So You Think You Want to be A Novelist

Donis Casey is the author of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries, set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s and featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children. The ninth Alafair Tucker Mystery, The Return of the Raven Mocker, was released this year. Read the first chapter of each book at

You think that it would be a pleasant life to be a published novelist, do you? Allow me to let you in on a thing or two about the act of writing a novel that no one may have told you.

It isn’t pleasant to spend weeks of your life writing scenes and sentences and paragraphs that are actually wonderful, and then have to take them out because you realize – or your editor or your writers’ group points out quite correctly – that they don’t fit the story. It’s horrible! I loved that character. That was a brilliant line. But the vicious truth is that a well-constructed novel does not include anything that does not advance the plot or reveal something about a character. You want that story published? If your publisher/editor says to change or delete that scene you love, you suck it up, wipe your eyes, and take it out.

If you have signed a contract, and you have agreed to deliver an acceptable manuscript by a certain date, you will undergo a period of hair-raising terror and desperation as the deadline approaches, mark my words. You will offer your first born to the muses if you can just get the requisite number of words on the page by the deadline. You will pray that your manuscript is at least good enough that your editor won’t throw it back in your face and tell you that you’ll never write in this town again. Once the MS has been read and approved, and even praised, you will be relieved beyond measure while at the same time swearing that you’ll never put yourself through this again. Until another damn good idea pops into your head. I promise you that Toni Morrison, Steven King, and William Shakespeare have all had this experience.

You will undergo actual physical pain. I’ve just spent the past week in a writing frenzy. This frenzy includes long interludes of staring at a computer screen, waiting for just the right word to occur to me. Aside from doing what is necessary to keep myself alive and fit for human society, I’ve spent day after day, hour after hour, in this chair, typing away. When I cannot take it any more, I wrench myself up into a standing position. I’m bleary-eyed, and have a headache. My back hurts. My butt is numb. My wrist hurts. Where did I put that wrist brace? My husband asks why I’m walking like Quasimodo. Take a stretch. Get a drink. Get a pillow for the chair. I go to the bathroom, splash some water on my face, and examine my face in the mirror. Oh, my God. No more writing today. I have to have something to eat. I sit down with Don and have a bowl of soup and some crusty bread. He asks me how it’s going.

Well, my dear, I wrote a scene in which a character visits her mother-in-law’s house and discovers a clue in the bedroom. I worked on it all day, but I’m not happy with what I’ve got. Perhaps if I approached it from another angle. Perhaps it would be more effective if it weren’t at her mother-in-law’s house, but in her own. I’ll have to rework that whole scene. Maybe I don’t even need it.

Four hours of writing, shot.

Write What You Know

Write What You Know.

(And You Know More than You Think)

By Dan Baldwin

Writers are told to “write what you know.” But what if you think your genre makes it impossible to know?  Take heart; you know far more than you think.

You’re writing a Western, but you’ve never been in a confrontation in an 1870s saloon. If you’re writing a steamy romance about Scotland in the 1700s, how do you know how the duel in the Highlands went? Let’s say you’re writing science fiction. How the heck do you describe the bar fight between the Slugorthian and the Muggflanger down in the LSD bar?

Obviously, none of us know the ins and outs of confrontations in faraway places with strange sounding names. (Have you ever met a Slugorthian on LSD?) So how do we get around that literary blockade?

Transplant the information you have stored up in your life experience into your scene. For example, you’ve never been in a dangerous confrontation in the Crystal Palace Saloon in old Tombstone. But you have been to a board meeting. You have certainly been to a committee meeting. You’ve seen conflict in the club locker room, the Friday night card game, the break room at work, the golf course, the supermarket and any number of other places.

Use that experience to fuel the scene in your book, short story, screenplay or Internet post.

For example, think back to that committee meeting. The pushy chairman with his own agenda becomes the greedy cattle baron determined to take over the town. The yes men on the committee are his hired guns. That quiet guy from accounting becomes the alcoholic doctor trying to find some dignity before cashing in his chips. The attractive woman across the table is the school marm hoping to civilize an uncivilized town. Or, she could be the soiled dove with the heart of gold. The others members are the defenseless towns folk fearful and in need of a hero.  You, well, of course, you’re John Wayne.

Take the events and conflict of that meeting or confrontation, transpose them to your work, expand and exaggerate where appropriate. “I call this meeting to order” becomes “All right, you bunch of sod-busters, this is how it’s gonna be.” You’ll be surprised at how accurate your scene becomes – because it’s real. It’s based on genuine human emotion and interaction. Readers will respond because your words reach them with the common language of emotion regardless of whether it’s spoken in cowboy drawl, Scottish brogue or Slugorthian syntax.

Plug in the details as needed. For example, the greedy cattle baron’s number one gunslinger no longer carries “a big gun.” He carries “a Colt Walker, a heavy weapon, but a comfortable fit in the big hands of Bad Bob.” Details are important. But you can dig up the details you need in books, online, in interviews, and through personal research.

The key to successful writing, however, is the true human emotion you put into your work.

But you already know that, don’t you.

Tip of the Week – Accident Prone Prose

Effective Communications Tip of the Week

By Dan Baldwin

Accident Prone Prose

Driving under the influence is no laughing matter, but getting caught DUI certainly inspires the creative juices to start flowing. Following are a few heartfelt (if not thought out) explanations offered to the officer, judge or spouse in charge of the unfortunate situation.

The pedestrian had no idea which direction to run, so I ran over him.

I told the police that I was not injured, but on removing my hat, found that I had fractured my skull.

The telephone pole was approaching fast. I was attempting to swerve out of its way when it struck my front end.

My car was legally parked as I back into the other vehicle.

A cow wandered into my car. I was later informed that the unfortunate cow was half-witted.

The accident occurred when I was attempting to bring my car out of a skid by steering into the other vehicle.

When I saw I could not avoid a collision, I stepped on the gas and crashed into the other car.

An invisible care came out of nowhere, struck my car, and vanished.

The gentleman behind me struck me on the backside He then went to rest in a bush with just his rear end showing.

The other car collided with mine without giving warning of its intentions.

I was thrown from my car as it left the road. I was later found in a ditch by some stray cows.

The accident was entirely due to the road bending.

I saw a slow-moving, sad faced old gentleman, as he bounced off the hood of my car.

The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.