Revisit an Old Love

dorothy l. sayers books
Many of you know that I am a die-hard fan of Dorothy L. Sayers. I recently reread Strong Poison. It is relatively early in her series. Needless to say, some of the language is dated. (It was published about 80 years ago, after all.) I hadn’t actually read Sayers in well over a decade. But in rereading, I found that my long-standing admiration is more than warranted.
strong poison dorothy l. sayers
[Source: Amazon]
In Strong Poison, she solved a poisoning case in a most ingenious way, and incidentally educated the reader about interesting twists and details about arsenical poisoning. In clearing the prime suspect, Wimsey not only found the real killer, but coincidentally developed a passion for the acquitted suspect that became a subplot going forward.
have his carcass dorothy l. sayers
[Source: Amazon]
Have His Carcass is the next novel in which the love interest develops. But the thing to note about this book is that knowing how it turns out, I can recognize, as I couldn’t on the first read, all the red herrings and dead-end hypotheses AND appreciate all the dropped clues and bits and pieces that make the reader say, “Of course!” when the solution is revealed. Sayers is a must-read for mystery writers!
dorothy sayers statue
Statue of Dorothy Sayers opposite her home at 24 Newland Street, Witham. [Creative Commons]
Injunction for readers: Revisit an old love—preferably one you haven’t read for five years or more. Knowing what happens, you can reread an old favorite and evaluate the craft. Do you still love it? Why or why not? As we approach the new year, appreciate the past.

Helpful and Hazardous Critique Groups

Last week I wrote about editing yourself. For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.


helpful hazardous critique groups
Regardless of number, good readers have much in common:


1. They want your writing to be the best possible version of your work.
2. They are frank, but kind in their delivery.
3. They don’t get pissed if you don’t make a change they suggested.
4. If the group is unanimous in a certain point (e.g., a weak opening paragraph), believe it.
5. They can help you realize that some vital information is in your head but not on the page, especially with memoirs.
6. They can tell you when the impression you intended to create isn’t the one you did create.
7. They understand the expectations of your genre.
8. They make specific comments, so that you know how to fix what doesn’t work.
9. They don’t try to compete to be the best in the group.
helpful hazardous critique groups
Bad groups can be hazardous to your writing health in numerous ways.


1. It’s all about the competition.
2. They confuse critiquing with criticizing, and so don’t offer praise.
3. They give vague feedback that gives you no direction (e.g., “This is great” or “This doesn’t do it for me”).
4. They try to get you to write like them.
5. They socialize, eating up meeting time with too much chit-chat.
6. They get so involved with agreeing or disagreeing with your premise that they lose sight of the quality of the writing. This is especially the case when the topic is politics or religion—or any sort of opinion piece.


There are some things that will help a group to be good. There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:


1. Set down the group guidelines in writing.
2. Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
3. Be clear about how feedback will be given.
4. Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
5. Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting: Are they expected to send comments on others’ work? Can they send work anyway?
6. What if someone comes without having written anything?
7. Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
8. Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
9. Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
10. Meet at least twice a month.


helpful hazardous critique groups

You need to feel comfortable, supported, and helped. This is a very personal thing. If you find yourself in a “bad” group, get out!

For Writers, Everything is Material

So of course writers have responded to the 2016 Presidential Election. Enjoy their language and skill.

Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America: The New Yorker, November 21, 2016

By Toni Morrison, Atul Gawande, Hilary Mantel, George Packer, Jane Mayer, Jeffrey Toobin, Junot Diaz, and more.
“It is thought by many, lately, and said by some, that the republic has seen its best days, and that it remains for the historian to chronicle the history of its decline and fall. I disagree. Sparrows may yet cross the sky.” -Jill Lepore

What Just Happened? Writers Respond to the 2016 Presidential ElectionFirst Person Plural, November 4, 2016

By Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Grace Aneiza Ali, Hafizah Geter, Max S. Gordon, Hajar Husseini, Morgan Jenkins, and Chris Prioleau
Stacy Parker Le Melle First Person Plural
Stacy Parker Le Melle [Source: First Person Plural]
“Days before the reading I felt so much dread. But today is different. Thank you writers, audience, community. This is what a shift feels like. We are not passive. We are co-creating this reality.” -Stacy Parker Le Melle

Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, David Hare and more… Leading writers on Donald Trump: The Guardian, August 12, 2016

By Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, David Hare, and more.

Maya Jasanoff Harvard
Maya Jasanoff [Source: Harvard University]
“Dorothy is the real saviour of the book (Baum’s wife, it’s worth noting, was a prominent suffragist), but even when they’ve exposed the wizard as a fraud, she and her friends turn to him for aid. “How can I help being a humbug,” chuckles Oz the not-so-great, “when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?” -Maya Jasanoff

“We are witnessing the politics of humiliation”—Siri Hustvedt, Joyce Carol Oates and more on the US electionThe Guardian, November 12, 2016

By Siri Hustvedt, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

Cynthia Bond
Cynthia Bond [Source:]
“The musician Sara Bareilles wrote a song entitled “Seriously”, sung by Leslie Odom Jr, about what Obama’s inner thoughts must have been during the election. I’ve been repeating these lyrics to my daughter: ‘In a history plagued with incredible mistakes, still I pledge my allegiance to these United divided States.'” -Cynthia Bond

Farewell, America: Moyers & Company, November 10, 2016

By Neal Gabler
Neal Gabler
Neal Gabler [Source: Moyers & Company]
“We are not living for ourselves anymore in this country. Now we are living for history.” -Neal Gabler

This is just a sample of what’s out there. You can also search online for your favorite authors responses by their names.

Didn’t Get it Right the First Time?

Few writers do!
noah lukeman first five pages plot thickens
Noah Lukeman is my favorite guru on self-editing. He’s highly readable, clear, and interesting. But if you need some quick-and-dirty guidelines right now, here are a baker’s dozen.


1. Circle your modifiers and decide whether they’re really needed. Especially cut adverbs in favor of stronger verbs.
2. Avoid clichés. This is especially important in the narrative, but shouldn’t appear frequently in dialogue, either.
3. Refer to people as who, not that.
4. Beware repeated words or phrases, especially in close proximity. Check your word habits and “kill your darlings.”
5. Divide long, complex sentences into two or more shorter sentences—this is especially important in action scenes.
6. Minimize the use of really, very, and suddenly.
7. Make sure you know what your words mean. Check definitions
8. Avoid passive verbs, especially is, are, was, were, and -ing verbs.
9. Look for filler words or phrases that really don’t add anything, e.g., smiling, sighing, looking away, etc.
10. Don’t over-use exclamation points or ellipses. Never double punctuate. Get it?!
11. Be specific. Replace vague words like things, stuff, beautiful, etc.
12. Don’t have characters tell each other things just because the reader needs to know.
13. Don’t give the same speech quirks or movements to more than one character unless there is a specific reason to do so.


Read your work aloud—or better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you—and revisit every place that causes a stumble.


And maybe the most important suggestion: Find a good guide to self-editing. There are dozens out there.
edit your self self editing editing fiction

Festival of the Written Word

—a great event for readers and writers!
festival of the written word 2016
As many of you know, I was again on the program at Midlothian Library’s Festival of the Written Word. This was the second annual, and it seems to just get better and better.


meeting room events festivalwrittenword
I was pleased to moderate and participate in the panel “I Couldn’t Put It Down: Creating Page-Turning Tension and Action.”


vivian lawry heather weidner doug jones festivalwrittenword
I was joined by Sister in Crime Heather Weidner and award winning playwright and local teacher Doug Jones. We had a great audience, attentive and involved, asking lots of good questions. The panel preceding us in that space, “Small Press and Indie Publishing,” must have been a great success too, given that they stayed in place till the last possible minute! This panel included Stacy Hawkins Adams, Sisters in Crime Tina Glasneck and Heather Weidner, and writing colleague Guy Terrell.


guy terrell vivian lawry festivalwrittenword
This may be reminiscent of a wedding portrait, but notice the books we are holding. Guy is a poet as well as co-author (with Jack Trammell) of The Fourth Branch of Government: We the People, an impassioned presentation discussion of the need for and ways to bring individuals’ voices back into the political process.


As you might have guessed, the program was designed to appeal to a broad range of topics and ages. There were four Sisters in Crime on the program.


sisters in crime festivalwrittenword
Besides the panels mentioned above, they discussed “Crime and the Paranormal in Your Writing.”


Another panel discussion focused on “The Practical Realities of Writing for a Living.” There were writing workshops for kids, teens, and adults, ranging from poetry to memoir.


There were also readings for kids AND “Walk-In Writing Activities and Crafts.” People could gather for some shared NaNoWriMo writing time…


nanowrimo festivalwrittenword
…or pick up a writing prompt—or several—for later plotting.


There was food available and live music by local author Brant Huddleston on guitar.


And of course books! There were book sales and signings by authors on the program, as well as books sales to benefit the Friends of the Library.


fall festival cookbooks festivalwrittenword
Energy was high! There was a lot of chat time, including a Local Writers Meet and Greet. Two of the most interesting people I met were a woman newly arrived in Richmond, Amber Williams, and her son Kai. Here’s a picture of them holding her book, which he illustrated. Watch for them in the future!
cookbook festivalwrittenword
Bottom line: This annual event, free and open to the public, has something for everyone! Watch for it next November. And in the meantime, check out other public libraries for fun, interesting, thought-provoking events.


midlothian library festivalwrittenword

Writing War

american flag veteran's day
So, today is Veterans’ Day, which brings thoughts of the military, which brings thoughts of war. Both have been around forever, it seems, and have touched virtually everyone’s life either directly or indirectly—which means one or both are likely to have touched the lives of your characters.


Should you find yourself writing a scene dealing with the military, war, and/or their direct or indirect effects on characters and plot, get it right! So many of your potential readers know the details that if you get it wrong, you will immediately lose all credibility.


civil war life civil war america love and lust
Fortunately there are a number of resources available to assist you. My personal bookshelves are not comprehensive, but here are a few examples of what’s out there. Note the broad range of detail and focus, from the battlefield to the home front.


americans remember home front 1001 things world war ii
You can find resources for any war of interest, as well as any branch of any military, worldwide. My own interests tend toward the effects of war on individuals.


You can also focus on a subset of action and response.


women that wrote war in harms way

they fought like demons women soldiers civil war
[Source: Amazon]
 Regardless of any other choices you make, you will surely need authentic language, whether for dialogue or narrative. And therefore, I highly recommend a good dictionary.


war slang paul dickson
Takeaway for Writers: Yes, you must have engaging characters, tension, lots at stake, and action moving forward, but if you get the factual details wrong, you’ll lose your reader! Get it right with war and the military.


american flag veteran's day

Communicating Without Words: Campaign Lessons

You’re a writer—so for purposes of this blog, communicating without words means without dialogue. And there are many reasons you want to be able to do this. The presidential campaign offers several educational examples.


whsv scott inmate hillary trump
See full post at
In Staunton, VA, for the Robert E. Lee High School Halloween, Principal Mark Rowicki dressed as presidential candidate Donald Trump, complete with Make America Great Again cap. Secretary Stephanie Corbett dressed as Hillary Clinton in “jail house orange” outfit, complete with a chain around her waist and a badge indicating she was inmate Clinton.


The costumes provoked a storm of comment, from those who claim they were just funny and timely costumes to those deeply offended and/or outraged. The latter say things like, “If they’d both dressed as presidential candidates, that would have been fine.” Or, “How dare they? Clinton has never been convicted of anything illegal!” Or, “How might the kids feel, seeing their principal dressed like a man who’s said he wants to deport them or their families?”


Lesson for writers: Having two or more characters absolutely committed to differing interpretations of the same event is an excellent way to build tension and conflict. And, BTW, consider what our clothing says about your character in general and in specific scenes.
donald trump hillary clinton candidate toilet paper
If you look online for “candidate toilet paper,” you will find a myriad of choices. There are several options for Clinton and Trump, but also other 2016 presidential candidates: Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney, among others. The version that says “Dump with Trump” claims to be humorous and appropriate for both Democrats and Republicans. The one picturing Hillary and Bill Clinton together says, “Not Again!” so the intention is clearer. The seller who urges customers to choose the candidate they hate the most is the most direct of all.


Seeing just the TP: funny, disgusting, disrespectful, disdainful? More than one of the above?


Lesson for writers: Even if you think the meaning is absolutely clear, there’s always room for differing opinions. In your stories, you need to make the context clear, and/or state the interpretation(s) you want the reader to consider.


Just for practice: List as many inanimate objects as you can that you think convey a clear and unequivocal attitude/character of the owner. Then ask someone else to read the list and see whether you get disagreements.


halloween hanging dummies
A Kendall, FL homeowner hung two dummies from a tree in his front yard for Halloween. (See Daily Mail for one complete article about this, or search online for Halloween effigies of hanged black men.) They are reminiscent of lynchings of real black people. Note the nearby sign supporting Trump for President. The fallout was immediate and widespread. The presumption was that the man who hung the dummies is publicly supporting Trump. Subsequently, a neighbor said the sign was hers.


Lesson for writers: When two things occur in close proximity in time and/or space, they often lead people to assume they are related. This is an especially effective device for mystery writers who want to introduce red herrings and/or lead the sleuth to solve the crime.


TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS: When it comes to plot devices, the presidential campaign is clearly the gift that keeps on giving!
oops did i roll my eyes out loud
For future consideration: The Loud Voice of Body Language!

The Importance of “What” and “Why”

new yorker hillary clinton donald trump campaign reading

I’ve written a couple of blog posts about what writers can learn from the current political campaigns. A piece in the October 31st issue of The New Yorker takes a different approach.


presumptive thomas mallon campaign reading
Thomas Mallon is a novelist, essayist, and critic whose book Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years is now available in paperback. His novels usually portray politics and politicians from a POV other than the political “star.”  In “Presumptive” he talks about who would be his protagonist if he were to write a novel based on 2016—and why. He makes some excellent points about what makes an effective main character.


the unconnected campaign reading
The same issue of The New Yorker features an article by George Packer. Although he starts with an interview with Hillary Clinton, the bulk of the article is tracing the historical bases of current allegiances to the Republican and Democratic parties. He’s thorough and scholarly but highly readable. Read it with a view to what makes compelling nonfiction.


Whether you lean toward fiction or nonfiction, the principles of a good story are the same: you need a compelling what (in the form of a character and/or event) and a believable why (the motivation or circumstances that molds the outcome).


american nations colin woodard
[Photo credit: Amazon]
Continuing the election-related focus, I recommend Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America.  It might just as well be titled “The United States and How It Got This Way.” His premise is that sub-cultures within the U.S. today can be understood in terms of who settled various parts of the continent, when, and under what circumstances. His labeling of the regions takes a bit of getting used to, but he provides a map. Overall, he has closely tied what to why in a highly readable and (for me) informative book.


FINAL TAKEAWAY: Election season is a great time to read voraciously!