Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Nancy Drew: Detective … and Writing Teacher?

An earlier version of this post appeared on Write on Sisters in 2014.

I was hooked on mysteries with my first Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene). Who wouldn’t want to be her, zipping around in her little red car with her girlfriend, George, and boyfriend, Ned? She was intrepid, daring, smart, and very independent. In the 1950s, when I was reading Nancy Drew books, there weren’t many examples for preteens of strong, smart girls/women figuring out things as the men tagged along. She solved things without being saved. She used her wits to outwit culprits above what her punching weight would expect. And there are 84 books. 84!

Feminist literary critics have analyzed the character's enduring appeal, arguing variously that 
Nancy Drew is a mythic hero, an expression of wish fulfillment, or an embodiment of 
contradictory ideas about femininity.

It’s interesting to note that a number of high-profile women (e.g., Laura Bush, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Hillary Clinton) cite the influence of Nancy Drew on their formative years. Nancy Drew mysteries, published from 1930-2003, positively affected generations of women. We were imbued with her can-do attitude and clever problem solving, and

Nancy not only introduced me to action-taking women and the mystery genre, but also I learned, in a rudimentary way, how to write. Yes, Nancy Drew, writing teacher. Of course, she didn’t set out to be that, but the elements of genre writing were clearly demonstrated.

Genre fiction has been criticized for being clichéd, predictable, and hackneyed. But that might not be so bad for a youngster who reads a lot. Reading lots of genre books implants, subliminally, elements that are harder to teach out of context. In reading genre fiction, it is as if the young reader internalizes elements of fiction without being aware of it and before having labels to attach.

Compare the internalization of fiction elements to learning to drive. In America, the majority of young children and teens have the opportunity to observe driving elements thousands of times before ever getting behind the wheel. They are easier to teach how to drive because of those observations.

Just imagine how hard it would be to explain all the components of driving to someone who had never seen it done. Adjust the mirror before engaging the engine. Huh? Put on your right turn signal far enough in advance to let others know a turn is coming. Uh, how far is that? Three pedals and two feet in a stick shift car. How does that work?

By experiencing elements of character development, for example, as recurring facets as well as deepening aspects over books, the young reader learns what it takes to give a character unique as well as universal appeal. From Nancy, I learned there need to be distinguishing traits or tics that separate characters one from another. I learned that I had to make my characters likeable but flawed so the reader can relate. I learned that in series writing, keeping characters familiar but still fresh results from testing characters in new ways. All from Nancy Drew!

Now, did I recognize that at the time? Heck, no! I was a kid reading for the mystery, thinking along with her, trying to solve it as fast as she did. But later, in my own nascent writings, I found elements revealing themselves there.

I am reflective by nature and reflecting on how to create interesting characters others would like to know led me to the revelation of the origins of my earliest writing lessons. Those books, and others from my youth, imprinted me, in the psychological sense, with a basic understanding of the fiction elements of plot, setting, conflict resolution, and character development.

That wasn’t enough, of course. I have taken classes, discussed character development with critique groups, and read books and articles about character development. But it all began with Nancy. How did you get hooked on mysteries (or some other genre)? Want to see what I tried. Here's the link to Mission Impastable.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Guest Post: "Create Your Own Source Material" by Serita Stevens

I am very happy to introduce to you the author of one of my favorite books, The Book of Poisons! Serita Stevens is well-published as a novelist, writing authority, and script writer. One of her books is up for consideration as a TV series! Watch for Red Sea, Dead Sea.

Producers these days are looking for source material – books, articles, stories, plays or anything with other backing.  They like knowing that there is a fan base already established for the story they are buying.   So why not double your chances of a successful sale?
Each story has its own home; Its own best way of being told.  Some stories, however, can be told in more than one form.  To do this, however, takes knowledge and understanding of what the other forms need and how they are prepared.  Each form requires a different way of thinking and a slightly altered writing style.  You can do it, but it takes thought and time to learn.
As an established writer of both books and scripts, I do many book/film deals.  One may think it is only a matter of learning a different format, but it is truly more than that.  There are many similarities since a good story is, after all, a good story, but there are also differences.   
 Many hold the myth that writing scripts are easier.  I believe that is false.  It takes just as much work to write a compelling script as it does a fascinating book, but the techniques vary a bit.
Some of the things that are the same in books and scripts are this –
No matter what you are writing, the work requires good structure- including inciting incidents, plot twists and dynamic scenes; well-drawn characters – both protagonists and antagonists - with their own goals, flaws and desires; and, of course, dynamic endings. 
For all my stories – be they books or scripts – I do a complete character biography of ALL of my characters.  These people must be well-rounded and believable.   You must understand their journey and their arc.  This includes the secondary participants, as well, since they can often effect the plot, the theme or have their own subplot, which can promote the theme.   
Many new writers think that physical description is crucial to the character. It’s not.  It’s their attitude and what action that they are involved in that tells us about who they are.   Be sure to balance the good and bad aspects of the person. No one is all good and very few people are all evil.
Outlining, may not be for everyone, but I find, is essential to make sure that I cover all the plot points and plant the twists and clues in the right places.  It helps me to keep the stakes high and focus on the genre I am writing.  It also helps me to do more than one project at a time as I can see what needs to be done on that story for that day.  It doesn't mean I stick like glue to the outline.  It does mean I use it as a guide.
Beginnings, the first few pages, are crucial for both books and scripts.  Today, unlike in the past when the author could meander about history and setting, stories must start with action and jump into your characters.  We must be hooked immediately with the problem, situation, identify the setting, and get to know the main character, at the same time.   Not an easy task, but it can and, often, is done.
In neither case do you get the luxury of wandering around your setting. Back stories , if referred to here, must be only hinted at to give the reader a reason to want to continue reading.  Prologues can sometimes be used in books, and occasionally in scripts, to set the tone, but should be used sparingly. 
Titles are another bugaboo for many writers.  Your title must give a hint about the genre and the story.  While titles are not copyrightable,  it is a good idea to research your title and see other stories with your same title as you do not want to be identified with a story that did not do well.  One of my stories, now being done as a script, The Unborn, has been used as a title for many films and books and in order to make mine more unique, I changed it to Unborn Witness. 
The writer must understand their audience. Who are they writing for?  Don’t say that your story is for everyone because very few stories are.  It’s naïve to think that all will like your work.  Are you doing a chick-flick?  A mystery? An action or thriller?  Is it something that young men will like more than women?  It is something for the older viewer?  Understand who the reader is and write for them. 
Grammar and spelling must be checked no matter what you are writing.   We are writers and there is no excuse for doing this poorly.  I often write my first draft quickly and miss things but it's important to go over what you have done.  I find that even after re-reading my material several times, mistakes can be found and I have an outside reader to go over my material before I hand it in. 

There are, however, many differences between writing scripts and writing books.   
Script writing, even more so than book writing, is a team effort.  As a novelist, it is easier to write alone in Iowa.  You might get notes from your agent and/or the editor, but you are more autonomous as writer.  Whereas being a scriptwriter, you will find notes come not only from the producer, studio, director, actor, and others.  You must understand that the script is a blueprint for a movie.  You must understand that not everything you write is gold and if you cannot accept notes and be willing to change, you will not get very far.   There is an art to listening and accepting notes. 
While it looks like format is the main difference between scripts and books, this is just the tip of the iceberg.   As for formatting, I like Movie Magic the best because they do not charge for tech support as Final Draft does.  No matter which program you use, understand things like the use of parentheticals, slug lines, etc.   Read produced scripts to see what the format is and don’t have numbering or camera angles on your spec script as that marks you as a novice. 
Length is one big thing.  While a book can be as long as your publisher will allow it and most books are a minimum of 300 typed pages or much longer, a script can be only 90 to 100 pages. (120 used to be accepted, but lately, a shorter page account has come to be expected.) Should you turn in a script longer than 120, you will, especially if you are an unknown writer, have difficulty getting read no matter how protest at the merit of your story. 
White space is crucial.  The overwhelmed reader will often flip through the pages.  If the pages are too dense with narrative, they might just put your script down. 
Point of view in the script is far more focused than a book.  While in books you can alternate POV and tell parts of the story from other characters and even go off onto subplot tangents, the script should be mainly from the main character and that protagonist should be active in solving their own problem.   It is said that the main character should appear in, or be part of 80% of the scenes. 
Writing short sentences creates suspense in books, but even more so in scripts.  Less is more here.  Be succinct in your writing.  While in books you do not want huge unbroken descriptive passages, narrative in scripts should be, if you can help it, no more than five lines.   The white space actually pushes the reader forward where as the longer paragraphs slow them down.   
When writing your book, you must consider and explore all your senses. What is the character feeling, seeing, smelling, hearing, sensing, etc?  In scripts, you are limited to the visual.  In both, specifics are important, but even more so in scripts.  Leave the script’s stage dressing to the designers. 
While books can have more on-the-nose dialogue, subtext is crucial in the script.  No more than five lines of dialogue.  Think of the poor actor trying to memorize all you have written when you have a huge monologue.   Try reading it out loud, yourself.  If you must have a dialogue longer than five lines, try breaking it up with an action line. 
Books will allow you to get into your character’s head and talk about their feelings and hear their thoughts.  Not so in scripts.  Everything, and I mean everything, must be visual.  If you say that the character is angry, how do we know, what do we see? 
Especially if you are a fairly new writer, if you want your script to be produced, you have to keep the budget in mind.  The fewer the characters, the less it will cost.  When doing an adaptation of a book, I often find that I have to combine excess characters.   Think about the locations you have, cast of thousands, car chases, uses of animals and use of children.  It’s okay to write them if you only want to have this as a reading sample, or if it really is crucial to the story, but keep it to a minimum. 
Another myth is that the book writer is paid handsomely for their rights.  This, alas, is often false.  Since the production company, often before they sell the story, must pay to have the script written, will hire another writer to expand and focus the story into what is needed for a script. 
The book writer - who in today's publishing world might be lucky to get a small advance from the publisher, sometimes must kiss their stories goodbye and let the A-list script writers to do what they will do.  That doesn’t mean you, the book writer, can’t do a first draft of the script.  It does mean that you will be, if you are lucky, partnered with an established scriptwriter that the studio or production company feels more confidence in. 
Books turned into film are often vastly different from the printed word for a variety of reasons.
As I said, it is possible to do both, but you need to be aware of the limitations of each and what is required of each format.   It might take you longer to write the book because you have to write more words, but the script requires just as much prep time in characterization, plotting and research as the book does. 
Good luck.

An established writer of mystery, crime, historical, thriller, western and young adult novels, as well as several produced and many optioned screenplays, Serita also teaches writing.  Her newest books include The Ultimate Writers Workbook For Books And Scripts - based on her teaching at USC. UCLA and other universities and Against Her Will, a teen drama based on her experiences as a psychiatric nurse. The script/book is now being considered by Lifetime.
She frequently lectures at both national and international writing conferences and mentors young writers. 

Trained as a forensic nurse, she helps other writers with their medical and investigational questions.  One of her popular book is The Book of Poisons from Writer's Digest for writers to get their poisons correct when killing off their victims.  Recently, it was featured on a Law &Order!!
See more about her at or reach her at

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What I Learned from the A-Z Challenge and 8 Tips for You

Next week, Serita Stevens, another Oak Tree Press author, is guest posting on Write Away about script writing. Please come by to see what’s up for your reading pleasure.

I had a swell time both writing my blog posts on mystery terms during the A-Z Blog Challenge and finding new bloggers to follow. There are some talented folks about there. And I also got some new subscribers to my blog. That’s always a thrill, to see the number grow.

How It Works
If you don’t know what the fun is all about, go to April A-ZBlog Challenge and check it out! Such fun. You sign up in advance and get listed on a rolling scroll of accumulated bloggers.    

For 26 days (you get Sundays off) you write about a different alphabet letter each day. They provide lots of cute graphics to keep you organized. Great posts on the site encourage you to keep going. Other bloggers come by and comment. And that keeps you going. Then you pass the mid-point of the alphabet, and that keeps you going.

Types of Blog Posts:
One is encouraged to label the content so folks hunting for particular topics can find you more easily. Only one year did I do it right. I should have labeled my 2015 posts WR. Sigh. Such a disability I have with things techno.

I guesstimated that only about a third of the blogs listed a category.

You can post in a category not listed. But to give you some ideas, here are the ones A-Z suggests:


On this blog (I have three blogs, so this was Write Away’s year to participate), I tried to inform mystery and crime fiction writers about mystery terms they should know about so they could write about them accurately. I had at least one term for each letter, but sometimes I had three or more.

I also broke one of my short stories into 26 parts, with each first paragraph beginning with the letter-of-the-day. That was fun! If you’re curious about what I wrote, check out my 2015 April archived posts in the sidebar.

What They Wrote
After about a week of writing my own posts and reading some that I thought sounded interesting, it occurred to me I was reading. I made a goal to read at least one post from each blog. How stupid is THAT??? There were over 2000 bloggers signed up when I began. Even reading 10 a day, I wouldn’t get close. I would have had to read 100 a day. And I didn’t. But since there were only 1516 bloggers remaining at the end, it turns out that I had sampled about 15% of them. That was a pretty good number to see trends.

And there were some definite patterns.

By far, the largest categories were Books/Reviews, Film/Movies, Music, Writing/Storytelling, and Travel. Sometime these were combined as in movies from books or music in film. In Writing/Storytelling (my category) there were an enormous number of bloggers sharing original poems or flash fiction pieces. There also were lots of writing strategy/tips posts.

The smallest categories (in my sample) were Culinary, Crafts, Education, Gaming, Gardening, History, Humor, Memoir, Mythology, Politics, Science, Sports, and Adult Content,

In between I found a smattering of Animals, Art, Fashion, Lifestyle, Personal, Photography, Social Media, and Sports.

What about Next Year?
As you read and write what others are blogging on, ideas keep popping up for next year’s challenge. I know. Crazy, right? You’re not even done with this challenge and you are looking ahead to others.

If I go with ways to kill people for “Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary Time”, I have terms for each letter of the alphabet already done, and as is usual, for some letters I have multiple options.

If I go with personality traits/quirks/pathologies for “Romance Righter”, I am good to go there, too.

Can you say, OCD?

Tips from the Field

1)  Go now and scroll through the list of bloggers at the A-Z site. It’s under the link for “Sign-Up”. Take a look at what people did and how they did it. Some used quizzes. Some gave straight factual information. Some wrote poems or flash fiction.

2)  Think of possible post themes in areas of interest. Start accumulating terms for those categories. Add to it whenever you think about it. Or when something you’ve just read triggers your categories. Keep your ideas in a file labeled “A-Z Challenge 2016.”

3)  Mark your calendar to start checking the A-Z site from mid-February on so you can sign up early. Most folks, I think, start at the beginning of the list to find bloggers of interest. Put your name as high as you can.

4)  Pick a theme from your “A-Z Challenge 2016” folder options. When you sign up, select a category for others to find you. Start writing posts that day!

5)  Encourage friends to sign up so you have a support group as you work you way through the month.

6)  Write ahead as many posts as you can and schedule them for publication on the appropriate date. Writing ahead makes it much more likely you will finish. If you leave it to do each day, it gets to be a grind. (That’s what I did my first year.) Writing ahead also gives you a cushion for the days everything in life is falling apart. And write short. I never follow that advice, but it is good advice, especially for your first outing.

7)  Roll out your theme on the same day in March the A-Z people suggest. This calls attention to the challenge in time for others to sign on. It also is your public commitment to participate.

8)  Visit others’ blogs and leave your calling card so they can visit you. Invite some bloggers you enjoy to guest post for you later in the year.

I hope to see you next year! It’s a great way to meet new people and ideas! And see how you get an idea for another blog post (or two) just by participating?