Fun and games at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference


Last night I spoke to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference about writing murder mysteries. Somehow, when it came time to take a photo with conference head honcho Monte Schulz, the setting looked appropriate for mugshots.

I’m innocent, I tell ya. Innocent!

This week: Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Bonus: Phantom Instinct paperbacks!


Stuff’s up this week. Booky, writery stuff.

First, I’m heading to California for one of the best writers’ conferences around:

Santa Barbara Writers Conference
Hyatt Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California
Wednesday, June 10 7:30-8:30pm: Guest Speaker
Thursday, June 11 4-5pm: Mystery Panel


Second, here’s a box of the books I’ve just received: the US paperback edition of Phantom Instinct. Which means it’s on the loose, running wild on the streets. Or at least in the bookstores. Go lasso yourselves some copies.

I hope I’ll see some of you in Santa Barbara.

Edit now, or later?


A reader emails with a question:

When writing a novel, is it best to edit along the way, or just write the entire rough draft, then go back and edit? I can write a chapter and go back and edit and edit and edit. That seems to inhibit further progress on my story. What is your suggestion for editing?

I love to edit. Editing is when I turn my hot mess first draft into the sloppy mess second draft, then the semi-presentable third, and the final version in the party dress and heels. But I don’t edit a manuscript until I have finished that first hot mess of a draft.

Every writer attacks editing differently. Harlan Coben says he begins the morning by reviewing what he wrote the day before and cleaning it up before he launches into the new day’s writing. I used to edit every page as I wrote it. Over and over and over. I ended up with chapters that shone with the strength of a thousand suns… six chapters, about 50 pages, that were all I had after two years of writing. I broke this habit thanks to these words by Tony Hillerman (from the anthology Writing Mysteries: a Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America):

I no longer waste two months perfecting that first chapter before getting on with the book. No matter how carefully you have the project planned, first chapters tend to demand rewriting. Things happen. New ideas suggest themselves, new possibilities intrude. Slow to catch on, I collected a manila folder full of perfect, polished, exactly right, pear-shaped first chapters before I learned this lesson. Their only flaw is that they don’t fit the book I finally wrote. The only book they will ever fit will be one titled Perfect First Chapters, which would be hard to sell. Thus Hillerman’s First Law: Never polish the first chapter until the last chapter is written.

Do what works for you, but don’t let it slow you down.

My friend Ann Aubrey Hanson, freelance editor, says: “I am a proponent of writing it all and then editing, but I can’t keep myself from intermediate edits. That slows progress, but can sometimes help to identify a new course for the story. Overall, though, I say get the story on paper and then edit.”

I agree with Ann: Keep going. If minor edits help loosen up your writing muscles and get you into the story ready to jump into the day’s writing, then do that. But editing and re-editing can leave you spinning your wheels. Whatever you do, keep moving forward.

Photo: two pages from the rough draft of my novel Phantom Instinct, edited.

First-page critique: Gateway to the Divine

Here’s the tenth and final first-page critique by me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing how Ann and I approach editing. Thanks to all the authors who let us dissect their pages. You’re brave. Now get back to writing, all of you.


Chapter 1: Kore’s Departure

As the biting wind stung her face Inanna clutched her as if her life depended on it. A chorus of leaves crunched beneath her feet cutting into the cold pulsing air. As she approached the bridge she paused – the creek water did not have its usual delicate trickling sound, but revealed gushing excitement. Soon Callie’s cottage was in sight. She paused once again and looked up at the sky. All hell is going to break loose tonight, she thought.

She rapped hard on the door. “Callie! Callie! It’s time. It’s time,” she uttered in a voice that hardly sounded like her own. She was highly cognizant of the urgency of the situation and was desperately trying to keep the panic in her heart from swallowing her whole.

The door opened slowly to prevent the wind from ripping it from its hinges. “Oh dear – it will take me a couple of minutes to get my things. Please, step inside for a moment,” Callie invited. “We’ll stop for Margot along the way,” she added.

As the two women gathered a couple of bags that had been prepared ahead of time, Callie slipped on her fur lined boots and swung her wool cloak around her. On the way out the door she grabbed her umbrella.

“Just in case,” she said as she winked at Inanna.

They two women strained to walk upright against the savage winds. Leaves and twigs raked against them and the percolating storm cut loose with a vengeance.

“Damn,” Callie bemoaned, “umbrella’s no use tonight.” She tucked it deep inside one of the bags, bouncing haughtily against her side. As if they hadn’t already been moving at a quick pace, the two women moved even faster. The contents of the bags was a constant reminder of what lay ahead this long night.


My comments:

I like the urgency, the mystery, and the foreboding atmosphere in this scene. The storm effectively magnifies and reinforces the turbulence in Inanna’s heart, complicating her unknown mission. That’s all positive. What this page needs is another draft.

And, Dear Author—before you howl and rend your garments: this is a good thing.

This page has multiple early-draft issues—imprecise language, awkward sentence constructions, clichés. But the concept for the scene, and its execution, are basically solid. With care and attention, you can straightforwardly fix every issue. (I’m not telling you to throw it out and start over. See? Good thing.)


Sentence construction:

1) The first sentence—the reader’s entry point into the story—is confusing. It uses her three times. Either the second her is a pronoun where a name should be used, or a word is missing. (“Inanna clutched her…” Her what? Pearls? Broadsword?)

2) Watch for overusing as. “As the biting wind stung her face,” “As she approached the bridge,” “As the two women gathered…” As can let a sentence get overloaded with too much action. Cut the word and cut the sentence in two. Or change “ ‘Just in case,’ she said as she winked,” to “‘Just in case.’ She winked.”

Speech tags. Stick with “said.” (Everybody who’s attended a writers’ group meeting with me is now stabbing a finger at their screen, thinking, “I knew she’d harp on this.”) On this page, dialogue is rarely said. It’s uttered, invited, added, and bemoaned. You’re allowed a speech tag that isn’t the word said — once a chapter. That exception is the word asked.

Clichés: “All hell is going to break loose.” “With a vengeance.” “As if her life depended on it.”

Come up with fresh similes and metaphors.

Imprecise imagery: Can a chorus “crunch”? Does a bag bounce “haughtily”? Does wind feel like “pulsing” air? When you say Inanna’s voice “hardly sounded like her own,” could you instead be specific? How does it sound different? Timid? Quavering? Too loud?

One larger issue is the disparity in Inanna’s and Callie’s reactions — Inanna is near panic, Callie breezy. That’s actually interesting. But Inanna doesn’t react to Callie’s breeziness. It’s a disconnect. If Inanna could show irritation, or anger, or be calmed by Callie’s seeming coolness, that would strengthen the scene.

This page has a lot of potential. So dig in and get going on the next draft.

Thanks for submitting!


Ann’s Comments:

I like the sense of turmoil and need for speed that comes across in the early paragraphs. This is lost, however, with Callie’s lack of intensity. Is that on purpose? Is Inanna being unrealistic in her hurry? If you mean to have two reactions, then the two characters should play against one another in those reactions. If this isn’t meant to be, I would suggest that you hasten Callie’s responses. I hope that the sense of urgency is important, because that’s what drives this first page.

I won’t cover the clichés in the writing, since Meg has covered those. Just know that if a phrase immediately comes to mind (quick as a wink, in a New York minute, in two shakes of a cat’s tail), it is likely a cliché. When you edit, look for such phrases and reimagine the imagery (something that happens rapidly: like drool forming at the sight of chocolate cake; or a quickly as a fussing baby calms in its mother’s arms). Give yourself time to reimagine the world from your unique perspective, and share that imagining with your readers.

I also agree with her discussions of imprecise imagery and speech tags, all things that I would normally point out. I won’t repeat them here, but simply agree with them. Pronouns are especially problematic, as are sentence lead-ins (such as “as”).

All of that said, I also agree with Meg that you have a strong first draft here, one that deserves another edit, and then more of the story.

Reread Meg’s comments, and then study my suggested edits as follows. If you compare this edit to your original text, you’ll get an idea of how to tighten your writing:

With the wind biting her face, Inanna clutched her (missing word?), protecting it from the clutches of the wind. A chorus of leaves crunched beneath her feet. At the lip of the bridge, she paused—the creek didn’t trickle as usual, but gushed with laden energy. She scooted across the bridge on panic-light feet.

Soon Callie’s cottage was in sight. She paused again and looked at the sky. All hell is going to break loose tonight.

She rapped hard on the door. “Callie! Callie! It’s time. It’s time!” She fought to keep the panic in her heart from swallowing her whole.

The door opened deliberately, to prevent the wind from ripping it from its hinges. “Oh dear—it will take me a couple of minutes to get my things. Step inside for a moment. We’ll stop for Margot along the way.” (Question whether she doesn’t feel the need for speed as well?)

Callie slipped on her fur-lined boots and twirled her wool cloak about her shoulders, then handed Inanna one bulging bag and grabbed the other. At the last moment, she grabbed her umbrella. “Just in case.”

The two women strained against the savage wind as leaves and twigs raked against them, the percolating storm at last cutting loose.

“Damn! Umbrella’s no use tonight.” Callie tucked it deep into the bag bouncing against her side. The two women moved trod faster, the contents of the bags a constant reminder of what lay ahead this long night.

You have my interest. I vote that you continue! Thank you for submitting this.


Cross-posted at Ann’s blog, The Writing Itch, where she adds:

“We hope you have enjoyed the critiques, and perhaps learned something from them for your own writing. The first step in any successful novel is getting the words on the page. The next step is proper editing. If you have editing questions, please feel free to contact me.”

Teachers matter (especially my dad)


My father was an English professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. I grew up in a house stuffed with books. I was driven to school in an old Datsun stuffed with books. My dad and mom read to me from Winnie the Pooh, and later gave me The Martian Chronicles for my birthday, and told me I could read the Agatha Christie novels on the bookshelf, but not the John D. MacDonalds. At the dinner table, Dad read from The Hobbit and had us kids guess the answers to Bilbo’s and Gollum’s riddles.

When I was older, Dad introduced me to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, and A Canticle for Liebowitz, and Elmore Leonard. He told my children tales of King Arthur until their eyes rounded with awe and they believed that they, too, could be such heroes. He instilled in me a bone-deep understanding of the worth, and the wonder, of literature.

At UC Santa Barbara he taught Chaucer and Beowulf. And American Lit, and plenty of other courses. To thousands of students. And he made a lasting impression. I know, because he died on this date in 1998, and in the years since, I’ve heard — out of the blue — from many, many of them. They’ve written to tell me how much his courses taught them, and what an inspiring teacher he was, and how he was patient and helpful with their work. They’ve mentioned him in newspaper movie reviews. They’ve held onto the books assigned for his classes — and even a syllabus.

One of my dad’s former grad students recently found the mimeographed sheet above. It’s from Winter Quarter 1974-75. She sent me the photo and then the syllabus itself. She kept the assigned reading, of course — no way was she going to let go of those books.

The syllabus is faded and full of holes. The back is scribbled with student utility bill calculations. And it’s a gift. It’s a chance to touch something new from my dad, after so many years.

At the bottom of the page, the syllabus reads: “The Age of Exuberance.” May we all live with that spirit.

First-page critique: The Sugar Clan

Freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson and I have a couple more first-page critiques for you. Today, here’s The Sugar Clan. The page is below, and our comments follow.

Thanks to the author for submitting!



Click-click. Click-click. Click-click. Great, her whole morning was now complete. Her car wasn’t starting, not even the slightest spark of life. She had just had it serviced last week. She was never going to make it to her advisor meeting on time. She might as well walk to campus. Maybe the two-mile walk would clear her head and burn off the growing frustration she was feeling.

Darcy started walking in the direction of campus at an angry brisk pace, leaving her car behind her, when she was slammed onto the gravel with an abrasive thud.  She felt the wave of heat whoosh past her before she heard the sound of the blast. As she looked back, she saw flames dancing ten feet high and plumes of smoke marring an otherwise clear blue sky. The briny breeze gently fanning the flames was now mixed with a smokey scent that felt oddly soothing under the circumstances.

Her car, nicknamed Fireball, had just become an actual fireball. “Words have power” never felt more true. Darcy decided she would be more selective naming her next car. Now she really wasn’t going to make it to her advisor meeting at all.

Feeling an inner surge of calm, she called Norma, her advisor’s secretary to tell her she wouldn’t make it. Norma seemed to be expecting an excuse. This wasn’t the first advisor meeting she cancelled this past year. When Darcy told Norma why she was canceling this time, she felt the first crack of emotion in that old battle-ax’s stoic demeanor. Instead of being the ever efficient and cool robot for her advisor, there was a glimmer of warmth and concern beneath her usually glacial facade. She clicked off, telling Norma she’d get back to her to reschedule once she’d sorted this mess.

Darcy proceeded to call 911, followed by her insurance. She had woken up this morning with an unsettling feeling from of a dream that she couldn’t quite remember. The alarm was already toning away on her phone on her bedside table as she came to full awareness. It was rare for Darcy to be woken up by the alarm and this was one of those days. Her body clock usually kicked in no matter how sleep-deprived she was. On her morning run she’d almost tripped over a rock she didn’t see because she was distracted.


Meg’s comments:

This page starts with a bang, and has a kooky vibe that I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, I think the author should further exploit that vibe. Doing so will require work on setup vs. payoff and on balancing scene, summary, and flashback.

Set up and payoff. In comedy and thrillers, a punchline or twist works best when it’s set up beforehand. Here, the twist is Fireball exploding in a fireball. But there’s no setup. The car’s nickname is revealed after the fact, as an example of irony, and then discussed at a length that dulls the joke. Possible ways to set it up:

  • Give readers a visual clue in the first paragraph—“Her rusting Civic, held together by a bumper sticker that said WORDS HAVE POWER, refused to start”—and, after the blast, have the smoking license plate holder inscribed with FIREBALL land at Darcy’s feet.
  • Show Darcy grinding the ignition, shouting, “Not even a spark? Why’d I name you Fireball, you stupid car?” followed by the WORDS HAVE POWER sticker floating past her on the soothing breeze.
  • Or, if you want to save it all for after the explosion, show Darcy sitting stunned, while pages of her term paper, titled “Words Have Power,” flutter across the asphalt. Then: She hadn’t believed it. But there lay her car, Fireball.

Scene, summary, and flashback. This page is thin on setting, and summarizes much of the action. That tends to flatten the scene to one emotional level. Darcy’s frustration about missing her meeting looms as large as her brush with death. Maybe that’s intentional, and part of the kooky vibe. But it slows the pacing—car won’t start, car explodes, Darcy calls her advisor’s secretary, reflects on the secretary’s personality, calls the police, and remembers waking up—to a single tempo. After the car explodes, expand on the drama. One beat at least. Give Darcy a real moment to feel the danger viscerally before she starts reflecting (oddly soothing…).

Flashback: the page segues directly from Darcy calling 911 to her waking up that morning. (I suspect that the story originally opened with her waking from the ill-remembered dream, before the author decided to spark things up with the fireball). Here’s the thing: flashbacks generally aren’t compelling unless the author first raises a question that the flashback provides the answer to. Right now the page offers no strong reason to rewind to Darcy getting out of bed. Why do we need to hear the alarm, or learn about the type of dreams she has? Don’t go there, unless it relates to the explosion and the initial scene shows readers that Darcy understands why her car blows up. 

Minor points:

“Advisor meeting”—clarify up front that this means meeting with Darcy’s academic advisor.

“Proceeded to call 911, followed by her insurance”—this is the jargon of a police report or insurance claim form. It dulls the scene and detracts from the more curious point: Darcy calls her academic advisor before the cops.

Watch for sentence constructions that phrase events in terms of a character’s feelings. Using all five senses to describe a scene is great. But writing, “she felt X…” is not as strong as stating directly what’s happening. Instead of, “the growing frustration she was feeling,” go with, “her growing frustration.” Instead of, “She felt the wave of heat whoosh past her before she heard the sound of the blast. As she looked back, she saw flames dancing ten feet high,” try: “A wave of heat whooshed past her. Then the roar of the blast. She looked back. Flames danced ten feet high and plumes of smoke marred the clear blue sky.”

The idea for the opening scene would get me to read on. But the languid flashback would drain my interest. Rewrite, and keep going!


Ann’s comments:

My first thought is, why is a grad student being firebombed? You have my interest.

My second thought is, this is a clear case of “telling” not “showing” in the writing, which immediately weakens the story for me. You tell us, for example, that the advisor’s secretary Norma seemed to be expecting an excuse, and then tell us that there was a crack in her façade. How much more powerful the writing would be if you showed us these things.

The difference between showing and telling is the difference between witnessing an event and reading an account in a newspaper. The account removes the reader from the action.

I like the idea of this piece, and its unusual voice and pacing. But I believe the writing could be tightened a great deal, thus improving the piece overall.

One criticism is that you use too many adjectives: “angry, brisk pace”; “clear blue sky”; “ever efficient and cool robot.” I would tighten those to “angry pace,” “blue sky,” and “efficient robot.” I’d also change this phrase, “slammed onto the ground with an abrasive thud,” to simply “slammed to the ground.”

“She felt a wave of heat whoosh past her before she heard the blast,” could be tightened to “a whoosh of heat foreshadowed the noise of the blast.”

Strive for immediacy, with tightened sentences and action rather than reporting. I agree with Meg’s comments about Fireball and the use of “words have power.” Make that idea count. It’s powerful, and if it signals something to come later, emphasize the idea now.

It strikes me as interesting that Darcy’s first thought after the explosion is to cancel her advisor meeting. I hope this is intentional, else why isn’t she panicking about her car exploding? Was it an accident, or sabotage? She shows no emotional reaction to her near-death whatsoever. I find that strange. Is it oversight or does it tell us something about Darcy? Hard to tell with what we have here.

I think this story has potential. I’d encourage you to continue, but be aware of loose wording, and keep the action moving forward. Unless the flashback has great pertinence, leave it out, or refer to it in dialogue rather than as flashback. You want a certain pacing, but that doesn’t have to come through excess verbiage. Let your ideas flow, but succinctly.

Despite the need for careful editing, I would still read on. I encourage you to continue.

First-page critique: Ghost Roads

Here’s a new first-page critique. The page is below. Comments from me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson follow.



Chapter 1

Harlow Grafton was back in Wallace, Idaho, back at the frantic request of her mother, back to try again. The problem was that there were so many fractured memories and failed attempts that she wasn’t sure exactly what she hoped to mend, heal, or abolish. Other than the anger she never seemed able to diffuse no matter how far she ran. The only thing Harlow was sure about was that she didn’t want to be here, in Wallace, or in the woods.

Summer light, diluted and broken, filtered through the dense forest canopy. Many years ago she’d believed trails led to the homes of fairies, woodland creatures, and all things magical. But when Mike Grafton died among the tall tamaracks, she’d lost any desire to be in the mountains.

Yet here she was.

At least she wasn’t alone. This time she had a companion, a rescued dog that jerked at the leash she gripped. He jumped at bugs droning in the shafts of light, he lunged at birds flitting through branches, and then, as she tried to adjust her backpack, he charged a squirrel and pulled Harlow down on her knees. The collar slipped off the dog’s head and he was off, sprinting after the squirrel while she struggled back to her feet with the useless leash.

Furious, she bent, scooped up a stick, and threw it so hard her elbow popped.

She missed her dog’s butt by several feet.

“Damn it Weda! Get back here!”

The dog responded by launching deeper into the woods and crashing through the underbrush. His odd gold-brown color blended with the bark of the tamarack trees as he surged ahead.

Harlow charged after the dog, jumping tree roots and rocks, leaving the trail behind. The backpack thumped against her and the safety pin holding her already-fragile bra gave up. She caught the strap in a futile attempt to support one breast, and chugged uphill after Weda, breath coming hard.

“Get back here you stupid dog!” She meant to shout so loud that people three miles away in Wallace could hear echoes off the canyon walls. But the words came out in a breathless gasp, emphasis lost.

Harlow stumbled, caught a tree branch for balance on the steep, rocky slope, and stopped. Bending, she gasped for air and heard a faint shout.



Meg’s comments:

This author has a strong voice and employs vivid imagery. I love the rhythm and phrasing of the opening sentence: “Harlow Grafton was back in Wallace, Idaho, back at the frantic request of her mother, back to try again.” That sentence delivers a dense dose of information in a pleasing cadence. The “the frantic request” of her mother – “fractured memories” – “what she hoped to mend, heal, or abolish” – all of these are great turns of phrase. I think this story could be rich and rewarding.

And I think the page will be stronger if the author does two things: (1) chooses stronger verbs in other sentences, and (2) pays attention to pacing.

(1) Word choice: Watch for generic words, especially forms of the verb “to be.” The second sentence wallows with “The problem was that there were” – a roundabout construction, as well as a string of bland, static words. Look for every instance of a “to be” verb, and try to replace it with a stronger, more dynamic verb. For example: “She wasn’t sure exactly” – the author could replace that with, “She wondered,” or “she didn’t know.” And: “She was sure” – could be replaced with, “she did know” or “she knew.”

(And does “diffuse” refer to Harlow scattering and attenuating her anger, or should the word be “de-fuse,” as in disarming it?)

As soon as the writing shifts from summary into a real scene – Harlow and the dog walking the trail – the verbs brighten, and so does the scene’s vitality. Put that vitality into every sentence.

(2) Pacing: Almost three fifths of the page consists of Harlow chasing Weda. This allows the author to extend the description of the forest, to expand on Harlow’s emotional state, and to hint at losses she has to face and drama that lies ahead. But the detail of the chase begins to drag. The dog’s escape shows Harlow’s frustration – that’s what matters. We want to know what happens when Harlow catches up with Weda. Tighten the scene. Get to that sooner.

The page’s strongest points, the ones that create suspense, are the hints of discord between Harlow and her mom, and the reference to Mike Grafton’s death. Readers will go a long way to find out what killed a guy with the same last name as the heroine. But keep moving forward with every word. Don’t skimp on the atmosphere (either physical or emotional) but give readers something new with every sentence.

Thanks to this brave author for submitting!


Ann’s comments:

This is excellent writing. The reader is immediately drawn into the story, and the conflicts and history are conflated and established: Harlow’s conflict with her mother, the death of Mike Grafton, and Harlow’s unwillingness to be back in the woods, now chasing her dog in those woods. All in one page. Well done!

The writing is tight, though it can be tightened more, as Meg illustrates. I won’t belabor the point. The details you choose to provide are varied and keep this reader interested.

One small point to add. When addressing someone in speech, or thought, add a comma before their name. For example, “Damn it, Weda,” and, “Get back here, stupid dog.”

I have to say, the last word weakens the ending of this page. “Great” is weak. What emotions did the shout cause in Harlow? “Great” tells us next to nothing. And, given the title of the piece, “Ghost Roads,” I think the shout might be significant.

Overall, as I said, I think this is a well-crafted first page, with the caveats that Meg wrote about. Good editing means tightening your writing, and being aware of word choice even on the smallest of words.

Keep going.