Who Put the Laughter in Slaughter? — Tips for Writers

I’ve decided to offer writing tips based on a series of classes I’ve taught on-and-off in the Portland area. The goal is to get you to those all-important words, “The End.” I’ll update this regularly.


What’s gonna be the next hot trend in publishing? Hint: Nobody knows.

What’s gonna be the next hot trend in publishing? Hint: Nobody knows.

“Hot or not?”

Tips for writers: Authors, bookstore owners and librarians sometimes get asked by new writers, “What’s hot?” 

The theory being: OK, I want to write, but I want my book to sell a lot of copies. So I should write in the hottest genre. Right?


Don’t write what’s hot, write what you love (hey, if they happen to be the same thing, mazel tov). You’re going to be spending a year — or more — with the hero or heroes, and with this plot. You better be happy to be telling this story and living with it so long. If you’re not, it’ll become a burden.

Besides, it takes months to write a first draft — possibly a year or more — plus more time to get to a final draft. When you started, sexy teen vampires might’ve been hot. By the time you get done with your first draft, it’ll be books with “Girl” in the title (gods, please let that trend end soon…). By the time the next draft is ready, it’ll be … I don’t know, Rotarians who fight crime at night, or something. Whatever. You were racing to catch a train already moving. Better to write what you really care about, and cross your fingers that it’ll be part of the next marketing train that comes along.

What to know what’s hot? Good writing, strong characters. That’s it. Go nuts. 



Want to get a box like this in the mail? Step 1: Write a logline for your novel.

Want to get a box like this in the mail? Step 1: Write a logline for your novel.

This might be the single most useful bit of advice I can give: Write a logline for your novel, and write it early. A logline is that one- or two-sentence descriptor of what the book is about. It describes the plot and the primary characters (though not the end).

You would be amazed how many people tell me they’re writing a novel, but when asked what it’s about, they can’t say. They can talk for seven or eight minutes, but they can’t say, in a simple, declarative sentence or two, what they’re writing. And as long as they don’t have that, they don’t have control of the story!

“St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking” — An ex-cop and an ex-spy form an uneasy alliance to track down the worst of the world’s worst and deliver them to the International Criminal Court.

Twenty-six words. That’s what the book, and the series, is all about. Boom.

A logline is far, far more important than an outline. Once you have one, and you’re satisfied it properly describes the plot and primary characters, then print it, laminate it, and tape it up near your writing area. Look at it often. Make it a screen-saver, or scrawl it on the inside of your notepads. However and where ever you write, make sure your eye brushes past your logline often. It’s the guide that will tell you if you’re still sticking with your concept or if you’ve wandered afar.

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Writing a novel is tough. It can take a year or more. But once you know the plot and primary characters, you’re about a fifth of the way done. True story. Having a good logline is the single best indicator that you’ll reach those all-important words, “The End.”


Kyrenia. Michael and Katalin's office is a bit to the left, behind the large red-and-white boat. Not bad, right?

Keep a “bible” of your novel.

By that, I mean a list of important facts for your primary characters and settings. Whenever I describe someone important in a “St. Nicholas” manuscript, I copy-and-paste it into the bible. The descriptions for Michael Finnigan includes his age, height, hair and eye color, names and ages of family members, preferred firearm, hometown, schools he attended, years he held different jobs, etc. I also make note of which famous actor I’m using as my “voice model” (I ain’t telling) so Finnigan’s dialog remains distinct and separate from every other character.

I’ve got a similar description in the bible for Finnigan and Fiero’s office in Kyrenia, Cyprus. Plus, I have a photo of the marina and boardwalk in Kyrenia to help me write descriptions (see attached).

A hundred pages later (or full book later), I can go back and quickly remind myself of any of that stuff.

Have trouble keeping all those people and places clear in your head? Don’t bother. Write ’em down.


Writing tip: Cast your novel

Can you imagine how much fun it would be to write a dialogue scene for Margo Martindale and Idris Elba. Well, why not try?

Can you imagine how much fun it would be to write a dialogue scene for Margo Martindale and Idris Elba. Well, why not try?


It’s very common for writers to discover that all their dialogue sounds similar. No matter who’s speaking, the cadence and tone stays the same. Here’s a trick: “cast” your story. Even in the first draft. Select actors or friends or acquaintances who have individual speaking styles, and “give” them the various roles in your novel. Note: These can be actors living, or dead, or from various eras. You could decide Christopher Plummer, circa 1965, should be the villain in your book. Great. Von Trapp it up.

If you’ve written a scene of dialogue and it feels lackluster to you, imagine, say, Idris Elba and Margo Martindale reading the lines. Now imagine, say, Sam Elliott and Emma Thompson reading the lines. See how differently you’d write the scene if you were scripting those actors? All of a sudden, your dialogue is differentiated.

The trick is weird, but it works. Give it a try.


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“Go-Backs” and “Read-Throughs” 

First drafts are hard! And writer can get stuck for weeks or months (or years) on Chapter 1. If you’re not making progress, you lose hope and give up.

Here’s what I do: Get through that first draft as fast as I can!

I use what I call “Go-Backs” — I write 10 pages, review them for MAJOR errors (they don’t have to be/shouldn’t be perfect). I write 10 more and review those 20. I write 10 more and review THOSE 20 (that is to say, 1 through 20). Subsequent go-back reviews include pages 11 through 30; 21 through 40; 31 through 50…etc. This way, I’m always moving forward, and I can see my latest pages in context with some earlier pages.

When I hit 100, I stop, print it out, set it aside for a week, and read 1-to-100. That’s the “Read-Through.” It’s my first major analysis of where I am to date. I get to see a big chunk of the story with fresh eyes. If I veered off track, well, I can usually see exactly where. I start right there, doing major repairs (add or subtract characters or scenes, make a major course correction for the plot, or whatever).

If I find it compelling and fun, I keep going. And look: I’m a third of the way through the novel!

So then I sit down and write Page 101.

A lot of people think writing a first draft is a little slice of hell. Remember Winston Churchill’s advice: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”


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Tips for Writers — Write in a 3-act structure. The readers will see Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., but the classical, exquisite three-act structure, which is hidden from them, is an excellent frame for any story. It works for the world’s greatest dramas, for three-panel comic strips, and everything in between. If you’re struggling with your story, draw it out.

Act I: Set up the plot, the characters, the main settings. Something big happens (Plot Point 1. “Is that … a body?”) to get the story really rolling.

Act II: Ratchet up the tension. Make things worse for your heroine. Hit another big thing (Plot Point 2), like, “Wait, the next victim on the list is … me?” Now we’re really rolling.

Act III: Point to the villain, save the love interest, tie up lose strings, and go get yourself a beer.

Easy peasy.

Note: The acts don’t have to be the same length. Acts I and III can be really short.

When I started writing “Crashers,” all I knew for sure was that, for Plot Point 1, a major airliner would fall out of the sky for no good reason. Plot Point 2: Another airline would land on Interstate 5 in a torrential storm, then would have to take off again. That’s it. That’s all I knew. Once I created my characters, I was ready to put some meat on that bare-bones plot.

But I needed those bones first. The 3-act structure provided ’em.



Tips for Writers — First drafts should be sloppy. That’s why we call them “first drafts.” The page shown may be in the sequel to “St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking” (I always write first drafts longhand). See the word in brackets above the pencil? It’s “Scripto.” This is a note to myself that I need to describe something in detail: a setting, a character, a weapon. Whatever. I don’t need the description to be wonderful right now. I’ll make it wonderful later. For now, I just need to build the story. See the word “backstory” in brackets, two-thirds of the way down? Same thing. I need to add some detail here from the first novel. I’ll get to it. Just not in this, the first draft.


Tips for Writers — Writing isn’t a chore, like folding sheets or emptying the cat box. Have fun. The best way is to find you “zone.” Katy likes coffee shops. I write longhand on Steno pads with pencils, playing soundtracks from thriller films in the background. Find your zone, and you’ll write better … while enjoying it.