Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More writing advice: Elizabeth Sims and tips on getting away with coincidence

Continuing with our look at the just published second edition of “The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing,” more writing advice as we welcome mystery author Elizabeth Sims, the author of three Rita Farmer mysteries, including just published “On Location.”

HALLIE: Elizabeth, in your essay “Write This Not That” you compare good writing to healthy eating, and advise authors to make smart choices. Your advice about coincidences was so interesting. What kind of coincidences are OK and what aren’t?

ELIZABETH: When my agent (Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass Agency) and I started working together, we had the first of many conversations about fiction. At one point she said, "Readers love coincidences," and I sort of bookmarked that in my brain, because I'd tried to avoid using coincidence in my earlier series, the Lillian Byrd mysteries. That's because I considered coincidence a cheap way out for lazy authors.

But I thought about Cameron's comment, and I started to pay attention more to coincidence in fiction. I realized that some of my favorite books contained coincidences, like OLIVER TWIST. I mean my gosh, Oliver just happens to pick the pocket of a guy who turns out to be an old friend of his father's? But you read it and you love it. Then I looked at other books (which will remain nameless) whose authors used coincidences as easy escape routes, and I analyzed why they were so unsatisfying.

I saw that what separates good coincidence from bad can be summarized in one word: groundwork. When an author presents a dreadful, complex situation, and you the reader are licking your chops and going, wow, how's this gonna come out? and then the author just uses some sudden act of God, or an out-of-left-field thing like a cop happens to be walking by, you feel let down. Because the author hasn't laid any groundwork for that coincidence, or they've laid very weak groundwork.

By contrast, when an author spends some time and plot capital laying good bedrock before unleashing that coincidence, you feel like it couldn't have happened any other way.

And what do you mean when you talk about “action-packed” dialogue?

ELIZABETH: This is a two-pronged thing: The best dialogue springs from action, and it represents much more than characters sharing words. Many aspiring authors find themselves writing along, then they realize they need to tell the reader something, and they stick in some dialogue out of the blue. The reader's like, 'Where did this come from?'

The problem can be solved by two techniques. One, resist the temptation to write dialogue when you need explication, and instead write some action.

HALLIE: Ha ha! In my writing group, we talk about dialogue that explicates as "Did you know Bob dialogue." It's awful.

ELIZABETH: Right. Instead, think about what are your characters doing- if they're doing something that moves the story along, any dialogue you add will feel spicy. And two, realize that when people talk to each other, they are usually motivated by something more than wanting to say stuff. They want to manipulate, or gain something, even if it's just a feeling of importance. A sentence as simple as 'Where were you last night?' is freighted with meaning.

HALLIE: I'm writing all this down. By the way, congratulations on your new Rita Farmer mystery, “On Location.” Opening line: “A hairy forearm mashed my face.” Was that the first line you wrote, or did you come up with it later?

ELIZABETH: I have great fun with my opening lines, and in the Rita Farmer series I start every book with a situation that seems dire. The opening line of THE ACTRESS, for example, is simply, "I screamed." Eventually I enlarge the frame, so to speak, and you see that Rita is literally playing a role. In ON LOCATION, I wanted to portray Rita getting attacked, and the line, "A hairy forearm mashed my face," popped into my mind before I'd worked out much else. The sentence seemed appropriately alarming, so it made it from first draft to last. Actually I think it started as "THE hairy forearm mashed my face," and I changed it to "A".

HALLIE: And what about that character description: “He was built like a tomato stake, great vertical presence without much visible flesh on him, very different from his stockier brother. He looked as if he existed on vegetable broth and high-fiber crackers. You certainly follow your own advice, to base descriptions on unconventional comparisons. How do you reach past cliché?

ELIZABETH: Sometimes I think I was put on this earth to fight cliché, I'm so offended by sloppy metaphors and first-to-mind slogans. The first thing to do is stop and loosen your brain. You can use just about anything as a launchpad from the commonplace.

I remember while writing one of my earlier novels, DAMN STRAIGHT, being tempted to describe a golfer as being unable to hit the broad side of a barn. How boring. But I thought about other things that are large, and the word 'brewery' popped into my mind. "Couldn't hit the broad side of a brewery" sounds unusual and kind of peppy.

Right now, I'm looking at a glass of water and thinking I could describe a character as "shapeless as a water tumbler," or "she had all the personality of tap water." Or you can take that further and think of other beverages. "She had all the personality of warm tomato juice." "She had all the personality of chamomile tea," which gives information about the narrator as well as the character being described. "She was like a champagne fountain, all bubbles and sass." And so on.

Experimenting with context helps as well. If you're talking about a house, for example, you can liken it to a ship at sea: "The prow of the house pointed east, as if it wanted to plunge into the combers rolling in from the Atlantic just beyond the hedge." Or you can liken a house to an animal: "The house sprawled in the mist like a sleeping hound." It's so much fun!

HALLIE: Great examples. In another essay, “Rough Up Your First Draft,” you advise authors to give up control and let ‘er rip when writing first draft. We have so many authors who are taking our “Write First” Jungle Red Writers Challenge and so this advice seems so apt. Tell us more!

ELIZABETH: Writing fiction is very Zen: The more control you give up, the freer your creative core becomes, and the more truly original stuff comes out.

And I just had an insight, right this minute: While many writers get bogged down in their first draft because they're afraid of making mistakes, I think some new writers get bogged down in their first draft because they don't feel comfortable with the revision process itself; they fear it, and therefore they try to get everything right the first time, which of course leads to stilted writing.

Sometimes we get stuck because we're not listening clearly enough to our inner voice. Therefore, you've just got to give yourself permission to let out whatever wants to come out.

HALLIE: Thanks! Elizabeth will be checking in today to respond to questions and comments, so please
, if you have any comments or questions, join the discussion! And tune in tomorrow to join the conversation with James Scott Bell, author of the classic “Plot & Structure.”


  1. I've been very gunshy of using coincidence, even though, as you point out, it does occur in real life as it does in many beloved or bestselling books. Maybe I'll be brave enough to try it in an upcoming book.
    Loved the tomato stake decription! I have to force myself to give physical descriptions of the characters - don't know why - except sometimes that whole "his hulking frame filled the doorway" or "he wore...blah, blah" is so boring when I read it, that I hate to do it myself. How much physical description do you really think writers need to give and how much can we leave to the readers imagination?
    Thanks for visiting!

  2. thanks for a great interview ladies! I was struck by the "readers love coincidence" comment too. I would think you have to be careful so the readers don't feel cheated...

    I'm curious about whether you take the time to come up with those unusual descriptions in a first draft, or go back and add them in later.

  3. I'm reminded of a workshop given by Martha Powers who quoted Johnny Carson: "If they buy the premise, they'll buy the bit." Setting up, or foreshadowing whatever will play out to be a 'coincidence' will have the reader willing to accept it.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Wow Elizabeth -

    Welcome to JR. You had me at hello, but.... I've been delving into books on Buddhist philosophy and creativity in general at an accelerated rate lately, so I became increasingly fascinated with your interview as it went on.

    I couldn't agree with you more on just about every point and LOVE the way you put it.

    And loved the beverage metaphors -- not to mention the exercise itself.

  5. On coincidence,

    My general feeling has always been that readers will put up with it in the beginning -- and as Terry notes -- if its the premise, but want nothing to do with anything remotely coincidental at the end.

  6. Rosemary's question on description is a good one. How much, and just what? I mix it up. I'll luxuriate in describing a major character, but hotfoot it with minors, picking out just one or two details to pop them from the background, like their eyeglasses that look like a tiger chewed them or something. With majors, I'll often just do a small detail when we first meet them, then give more over time.

    As to Roberta's question, yeah, sometimes I'll stop writing and brainstorm on paper about how that character looks, smells, acts. Because I find if I don't have a clear, lively picture in my mind, I won't be able to get that character across well.

    And boy, Terry has it right. Steven Spielberg did the same thing in 'Jaws' with the exploding scuba tank in the shark's mouth. (It wasn't in the book.) No way could an air tank explode with a fireball like that, but you're so totally into it by that point, you go, "Yeah, die, shark, die!!!"

  7. Jan, I'm very glad you like my ideas! All the most successful creativity (and by that I mean the highest quality creativity) has the same root, freedom from fear. And since one's life ought properly to be a work of art, we can see the core of everything right there.

  8. Hi Elizabeth:

    I adore good first lines--collect them, in fact. Loved the hairy arm.

    I've also always shied away from coincidence, even though in real life there are amazing ones--like my long email correspondence with someone running a library site, who turned out to live a few streets from me.

    What annoys me in a mystery is when the sleuth solves the crime by knowing facts that we, the raeders, couldn't possibly know. Agatha Christie did that several times.

  9. Great post, and very timely for me personally. I've been working on a story that (seemingly) hinges upon coincidence. I haven't been quite sure how to end it, so going back right now to check my groundwork.

    I think writers sometimes confuse coincidence with plot convenience. Or maybe they're the same thing?

  10. Plot coincidence and plot convenience...

    Ramona - maybe they're almost the same thing...

    Plot coincidence is when Gertie is working the register at a liquor store and checks a driver's license and recognizes Joe as the man she witnessed, 30 years earlier, killing her mother.

    Plot convenience: Joe still there, sitting at the curb smoking a cigarette outside the store when Gertie emerges three hours later with a Derringer in her pocket.

  11. Rhys, I agree, an author selectively withholding information from the reader -- that's a real sin against the reader, even when it's Dame Agatha! Conan Doyle did it sometimes too with Sherlock Holmes, specifically in the story 'The Five Orange Pips.'

    Ramona, coincidence is, I guess, but one of many forms of plot convenience. The challenge for a writer is not merely to be a great stylist, but to be a solid plotter. And it's a beautiful challenge.

  12. Thanks for the advice, Elizabeth.

    I haven't had a chance to read your Rita Farmer books, but you're one of the writers who made me want to write mysteries. My husband and I are both huge fans of the Lillian Byrd books! (Mr. Wendy still jokes about having candy for dinner!)

    Sorry to turn into a fangirl. :)

  13. Great interview, ladies!

    Elizabeth, as always, your advice is right on the mark. I, too, was struck by your agent's comment that readers love coincidence. Who would have thought? But I suspect that maybe those of us who have feared coincidence, really fear contrivance. If the "coincidence" has been set-up well, as you explain, when it happens it feels totally natural. But if it's plotted with a heavy hand or not at all, it feels contrived.

    Having said that, perhaps the best coincidence is the one that even we, as the writers, discover by surprise as we're writing!

    Thanks for your sage advice, Elizabeth.

  14. I once heard a detective give a lecture stating that if it wasn't for coincidences they probably wouldn't solve many of their crimes. Thanks for your advice, Elizabeth, on how to make those fictional coincidences appear realistic.

  15. Cindy, I had to laugh when I saw your comment. Life is FULL of coincidences we'd never get away with in fiction. I once heard a police detective say they relied on the stupidity of criminals. A stupid villain wouldn't cut it, either.

  16. Wendy, Julie, Cindy, glad you checked in! And Hallie, this is fun, hey? My partner Marcia just remarked that people love coincidence because it can be interpreted as evidence of a larger plan out there.

  17. Running late into this wonderful party--what a fantastic post! Thank you.

    The coincidences I love are the writer coincidences--the little treasures we leave for ourselves that we don't realize at the time we're leaving. You know?

    On page 50 we think--wow, here's where she could use that celery I gave her on page two and didn't know why.

    Every time I type something and think: whoa, wonder where THAT came from? I'm always eager to see what will happen to it later. My subconscious brain knows why...or does it? Or maybe it's just all chance.

    Thanks Elizabeth and HAllie. Wonderful.

  18. I liked your examples of avoiding cliches by tweaking them into unexpected juxtapositions. Some writers make me laugh out loud, they do that so well. Think I'll give myself a post-it reminder for this manuscript in progress. Thanks!

  19. I liked your examples of avoiding cliches by tweaking them into unexpected juxtapositions. Some writers make me laugh out loud, they do that so well. Think I'll give myself a post-it reminder for this manuscript in progress. Thanks!

  20. What a treat today has been, hanging out with such smart writers and readers. Will I get to see any of you in person at Bouchercon?

  21. Yes Elizabeth--see you there! Let's find a quiet moment, okay?

    Thanks again..