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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
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
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
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
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