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RULE

Ann Rule

Last month, I had the opportunity to take on a true crime book, but I turned it down. It wasn’t an easy choice. It was an interesting cold case, but I felt that I wasn’t ready for the project at this time. It would have required travel that I didn’t want to do, and time that I just couldn’t commit, at least not if I wanted to finish the book in less than a decade.

 

While I was considering the project, I also studied how to do true crime books. I have covered criminal cases when I was a newspaper reporter and even done investigative pieces. I’ve read some true crime books as well, but I wasn’t sure what goes into writing one. For instance, should you have your manuscript vetted by a lawyer? If so, that would have made it very different from other types of writing.

I found an interesting article that had some good tips from the “Queen of True Crime” Ann Rule. If anyone knows how to write a true crime book, it’s her. She is the author of books like Small Sacrifices and Heart Full of Lies. Her first book, The Stranger Beside Me, was about her co-worker, serial killer Ted Bundy. 138454

While she has great advice for being a writer, in general, here are her tips for being a true crime writer.

  1. You can usually get a press pass, but there’s often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Rule calls the prosecutor’s assistant.
  2. Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience. (I used to try and take notes during trials, but I finally started recording them so I could do just this. If a writers soaks in the experience, it helps in setting the mood and scene when you write.)
  3. Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.
  4. Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.
  5. If you’re sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don’t ask them about anything. You can comment on the weather or the courtroom benches being hard, but “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth pretty shut.” (She says this to keep you from getting in trouble with the judicial system, but it also follows the old adage, “If you’re talking, you aren’t listening.” You never know what you might hear if you are quiet and sitting in the right place.)
  6. Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.
  7. Know what you’re getting yourself into. “You don’t want to start a nonfiction unless you’re really in love with it, and usually you want a go-ahead from an editor.” (This was one of my hesitations with the true crime project I was presented. I was interested in it, but I wasn’t obsessed by it. Because of that, I was willing to let other things get in the way of me writing the project.)
  8. Absorb detail. “When I’m writing a true-crime book I want the reader to walk along with me.” Rule describes the temperature, how the air feels—“I think it’s very important to set the scene.” As far as the writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.
  9. Don’t use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing. (Though Rule has written about a few who have asked to have their names included.) As Rule said of her subjects at large, “I always care about my people. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

x4459True crime is an interesting genre because you might actually have a real-world impact, such as catching a criminal. However, it also has plenty of things that could cause you headaches if you aren’t careful. Maybe one day I’ll find that true crime project that I can’t forget, and when that happens, I’ll take the leap.

Here’s the link to the original article where I found Ann Rule’s tips.

 

 

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gjon-mili-writer-damon-runyon-working-on-script-at-deskI’m trying a different type of post today. The Gettysburg Writers Brigade is a group of writers who both support each other and learn from each other. Our group’s founder, Will Hutchison, usually moderates discussions different topics. He also teaches more formal lessons from time to time.

You can click on the link below and download the slides from one of these lessons about creating a story.

Would you like to know how to structure a novel? The slides will give you tips from Will and famous writers on how to find your story and develop it.

Let me know what you think.

And if you would like to participate in the group, we meet every Wednesday at O’Rourke’s Eatery and Spirits at 44 Steinwehr Avenue in Gettysburg, PA. We meet in the second-floor dining room at 7 p.m. Come find us.

Story Story Story

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20170815_135518.jpgBoy, it’s hard getting back to work after a vacation. My family returned from a Caribbean cruise on Saturday. We had a good time, but the following day, I had to get things sorted out so I could hit the ground running on Monday.

Then Monday came, and I was sluggish. I was barely getting any work done. Today, I’ve been experiencing the same thing. It appears that although the calendar says that my vacation has ended, my body has yet to realize it.

That’s one of the drawbacks about vacations. Before I went, I had hit a certain groove. I had my deadlines under control. I had certain routines that kept me on top of things. Things were moving smoothly and efficiently.

Vacations disrupt that. It’s like the cruise ship that I was on. Pulling out of port, it moved slowly at first. Then it gradually built up speed until it was moving along at 22 knots. (Don’t ask me what that is in miles per hour. I have no idea.) Once it gets up to speed, though, it’s easy to maintain it.

I’m that cruise ship right now, and I’m looking for a way to get back up to speed.

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BookCoverPreviewI came across this post yesterday, and with the title “There’s no such thing as historical fiction,” it certainly stopped me. I mean, if there’s no historical fiction, then what have I been writing for years?

Here’s the post by Paul Lynch on Literary Hub so you can read for yourself. If I’m reading it right, it is saying that historical novels aren’t about the history but about exploring universal truths.

“Let’s suppose you are a novelist writing fiction set in an historical era. Ask yourself this question: What reader from 1817 would recognize themselves in a novel written 200 years later? That reader would collapse in a cold swoon and wake up bereft and bewildered,” Lynch wrote.

He says that the accurate creation of history “is an act of prestidigitation.”

“Of course, we read the “historical novel” and marvel at its simulation of the past. But pay attention and you will see the historical novel can speak with cool clarity about what is timeless in the present,” Lynch wrote.

With that, I think Lynch gets to his point, which is that history viewed through the prism of the present is tainted. This is something I see not only with historical fiction but also books that are touted as non-fiction.

I’ll go even further and say, it is the same problem that plagues the modern media. Events are reported through the biases of the writer. This leads to facts being left out, underemphasized, or overemphasized.

I think it is unavoidable. At the best, if you try to create an accurate portrait of the past, there will be things you don’t know and not even realize it. However, if you have done your best as an author to create a believable past and authentic characters, then you can be forgiven such mistakes.

The problems arise when you ignore information because it doesn’t fit within the narrative you want to create.

Sure, it’s fiction, but I learned a lesson in writing fantasy and science fiction that also applies to any fiction. If you want readers to believe, or at least accept, the unbelievable, you need to make as much as you can believable. This builds your credibility with the reader.

If you want to write about history, get as much right as you can.

So, while I disagree with the title of Lynch’s post, he makes some good points. There is historical fiction. Our job as writers is to make sure that it doesn’t become fantasy.

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dictation_recorders-mainI’m always looking for ways to increase my productivity. As a one-man show, I either have to do the job or pay to have someone else do it. So I’m always trying to get more from my day to tick off another few items on my “to do” list.

I have been thinking about dictation for awhile now. I even bought the Dragon Talk software. However, I quickly figured out that my most likely time to use dictation was not necessarily when I was going to be sitting at my desk.

I let the idea fall by the wayside for a while. Last week, I decided to try it again.

I downloaded a speech-to-text app onto my phone. Then the next time I went walking, I pulled out my own and started dictating a chapter in the book that I’m working on. When I had finished, I emailed the text to myself.

When I got home later, I opened my e-mail and copied the text into a word document. Then I took a couple minutes to read through the text, add punctuation, correct spelling, and format. Within about a third of the time that it would have taken me to type 1,000, I had my draft of the scene done. Plus, most of the time that it took to prepare the scene, I did while I was walking.

That’s an increase in productivity!

The other place where I’ve found the app pays off is when I go to bed. As I lay there winding down each night, I tend to think of things I need to do or scenes I want to write.

Now when that happens, I grab my phone and start dictating. Then I can review what I dictated in the morning.

Next up, I’d like to find a way to have my computer translate interviews that I conduct while I’m researching. I can’t simply use the app because there are translation errors that I would need to be able to refer back to original interview to check. I’m thinking I need to record the interview and then see if I can play it into my phone so that it’s translated.

Whether it works or not, dictation has definitely increased my productivity. I also think that it helps improve the flow of my writing, particularly when I’m writing dialogue.

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Portrait of Author Henry MillerHenry Miller, a painter and author from the 20th century came up with 11 writing commandments. Here are the commandments.

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

While these are all good rules, I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t follow them all. I can say that I regularly follow numbers 5, 6, 7, and 10. The rest I break regularly.

Although I break more of these “commandments” than I follow, my process works for me. That’s what’s important.

What works for you? Do you keep more commandments than you break?

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notes-514998_640In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talks about four different types of writers: Great, Good, Competent, and Bad. He also makes the argument that a Bad writer can’t move up to competent, and a Good writer can’t become great. His term is fuhgeddiboudit. Great writers, such as Shakespeare and Faulkner, seem to be born with the divine gift of creating magic from words.

That seems discouraging. Writers should aspire for greatness. If you don’t want to be at the top of your game, why write?

King does feel that Competent writers can with diligence and effort become Good writers. That was his silver lining.

I see an even larger silver lining. If we accept his premise that Good writers can’t be Great writers because Great writers are born that way, there’s still a lot that can be done.

First, how will you discover the greatness within you unless you write? Even Shakespeare had to learn to spell, Faulkner had to practice grammar. So don’t use the excuse that you will never be a Great writer as a reason not to write. Exercise the belief that you will be a great writer, and it just may come true.

Next, even if it doesn’t happen, working at the craft of writing to make it so will definitely improve your writing. King believes that Competent writers can become Good writers. More than that, there just isn’t one type of Good writer. There are lots of different levels within that broad category. Think of it as military rank. There are officers and enlisted men, but within each of those categories, there are varying ranks.

You can move from a Competent writer to a Good writer as King says, but you can also move from a barely Good writer to a very Good writer. You may never reach the level of Great writer, but continually working to develop and hone your skills will allow you to nestle just beneath the level of Great writer.

We should all seek to be the Avis of writers. We’re no. 2, but we try harder.

 

 

 

 

checklist-clipart-response-clipart-clipart-pencil-checklistSo in the past two weeks, I’ve talked about how going the extra mile and developing a relationship with the editor. For this final piece, I’m going to look at how becoming an expert in your field will help you get more assignment.

I’m not talking about getting a degree in every subject you want to write about. You can become an expert by writing extensively about the subject.

This is something that comes with time. As you consistently work with a magazine, your work may tend to fall into a niche. Usually, my niche is history, but I’ve written two stories with Hagerstown Magazine that accidentally turned out to be health stories. I’ve also written health stories from time to time with other magazines. I now have a niche in health writing.

As you start to develop a niche, the editor will begin to recognize you as such. You will become the magazine’s go-to person for that topic. It doesn’t mean you can’t pitch the magazine other stories, it’s just what you’ll become known for. When I first contacted the editor of Allegany Magazine about doing stories for him, he was very excited because he was a fan of my column, so he knew my work and was anxious for me to do local history articles for the magazine.

That’s not to say I only do history articles for the magazines. I’m working on a feature piece now about a local bookseller’s experience running a bookstore in Ireland.

Becoming the go-to person: The benefit of becoming an expert is that when the editor is looking to assign a story in your niche, you’ll be the first person to come to mind. The bad news is that you won’t be the first person to come to mind if it’s not your niche.

Extra benefits of being an expert: Becoming the go-to person for a topic leads to more than just editors contacting you with assignments about your topic. I know a man in Cumberland who collected historic postcards and pictures for years about Western Maryland. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, he published them in numerous books. He is considered the go-to man for local history in Cumberland and he is the first person everyone thinks about when they need a photo, a judge for a contest, a speaker, etc.

Continually improve your writing skills: Another aspect of becoming an expert includes becoming an expert writer. I’ve been writing professionally since 1988 and I still look for ways to improve and expand my skills. Never stop learning.

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magazine-806073_640I’ve been doing freelance writing in one form or another for 25 years now. When I started out, I was getting only a few assignments to write articles. Nowadays, I have plenty of work, and the best part is that many times the editor offers me the assignment without me having to send a query letter.

So I thought I would share some tips with you to improve your odds at getting the assignment. Many of these are quite simple, even logical, but I have run into writers over the years who have neglected them and then wonder why their query letters are rejected.

Going the Extra Mile

  1. Reply quickly to any inquiries made by editors. You would like them to do it for you, do it for them. This includes being quick about proofing. The quicker you are in responding, the more time they have to do their thing. I have had more than one editor thank me for doing a quick turnaround on a project.
  2. Be willing to be edited. Your words aren’t gospel. Unless an edit is incorrect, be willing to consider and accept the changes. You are being paid for the work.
  3. Add extra information when appropriate. For example, provide captions for any pictures you submit.
  4. If you are submitting pictures with your article, submit more than needed so the editor had plenty to choose from.
  5. Keep to the assigned word length. I’m not saying that you have to hit the number spot on, but you should stay within 10 percent of the assigned length. If you fall too far short, your story may no longer meet its purpose. For instance, your short feature story, might only be the length of a department piece. If you go too far over the limit, you are creating extra work for the editor who will have to edit the piece down to the proper length.
  6. Produce quality work. Always turn in the best story you can write. Poor work won’t win you more assignments.

By going the extra mile, you make an editor’s job easier. If you’re doing that, when an editor is considering who to assign stories to, you will be topmost in his or her mind as a writer who not only provides good work but also relieves some of the stress of their job.

Next week, I’ll provide some tips for developing a long-term relationship with an editor.

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I saw this story yesterday, and I got a kick out of it. How many times have you seen a sign with a misspelling or grammar error? I especially get peeved when I see one that is on a permanent sign. Not only did someone decide to write the signed incorrectly, but someone else approved it, and a third person printed it that way. Now their poor English education is immortalized.

Apparently, it got to be too much for this guy who took matters into his own hands and became a “grammar vigilante.” It reminds me of the Studio C skit about Captain Literally and The Grammar League.

 

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Click to watch the video

 

The Grammar Vigilante’s tool of choice is an apostrohiser, which a “a broom handle laden with two sponges and a number of stickers,” according to the UK Telegraph. The newspaper reported that he has been replacing or removing misplaced apostrophes throughout Bristol, England, over the past 13 years.

He told the newspaper, “People might say what I am doing is wrong, but it is more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place.”

Reactions to the Grammar Vigilante’s efforts have been mixed. Some don’t mind being corrected, while others feel like it defaces a sign that may have cost thousands to produce. So far, police haven’t received any complaints about his efforts.

You can read the Telegraph article here.

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