The Writing Life

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Random thoughts on style

Cartoon: man sitting at desk with caption "he waited for the next wave of regulations to arrive."Never end a sentence with a preposition?  That is the sort of pedantry up with which I shall not put. (Winston Churchill)

Sometimes it's okay to savagely split an infinitive.  (Me)

And if it sometimes seems right to start a sentence with 'and' or 'but,' do it.

Subject, predicate, object is almost always the right order.  Until it gets boring.

Anglo-Saxon words make for sturdy, yeoman-like prose.  The Romance words add, well, romance, even insouciance, but use them sparingly, n’est pas? (Strunk and White)

Strunk and White also banished the use of “however” at the beginning of a sentence.  They preferred “nevertheless”.  What a dumb opinion from such smart guys.  However you look at it.

Elmore Leonard, who handed out some pretty good writing advice, said to never start a book with the weather.  I wrote a book set in a beach town during the winter.  When should I have alerted the reader that there was a blizzard outside?

Whom and shall are oft-neglected, beautiful words.  For Who the Bell Tolls?  You may eschew such seemingly atavistic usage, but I never shall.

My English teachers said to leave out the comma in front of the word 'and' in a set:  do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti and do.  And I'm sticking with it.  I'm also putting commas in front of adverbs, no matter what some trendy copy editors advise, derisively.

I agree with Lewis Thomas that the least appreciated punctuation mark is the semi-colon; how this precious tool slipped into obscurity is anyone’s guess.

I also love his equating the exclamation mark with an annoying child who’s just interrupted an adult conversation.  Mommy, my butt!

I can never remember if the period is supposed to go inside or outside parenthesis (which bugs the hell out of my stickler of a wife.).

She also taught me to read what I’ve written out loud.  You’ll know right away if it sounds right or not.  So listen up.

In the 18th century, they often used a letter called a “long s”, which looked like an “f”.    This has confiderably confufed later generations.  Proving that evolving our syntax and punctuation is often a good thing.

Advertising copy is the most anarchic form of the English language.  Good.  We couldn't care less about complete sentences.  Dumb assed things.  Neither should you mystery writers.

Many formal, academic writers cannot, will not, bring themselves to use contractions.  To their detriment.  Americans, even smarty pants academics, won’t, don’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t even think of speaking without them, so why leave them out of their writing?  Ain’t that the truth.

A number in the narrative text can usually be rendered as a number.  There were over 1,000 geese soiling my beautiful lawn.  But when the character is actually speaking those words, I think it should be, “There were over a thousand geese soiling my beautiful lawn.”

Because, how do you say 1,000?


Chris Knopf is an author of mysteries and thrillers, and a co-publisher at The Permanent Press.

Carpe diem. But not right now. Maybe later.

Businessman standing with arms crossed outside his office, desktop with laptop on foreground, selective focusI always want to be writing anything other than the thing I’m supposed to be writing.  This is the impulse that drives my productivity. It’s why I have so many irons in the fire, because there’s nothing like a fresh iron to take your mind off the ones already in the forge.

The problem with working on the thing I’m supposed to be working on is it’s hard.  It’s hard because people are usually waiting for it to be finished within a certain timeframe. It’s much easier to be working on something no one is waiting for, because no one but you know it’s being worked on. These projects are always my favorites.  It’s only between me and my anonymous compulsions.  Since I always feel compelled to write, this is a happy state.  I get to do what I want with no danger of outside pressure or reproach.

I think most writers are the same way. Procrastination yields tremendous output.  There’s nothing like a short story deadline to get a person out there in the garden transplanting shrubbery, or calling up neglected relatives to find out how they’re doing, even if they only wonder where you’ve been the past twenty years.

The urge to procrastinate is behind all my re-writing. I tell myself that I can’t possibly write anything fresh, but I can spend my writing time going over existing material.  The result is often very useful rejiggering, which almost always leads to fresh composition, despite myself.

I don’t fear the blank page. In fact, I like it.  What I fear is hard work, which original writing always is.  I know I can do it, since so far I always have, though that doesn’t mean I don’t resist launching the effort. I feel the same way about preparing my taxes or hauling the garbage cans out to the curb. All past evidence suggests I can do these tasks, and when I’m done, I’ll feel great satisfaction. But it’s the start that holds me back.  And since I’m an inherently energetic person, I look for something else to do instead, like study the Ming dynasty on Wikipedia or repaint the living room.

I marvel at people like Isaac Asimov, the all-time productivity champ, who would wake up in the morning and just write all day long, rolling his chair from typewriter to typewriter, writing several books, or scientific papers, simultaneously.  Did his fingers ever get tired?  I’ve destroyed my left elbow from constant typing over the stretch (lengthening) of my adult life.  Much of that time, admittedly, was in the service of copy writing and thousands of memos, letters and emails a year, but still. I’ve also published 15 books and written about 20.  Big deal.  The late, great Donald Bain published 125 books.  How many more did he actually write?  How did he keep his elbows going?

Did Asimov, Bain, and to add another freak of productivity, Stephen King, all feel drawn to write because they were avoiding something else they thought they should be doing?  Origami?  Cleaning out the garage?  Learning French?

All the best writing advice says you should sit down in front of the keyboard every day for a subscribed amount of time and write something.  I never do this.  My subscribed amount of time appears when I’m done writing things I don’t have to write and turning my attention to those I do. This could happen at any time during the day or night.  In any place I happen to find myself, which is why I haul my laptop around with me no matter the occasion.

Procrastination has had a bad rap since the British aristocracy was forced out of willful indolence sometime in the early 20th century, though recently it’s been enjoying a bit of a resurgence, with multiple scholarly works published in its support. The claim, bolstered by studies on creativity researchers have finally gotten around to completing,  is that we only think we’re procrastinating, when in fact, our sub-conscious is busily working on the creative problem, and cooking up solutions that will only reveal themselves when the deadline is down to a few hours away.  I love this idea.  It thoroughly justifies all those nights in college playing pool, drinking beer and running out to buy hoagies (I’m from Philadelphia) at 2:00 am instead of writing the term paper due somewhere near sunrise.

On the other hand, 40 years in advertising taught me that a frequent outcome of procrastination was getting fired.  We were gently encouraged to hit the deadline, often less than a day, or suffer a gruesome death.

Luckily for mystery writers, the deadlines are a bit more gracious, and we can convince our spouses that rotting on the front porch and staring at the squirrels running around is a highly productive component of the creative process.


Chris Knopf is an author of mysteries and thrillers, and a co-publisher at The Permanent Press.

What’s in a Query? Everything and Nothing.

paper with who what why when how written on it is on the desk with a cup of coffee and a ball pen aside.When I tell people that I’ve never written a query that didn’t result in a request for pages, they can’t believe it. When I tell them I only ever sent out three (or six if you count the random assignments I was given to pitch to at conferences) queries, they are shocked.

But here’s the thing: I researched before I sent out my original set of queries. I looked not only at who represented what (which you can generally find on websites) but who sold what (which you can find out on Publishers Marketplace). I don’t care if an agent loves thrillers, if every sale she’s ever made is a cozy, she is probably not going to have the right set of contacts for thriller writers.

Because I belong to RWA, MWA, HWA and ITW, I am involved in a lot of discussions about queries. And I can also say that any query I’ve ever edited for someone has also resulted in a request for pages.

Your query is an enormously important piece of writing. If you’re looking for an agent or editor, it may be the only piece of writing the people you want to take you on ever see. If you’re self-publishing, think of it as your cover copy—it’s the thing that’s going to make readers pick up your book.

A query letter has some basic pieces, but the one most people get wrong is the part that is like cover copy, the part that hooks an agent or editor and makes them want to find out more. Because that’s the trick—it’s not a synopsis that gives away everything in your book, it’s just a taste, a tease, a tempt.

Here's a look at the cover copy for Every Dead Thing, which would make a perfect query:

Former NYPD detective Charlie "Bird" Parker is on the verge of madness. Tortured by the unsolved slayings of his wife and young daughter, he is a man consumed by guilt, regret, and the desire for revenge. When his former partner asks him to track down a missing girl, Parker finds himself drawn into a world beyond his imagining: a world where thirty-year-old killings remain shrouded in fear and lies, a world where the ghosts of the dead torment the living, a world haunted by the murderer responsible for the deaths in his family—a serial killer who uses the human body to create works of art and takes faces as his prize. But the search awakens buried instincts in Parker: instincts for survival, for compassion, for love, and, ultimately, for killing.

Aided by a beautiful young psychologist and a pair of bickering career criminals, Parker becomes the bait in a trap set in the humid bayous of Louisiana, a trap that threatens the lives of everyone in its reach. Driven by visions of the dead and the voice of an old black psychic who met a terrible end, Parker must seek a final, brutal confrontation with a murderer who has moved beyond all notions of humanity, who has set out to create a hell on earth: the serial killer known only as the Traveling Man.

The cover copy answers the three essential questions of a mystery or thriller query. (Different genres have different questions.)

    1. 1. Who is the protagonist? What drives him?
    2. 2. What's the conflict? How does he get sucked into something he can't deal with (and, of course, what is it that he's sucked into)?
    3. 3. What's the setting and mood?

Your query should show the mood of the book—you can tell me it's a humorous cozy, but your query should also be written in that voice. Setting is also important because in your book, setting should be a character (major or minor role, it's up to you, but it's there). You can see from the "bickering career criminals" that there will probably be some black humor and from the language — "shrouded", "fear", "torment"—that it will be grim. That's part of what an agent or editor is looking for. Not only what your story is about, but also that you're the right person to write it.

So take the time, polish your query over and over. Think it over. Send it to friends in a writing group who know nothing about your story. That's important because people who do know will fill in the blanks. Editors and agents don't have time to fill in the blanks. They need you to make it as simple and perfect as you can.

Laura K Curtis Laura K. Curtis gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing decidedly less dry short crime stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. A member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime, she has trouble settling into one genre.

Conference Tiffs and the Polite Lie

Networking name tag

This month's MWA meeting was about conferences. I personally think that if you can afford conferences, you should go, because nothing else works quite so well to get your name out there and allow you to meet people you might want to work with in the future. That said, I have a few thoughts on the topic of things that can—and do—go wrong.

Every year, I hear about someone who is no longer speaking to someone else because person 2 insulted person 1—or possibly insulted person 3 who is a friend of person 1—or because person 2 felt as if person 1 ignored them in favor of a more “important” author or editor.

“She looked right at me, and pretended she didn’t know me,” said one of my friends of another.

Well, yeah, that’s possible. It’s equally possible my other friend was simply on conference overload with a buzzing head and tired eyes, thinking about how much her feet hurt. Or, like me, she barely recognizes people even while fully awake and not thinking about a dozen things at once.

And then there are the room-mate dilemmas. “OMG,” one of my friends bemoaned in an instant message, “so-and-so asked me if I have a room-mate for RT and I don’t, but I sure as hell don’t want to room with her. What am I supposed to say?”

Well, under normal circumstances, honesty is the best policy. But there are also appropriate times for the polite lie, and this is one of them.

“You tell her yes, you already have one,” I advised.

“And what if she finds out I don’t?”

Well, if so-and-so finds out at the conference that you don’t have a room-mate and confronts you, you have two choices. First, say your roomie fell through (which happens all the time) or you can tell her the truth. Chances are, however, that even if she does find out, she won’t say anything to you. Most people aren’t that confrontational.

And if you’re on the receiving end of “sorry, I already have a room-mate” and then later finding out that person is alone in her room? My advice is to leave it alone and assume her roomie fell through. And if you think someone’s ignoring you in favor of a more popular author or a better agent or bigger editor or whatever…make a decision about how important that is to you. I’ve been ignored numerous times at conferences. I’m a nobody. I basically expect it. I understand that people are there to network and I cannot do help their careers in any way. The ones who want to chat with me because we are actually friends will seek me out. And if my friends are networking with someone else for a few minutes, well, they’ll find me later or they won’t.

Let me put this another way: RWA, ITW and Sleuthfest (and to a certain extent even fan cons like RT and Bouchercon) are professional conferences. People are there to do business. If you treat it as a business conference, you’re a lot less likely to get hurt than if you treat it as a social gathering. Remember that even while people are drinking and dressing up in costumes, they’re also there trying to get ahead in their careers. You may not approve of the way they do it, and that may mean cutting them out of your life, but don’t assume that just because they look past you in their search for someone at a con that they don’t like you or care about you. They’re simply wearing a business hat and not good at blending the business and social.


Laura K Curtis Laura K. Curtis gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing decidedly less dry short crime stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. A member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime, she has trouble settling into one genre.

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