Monday, September 21, 2015

Writing tips I've learned from my long ride by Sandy Semerad

     It's been a lengthy journey, going from news reporter to author. I'd like to think I've learned a few things along the way, although I have often pondered this question: 

   Has working as a reporter helped me write better novels?

I hope so, but it’s been quite a ride. It didn’t start off as I intended.

As a child, I made up stories in my head, but as a reporter, I had to stick to the facts—“just the facts mam.”

In my early years, as a wet behind the ears journalist, I struggled to write a proper lead sentence with who, what, when, where, why and sometimes how. Or at least I was told that was the proper way.

I’d lose sleep, agonizing over the five w’s, not to mention the how’s. With perseverance, I learned to please my editors and meet my deadlines.

I still think it’s important to know the rules, particularly the rules of grammar, but it’s equally vital to find your own voice. Breaking the rules might be part of that process.

As for my journey as a writer, I have evolved. I’ve learned to construct simpler lead sentences, without including the five w’s all at once. I felt it was my obligation as a news woman to inform readers without boring them to death.

Readers crave excitement and conflict. That I know.

Who wants every question answered in the beginning? Not I.

It wasn’t until I moved to Florida that I started writing down the stories in my head. I saw a man fall from the back of a truck into a car, and I wondered: What if this happened to me on my way to New Orleans during Mardi Gras?

I entertained myself with this story until the characters began to multiply. I couldn’t keep them straight in my head. So I started writing about them. In a few months, I had a novel, or at least the first draft of a novel.

In reading through my first draft, I realized I needed more conflict. It wasn’t easy placing my lovely characters in danger, but I bit the bullet, and ruthlessly overwhelmed them with problems. I made them struggle and fail and encounter death until the very end. Call me merciless.

I also learned how to start off my tale with an inciting incident. I call this hooking the reader. Hook the reader with every turn, I say. Add hooks in the beginning, cliff hangers at the end of each chapter and at transitional breaks.

For me, the beginning of my story is the most challenging. How will I create a life-changing event? Will this event be the death of a loved one, a divorce, a murder, a job loss, a terrible accident, or a violent argument? Whatever, it must be riveting.

My first mystery novel Sex, Love, & Murder (previously Mardi Gravestone), begins with two inciting incidents. In the prologue, the president and my main character Lilah--a journalist and young widow-- are shot. After the prologue, I have the first chapter starting the week before the shootings. Lilah is in an automobile accident. A man is in a coma as a result of that accident. As the ambulance takes him away, Lilah discovers his tossed suitcase, containing cash and the details of a murder.

In Hurricane House, my protagonist is mourning the death of her fiancé when she discovers a body in the gulf.

In A Message in the Roses, Carrie Sue unlocks a diary revealing secrets she has yet to resolve.

But I must confess, when I first began writing novels, I suffered from backstory-itis, commonly known as information dump. (I define back story as anything that has happened to a character before the inciting incident).

As an avid reader myself, I enjoy a story with unanswered question. I like to ponder and wonder. Adding too much of the back story takes that pleasure away from me.

Now I find it helpful to write a back story for each of my main characters before I begin my tale. I want to know my characters as well as I know myself. Armed with this knowledge, I can add back story as needed.

In A Message in the Roses, Carrie Sue’s parents died in a plane crash. I mentioned this in the first chapter, because I thought readers needed to understand why she grabbed a letter opener and tried to stab her cheating husband. If I failed to create sympathy for Carrie Sue, readers might not like her and understand her impulsiveness.  

Including back story can be tricky, no question. It can be almost as complex as utilizing the five senses in scenes.
I have a tendency to overwrite, and for that reason, I hide my first drafts. No one sees them unless I badly need the opinion of someone like my husband, whom I trust.

I wish my every word and every sentence were impeccable but, I no longer bow to perfection while writing the first draft.  

Perfection, I’ve found is an elusive goal, entirely subjective, and in my life, it seems I’ve attained more from my imperfections and failures. I’ve certainly learned never to give up, no matter what, and I sincerely hope you’ve learned a few things from my writing struggles.

Whatever you take away, I want you to know: I write with passion, and when you think about it, writing with passion, might be the best tip of all.

To read more about my work please visit my website and the links below:

Buy link, A Message in the Roses

Buy Link, Huricane House