrilled to tell you about their work, and answer some basic questions. Just be sure to respect their time–and give them a signed copy of your book when it comes out!

Conclusion

A little research goes a long way when it comes to writing. Just like we strive to grow as writers throughout our careers, we should also strive to know more about our subjects.

After all, writing a novel is a long marathon.

Make sure you train properly. 

If Walls Could Talk: The Vinyl Detective: Necessary Storytelling Lessons from this Fantastic Mystery

M.H. Norris

As a mystery writer, I love to find a good mystery that not only keeps me on the edge of the seat, but also keeps me guessing from cover to cover.

As a reader, I love to find a novel that makes me want to stay up far longer than my practical side wishes, because I need to know who did it and I need find out what’s at the end of the twists and turns.

Back at L.I Who last November, I discovered a mystery that does both.

If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel go out and grab one.

Seriously, go.

Now.

I’m not kidding.

Whether you’re writing mysteries or just writing in general, Andrew Cartmel shows off his decades of experience in writing with the best mystery I’ve read in a long time.

The sequel, The Vinyl Detective: The Run-Out Groove, was released yesterday. I’ll have to chat about it at another time because I’m not that fast of a reader (or my deadline for this column isn’t that late–I’ve heard it both ways).

Let’s talk about writing lessons you can learn from Andrew Cartmel and The Vinyl Detective.

Also, in case you missed it, Andrew Cartmel came and hung out with us at the Raconteur Roundtable for this week’s episode. He gives some great insight into his writing process and I highly recommend you take a listen.

Four Lessons You Should Learn From The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax

1) Keeping Your Readers Glued From Cover to Cover

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the Doctor Who episode “Smile,” and how bad pacing ruined the second episode of Series 10.

To make this column as well-rounded as possible, I’m going to point out a good example of pacing so you can see how it’s done correctly.

That example is Written In Dead Wax.

It doesn’t start slow, it throws you right into the story, even if you don’t realize it right away.

Our nameless protagonist, the Vinyl Detective, goes out and looks for albums pressed in vinyl. At some point, he’d made business cards boasting that he would find any album someone asked him to. Someone takes him up on that, asking him to find an extremely rare jazz album from a company who went out of business shortly after making the record.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

We go through his process as he explains it to the character his employers have assigned to tag along.

And every time you feel like you have it figured out, every time it seems like it’s slowing down just a bit, Cartmel throws in another twist, another turn, and off you go again.

Pacing is vital to keeping your story going and with mysteries, it’s hard to find the best pace. You’ve got to plant clues and suspects, backstory, the crime itself, investigation, and guesswork.

On top of that, you’ve got a protagonist who needs to be developed, as well as anyone who is helping them out.

With mysteries, you have to figure out where to insert various pieces that make the puzzle seem to come together.

And Cartmel does it without you realizing he’s doing it.

2) Adding just the right amount of suspense into a story keeps your readers glued to the pages

Let’s all take a moment and be perfectly honest with ourselves, we love mysteries that constantly tell us, “but wait, there’s more.”

And if we didn’t see the more coming, the reveal is so so so satisfying. Ask James, I didn’t see some of the bigger twists coming–and he would get messages as I freaked out, because I was so excited and it surprised me.

I love being surprised like that.

So thank you, Andrew.

Suspense and pacing go hand in hand. Suspense will help your pacing, lack of suspense–lack of forward momentum and the threat of things going wrongly–will kill your pacing.

The perk of mysteries is that they lend themselves to suspense. Who did it? Why did they do it?

I know a couple of mysteries that even kept my grandfather up much, much later than someone his age should have been up. I do have a rather found memory of him sheepishly coming into the dining room the next morning and admitting that he’d stayed up later than either of his much-younger grandchildren, because he couldn’t put a book down.

At least I come by it honestly.

Those are the books we remember, the ones we recommend. And the secret behind those recommendations is the suspense.

Part of what helps build suspense is getting your readers invested in your story. I told this story ages ago, but I’m going to retell it again.

When I was doing research for a project, I read a book about screenwriting and it suggested I watch a show that only ran for one season, Commander in Chief. But the book insisted the writing was good. So good that if a reader had the chance to check it out, they should.

It happened to be on Hulu, so I watched, and the writing was good, but I reached the series finale that turned out to be the series finale…I realized why it only made it one season.

I wasn’t invested in the characters.

As a result, I wasn’t invested in the story.

I didn’t care who won the fight between the protagonist and the antagonist, because I didn’t have any reason to be invested. I still find it odd they managed that.

Which leads me to…

3) well-written characters in a living, breathing world

The Vinyl Detective, even without a name, has quirks, hopes, dreams–methods to his madness that, together, result in a well-developed, well-rounded character.

Characters. I’ve done post after post after post about them. The one thing I take pride on is my characters. They’re fun to create, and sometimes they manage to take on a life of their own.

Earlier today, James and I were talking and he jokingly suggested another short story collection idea for Rosella. One with a terrible, terrible premise that’d make her hate life. After he told me, I looked at him and said “Rosella hates you now.”

And she would.

On top of the protagonist, we have a number of side characters who compliment him.

You can know a lot more about your characters and what makes them tick than what appears on the pages of your book.

Or what to tease and what to reveal fully.

So many options and so much time to have fun…

Regardless, creating compelling characters will drastically increase the success of your book. Check out Cartmel’s book and see how he develops a handful of fun quickly characters that all compliment each other and all contribute to getting the book to it’s end point.

So much of characterization comes from their backstory. Now when I say that I don’t mean their date of birth, first crush, and favorite movie. I mean the things that happened to them previously that are relevant in the current situations. It fills in a character’s aspects, which might not mean much on their own, with meaning and emotion.

The Vinyl Detective is hired by Nevada’s employer to find an extremely rare LP from a West Coast company that went out of business decades ago. So, not only are we getting the quest for the record. We get the story about it. That’s right, backstory applies to MacGruffins too.

Who was involved in the project?

Why was this the company’s last LP?

What happened to them?

Why is the original different from remakes of this LP?

What does “written in dead wax” even mean?

All of these questions are answered. Some of it we didn’t necessarily need to know but Cartmel takes the time for us to understand the importance of the record we are watching our protagonist trying to find. It just lends a little something extra to the book, the backstory, the finer details that Cartmel took the time to write for us.

There’s a fine line between info-dumping for the sake of “backstory,” and weaving it into the story, so that the reader feels glad it was there.

This fine line between info-dump and meaningful backstory has three aspects: relevance, interest, and ability to keep the story moving. 

When the Vinyl Detective meets someone who is involved in vinyl restoration, we learn quite a lot about this character. All of it is relevant to his role in the story; his involvement in

It’s genuinely interesting, while still being connected. And because of both its relevance so far, and how interesting it is, all of the backstory that makes this character a real person also gives Cartmel a way to expand the plot outward. Someday, I might do a spoiler-post on just how this was done.

4) There is something to the saying “Write What You Know”

When he asked Ben Aaronovitch, his friend and author of the Rivers of London series, what the secret of a writing a bestseller is…Aaronovitch responded, “Write what you love.”

Andrew Cartmel loves to collect vinyl. He also has cats. So when he sat down and wrote a novel about a cat-owning vinyl fanatic, he didn’t have to do but so much research to translate that character and his world into The Vinyl Detective.

There’s just a level of something that you get when you know something, and when you love it. Even though you fictionalize things a bit, knowing and loving your stuff helps.

Cartmel’s passion for the subject shines through his story and it kept my interest on a topic I hadn’t considered before. He also chats about it more on the episode that we released yesterday (in case you didn’t take my hint to go listen at the beginning of this–seriously, go, it’s a fantastic interview).

The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax is honestly the best mystery I’ve read in awhile. With fun, compelling characters, fascinating backstory, and twists and turns that kept me up late at night, I enjoyed reading this one.

And I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Seriously.

Go get it.

Now.

If Walls Could Talk: Writing at a Pace that Makes Your Readers “Smile” (Doctor Who)

M.H. Norris

Doctor Who is now two episodes into its new series and, honestly, in terms of quality they were vastly different. In this column, I try to share with you lessons I learned in writing; and after watching “Smile” on Saturday night, I saw something and wanted to share it with you.

When they first showed off the emoji bots and mentioned that they were the centerpiece of an episode, I stared at them and shook my head, not surprised and honestly dreading it. And to my surprise, they weren’t completely horrible. I found myself watching–but not loving it. It wasn’t until the very end Iput my finger on what was wrong.

I’ll come back to it in a second.

Let’s talk pacing.

Small towns in the Deep South have often been described as asleep, slower than the infamous New York Minute. People move at their own pace, learn at their own pace.

And stories move at their own pace.

This is a hard one to really show and talk about, in abstract. But then “Smile” seemed to open the door. Because the majority of the problems with the episode aren’t conceptual, but mechanical.

“Smile” fell flat due to a pacing issue.

Let’s break down the average 1-hour television drama and let me talk about some of my observations.

Taking out the commercials, there is roughly 42-44 minutes of actual programming in an hour timeslot. Traditionally, and I mentioned this in a blog post ages ago, crime shows–like Psych on USA Network–finally solve the case and resolve the crime in the last 7 minutes of the show. That’s the last sixth of a program, dedicated entirely–in a well-paced program–to climax, resolution, and tying everything up in a pretty bow. They don’t introduce new complications or plot information. They resolve what was already on the table.

That’s not to say that the previous thirty-something minutes are purely set up. There’s sometimes a few false starts and leads, the A- and B-story weave in and out of each other. Up to that point you know a good chunk, if not all, of the who, what, where, when, why, and how–and it just ties itself into a bow.

What I’m saying here is they don’t solve the entire mystery in the last 7 minutes. They get bits and pieces that all come together there.

“Smile” had a two-part problem.

  • One, it had too many threads fighting for dominance and to be completed, and it didn’t quite work.
  • Two, they spent too much time setting up the concept only to rush (and in my opinion ruin) that setup by rushing the climax and conclusion (with new information).

“Smile” kicks off with the Doctor taking Bill to some point in the future of mankind. They’re on some planet half the universe away where, according to the Doctor, a ship full of humans are on the way to colonize it.

A skeleton crew, with the infamous emoji robots, must have come ahead to set it up but the humans are nowhere to be found. That is, they’re nowhere to be found until the Doctor find their skeletons in a compost bin being turned into fertilizer for the plants.

It turns out, the emoji bots were made to make humans happy and don’t know how to deal with the more negative emotions humans face. Unable to deal with it, the kill the unhappy people to try and keep other people happy. And this city, this supposed future Eden for the human race, is made out of tiny little robots that can leap out of the walls and kill people at a moment’s notice.

The Doctor decides to take the very Ace-like solution and blow the city up and let the humans start over when they arrive. They find the spaceship the crew arrived on, and he heads to the engine to sabotage it into a makeshift bomb. Meanwhile, Bill finds a body of an elderly human woman; a book with fun flashing images is mounted on her slab.

It takes us about a half hour to get to this point.

Using the above time table, we have about 10 minutes of programming left.

All of a sudden out of left field, a little boy shows up, we discover that the humans aren’t on the way–they’re on the ship a la Ark in Space, the robots are apparently a sentient species (apropos of nothing), and that the Doctor doesn’t know what to do with the robots.

Honestly, “Smile” felt like it was a two-part episode that was forced to be one and most of the second part was dropped and crammed into less than 10 minutes of air-time.

If I was editing this script, I would have cut here and waited til next week to finish this story.

That doesn’t happen, hence this blog post.

Upon discovering that there are humans on-board the ship, upset that their people have been killed by the robots, they gather their weapons and chaos ensues.

And it doesn’t make sense.

  • First off, we had no indication there were other humans on the ship before we found out there were.
  • Second, we go from them waking up to a gun show in less than 3 minutes–which is entirely too short of a time.

Another thing to note here: do not throw information out of left field in the middle of your climax, especially without having anything in the story to support it. “Smile” did this and it leaves your reader (or in this case viewer) feeling a bit disjointed.

Even if they don’t see it coming, your audience must have a fair chance to. They appreciate it. They feel as though you’re honoring their intelligence and time, and it adds depth to people who read or watch your work a second time.

Don’t try and justify this by dumping the information in their laps. Leave them a visual clue somewhere, put it in dialogue, make every tool you have work to your favor so when they are done, your audience sits back, looks at your work, and sees how you utilized everything to tell your story.

Aren’t you just sick of hearing the phrase “show don’t tell”?

Well, it applies here.

Show your readers how you’ve come to your climax, and make them see that that’s where you’ve been going to the whole time.

Info-dumps are not only telling, but are a sign that there’s a pacing issue somewhere along the line.

Maybe that information can be hidden somewhere you main character almost overlooks at the beginning of the book. Maybe it’s a passing sentence on page 15, and is actually the key to the whole thing.

Does it come up again? Or does it slap them in the face as you go into the climax and they realize that maybe they should have paid more attention?

You don’t necessarily want to hold your reader’s hands; you want them to think a little. But you have to give them the tools they need to do it.

“Smile” is Bill’s first real adventure. It’s a proper adventure where she’s been invited onto the TARDIS, and not shoved in to hide from something else. To that degree, the Doctor needs to hold her hand a bit.

Then again, he is the Doctor. He has been known to be unaware his companions are actually along for the adventure with him ( cough cough The Time Warrior cough cough).

Back to plot.

Out of nowhere, as the humans shoot emoji bots, the Doctor resets the the robots, treats them as if they are a new sentient species (again, apropos of nothing), and gives them jurisdiction of the planet–making the humans the new species and tells them to all get along because, after all, the robots know all about the city and they don’t.

There are multiple reasons this does not work.

One: The Doctor is always going out of his way to help the humans, and all of a sudden he’s defending robots that spent the episode trying to kill them?

No.

It doesn’t fit the Doctor’s character, thus causing a disconnect between writer and viewer.

Two: there is no indication whatsoever that the robots are sentient before the Doctor decides they are in the last couple minutes of the episode. It is an info-dumped climax item that doesn’t fit. There is no in-story evidence they’re sentient. They exclusively act like ordinary, programmed robots

Three: it morally compromises The Doctor, without ramifications. So, he apparently mind-wiped an entire sentient species? When the previous episode makes mind-wiping out to be an extreme violation of a person, and absolutely, always, morally wrong? (This is even more out of character for the show since Moffat has been taking jabs at RTD for what happened to Donna Noble way back at the end of Series 4).

Not only that, but now there’s an entire chunk of the human population who are now forced to live with robots that the Doctor claims are sentient. They are forced to live with people who killed their friends and families, with no sense of justice?

As a crime writer who spends some time in the heads of people who have dedicated their lives to bringing justice to families, I find that horribly out of place for anyone, especially the Doctor.

This could work if there was a ramification, an acknowledgement and exploration of the fact the Doctor failed. There isn’t one. This is treated like a triumph, when even the last episode tells us otherwise.

Four: the audience does not have the tools to reach or understand this conclusion in the context of the previous 30+ minutes. It’s a narrative and pacing break.

So what does this teach us?

After all, one thing I’ve said multiple times is that I like to study television shows, movies, and books to see if there’s something I can learn.

Set-up is important. Every good story needs it. But you can’t set-up at the expense of your climax and conclusion. These need to be satisfying for your readers, make the story tie itself together in a pretty little bow, and stay true to your characters.

Another thing we learn from “Smile” is that a good story can be ruined by having too many things going on. B-stories are honestly something I struggle with as a writer, Midnight is one of the first times I really attempted to weave one into a story.

For once, “Smile” didn’t annoy me by being a less than stellar episode of the show. Because this time, I was able to look at it and see where it went wrong and apply that my writing.

If Walls Could Talk: Writing Aspirations

M.H. Norris

I think, to an extent, authors start writing with a certain bit of disillusionment when it comes to this field we are in love with.  Even I have seemed to fall prey to that even though I knew that it takes several years to get established in the field.

Lately, I’ve felt like it’s hard being the jack-of-many-trades that your favorite mystery maven and sci-fi sorceress has found herself being. Not that I don’t love doing it all. I just wonder how I seem to do it all.

If walls could talk, they would wonder how I seemed to be able multi-task so much better than I do these days.

‘Cause, I don’t know.

That and a case of writer’s block.

And it’s not that I’m not writing. It’s that I haven’t been writing the first Rosella novel. Columns, podcast prep, forewords, writer’s notes, and acknowledgements are taking up my processor’s time.

How do people do it all? Write, manage multiple projects, and hold a day job. I don’t understand sometimes how people seem to juggle it all.

And I feel like I used to do it better than these days.

I even try to put things on certain days. Work on this this day (for example, I almost always write this column on Tuesdays, and it goes up the next day) and work on that another day. The Time Travel Nexus’ “Television Tuesday” usually gets done on Monday (though that’s more of a I want to get as up to date news as possible).

When I wrote Badge City: Notches, I did it during a semester and that was on top of going to school full time, a part time job, the first version of this column—and all the research and everything else that comes along with writing a novel. It’s like the climax of that story, I don’t know how I managed it.

That’s been my writing issue of the week, or rather the last few weeks. Managing to do everything like I used to.

And figuring out how people seem to do it these days.

It’s not that I’m complaining and I’m not going to drop a project (after all, there’s reasons I picked them all up). It’s more I’ve got to figure out how I can do it all and still have time to tell my own stories.

Cause after all, isn’t that why I started writing in the first place?

I’ve been writing short stories for years now. More or less since I realized that books were made by forming a bunch of sentences together to make them. It would be college before I realized that maybe this hobby of mine would become more than a hobby.

At first I thought I’d be like JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, and have a bestseller out of the gate.

Then, I realized that it would take time.

How much time?

There’s no straight answer for that.

I’ve heard people talk about how if you are in this business for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. But, one can’t help but dream of a day where you can support yourself on nothing but writing.

My first short story came out about four and a half years ago. Now, I have four short stories out, two books, another short story on the way, and All the Petty Myths is out soon. Then Rosella makes her full-length debut.

Is it wrong to have aspirations when it comes to writing?

This is one of my deeper “If Walls Could Talk” and I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about what it takes to make it in this business.

The only way someone makes it in this business is if they are willing to spend years dedicated to this craft. It requires a lot of time dedicated to writing for it to happen.

Stephen King says he writes every day, and in On Writing he suggests writers do the same. I’ll be honest, I don’t write every single day.

And what did he mean by that. Did he mean, if you are a fiction writer you need to write in your book every day?

What about columns and podcast prep and notes on research?

Becoming successful in this business means you have to be ready and willing to spend hours and weeks and months and even years working doing this and that to get your name out there. It involves times where you wonder if you’ll ever make it work.

I’m still in that stage.

My writing aspirations haven’t been met yet.

But I’ll get there someday.

If Walls Could Talk: Learning from Sarah Jane Smith

M.H. Norris

Britbox has become my new best friend. For some reason, the one place in town that sells copies of Classic Doctor Who has randomly decided not to stock anything Sarah Jane since Christmas and my Amazon budget is only but so much.

But now, I have it all.

In celebration, James, Nicole, and I got together to watch some classic Doctor Who. And since I’d had a rather bad day, I got to pick.

Actually, it’s thanks to Nick Briggs that we ended up picking Death to the Daleks, to watch that afternoon (Stop, Don’t Move–for fans from his podcast). Later I watched K-9 and Company, which was as special as I’d been led to believe.

Where am I going with this?

Actually, I have a bit more foundation to lay before I get to my point. But I do have one.

The first time I met my favorite fictional character, Sarah Jane Smith, was in the tenth Doctor episode “School Reunion.” There’s several ways to watch that episode; and as I’ve noted before, this was something David Tennant noticed in the commentary. He said, depending on how much Doctor Who you watched beforehand, you could see it one of two ways. You could see it as Rose (who sees a friend of the Doctor’s who he’s never mentioned; but this friend is still clearly thinking about him). What does that mean for Rose in the future?

Or, you could see it as the Doctor. He’s seeing an old friend, one that Tennant refers to as “The Doctor’s True Companion” in the forward to Elizabeth Sladen’s autobiography.

I’d argue there’s a third way to watch it; and when I go and revisit my introduction to Sarah Jane Smith, I see it that way.

I see it through Sarah Jane’s eyes. She’s had a time of it lately. Big Finish fills in a little of what she’s been through in the last decade alone and then there’s around 30 years where we only see bits and pieces.

There’s a line that didn’t phase me the first time and then later on would come to annoy me. She sees the Doctor, discovers it’s actually him, and then says that she thought he had died.

It annoyed me because Sarah Jane has quite a few documented cases of meeting the Doctor throughout canon, after leaving him The Hand of Fear. So why did she forget it?

She didn’t.

Like most people. Sarah Jane Smith grows up and changes but there’s traits that stay with her throughout her lifetime.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned her here, and you all know how I mention her without cause on The Raconteur Roundtable. She’s a character I’ve spent time learning about, but I love how still I learn new things about her.

Characters have levels to them and they change as the character experiences various things. And Sarah Jane is no different.

When Sarah Jane travelled with The Doctor back in the 70s, she was extremely melodramatic. And sometimes, I honestly think she did it for the sake of doing it. At times, it causes me to raise my eyebrow in her general direction; other times I find it incredibly amusing.

But relating it back to “School Reunion”–suddenly that line makes so much more sense. She’s being melodramatic to a Doctor who has a tendency to be a bit melodramatic himself.

One thing I’ve talked a bit about is how I’m working on a series based around Dr. Rosella Tassoni. I’ve contemplated before writing more books on a character but with her, the intention was that I write a character that can support a series.

And that is a bit different of a mindset because she has to grow and change and things are going to happen to her, things I don’t know yet because I haven’t planned quite that far ahead.

Her start is in Midnight, in the All the Petty Myths anthology, which be out soon.

And, like Sarah Jane, I’ll be down the road with her and still see these odd quirks that carry over from her first appearance at Midnight.

Because keep in mind, characters are people and we change. Sometimes I cringe looking back at the antics of my younger self and other times I wonder if my younger self would recognize me if I wandered past her.

Sarah Jane taught me that maybe. Because there are some things we never truly outgrow. Maybe we mellow out a bit (Sarah Jane did become quite a bit less melodramatic as the years went on).

I mentioned ages ago that it’s useful to take your favorite fictional characters and see what you can learn from them. Luckily for me, it seems that Sarah Jane may have more lessons to teach me.

If Walls Could Talk: A to B

M.H. Norris

There are those days when James and I go and grab one of the study rooms at the nearby college, the one with the dry erase walls, of course, and I spend a couple of hours mapping out the story on my mind that particular day. I feel like I’ve got it all figured out.

From A to B: by John Bastoen

So then, inspired, I rush home to work on what we mapped out–and then realize I’ve got a problem. I know where A is, and I know where B is, but I don’t know how to connect the two.

Yes, its easy to know where you are and where the story is going to go but knowing how to connect all these dots is rather tricky.

This character comes in here, because you need them for this later on. But when do they come in? How? Do they stand out immediately or does it take time?

In a mystery, you’ve also got the problem of having clues. You might know your climax. (Correction, you might think you know your climax and then your editor takes great pleasure in telling you that you don’t. Or he lets you go about rewriting it three times until he is satisfied. But that’s neither here nor there.)

How do you connect those pieces, those clues? They’re important; they tell your story, and they give your readers a chance to (maybe) figure out who did it before your main character (or you) figure it out.

So what do you do? How do you go from A to B?

That’s a question I ask myself all the time.

One thing to do is, potentially, have some character moments. Especially if you’re like me, and you’re writing the first full-length work in a series, you need to give people a chance to get to know the character they’ll be seeing a lot of over the next few years.

Give them a sense of setting, a sense of back story. Set up the your character and her world.

Why is she there at that time?

What was she doing there?

Or, if your character stays in one place, give us info about it. Towns can give a lot of useful information; maybe something in there, somewhere, will help you to figure out how to get your main character where they need to go.

I’ll admit this: switching gears from a short story to a full length work can be hard. The rules are a bit different when you think about it. 10 thousand word stories do leave room for fluff, 5 thousand does not.

But still they don’t leave nearly as much room as stuff 15 thousand or higher. A full length novel is considered to be works over 50 thousand in some circles.

That’s a lot of words.

My problem is that I often see scenes I’m nowhere near and I don’t want to necessary write immediately (though I have on occasion), because the story could take a different path.

 

That’s been my struggle this week. It’s an endless struggle to get Rosella from where she is now, to where she needs to be (without the literary equivalent of a contextless jump cut). I did set up her characterization in Midnight, but here she has a chance to shine and show you guys that she’s able to reach those very big dreams she has.