Choosing the Right Project–what’s right for YOU?

As part of my Writing Life, I often ponder the following question:  how do I know which project to write about?  I am usually bombarded with snippets of ideas or “what if’s” or unusual situations that could blossom into a wonderful range of possible projects.  It’s not always easy for me to recognize from that mess of tidbits what is the right idea.  How do I know if an idea is worthy of the amount of time I’m going to spend writing about it?  


When I ask these questions of more established writers, I usually get some variation of the following advice:


  1. Go with the idea that you are most passionate about.  This is the idea that won’t leave you alone.  You find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about it, getting up to jot down a few notes.  
  2. Put away all your ideas, walk away from them for a week or two, and then pull them out again.  Often times, your ideas will weed themselves out when you puzzle over why you ever thought it was a good idea in the first place.  
  3. Throw away the first three ideas, because they’re the obvious ones, and go with the fourth idea.  


That’s what I did when I chose to write about Nell Letterly, my martial artist amateur sleuth.  My fourth idea turned into Nell, a menopausal single mom of a teenager.  


Years ago, one of my critique partners–Dolores Johnson, author of the Mandy Dyer dry cleaner’s series–kept suggesting that I write about a martial artist amateur sleuth.  Dolores had been a journalist specializing in the dry cleaning trade, and she turned her insider information into her wonderful, humorous series.  At the time, I was training in the martial arts while writing adventure science fiction.  Dolores advised–as many writers do–to write what you know about.  Well, I have never journeyed on a spaceship (although I would dearly love to!) but I did rack up many hours in the dojo.  


I decided to give it a try.  I wanted my sleuth to be an instructor.  Most of the instructors I knew were young hotshots, late teens, early twenties, with energy to burn.  So I started writing about a young twenty-something woman martial artist.  After a chapter or two, I ran out of what to write about her.  I just couldn’t get into that character’s head.  She was nothing like me, and I couldn’t understand where she was coming from.  When I came up with a middle-aged mom who was more like me–dedicated and hard working, but not exactly gifted athletically–her character leapt off the page.  


Now, Nell won’t let me alone.  She makes me write about her.  I think she’s become a more original character because she also has something of me in her.  You can’t go wrong with a project that chooses you!  



What’s in a Name: World Cup Edition

Like many other Americans, I’ve been passively watching the World Cup for the past week. And by “passively,” I mean I’ve had it on in the background while cooking, watching the U.S. team’s games, and sort of paying attention when there’s a news story about what’s going on there. I’m a life-long sports lover and my kid plays soccer, so you know, it’s interesting enough for me, even if I’m not a diehard fan or anything.

Sometime during the past few days, an old newspaper friend of mind mentioned a story she’d like to see would be on the announcers and how they learn to pronounce such ethnically diverse names in preparation for the World Cup. It’s a good question. Those announcers know big picture about soccer better than almost anyone in the world, but that doesn’t automatically mean they know off-hand how to say the last name of some bench-rider from every qualifying country.

This got the writerly part of me thinking about names. Specifically, last names.

Because I write crime fiction, usually with a detective protagonist, I tend to have my characters call each other by their last names quite a bit. It’s natural and normal and makes things more accurate, in my opinion.

But this also means I need last names that work easily over and over again. Ones that are different from each other, but not so unusual that it stops the reader or makes them constantly wonder how the name is pronounced.

And even though it sounds strange, I find venues like the World Cup a perfect chance to find diverse names to use at a later date. I also love using other sporting events — the NCAA Tournament, the Super Bowl, all the tennis majors, etc. — for this purpose. If I hear a name I like, I write it down, and keep it in mind for later. I realize that some people like to use cemeteries or riff off favorite characters in books or movies as inspiration for character names as well, but somehow, sporting events always get me.

How do you choose names for your characters?

Interview: Steve Shrott

Please welcome Steve Shrott, author of Audition for Death and other works.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
A perfect day is one in which I wake up and receive lots of applause. That doesn’t happen very often, and mostly I have to applaud myself. (My dog won’t dbookcover5o it no matter how much kibble I give him.) Seriously, I think a perfect day is where the writing is really flowing. I particularly enjoy it if I can work in several different areas such as short stories, a novel and maybe a screenplay. I like variety. Part of the perfect day would include reading a book that really hooks me.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
My favorite phrase is probably–have fun every day. No matter how many things I have to do, I try to make sure I have at least a bit of fun. I think it’s important for balance in our lives. Of course fun can be different for different people. For me, a lot of my fun comes from writing.

My favorite meal is brunch at an expensive restaurant for which someone else is paying.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Dave Barry (Writes funny novels)
Dai Vernon (Created magical illusions)
Johnathon Kellerman (Bestselling mystery writer)
All of the above gentlemen expanded my creativity in different ways.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No. But lately I have been thinking of trying it when I write noir fiction. I think playing “moody” music would help get me into the proper frame of mind to write that type of material.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
My book would be one of those milk chocolates that starts melting in your mouth as soon as you pop it in. The reason is, that my books are meant to be fun right from the start, they go fast, and at the end, you want another one.

Of course whether the chocolate-book were dark, light, or plaid, I would eat it.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
For most of my life, I’ve been involved in the entertainment field one way or another, and I have experienced a lot of interesting situations. So I thought a mystery based on actors and acting would be amusing. Just to give you an example, many years ago, I worked in a theatre group. We did children’s shows in the morning and, at lunch, murder mysteries. The same actors appeared in both. We had one scene in one of the mysteries where a mobster was going to shoot the man who had stolen his money.

Another actor was supposed to come in, just at that moment, wearing a policeman’s outfit. However, the actor had had a few too many drinks, and instead came out dressed as a character from the children’s show—a red butterfly. He had wings, and antennae. This did not fit into the murder mystery very well. The mobster shot at him, uttering the line, “Damn insects.” This woke butterfly-man up as to what he had done, and he pretended to fly offstage.

So you can see why I wanted to write a story about actors.

What themes do you regularly (re) visit in your writing?
I visit many themes because I tend to write in different genres. My humorous fiction is generally about how circumstances are sometimes against us, but if we persevere we can overcome them, and have happy endings. Although, not always the endings we expect. I also deal with themes of sanity vs insanity, and how people are often not who we think they are.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person she is today?
My main character is an actor obsessed with his career. He always hopes that one day he will be famous—even though right now most of his roles are dead bodies. He is vain, and desperately wants to keep his looks up for future roles, and also for the ladies. He’s become the person he is today because he spent a lot time ruining his career with his enormous ego and drinking. He managed to stop drinking and has become a nicer person, although his ego is still intact. But now he’s in the difficult situation of being a little older, and still attempting to get somewhere in the acting profession.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Fletch, from the movie (and book) Fletch, because he’s a wisecracker trying to solve a mystery
Sheldon, on The Big Bang Theory because he’s a self-obsessed character who doesn’t see himself as the rest of the world sees him.
Alfie from the movie What’s it All About Alfie?, because he likes the ladies.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Johnathon Kellerman
Dave Barry
Raymond Chandler
Stephen King
Phillip K Dick
And maybe Doctor Phil, (also a writer,) so he could analyze us and tell us why we got into this crazy profession.
I chose the above list of writers to give the dinner party a lot of variety.

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m editing my novel about a dentist who decides he needs some excitement in his life, and becomes a part-time P.I. I’m also writing lots of short stories in different genres, as well as screenplays. I am continuing to teach my writing courses at Savvy Writers, and Romance Writers of America, on adding humor to novels, and how to write a page turning book. I’m also doing talks for various associations. In my spare time I nap.

Thanks a lot for the interview. I enjoyed it!


Steve Shrott is an award-winning writer whose mystery short stories have been published in numerous print magazines and e-zines. His work has appeared in ten anthologies—two from Sisters-in-Crime (The Whole She-Bang, and Fishnets.) He was also a winner in The Joe Konrath Short Story Contest. As well, he teaches on-line courses for Savvy Writers and The Romance Writers of America. His comedy material has been used by well-known performers of stage and screen and he has written a book on how to create humor. Some of his jokes are in The Smithsonian Institute.


The Writing Life: Finding Motivation

Motivation comes in a couple of flavors. One is the motivation to write. I mean, you could binge watch the entire seventh season of Dr. Who, read a book, or slog through yet another round of revisions on that novel. Sometimes, especially when you’re hot and tired, writerly motivation is hard to come by.

But that’s not what this post is about. I’m talking about a different kind of motivation.

What motivates your characters?

Deep characters, the kind that really connect with readers, do things for reasons. They don’t wander aimlessly through life, performing random actions for no discernible reason. This is something that’s kept me, as a reader, from truly connecting to Jack Reacher. I have no idea why he does what he does.

In my early writing career, this is something I didn’t quite understand. Isn’t general curiosity or a desire to make things right enough of a motivation for someone to investigate a murder? Well, not really. This was brought home to me when I attended a workshop on writing those crucial first fifty pages of a mystery. I was (bravely) answering the workshop leader’s questions until she got to the kicker: “So what? Why would she do this?”

And I couldn’t answer.

At the time, I thought it was horribly unfair. I cried. I wanted to quit writing. How dare this woman criticize my character’s motivation. Couldn’t she see that my character was A Good Person who was Curious and Wanted to Help a Friend? Wasn’t that good enough?

After another friend talked me off the ledge, and I learned a bit more about the craft and writing mysteries in particular, I learned something: No, it really wasn’t good enough.

I continued to struggle with this. I put the manuscript away. I couldn’t quite come up with a motivation for an amateur sleuth that didn’t sound horribly cheesy. I’d never get this. Perhaps I was writing the wrong genre.

Then, in the fall of 2011, I hit on a story idea using a police officer as a protagonist. Yes! This made sense. I loved the character, people loved the story. Yes, learning I was writing police procedural was a bit intimidating (all those facts and details to get right), but suddenly, the major stumbling block was gone. I had character motivation.

He’s a cop. Investigating crime, and murder, is his job. I didn’t have to come up with creative motivation. Problem solved. With four short stories on the market, one on the way, and a novel in the works for The Laurel Highland Mysteries, I’ve found a groove.

I recently remarked to a published writing friend that it felt like a bit of a cheat. She disagreed. “It’s a convention of the genre. He does other things, right? There’s your creative motivations.”

And the lightbulb went on. Of course, his motivation for his other life decisions come out of his core values – which is what drove him to law enforcement in the first place. But it turns out that “sense of duty” and “loyalty” and “dedication to truth and justice” are motivation for lots of things. All valid, all easily (and logically) supported.

Maybe that’s why I relate to procedurals, both as a writer and a reader, easier than cozies. The motivation is clear. I don’t have to think, “Why on earth would Miss Marple even get involved in this?” It’s like trying to imagine myself investigating a murder. I wouldn’t – I’d call the police. My brain just can’t wrap itself around the concept of how to believably get a civilian as a murder investigator (other writers can and it’s one of the things that I  admire about cozy authors – that ability to make me believe random civilian would get involved in murder).

As a writer, you constantly need to be asking yourself this question: So what? Why would he/she do that? Not just for your protagonist. Don’t forget the bad guy. The mustache-twirling, “evil for the sake of it” bad guy is clichéd. Something’s motivating your antagonist? What is it? How does he see himself as the hero of his own story?

We all do things for reasons. We all have motivations. And to write really compelling characters, on both sides of the law, writers must answer that question – So what? Why?

Because when we answer that, we create characters, and stories, that connect with readers. And that’s really what it’s all about.

So tell me: where do you find motivation for your characters – and who are the characters that sell their motivation to you as a reader?

Aliens Have Taken Over My Manuscript!

For the past week, I’ve been binging on episodes of Roswell from Amazon Prime. The way I see it, storytelling is storytelling, and, even if it’s a story about alien teenagers in a small town in New Mexico, if it’s told well, I’m going to be entertained. Plus, I’m a firm believer in the concepts of reading-is-learning and inspiration-is-everywhere. You can learn from just about anything as long as you’re paying attention, and sometimes watching someone else’s story can show you how you can improve your own.

The premise of Roswell is that three alien teenagers have been secretly living in Roswell, New Mexico, but when a random shooting threatens the life of a regular small town girl, one alien risks exposure to save her life. From there, the trio of alien teens become romantically involved with a trio regular teens, which, these days, would be enough drama for a full season.

But wait! There’s more!

G-men are aware that strange things are afoot in Roswell, so on top of raging hormones, jealous boyfriends, and questions like does-he-like-me-like-me? are the additional issues of federal agents, suppressed memories from the day the UFO crashed, and one particularly inquisitive sheriff who’s just trying to do his job.

Watching the series unfold, you quickly get the sense that there’s a story arc that goes beyond each episode. And, as episode after episode plays, you understand that it isn’t the story of the injured small town girl and the alien who saves her who make the show binge-worthy, it’s everything else. Like the fact that the ex-boyfriend’s dad is the town sheriff, or that two of the aliens have been adopted by a nice family but the third lives in a rundown shack with a dad who doesn’t care about him. The show is littered with little dramas that ratchet up the tension, and a couple of episodes in, let you realize that the writers aren’t going to give these characters a break any time soon.  

Roswell is my current guilty pleasure, but it’s also a device to help me understand plot mechanics. What guilty pleasures to do you turn to for inspiration?


PS: Suede To Rest in 139 days!

The Writing Life: Plotter or Pantser

By Kristi Belcamino

On the heels of my debut mystery, with book two coming out in a few weeks, now I’m starting to plot book three in my Gabriella Giovanni series.

Because I’m not a “pantser” which I think comes from the term “by the seat of your pants” a free-flowing, free-spirited, go-with-the-flow write-as-it-comes-to-you writer.

Nope. I plot.

I like to have a rough sketch or outline of what my novel is going to look like before I actually sit down to write. I haven’t always been this way. When I wrote Blessed are the Dead, I sat down with a vague idea of the story and let it carry me way. Which sounds wonderful and artsy and more creative, but in reality it was a terrific waste of time.

I got the words on paper and had a first draft of my novel in three months. But then I spent a year revising, polishing, shaping and molding it into the book that is in your hands today. Because when I first wrote it, I didn’t know squat about three-act structure.

And I got away with not knowing it for quite a long time. I was even able to get an agent without knowing it. But when she went to sell the book people came soooo close to buying it, but said there was “something” that wasn’t quite right about it. One editor said she went to bed thinking “I HAVE to buy this book” but woke up saying she wouldn’t be able to get others on board because it had a FATAL flaw. Holy, cats. What FATAL flaw? It read like two different books. Say what? Then another editor said something similar.

I tore apart my novel and began studying every book I could get my hands on that talked about structure, because the chief complaint about my book had something to do with its structure. Hmmm. As I read all these books, something became very clear to me—like a kick to the teeth—My book was NOT following standard three-act structure—the same structure that every successful book and movie on the planet follows.

So I revised once again. This time, I had several books to guide me, James Scott Bell’s PLOT & STRUCTURE and STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks. Then, we resubmitted to the editors and this time—BOOK DEAL. Two-book deal with HarperCollins!!!! 

When I sat down to write book two, you better believe I used three-act structure in my plotting. And for book three, yeppers!

I love using the Index Card method that Alexandra Sokoloff talks about in SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS. 

Do you plot or are you a pantser? If you plot, what do you use? Please share. I’m a nerd about writing process and love to hear how authors do it.

The Writing Life: Encouraging Future Readers–and Writers

It’s that time of year, the time when school comes to a close and children are handed their summer reading lists. Many great, local libraries engage in fun contests to encourage the kids to keep reading over the summer, and even Barnes & Noble gets in the act, offering a free book to children who complete the reader’s worksheet they provide.

Her dad and I were pretty pleased with munchkin’s list this year. She’ll be preparing for sixth grade, and she has to read six books. Two are determined by the school (one, Wonder,  by RJ Palacio, will be read by the whole middle school; the other is Hatchet, by Gary Paulson). For the other four, the school provided a list with options in many different genres: poetry, science fiction, non-fiction, historical fiction, realistic fiction, and fantasy. Clearly, the faculty wanted every student to find something on the list that would appeal to him or her, and I think they did a great job. It’s not easy to please everyone!

But too often, the lists I see and hear about are limited to a single “approved” genre, or the books are completely prescribed, with no reader choice. There are many adults who still seem to believe that reading a graphic novel isn’t really, well, reading. And this makes me sad. Reading the written word, any written word, does delightful, delicious things for the developing brain. Giving children the freedom to make their own reading choices gives them power, ownership over the journey they’re undertaking. There are so few parts of this journey from childhood to adulthood that they will have some say in, that it seems important to give them what we can, allow them that responsibility. Kids will challenge themselves when they’re ready, honest.

Our daughter is a very bright, articulate child. She’s also empathetic to the point that it can be painful. So while her friends were reading Harry Potter in first and second grade, she was reading about candy fairies right into fifth grade. Her choices were safe. She made mostly non-fiction reading choices. Books about nature, the weather, and cats were her go-to choices, because they was no drama and conflict. Her teachers told my husband and I again and again, let it go, she’ll make different choices when she’s ready.

We took her summer book list to the store to shop two weeks ago, and she snatched up the poetry book immediately. Then she perused the other choices, and to my surprise, chose the one that seems to have the deepest, most emotional story from the realistic fiction category. It’s about a child who struggles to fit into his new school and town, suffers from constant harassment from his brother, and is overwhelmed at the secrets he’s discovering about his family, but ultimately gains confidence on his journey to acceptance, both for himself and of his family (Tangerine, by Edward Bloor). Then we moved to the YA section where she chose several weighty books with a variety of themes. All reading-level appropriate, and a few that will challenge her. But I didn’t pick them–she did, because she’s ready.

Likewise, munchkin’s school has had the students writing quite a bit. There’s been a summer reading journal most years, and even though that’s not a requirement for this summer, she’s doing one anyway. As with many schools, hers had the students write poetry before a visiting poet arrived, hosted a Young Author’s Day every spring where the students read their original work to parents and grandparents, and so on.

I would argue, however, that it’s not enough to simply lean on the school and expect teachers to produce the next generation of readers and writers. Like most families, we’re quite busy and it’s hard to fit in any more stuff. But we have to, I think, in order to truly encourage, support, and create that next generation. It takes more than reading a bedtime story (although that activity is incredibly valuable). It requires the adults in the home to show that they value the written word, either by reading it or by producing it. Visiting libraries and book stores is a wonderful way to spend time with children.

Further, children need to hear from us that we value the act of reading. In our house, we ask munchkin (and her friends!) to talk about what she’s reading, to share what she likes and what she’s confused by; we encourage her to read her stories and poetry to us, and share her reading journal with her grandparents. These small activities bolster her confidence and creativity. We don’t evaluate what she presents or writes, we just enjoy it, which gives her freedom to explore and challenge herself. It’s not easy to find the time (remember that post on making time?), but it’s essential, in my opinion. Any other great ideas on how to keep our kids engaged in reading and writing?

Here’s to future readers and writers everywhere! May summer be a time of reading and writing enjoyment for all.