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.

If Walls Could Talk: Ten Reasons to Listen to The Raconteur Roundtable

M.H. Norris

Did you get a chance to listen to James, Ben, and I on the first episode of the Raconteur Roundtable yesterday?

If not, don’t worry, I’ve got a link for you right here!

And in case you haven’t, here’s 10 reasons to.

1) James keeps a running commentary on my wardrobe

And it annoys me to no end. Make sure you listen each week to hear what color pants I’m wearing. Don’t ask me why it became a thing. It just did.

2) I remind the world what the fox says

So, in my defense, James tricked me into this. You’ll hear it in the second or third episode in the next few weeks because of course that had to be the blooper of the week.

But I wasn’t paying attention to him, rather to the fact that my computer was refusing to play the Kentucky game that day (Go Cats!) and I wanted my game because I was trying to multitask and then he got it on recording.

And a little of me yelling at my computer wanting my game to play.

3) Our Ace talks to the real Ace

Easily one of the most fun things I’ve had the privilege of seeing over the last year is Nicole Petit meet Sophie Aldred. Then, when we managed to secure her on the podcast, both of us were excited.

And honestly, it’s a fantastic interview. We talk about Strangeness in Space & Doctor Who, Sophie gushes about her kids, and we learn a few fun facts that I was surprised to learn about.

But I’m not going to spoil that…

4) Ben designs a unique jingle

I don’t remember how it happened. I don’t remember what started it. All I know is Ben started making up an odd jingle with James’ last name.

And James managed to get most of it recorded. So you hear Ben carrying on, me laughing so hard I can barely breath, and at the end, James can’t help but laugh too.

It’s on the episode that released yesterday.

This also gave birth to my personal favorite part of the new show, the post-show blooper reel..

So, if you listened but didn’t go all the way to the end, you’re missing out.

5) THE RACCOONTEUR

ISN’T SHE JUST ABSOLUTELY PERFECT!!!

When we came out with the idea of The Raconteur Roundtable as a title, Ben made some little comment about how our mascot should be a raccoon.

So meet, The Raccoonteur.

I LOVE HER SO MUCH

6) The show is live and raw

Coming up, there’s an interview in which what would normally be considered a blooper is actually right smack in the middle of the show. We got talking about the Joshua Wanisko’s story and he revealed the secret behind an Easter Egg.

It made me so happy I started to laugh and then cry.

And then, within two minutes (while I was still trying to recover from the above incident) James said something that had me snorting tea out of my nose.

That was a great day in the land of professionalism for M.H. Norris.

7) Fantastic Guests (Whose Books I Saw in a Bookstore Last Tuesday)

We kicked off with John Ainsworth yesterday and he was an absolute delight to work with. But he’s just the beginning.

We’ve got Jim Beard and Rich Handley.

Jim and I have worked on a couple of projects together and I still can’t remember why I didn’t get to come on for his original TVCU episode but I do remembering being bummed. So it was great to talk with him about his newest project Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone.

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like seeing a book in a bookstore and you know the person who wrote it.

Great feeling.

We’ve got the one and only Sophie Aldred, We’re going to be talking with Andrew Cartmel down the road. Have you read his mystery “The Viynl Dectective”? The sequel comes out next month and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

8) Outtakes

The single greatest bonus feature any show can have.

It’s now become a challenge to see who can accidentally create the best outtake for the end of show one. There have been times one has happened and we’ve all been like “that’s the one.”

Other times, we have plenty of options.

Enjoy making fun of us but don’t feel bad because we’ve made fun of us too.

9) You never know what state we’re all in

Here’s your Raconteur Roundtable fun fact (well one of many since I’ve been telling some of our secrets in this post). We have yet to record an entire episode while all being in the same place.

With Sophie, for example, Nicole comes on to guest host and we were in four different states with Sophie being in another country.

Someday, we’ll record together. Though I’m not sure we will know what to do when that happens.

10) Fun discussions each episode

We’ve added a new segment to the episodes. Now you get a fun discussion segment where we discuss something for 10 minutes or so.

Next week’s discussion is fun. I gush about something and I’m sure the discussion will come up again some other time.

But week to week, we’ll cover various things that may or may not be related to the interview in the episode itself.

So you never know what you’re going to get when you tune in week to week.

We look forward to seeing you at the Roundtable.

If Walls Could Talk: Remembrance of the…M.H. Norris

M.H. Norris

On my Facebook timeline, the last week or so, I’ve had some fun “On This Day” things show up. For example, two years ago today, I was at my first Comic Con. Two years ago yesterday, I met David Tennant. Two years ago last week, I got to announce that Notches was coming soon. Two years ago later this month, it was released.

So it was three years ago right now that I was writing my first book, “Badge City: Notches.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s been that long and sometimes it doesn’t feel like quite that long.

So how did I go from the initial concept at the end of January 2014 to turning in the manuscript on May 1 of the same year?

Somedays I’m trying to remember how I pulled that off. That and that ending… I would love to know how I did that and do it again but I don’t think I’m going to get that lucky.

As I sit here and write this, I’m watching an old episode of Criminal Minds. If memory serves, this was in it’s ninth or tenth season when I was writing Notches and I watched them all while writing it. There’s some things tucked in there that James noticed that I didn’t at the time because I wrote it while watching this show.

One of my favorite things to do after watching a show (especially one that’s run at least five seasons) is to watch the pilot after having watched the show and see how far characters have come.

What goes into a story?

No seriously.

I sit here week after week covering bits and pieces and whatever musings come to mind. But sometimes I even have to be reminded myself of what makes up a story.

Characters, plots and subplots, beginnings, middles, and ends.

Facebook has been reminding me the last few weeks of first experiences for me. It’s hard to believe that years ago some of this stuff I take for granted knowing I had to learn. And isn’t that the joy of this profession we all love?

We’re always learning. Whether it’s research for the next book or something for a new character or just because we went on a rabbit trail because an idea popped into our heads and we honestly don’t know if it’s even going to make the cut or not.

Because I’ve been there and done that.

So what have I been doing this week with my writing?

I’ve started a couple of projects, begun to outline a third and got edits back from yet another. And I’ve seen all sorts of posts from myself, from friends and family, all showing me days of auld lang syne.

Though seriously past Mary Helen, if you want to let me know how you managed to write the climax of Notches, I’d love some insight.

I’ve written tons of posts gushing about how fun the beginnings of stories are. That stage where they’re just an idea and you haven’t tried to write a whole lot of it yet and there’s all sorts of “well what ifs” floating around.

But it’s also hard. That’s the first thing people see and it’s one thing to write the first scene. It’s another to write the second.

The first scene is where you write a hook. What’s going to be on the first page when people catch the summary on Amazon and judge the entire book based on it (yes, I’ve done it).

But the second and third scene (the rest of the first chapter really) is where you win over the ones who give you a chance.

Because I’ve also been the one to sit a book down before the end of the first chapter because the first page might have been good but it went downhill from there.

That’s one thing I struggle with in my writing. I feel like with every project that goes by, with every story that comes out I raise the bar on myself a little higher and then higher still.

How it feels.

That’s not to say that as writers we shouldn’t set the bar high for ourselves, but we truly are our own worst critics.

So, this week, these walls are feeling nostalgic and they’re looking at how high the bar is set for these upcoming projects.

Guess it’s time for me to swing high.

If Walls Could Talk: Random Word Syndrome – Editing

M. H. Norris

M.H. is mired in editing and excitement this week; James’ fill-in post was delayed by light food poisoning and two missed buses. Thus 18thWall Productions is proud to present, an article from the M.H. Norris archives. Back in the innocent days of 2014, M.H. had another, earlier blog on another, earlier 18thWall blog. It’s now lost to the sands of the internet–but now, from time to time, we’ll be presenting the best of her past thoughts, former emotions, and long-lost points. This week, we’ve taken a TARDIS ride back to April 4th, 2014.

Editing is as much fun as smashing your head against a table.

Those pages you thought were inspired are now covered with ink in the color of your choice (I tend to use pink or purple instead of the usual red). Now you are staring at a draft, finished (or mostly finished in my case, I still have a chapter left), you wonder, what do I do now?

“An Old Charming Book” (Image via Flickr user Wader)

The simple answer?

You keep writing.

But just saying that will leave me with a really short blog post. So let’s expand upon that.

There are several things you run into when editing through a novel.

The first, and the most fun of the things you’ll encounter, is a snapshot of sorts. You’ll get a snapshot in print of the last few months of your life. You’ll see the late nights, the sneaky writing sessions when you should have been in a lecture, that day off where you wrote for twelve hours straight. Even there at the end when you had that last push and hit the last few chapters. All of that is there, hidden in the pages.

Now for the other, difficult things.

One thing you’ll find…I like to call it the Random Word Syndrome. This usually is a word at the end of the sentence that is nowhere close to where you were going with your thought. Usually, the reason these words pop up is because you were multi-tasking when you were writing. Whether that be a conversation on Facebook or watching something on TV, these words tend to slip in.

Granted, sometimes, you can catch them when you do them and as a result, you won’t see them during the fun process that is editing. But then, there are the times where you just don’t catch them fast enough. And then you read said portions at your writing group. But hey, we all had a great laugh.

And in this field, you really have to learn to laugh at yourself.

Moving on…

Another thing you’ll find are inconsistencies. Usually, these are an accident. Usually, these remind you why TV shows have a person whose job is to make sure that inconsistencies die before they’re born. But they do happen.

Don’t let them bother you.

They happen for several reasons. One, you change something in the novel, add a plot point, or insert a detail that seems relatively minor at the time—but then you have to use it again. For example, I named someone, used the name once and later on, had to name them again and I accidentally renamed them.

Another is changing details, like the timeline, which can throw off earlier events. This usually happens when you decide to be cool and add authenticity by trying to make it fit into the actual calendar (which was rude and refused to match with what was in your head).

That can be fixed by sometimes reworking an earlier scene, which can be tricky if you have evidence involved. But that evidence can be reworked into the scene, sometimes in the same form, sometimes in a another. But rework it and hopefully it flows smoother.

One thing you’ll find, however, this one is strictly dependent on if you work the way I do. As I’ve said before, I primarily write in Scrivener. From there, I can export to Word. But, on occasion, somewhere in the transfer of the data, something messes up. The most popular one is it doesn’t like to italicize and instead underlines it.

That’s another easy fix, just a few clicks and your back in business. That said, don’t forget to fix them. If you take your time to make your manuscript look the best it can, it will show.

Editing is a fun process. It’s the necessary evil that every writer needs to face, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.

Another piece of advice that I’ll leave with you is this: find someone to help you edit. Find another set of eyes (they will see something that yours don’t). When you write something, you know what you mean—but that doesn’t mean that that is what you said. By having that other set of eyes, you’ll be able to catch those spots and clean up your novel.

Writing is a process that seems solitary, but when you really get into it, you realize just how much that isn’t the case. You have peer editing (if you go that route and I advise that you do), that extra set of eyes, and when you get a publisher, you have those sets of eyes also looking at it. Add in the people that help you research, write the books you read to do your research, write and produce the shows you watch (and the extremely insane amount of people, time, and effort that it takes to make one of those come to the small screen). Everyone comes together in your novel.

It isn’t as lonely of a world as people think.

If Walls Could La La: Don’t Make La La Land’s Email Mistake

After the surprise twist ending to the Oscars, I asked James how I could write about La La Land in this week’s column. Because after it won, and then didn’t win, Best Film, I wanted to talk about a movie that has quickly slid its way into my top 5 movies of all time.

So we came up with a couple of options, but none of them were really speaking to me. That sounds weird. But when I’m preparing this column week to week, I will reject several ideas because they just don’t feel right. Then, occasionally, I’ll use them a couple of weeks later.

Last night, I found a topic that spoke to me and let me talk a bit about La La Land. So a slight spoiler warning for the movie. Though if you haven’t seen it yet, go Google showtimes and go see it now.

Seriously…

I’ll wait…

Back.

I was scrolling through Facebook last week, when I saw an article about La La Land that made me think about it from an angle that I hadn’t considered. Not when I had watched it through the first time.

Then, the same subject was brought to my attention a second time last night. And when that happens, I often realize there’s a topic for this blog in there somewhere.

Through a large part of the movie, we see Mia writing, producing, and then later performing her one woman show, So Long, Boulder City.

To promote it, she sends an email out to everyone who is everyone in Hollywood. And we see the email in question on her screen for a second. In fact, I’m not the first to hit on this topic and someone else grabbed a screenshot of the email in question. (Despite that, James insisted on making his own, higher-definiton screenshot. Some people.)

There are several problems with this email. First off, if she insists on sending a form letter to advertise her play—instead of taking the time to personalize each response to whoever is getting it. At the very least she needs to BCC them so that everyone doesn’t see everyone else receiving it.

Yes, I know there are times where I’m getting an email along with several other people, but at least the sender BCCs it so that I’m not stuck seeing however many other people are also getting it.

Another problem is in the first line of the email. “Dear Sir/Madam.”

Seriously, she couldn’t take two seconds to customize it. Yes, it would have taken her a lot longer to send all these people an email, but by doing that she would have had a chance to have more people come to her show.

No offense, but if I see an email (or a snail mail letter) that starts with “Dear Sir/Madam,” I will delete it or throw it away.

People want to feel like you took the time to find out who they are.

Even if it’s bad news, like, “I’m sorry but your story isn’t quite what I’m looking for in this anthology,” people appreciate that you took the time to acknowledge that they are a person.

It’s beginning advice that you hear all the time when you look into contacting agents and publishers. It’s one of the first things they’ll say when people ask for advice.

Don’t submit a form letter.

So what can you do?

Every year, Writer’s Digest puts out a Writer’s Market. They do a general one and they also do some specialty editions.

Get it, and look at the options. At least page through it at your local bookstore. Some of these Writer’s Market volumes even provide tips for contacting specific markets and agents. This book does your research for you. Make sure your book is relevant to the agent or publishing house. If you’re trying to go directly to a publisher, make sure they take unsolicited submissions.

That was one of Mia’s problems. She knew all these people where the Who’s Who of Hollywood. But she didn’t know what they all looked for in their submissions. She didn’t do her research, and she paid for it.

Most if not all of those emails ended up either in their spam folders or went straight into the trash.

Because like So Long, Boulder City, your work is very much a labor of love. And it deserves its best chance at making it out into the world.

So do your homework so that you can give it its best shot.

Otherwise, you could end up like the end of La La Land. Think about it—the beginnings of that infamous ending start right in the scene where Mia does not observe the basic rules of professional email.

If Walls Could Talk: Cicero Review

One way a writer grows as a writer is to study stories in their field. In my case, that means I like to get my hands on mysteries. I’ve been reading Andrew Cartmel’s The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax, and I cannot wait for the sequel to come out in a couple of months. Lately, I’ve also read the Richard Castle novels (mainly for the meta aspect, where the novels Castle wrote in the show actually exist), and, of course, with writing a forensic anthropologist myself, I read Kathy Reichs (I’m on her second Temperance Brennan novel).

So when James told me that Big Finish Productions had a murder mystery audio, we both agreed discussing it would make for a fun column.

Let’s get the basic details out of the way before we hit play.

Cicero

  • Written by: David Llewellyn
  • Directed by: Scott Handcock
  • Starring: Samuel Barnett (Marcus Tullius Cicero), George Naylor (Quintus Tullius Cicero), Simon Ludders (Sextus Roscius), Elizabeth Morton (Caecilia Metella), Stephen Critchlow (Etrucius), Youssef Kerkour (Titus Capito). Other parts played by members of the cast.
  • Available Here

The story moves very fast, not wasting time with a lot of setup which is something I appreciate about a mystery. A wealthy landowner has been murdered in the street. His son, Sextus Roscius, is accused of the crime.  Fair enough, I’d look at the son first.

The catch is, Sextus was sixty miles away the night his father was murdered. These days that might not seem very farbut in Rome, 80 A.D., that’s quite a trek.

I love how thorough Cicero and his brother are, even as Roman men, thousands of years before forensics, profiles, or the revolution the Sherlock Holmes stories enacted on investigation. I know when I wrote my story for The Lemon Herberts, I rode the struggle bus trying to figure out how to compensate for the lack of computers in the 1970s. Even then, I still had most of what Cicero lacked.

But that problem didn’t stop the team behind this audio. Cicero follows trails further than I thought possible for that day and age.

I’m trying to be careful not to spoil but so much of this. I think you guys should take a listen to it.

The perk of this being in Ancient Rome is that the forum allows for one of my favorite mystery tropes, the infamous breakdown.

Cicero does it and he brings up this quote. It’s something we can all learn from.

“If we are to accuse a man of murder, there are three questions we must ask. First, and most importantly of all, was the accused at the scene of the crime? Second, did he have the motive to kill? And third, did he have the means?”

1) Was the accused at the scene of the crime?

This was something I struggled with when writing Badge City: Notches. The perk of The Whole Art of Detection was that the murder happened before my investigator came on the scene. It was the only one in the story so that became less of an issue. Ironically so, because the solution depends on killing someone from thousands of miles away. 

The soon to be accused in Notches, on the other hand, was in the middle of a killing spree. Yet they had to maintain appearances at the same time.

Hence why there was a multi-page timeline, detailing where the killer was at any given moment, attempting to keep me sane.

2) Did he have motive?

Motive…

Sigh.

I stand by this being the trickiest aspect.

The thing is, any number of things can cause someone to commit a grievous crime.

What fits this particular crime, and does your criminal have a motive your audience can believe?

3) Did he have means?

This also can be tricky. There are statistics about male and female killers, killers of different ages, and so on.

If someone used an advanced drug, where did they get it? If they threw someone off a roof, do they have the strength to do it?

Can they afford to have someone do it for them?

All good questions. Questions Cicero has answers to, and you need to as well.   

Another question Cicero raises, though less essential for writers in general: “Who benefited?”

These are questions you must ask when you’re solving a mystery.

Who benefited?

It’s another way to ask that important question, “Who had motive?”

Time after time, I’ve mentioned how much I hate having to come up with motive. It’s hard, and tricky, and at times frustrating. But it often makes your mystery. It’s essential, and this understanding of how essential it is serves Circero well.

Cicero reminds me a lot of a mix between The Thin Man and the Sherlock Holmes stories, but set in Ancient Rome around the forums that were their justice system.

So what did I think of Big Finish’s murder mystery?

This audio is just around an hour, and it highlights a lot of what makes a good mystery. It’s quite compressed and moves quickly.

With Cicero, Big Finish takes what could be a several hundred page murder mystery and weaves it into a tale that is just under an hour. Not only is it a solid mystery that kept my attention throughout, it also provides a fun look into Ancient Rome’s justice system.

Cicero is an example of how you don’t need bells and whistles and fluff to have a good story. It is straight to the point, and almost completely business.

And of course, we all know that since it is from Big Finish, it is a wonderfully put together audio.

If you get a chance, pick it up from Big Finish. It’s only $5 for an hour of great entertainment.

If Walls Could Talk: Ode to Annoying Editors

M.H. Norris

Without our editors

I don’t know what writers would do

As much as we won’t admit

They help us, that is true.

But sometimes they spot things

We’d wish they’d just miss

But instead they find holes

That are worse than Swiss

 

So here we writers sit

At our computers without a clue

Staring at red edits

That make us feel rather blue

 

One thing our writers know for sure

Is that our editors make us look good

They constantly remind us

To write as we should

 

But sometimes that involves

Things coming to light

Those wholes of Swiss

Needing a rewrite

 

And as they hand those back

Promising they aren’t a slight

Instead they tell us

They help to make us look bright

 

So here’s my ode to editors

James, keep your ego in check

They may all drive us crazy

But at least our stories aren’t a wreck

 

Okay, I promise I’m done with the dodgy poetry. James issued a challenge and I couldn’t help but accept it and write my little ode to editors.

*takes a bow*

I’ve often said in this column that there are few things that help a writer’s career better than having a good editor.

But they, if they’re doing their jobs correctly, drive you up the wall. Like this week where James noticed a hole (a technicality really) that requires me to spend a bit of time rewriting something.

And the worst part?

He’s right.

It needs to be fixed and as much as I’d love to tell him he’s absolutely wrong, I find myself doing some research to make the necessary change.

This column was made with the idea of me talking about what I’m doing week to week. And this week I’m glaring in the general direction of my editor.

Because he was right.

And my story will be stronger because he was right.

That doesn’t mean I’m any less annoyed.