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The Shadow Knows: The Secret of Chiaroscuro Writing

Way back in 1930 the biggest show on the air — the radio air that is — was a show that started with the chilling refrain, “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The shadow knows . . . ”

Secrets are the dark side of our portraits. First, the Dutch Masters created this nuance in oil, and later photographers recreated it on film. What they discovered was that showing less light on one side of the face or subject, brings out depth and dimension. It’s how they created the realism of a three-dimensional image when, as you know, the paintings or film were two-dimensional rectangles. They call it “modeling.” It makes a picture more interesting, less flat.

In writing, characters need shadow too. And for the same reason: to make them more interesting. Only in this case,  the shadow must come from within the character, not from external shading. The source of this darkness is usually the secrets a human shares with no one but themselves, the kinds of awful internal things that only self-love can abide. Call it the darker side of our humanity. Since without dark there can be no light, then it follows that there can be no enlightened humanity without the penumbra of our darkest inner thoughts. The literary opportunity here is that these very same secrets could also generate self-loathing.

Characters can be defined not only from what they love, admire, and respect, but also from what they fear, loathe, and hate. The most intimate of these are self-doubt, self-loathing or even self-hate. Often when a character conquers, masters, or gives in to this most personal fault, it becomes the climax of the character’s internal struggle. I believe this makes a character more human, memorable, and ultimately real.

In photography, contrast ratio is defined as how much light is employed against how much dark. In literary characters, how much light they emit is also a ratio between their secrets, baggage and internal weight – against their lighter natures. This is a very essential tool in deep character analysis. That analysis, by the way, is always best done after the character has taken form. In my opinion, these character elements should be discovered as you are writing your story and not pre-engineered into their DNA before you start to write. That way these foibles become more organic to the flow of the story and don’t stick out like —  “And now a word from the character building department.”

So, shading a character in prose is akin to utilizing “Rembrandt Lighting” in art, film, or photography. The ten-dollar word for this technique is “chiaroscuro,” which Merriam-Webster defines as: the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow. How many of us live behind a veil or know folks who are hiding some deep dark secret that is bending or shaping their personality. As an author, you may choose to reveal the secret(s) to the reader or not, but as a tool for having the character act and behave in a certain way, knowing this part of your character’s make up will guide you in SHADING or COLORING your character’s actions, reactions, and observations at any point in your story.

As in all things, too heavy a hand, too much obvious contrast, and our work, and our characters, start to look stagey, overdone. But the right balance of contrast and dimension, brought on by the shadow of secrets, will make our character’s inner struggle fit seamlessly into the canvas of the story.

—Tom Avitabile

Tom Avitabile is a senior v.p. in advertising, as well as a writer, director, and producer with numerous film and television credits. His recent trilogy of novels chronicle the exploits of Science Advisor to the President “Wild” Bill Hiccock. The first of this series, The Eighth Day, became a Barnes and Noble #1 bestseller. His latest hardcover novel, Give Us This Day, also became a number one best seller. 

How to Write When the World Is Too Much With You

Worried young woman at computer

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
—William Wordsworth

For me, the past few years have been tough ones on the writing front. I lost my editor and then my publisher. Lost my agent. My family had crisis after crisis and the political situation in the world today is not helping my mental state.  If that sounds familiar to you, maybe you, too, have struggled with how to write at all when your brain is “otherwise occupied” and how to imbue your characters with emotion when your own are wrung out.

Bad news: I don’t have all the answers.

Good news: I have a few suggestions that might help.

1) Consider how long the problem you’re facing will continue and whether there’s anything you can do about it. In the case of losing my publisher and agent, I sat down and considered what it meant. It was permanent, which was pretty chilling, but it also meant that I had the ability to try some new things. The family crises were more debilitating and there was nothing I could do about their emotional toll, but I managed to figure out a way to alleviate their physical toll.

2) If it's going to be a long road and you can’t fix it (major health crises in your family, politics, etc), see if you can schedule your way around stuff. For example, maybe you only write 3 days a week and give the others over to dealing with whatever is pressing on you. Think about what’s realistic for you in the situation and plan around it.

3) If the problem comes from the world around you, like politics, etc, download a program (I use Freedom) to block access to the internet to allow you to shut it out on the days you need to work. It’s okay. I promise. The good and the bad will both still be there  when you get back. If you’re the kind of person who can write half a day and concentrate on the things that worry you half a day, set up that kind of schedule. I can’t do it. I have to focus on one thing per day. (But I do allow myself to focus back on the distractions in the evening.)

4) Get out. Literally and figuratively. Walk outside for at least fifteen minutes. Come back inside, write for an hour, and go back out. You’ll feel better and you’ll give yourself time to process what’s going on in your manuscript while you walk.

5) Sometimes, even when the words just won’t come, you can still outline. Not a plotter? I recommend Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley. I have a brief review here. Can’t even plot? Try journaling or other forms of writing not related to your current work just to keep the habit of writing fluid.

How about you? Do you have any tips for writing when your brain won’t cooperate?

—Laura K. Curtis

Laura K. Curtis is the president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. She has written romance, romantic suspense, and crime fiction. She is currently working on a contemporary Gothic-style ghost story.

Panster vs. Plotter: The Definitive Answer

flying_pants-2“No one can write a book without an outline,” the New York Times #1 Bestselling author said to the assembled audience of mystery/thriller novelists, aspiring writers, and fans. There was not the slightest provisional hint in his tone. He was speaking ex cathedra. This was the first line of his papal encyclical on how to write a novel.

The interviewer tended to agree with him. Said that one could never get anywhere unless he (sic) knew his destination.

“And had a map to get there,” Mr. Smug Bestseller added.

I have 17 years of Catholic school education and an upbringing of excellent lessons in politeness from my parents and grandparents. I flew in the face of it all. I could not stay in my seat. From the last row in the auditorium, I stood, looking as good natured as ever, and striking a jocular, arms-akimbo pose, I called out the names E.L. Doctorow and John Fowles. And retook my seat.

Mr. Bestseller looked confused. Mr. Interviewer offered that E.L. Doctorow had said something about writing being like driving at night. I held my tongue while they continued to insist that no one could write a novel without a very detailed outline. They both accused “pantsers” of secretly writing outlines and just not admitting it.

How dare they accuse us pantsers of being either incapable or lying about not using outlines?

For those of you who don’t know the terms: In writing circles, a plotter is an author who writes an outline of the story before beginning to draft the scenes of the book. A pantser starts with a few ideas or characters and jumps right into telling the story without knowing exactly what is going to happen.

Outliners, not always with the above self-satisfied attitude, often say that their way is the right way. I have never heard a pantser say such a thing. At that conference, I did not shout out more than the two author names above. But I have been ruminating about this off and on ever since. Here is what I would have said had I been in a position to do so.

Okay, Mr. Interviewer and Mr. Smug Bestseller. You plotters need a map. We pantsers are the explorers, the mapmakers. We journey forth and draw the map as we go along. We trust that some of those dark alleys we wind up in have the potential of leading us to the most creative ideas we ever have.

Here is how I think we can put this subject to rest forever. The overriding most basic fact: Unless an author is telling the same old story, all novelists are pantsers when they start a book. How else could the plotters write an outline, except by pantsing their way to the end of the story? Answer me that!

Plotters begin by writing down, in shorthand, the story they are pantsing. When they are done, they use the result of their pantsing as an outline for fleshing out the story and making it into a book. Pansters do the same thing, except that we write in longhand from the beginning, so that when we are done, so is the book. One way is NOT better than the other. All writers have to find their own way to a process that yields a good book.

—Annamaria Alfieri

Originally published on Murder Is Everywhere.

MWA-NY Chapter President Emerita Annamaria Alfieri’s first novel, City of Silver, was named one of the best debut mysteries of the year by Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. Her short stories have been published in Queens Noir and Sunshine Noir. She is the author of Blood Tango and two other historical mysteries set in South America as well as a new series set in East Africa in the early 20th century, beginning with Strange Gods. Its sequel, The Idol of Mombasa, was published this fall.


pitch1John Grisham is a believer in the Elevator Pitch. You know, the one where you get on a lift with an editor or agent and hook the unsuspecting soul with a summary of your story that makes the "This is my floor" ding coincide with the light bulb appearing over his or her head. Assuming we all might learn something from a Southern ex-lawyer who’s sold a book or two, Grisham told Writer’s Digest, “If you can’t describe what a book is about in one or two sentences, you don’t have a story worth telling.”

Here’s our pitch to you: In just 90 minutes next week, Pitch Perfect, our MWA-NY panel event, which includes an agent, an editor, and two bestselling authors, will make you better at pitching, regardless of whether you are a hopeful, a beginner, or a published writer. Ding?

Why is pitching such a big deal? It isn't just because it is the key portal between you and a sale; it’s more than that. Pitching’s a big deal because it scares the crap out of most writers. That’s, in part, because the stakes are so high. But what makes it even more daunting is this: Selling simply isn’t where most of us feel comfortable. William Butler Yeats understated things when he said that “a work of art is the social act of a solitary man.” Or woman, of course. So many of us are wired to be introverts. It’s what made us writers to begin with. But what we conceive and dream alone, huddled over our glowing screens or inky notebooks, grappling privately with our hopes and insecurities, must eventually be brought Out There to that scary place—to be pitched. And there’s plenty to scare us.

Nightmare Pitch. I was a brand new story editor on the NBC series Night Court. Story pitch day, and I was up. Not to be intimidated or anything, but I was in a room full of seven fellow writers, pitching to the series creator/executive producer/uber-curmudgeon, Reinhold Weege. I pitched my lips off for five minutes, weaving my story idea, including dialogue snippets, sample jokes, the works. When I was done, Reiny took a deep drag off his cigarette, squinted at me through the smoke, and leveled me with a single word. " . . . And?"

Nightmare Pitch. Friends of mine, a writing team, had just enjoyed the thrill of a major studio producing one of their scripts as a movie. Riding that success, they met with a big producer to pitch him their next project. Finished after 20 minutes. The producer paused and said, “Why would you bother?” He swiveled his chair to show them his back, and they were ushered out by an assistant. They took that as a pass.

Dream Pitch. Of course, there’s the flip side. My agent had booked me for a meet-and-greet with a TV producer. He was running late, so, as I waited, a film producer who was also waiting introduced himself, and small talk led him to ask what I’d been working on. I told him I’d just finished a spec screenplay. He asked what it was about. Mindful of my impending meeting, I made it brief. When I finished he said, “I want to option that.” Don’t hate me, but he actually did, and contacted my agent that afternoon. To this day, I wonder, if I’d had the time to really prepare a formalized pitch, would it have sold?

What are the common elements? We take weeks, months, sometimes years of work, and pin everything on a paragraph. Unless the elevator is to the top floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, that need to be pithy, to get it said in 25 words or fewer, is like trying to stuff a booming Fourth of July fireworks finale into a Ziploc. It’s sweet when it sells. When it doesn’t, not so much. But the thing is, with all that’s on the line and with the investment of time, sweat, sacrifice, and soul you have put into your darling, why wouldn’t you do something to overcome the hurdle and get better at pitching?

And everyone can. Aspirant or veteran.

Of the myriad obstacles to completing and selling your book or story, pitching should not be one of them. If you take an objective view, a pitch should not be an obstacle, but an opportunity. Come on, it's a chance to sell your work! Grab it! Easier said? Let’s unpack things:

What's your obstacle? Is it the pitch itself? Really? Or is it within you? Things like:
• Fear
• Resistance
• Lack of preparation
• Distraction
• Self-sabotage
• Self-reproach
• Cynicism
• Overconfidence
• Stage fright
• Low self-esteem (and all its bastard cousins)

Those internals — the psychological aspects — those are real, aren’t they? You bet. And not to be ignored. Nor should they be sources of shame. But there must be some way to manage them, right? A few weeks after my Night Court nightmare, I attended a Writers Guild of America retreat at Lake Arrowhead, and one of the speakers was a psychologist who worked with creative people. Later, at the cocktail reception, I told her about my pitch anxiety, and she gave me the best advice I have ever gotten. Happy to share.

The psychologist said that in pitch situations most of us are geared to be worried about being judged personally. How am I sounding? How are they liking me so far? Should I make more eye contact? Am I smiling enough? Should I have gone with the corduroy pants? Did they notice my voice crack? Did that line just fall flat?  (Sound familiar?) The life-changing advice she gave me was to forget about my performance–to forget about myself–and to focus solely on whether I am clearly conveying information to them. Period. Full stop.

All right, so that helped me, and I hope it is of use to you. But I am still—and always—on the hunt to find ways to get better at pitching. Which is why the MWA-NY Pitch Perfect event coming up next week is so essential. To me. To anyone who has to pitch. Which is most of us. Here’s an authoritative way of looking at it from mega-selling author (and member of our New York Chapter), Nelson DeMille, in a Chicago Tribune interview. “It's not good if you don't know what to do with a manuscript once you've finished with it. A lot of young writers don't have a clue about that. You've got to do your industry homework. If you're writing just for yourself, fine. But if you want to be published by a major publisher and have people read what you write, you really need to know how the business works. I think that's one of the saddest things I can think of: a good manuscript that goes nowhere because it's been written by someone who doesn't know what to do with it.”

And that means pitch it.

Your opportunity is waiting for you Monday, December 12, 5:30 – 7 p.m., at the NYPL’s Bloomingdale Library, 150 West 100th Street (between Columbus and Amsterdam).

We have assembled an all-star panel: Amy Stapp, a leading New York book editor at Tor/Forge (Macmillan), Paul Stevens, a top agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and Jason Starran international bestselling author of suspense novels (as well as comics and graphic novels), all of whom will be there with one goal: to talk you through the harrowing process of pitching your project. The panel with be moderated by New York Times bestselling author David GrannNote: There will be an expanded Q&A session to allow audience members to question the experts—and to try out their pitches and get feedback on the spot.

This event also marks the annual kick-off of the MWA Mentor Program. If you are interested in finding a mentor, information and applications will be available. Admission is free and open to all. Seating is limited and filling fast, so click here to register.

—Tom Straw

Tom Straw is an Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominee for his TV writing and producing. He joined the Mystery Writers of America in 2007 on publication of his first book, The Trigger Episode. Subsequently, under a pseudonym, he has authored seven New York Times Bestsellers. He currently serves as a board member of the MWA-NY chapter.

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