Talking about writing is almost as much fun as doing the thing itself, and one of the real pleasures of the writing life is getting to teach writing. When I say "teach," what I really mean is "share my experiences and perceptions," because I'm convinced that we all eventually find our own ways and our own voices. In the meantime, when you're starting out, it doesn't hurt to have someone describe some of the parameters so you can start to focus your work. When you're further along in your career, there's something satisfying about seeing how the other guy does the job; either you get the satisfaction of saying "oh, me, too!" or you get to squirrel away a nifty tidbit for your next effort. 

There are three sections here:

They are just my take on things, gleaned from lectures, panels, and talks I've done. I look forward to adding more in the future, and if you have comments, feel free to drop me a line at:

Getting Started on A Novel

This is based on a lecture I did most recently at the Brown Learning Community in 2003. It's not meant to be a step-by-step "how-to," but it should give you some ideas about how to start tackling your novel.

Writing a book takes a great idea, and it takes a lot of work. You need to be able to make decisions, and remake them, as needed, developing your own editorial eye. You need talent and a lot of luck to get to the publishing end of things: I can't help with that, but I can tell you about the mechanics.

To Start

Focus on what you know about your story.

Work from the known to the unknown. 

Learn about the different elements of a novel and practice thinking about them, applying them to your story.

The Basics

Some of the questions you have to answer:

What are you writing about? 

This is the premise.

What do you want to say?

This is your stand on the premise. 

What do you want the readers to feel? 

Let them off the hook or go through it all?


About characters:

  • The more you know about them, the better. Even if you don't write it all down--and you probably shouldn't--you'll need to know how they think.
  • Know what they want. A novel is about a change in the character; a novel is about the character wanting something and not getting it for most of the book. 
  • Make the protagonist stand out but keep the reader identifying with him or her.
  • The secondary characters can be a bit more outré. 
  • Be deadly honest. Love them as much as you love anyone who is real, love their failings, love their virtues, let them be true to themselves, even when it's not going to make them look good. 

What and Why? 

This is the plot: 

  • The plot is what the book's about, what you are using to discuss your premise. 
  • Desire + Conflict = Drama. There is internal and external conflict; morals, physical time and space, etc. Risk has to be present, too, as well as urgency. It may not be the world ending (or it may well be), but something has to be at stake. 

Where and When? 

Setting and context: 

  • These elements define parameters and constraints imposed on your characters. Not just who is there but what is there around them (props, technology). The context will also affect the tone of how you write it. There will be cultural constraints, like language and behavior.
  • This also allows you to add all sorts of depth and texture to your characters and your settings. The right level of detail, presented in a fluid way, seamlessly allows the reader to get the feel for the world you create. The more you can let your characters feel things--physically or emotionally--the more the reader will respond. A great deal of this comes from the environment you choose, and how well you create it.
  • N.B. Don't set your story in the past unless that is the only time in which it could possibly take place. 

The Other Stuff

Pacing and Structure

The first lines, the first page has to give the reader a reason to continue reading. 

If you start right off with conflict of some sort, or an unexpected or tense experience, you'll compel the reader to continue to read.

Each section and each chapter should move you a little closer to the conclusion. End a chapter with a hook; don't let the end of that scene be the reason they can put the book down. 

The Golden Gate Bridge and the Roller Coaster. A roller coaster is designed to build tension by slow steep climbs followed by quick drops and turns. This should be followed by a short level bit that lets the rider catch his breath (and also makes them wonder what else is coming next). The biggest climb and steepest plummet with the most turns should be near the end (at the climax) of the book, and you should have been moving inexorably toward this with increasing tension throughout. 

One of my writing teachers taught us to visualize a simplified drawing of the Golden Gate bridge. The idea was that, like many novels, there will be three main elements, beginning, middle, and end. The beginning and end will be the shortest: you set up the story as sparingly and quickly as possible and do the wrap up (after the climax) as cleanly as possible. The middle will be the longest part, but also has to be structured to avoid middle sag.

Remember to balance things out, both in pace and accomplishments of protagonist. She might not start out the story with all he knowledge or skills she needs to succeed, but must pick them up along the way and grow. Remember, in a novel, someone changes.

Voice vs. Style

Voice is how you really sound, style is what you're trying to sound like. 

To outline or not outline Don't worry about it. Do not, however, use the outline as a way of avoiding the real work of writing. And for goodness sake, don't let the outline constrain you. When the story is coming from somewhere you don't know, just go with it and edit later, if you have to.

While You Are Working On Your Book

Don't worry about the first draft. It will be perfect. The second draft will be good, if you are a careful editor, and the third draft must be really excellent. 

Keep a notebook to:

  • understand how you work. Have a place and a time to write. Have low expectations but reach them. Work every day, and make that time sacred. The task at hand will yield to constant effort.
  • keep track of physical characteristics and story locations, and anything else. 
  • keep a running list of your chapters to help you find pace and keep consistent. 
  • think about themes, great words, and ideas 

Find some good critics and to learn to trust yourself. 

Keep an eye out for:

  • Similar books to yours.
  • Conferences where you could learn about how books are written and published.

Go outside of your work space and interact with people who aren't inside your head. Keep your life going. 

When You Are Done With Your Book 

Understand the difference between done and finished. Think of "finished" like wood finishing: the table has been made, it's been repeatedly sanded so that it is not only level but shows the grain and doesn't necessarily show the workmanship, and now you're going to clean it up and put the paint or stain or whatever on it. 

Have another project going while you search for a publisher or agent. 


Books on writing: 

  • Bird by Bird, Anne LaMotte (helps get you started in the face of self doubt, breaks the job into tasks that are manageable)
  • On Writing, Stephen King (helps show about work ethic and applying life experience and personal attitude)

Other ways to learn about writing: 

  • Read the books you like "as a writer." Watch your favorite movies the same way. 
  • Look at how other interpretive or creative artists work. It can inspire you hugely.
  • Take classes or form a writing group.
  • Talk to other writers about writing.

Getting Some Action: Writing Food, Sex, and Fight Scenes

I first gave this talk at Dying to Write 2 in October, 2007. I handed out brief excerpts from my book, Ashes and BonesLee Child's The Hard Way (hardcover), and Elizabeth Peters The Lion in the Valley (paperback), and a few others, to show how authors at various places of the "gritty" spectrum handle action (and just so we're all on the same page, I'd place Peters on one end, Child on the other, and myself in the middle of that scale). I'll use abbreviations and page numbers so you can go to the source.

Writers are at a disadvantage; TV or movies can show you, but a writer has to get you involved somehow to make the scene work. But writers have the advantage of letting readers see inside character's head, giving them an intimate engagement with the character and situation.

Writing a more traditional sleuth doesn't rule out sex or violent scenes, it just alters how chose you to depict. It all comes down to what serves the story and what best maintains the tone of your books. 

General: For all action scenes--and all other scenes, too!


A thriller writer said, "if you can write a fight scene, you can write a sex scene." I suggested to him that to write a good sex scene, you need to be able to write a food scene and a good fight scene because writing a food scene teaches you to use all the senses. I can't stress this enough, it's what takes a reader into the scene and feel every aspect of it, whether he wants to or not. It situates the reader in your world.

Watch your language: Literally and figuratively

  1. Remember to incorporate the cultural constraints as well as time and space. Don't have an Agatha Christie country house setting and Elmore Leonard dialogue. "Get me something to cut the phlegm, babe" vs. "May I offer you some light refreshment?" 
  2. Ditch the clichés. 
  3. If your characters don't curse, there's plenty of alternative approaches. Lee Child doesn't use a lot of swears in his books and still conveys the violence. On the other hand, some writers feel that it gives the characters reality. Make a choice and be consistent.
  4. Pay attention to the tone and style of your book. Do you mean to make it funny? How realistic or fantastic is the book going to be? Is it historical, hardboiled, noir, psychological? You may pick one, or combine several, but make sure it's consistent.

A little research goes a long way. You don't need to prove you're a pro at the skill you're depicting, you just need to get the idea across with a taste of the technical stuff. And if you must have an expert, have someone there to explain it to. (For example, the "false Peter" in Dorothy Sayers' "The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste")

Your writing should make you hungry, feel beat up, or aroused, too!  If it doesn't affect you, it won't work for everyone else. But be aware of too-specific tastes.

Use these scenes to move the story along and define your character. Don't have an action scene just for the sake of it, have it drive story forward. And we know something about them from the way Amelia Peabody pours tea or Jack Reacher uses a knife.


How badly do you want something to happen -- or not happen? You can build anticipation of a fight (Reacher warns bad guys three times), of thirst (will Amelia, Emerson, and Ramses survive in the desert in The Last Camel Died at Noon?), or building up sexual tension (will Emma make a move on Michael in A Fugitive Truth?). So while you want to keep a scene moving along, expectation and emotional response won't necessarily slow it down. 

Have the payoff be worthwhile. Remember: the hero loses 90% of the time. Winning would end the novel. Have the hero be well matched or overmatched before she wins, and the reward be commensurate. Is the action scene you are writing the climax of the book/chapter/series, the thing upon which everything hinges? Or is it one of the smaller rises or dips in the roller coaster ride, a pause in the action or a moment where we see why the heroine is the heroine, even if she's not won yet?

Situate the reader at the level of the experience you need them to have. Most of the time you'll want the reader to be experiencing it fully, but sometimes you need to pull back. Is the action being shown in the first person point-of-view and onstage, or is it hinted at, off-stage, damped-down or euphemized? How do you convey something terrible in a book that has the constraints of a traditional mystery? (Chuck getting beat up in Ashes and Bones, p.149) Or if it's not the worst thing that's going to happen -- how to keep levels of response correct.


Is it ideal? Not so great? How does this add to your scene? (Harriet and Peter's wedding supper in the broken down cottage at Talboys in Busman's Honeymoon.) The main character in Sideways drinking his amazing wine out of a Styrofoam cup at fast food place makes for a mixed response/emotion. Romance may want the ideal situation for payoff, or maybe mood transcends a less than ideal setting. 


Food scenes do a lot of double duty. They help define a character by using all the senses, and this shows how they react to the world around them. Is food fuel? Consider how Reacher drinks his espresso (THW, p.1). Is it the only reason to live and work (think about Nero Wolfe )? Food can tell about class, time and place, culture (Ellie Cripps making mash and catsup for kids in Martha GrimesThe Anodyne Necklace and the reaction of Jury and Wiggins). Peabody and Emerson discuss the culture of the Lost Oasis, even as they eat its food (The Last Camel Died at Noon, p. 287). Edward X. Delaney eating a wet or dry sandwich tells you much about him.

Food scenes can also provide a lull in the action so character and reader can catch breath. They can also build up hope (later to be dashed), which adds to the emotional response and tension, as when Emma finally gets to eat her Big Mac (A&B, p. 163).

Food scenes can be used as narrative space to keep dialogue interesting (vs. drinking or smoking a cigarette).

And they can be metaphors for one of the other two types of action scenes. And sometimes is all three: think about your favorite vampire.


Even if you don't have a foodie scene in a book, there's always some confrontation in a mystery, even if it's just raised tempers.

Watch the amount of choreography and remember to add emotion. This does not mean you should analyze the action -- don't describe why someone used a move -- but do give a reaction. For example, there is a lot of emotion and dialogue and even breaks for thought in the fight between Emerson and Sethos in front of Amelia (TLitV, p. 309).  But still, the action flows from one move to another. Always keep track of where everyone is; Lee Child does a great job of this when Reacher cases the pub before a fight (THW, p. 342).

Show why your character can do what she can do up front and then prove it in the third act. We learn that Amelia Peabody wrestles with her maid to practice fighting, and is known for her use of her parasol. It's cheap to end a story with a neophyte character suddenly beating up the bad guy and saying "gee, it was a good thing I took those karate lessons," when you could have set it up earlier. I had Emma watching Mr. Temple's class to show what she knew and also develop his character (A&B, p. 19). This also helps reader understand techniques he may not know, also teaches him what to expect later.

Have some repercussions: It hurts to hit and to be hit. Make sure there's some healing time after, or at least make the point that the protagonist is so tough that it's not an issue. Or find a fun way to compensate.

Real-life fights are incredibly sloppy, incredibly short (less than a few minutes), or both. Calculate the balance between a fight that is too short and doesn't pay off vs. a forty-page epic that will drag. 

Vary your sentence length and use some technical stuff, but not too much. Vary your moves. He hit her. She hit him. He kicked her. She fell over--this is dull. Don't put your reaction before the action. "She fell back when his fist hit her shoulder."

Some people say you should keep it short and snappy, to help with the pace, but you can do the same thing--making the reader flow along with the smooth moves--but making sentences flow as well. Depends on the scene and your style.

Avoid lots of banter and dialogue. Unless you're doing comedy. Really.


Add the emotional response and senses of a Food Scene to the choreography and reaction of a Fight Scene, and you've got the basics for a Sex Scene. 

Unless you want to de-eroticize it -- and you may, for some scenes -- avoid "health-class" words like "penis" or "vagina." (Is there anything less sexy than health class?) Much more interesting to keep it general: we'll know where you're going. You can focus on other things that will build the scene, and let the reader do the math. When Amelia and Emerson get together in the tent (TLitV, p. 130), not only do you see no body parts, you don't see them. At all. Peters uses more Victorian style language at these heightened moments than elsewhere; there's no heaving and no thrusting. And yet... you know exactly what's going on.

How does this complicate things? Is it the end reward? Does it confuse the characters? In (A Fugitive Truth, p.173), Emma suspects Michael of being a murderer, and yet she's attracted to his mind and body... and she's happily married. We know that she has sex with her husband off-screen, but it's showing this on-screen that let's you know something serious is happening. It's something that complicates things and moves story along. 

Resist the temptation to use genital euphemisms and avoid comparisons of specific body parts to other nouns. There's a great poem written by Pamela Patchet that explains why. And please, avoid porn clichés.  But if you're going to use explicit language, make sure it fits the characters and the situation.

Sex scenes can be funny. Do you want them to be? Do you want it to be sloppy and realistic or tidy, gravity-defying, and ideal?


Tension! Don't forget the foreplay. Remember that the sexiest thing about sex is really desire, which is just a fancy word for not getting what you want. 

Every novel is about someone not getting what he wants. And mysteries are all about every kind of tension.

Finding and Maintaining a Writing Group

Some suggestions to consider when you're looking into a writing group.

Who to get involved 

Look at other groups involved in the sort of writing you want to do (check out your local chapter of SinC or MWA; there may be groups at work or a nearby college; you can develop them from classes you take or writers conferences). Advertisements are a possibility. Ask a lot of questions: Where are the members in their writing careers? What are their goals? What and why are they writing? Don't commit until you're comfortable with the group chemistry.

Where to have it 

You can have it in an online chat room, where you email the texts before, read them, then gather in the chat room to discuss. The benefits are that you can send comments to each writer separately off-list, you can critique in your pajamas, and there's no travel. The downside is that you can't hear people read and that doesn't engender the same kind of trust.  If you have it in the real world, make sure you're near public transportation, parking, and are centrally located. If you have only one host, that can mean turf issues, "ownership" issues, and problems defining what the group is. Rotating houses is an option, if people are flexible.  Or there's always neutral ground, like a library, bookstore, coffeehouse, community center. This eradicates the "my ball, my game" syndrome.

When to have it 

This really depends on everyone's schedules, but I think between once and twice a month, number of hours TBD, is a good average. You need to consider vacations, holidays (child care!), and work schedules to be fair. And the schedule also depends on the space you're using, public or private.

What to do: 

  1. Say something nice first. A good critic can say whether it worked for her, or not, and why. Try to respond to the writing two ways, once as a writer and once as a reader. Read it ahead of time, and react to it on that first reading. Use examples to show why works or doesn't. Keep your criticism off the personal level.
  2. Keep track of who's been reading what and when. Make sure everyone is contributing equally, not just showing up when it's his turn to have his work critiqued. 
  3. Take turns and limit time on responses. Consider a timer. You can always give the person who's been reading a marked up copy of their paper after.
  4. If you do read aloud (in addition to previewing hardcopy), limit the number pages or keep to a set time, to leave time for response. Reading your own work out loud is a great way to catch your own mistakes, too.
  5. You can employ a tactic called "Dead Author," in which the writer who is being critiqued is "dead," and therefore can't respond to the comments immediately. This forces the writer to listen to the criticism without coming up with defenses, excuses, or explanations. The writer can respond to the comments after, to ask how to overcome problems, to say what he was going for and whether it worked, or how to better do it. 
  6. There's another technique called "Masking Tape of Truth." You pass an item around to make sure everyone is speaking in turn (masking tape is good, or a stapler, or ruler, or whatever). This takes a lot of discipline to do, but it helps to keep a group from getting off track, and the author can respond to one person at a time.

Check out to see some of the ways in which a writing group can work...or not.