Passive Voice
I’ve mentioned that I subscribe to an editing software called ProwritingAid. One of the benefits is a blog they send periodically to my email.

One of the issues Prowritingaid finds in my writing is use of passive voice. Their latest blog contains an article, “Why Passive Voice is Dangerous.” It is the best explanation that I’ve come across. Basically, using passive voice takes the question away from an act and puts the focus on the victim. An example they use is: “The victim was murdered in her home by her estranged husband.” Instead: “Estranged husband murders wife in her home.” See the difference? Passive voice shifted the blame.

Active voice puts the focus on those who deserve the accountabiity, whether positive or negative

The article goes on to talk about politicians and how easy it is for them to use passive voice, like “mistakes were made.” Ask them - Who made the mistakes? 

Why is passive voice dangerous? Because, according to Prowritingaid, it shifts the blame onto the innocent. I understand this issue much better now.


The decision to be self-published comes with the responsibility to wear multiple hats. Writing, editing, cover decision and design, publishing, and marketing.I am in the editing stage with my third Caitlyn Jamison mystery. If I were to hire someone to edit my work, I’d have to decide do I want a developmental editor, a structural editor, or a copy editor? Besides the cost, I would have to find an editor (or three) that would understand my writing style and not convert the text into theirs. One of my friends had this happen and she spent a lot of time putting her voice back into the story, taking out the editor’s voice.

As I go through the manuscript, I’m doing a little of each kind of editing. I’m reviewing the overall structure and content. What works; what doesn’t. I’m making sure the content is clear, words  carefully chosen. Does the story flow? I look for repetitive words. (Prowritingaid software will help me with this.It points out sticky sentences, repeated words, grammar issues, etc.)  Of course I will watch for grammar and spelling issues. 

Another important thing I keep in mind is point of view. Only one POV per scene. I can’t get caught up in the story and let the point of view change. I’m pretty good at crisp dialogue. Still working on show versus tell, but that's all part of the writing challenge. I’m pleased with the progress and am proud to wear my editing hat.

The Layers of Wrting

As I work through editing of The Death of Cassie White, I’m reminded how much writing and editing is similar to the art of painting. I’ve developed the bones of the story, but as I slowly read through I am layering in more details. In that process I am getting to know my characters better. I also know that this pass through the 67 chapter book will require several more layers of detail. It came to me this morning that although I’d developed bios for my characters, I didn’t really know them. I am at the point now that I can flesh each of them out some more, especially the secondary characters that show up for the first time in this book. The title changed as it always does, which prompts the question - who is Cassie White? Something I had not thought about before. She was only a means to an end, but now, well, her character needs to be developed. Writing is an interesting process and I love that I am learning a little more about it each day. [Posted 9 December 2018

Mystery Writing Handout

I’m in the process of giving presentations on writing mysteries to the three CRRL Inklings groups. Below is the handout I am providing the members of the groups. In addition, I am supplementing with additional informaiton which I will include in my next blog post.

Mystery is a genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved. Often with a closed circle of suspects, each suspect is provided with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime.


Traditional: A mystery must have certain elements to be considered a mystery.  Essentially, a mystery will have a puzzle or secret, or layers of puzzles or secrets, a setting that fits the type of book, a sound motive, red herrings, and clues. Most traditionally accepted mysteries have a murder. This is the element that compels people to keep reading. (Think Agatha Christie)

Cozy: Traditional cozies are light, sometimes humorous, slow paced (as compared to the other categories), the murder (usually quite civilized) and sex happen off scene, and the solving of the crime is a battle of wits between the reluctant amateur sleuth and the villain. The setting is most often in a small town or community and the sub-characters are quirky and fun. The sleuth falls into the mystery by accident or circumstance and uses common sense/gray cells to solve the crime. Usually first person. (Think Janet Evanovich)


Hard Boiled

The hardboiled mystery is a detective story with attitude and action. It’s a tough mystery that takes place in a city or urban setting. It’s gritty. It’s violent. The blood and violence (and sex) takes place on screen. Usually the detective is a professional who’s been hired to investigate. Usually first person with a bare-bones or abrupt narrative style. This is not your emotional mystery. (Think Raymond Chandler or Michael Connelly)

Soft Boiled

The soft boiled mystery falls somewhere between the hard boiled and the cozy. It’s not as violent as the hard boiled, but can have more on scene than the cozy. Many soft boiled mysteries have humorous elements. The detective can be a professional or amateur. Misa’s Lola Cruz Mystery Series is an example of soft boiled. Janet Evanovich is also soft boiled (with some caper thrown in).

Police Procedural

The detective/sleuth in a police procedural is almost always a law enforcement agent of some sort. The details of the mystery plot are the focus, as opposed to the heavier character development of the other categories. The term police procedural is used because the procedures are detailed and accurate. Rules must be followed and crime details are key. (Think PD James and Tony Hillerman)

Think about the kind of details, POV, setting, level of violence in your book and how to categorize it. Not every book fits neatly into a category, but you should be able to see it in one of these categories (even if you have to push or shove a little bit!). Just a caveat, things that aren’t easily marketable–meaning your agent or editor doesn’t know how to explain what it is–are less likely to sell. If you can categorize your book, in general, all the better.

In a thriller, "who done it" is usually known to the reader, and often times to the main character. The goal is not to solve a mystery, but rather to catch a criminal, or stop a crime from being committed. A thriller is a mystery that de-emphasizes cerebration, and emphasizes action and suspense. The protagonist is in danger from the outset.

 Subgenres: Legal, Medical

Suspense: the main character may become aware of danger only gradually. In a mystery, the reader is exposed to the same information as the detective, but in a suspense story, the reader is aware of things unknown to the protagonist. The reader sees the bad guy plant the bomb, and then suffers the suspense of wondering when or if it will explode.

Mysteries have the same basic elements as all prose
Plot/storyline/your reason for writing
Suspense/Action/ What’s at stake/Hold readers’ attention/
Hook the reader on the first page

Character Rules:
Character bios – protagonist and supporting characters (not too many)
Each character should have a role
Mirror characters – the protagonist needs someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of
Avoid stereotypes
Be ready for your characters to take over and change the story

Develop your protagonist:
What crime (or bad thing) has been committed and needs to be solved.
Who is he/she? Why does your protagonist care about the crime? Make it personal.
What is your protagonist’s problem, goal, need, desire?
What are his/her motives for solving the crime and what resources will he/she need?
What obstacles stand in his/her way? Develop a crisis point.
Show readers something your protagonist wants, and then threaten it.
Build tension. Get into each character’s head. How would they react in any situation?
How will your characters change by the end of the book?


Point of view (POV)
Dialogue – keep crisp, clear
Plotter or Pantser? Do you plan ahead, outline, or just write and see what happens?
What is this story about? What do I want this story to be about? Keep asking that question.
Red herrings – suspects/clues/misdirection – but play fair
Pacing – give your readers a break! After a fast-pace chapter, slow it down
Research – Readers are smart, and will catch any little detail you’ve gotten wrong
Editing – make every word work


Think of your story as a three act play – setting the stage, climax, tying up plot lines
How will the story end? Write the ending first.

My Writing Toolbox

George, Elizabeth, Write Away. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2004.
King, Stephen, On Writing; A memoir of the Craft. Scribner, New York, 2000.
Lamott, Anne,
Bird by Bird. Anchor Books, New York, 1994.
Mills, Elizabeth Shown,
Evidence Explained; Citing history sources form artifacts to cyberspace. Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, MD, 2009.
Munier, Paula,
Plot Perfect.  Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2014.
Munier, Paula,
Writing with Quiet Hands. Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2015.
Provost, Gary,
Make Your Words Work. Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1990.
Roberts, Gillian,
You Can Write a Mystery. Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1999.
Stone, Todd A.,
Novelist’s Boot Camp; 101 Ways to take your book from Boring to Bestseller. Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2006.
The Chicago Manual of Style, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 14th Edition, 1993.
Writer’s Digest – Subscribe to get all the latest information on writing process, finding agents, best websites, and unlimited how-to’s for writing.  []
Dictionary and Thesaurus 

Emilie or Elise or someone else ... 

A strange thing happened. I had named my new protagonist “Emilie” after one of my more elusive ancestors. Since this book is set in Savannah, I purchased “Haunted Savannah” by James Caskey. Mr. Caskey relates stories about ghost sightings that he and his tour director colleagues have witnessed in certain Savannah properties. While we traveled back from Palm Beach earlier this month, I jotted down in my writer’s journal some story line ideas. A couple of weeks later I opened my writer’s journal to refresh my memory on those story lines. What I found was that subconsciously I had written “Elise” as the protagonist instead of Emilie. I’m wondering if the supernatural (paranormal) was already working and that “Elise,” whoever she is, has already taken over the story. I have a feeling this is going to be an interesting ride.

I decided to start another book (series?) set in Savannah, Georgia. I don’t have a title, but the proganist is named Emilie. Emilie is a mystery book author and also runs a bed and breakfast in the city. What will be challenging about this book is I want to try to write it in first person. My Caitlyn Jamison series is in third person. Wish me luck.

Showing rather than telling is a 
challenge writers have to face and then conquer. I’m working on that skill and get better with each book. I have to remember that my readers have to come away with a deep sense of my characters and the setting. Some ways of accomplishing this is to keep descriptions short and specific, but at the same time don’t turn a character's description into a litany of eye color, height and weight. That isn’t how your friends would describe you! So how would they describe you? Your sense of humor, stance, fashion sense, unkempt hair, etc. Utilize the senses - how does something look, smell, touch, sound or taste? And remember that setting can also be character - think of Louise Penny’s Three Pines, or Jan Karon’s Mitford. I think Elizabeth Sims’ quote says it best: “Readers’ love writing that bring the world in your head to life in theirs.” [Writers Digest January 2013] That’s our job. [Posted 9/17/2018]

Writing Mysteries
I’ve been asked to make a presentation to each of the three CRRL Inklings writing groups about writing mysteries. In developing a talk on that subject I realized that the basic elements of mystery writing is the same for all prose. A book needs characters, setting, plot/storyline, and action. Whatever genre, it’s important to hook the reader on the first page. We’ll talk about developing characters, having a mirror character - someone for the protagonist to confide in, and then go into what’s the protagonist’s goal. When that is determined, who/what will keep the character from easily achieving the goal. How are red herrings woven into the story, and ways to create tension. I’m learning a lot from this exercise and I hope those in the writing groups will as well.  [Posted 21 August 2018]

Anatomy Lesson

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into what I would cover in my first Fiction Writing Critique group that will meet one month from now. There is so much information to share on writing the question is, where do I begin?

It occurred to me I should start out with an anatomy lesson. The first question is what is their genre? Is it romance, mystery, cozy mystery, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, or literature? Maybe they don’t know yet, but I think it’s helpful to have a genre roadmap. And that roadmap should include geographically where the action takes place. If the story is sci-fi and another world is developed, that world has to have rules. Know what those are.

Stories are made up of scenes. I recently read an informative blog by Rebecca Monterusso on Jane Friedman’s site. The blog is titled: “What does it mean to write a scene that works?” Rebecca states that a book is made up of multiple scenes. It’s the time when the character is pulled out of their comfort zone. Scenes are the basic building blocks of the story and together they build the novel.

Which brings me to pacing. No matter what genre you are writing, some tension, stress, force for change has to happen. Pacing means keeping paragraphs tight, chapters of varying lengths. If the tension is too high, readers will need a chapter with a slower pace for some relief.

Character development has to be done first. Who is the protagonist? Their mirror character? Supporting characters? A writer needs to understand the characters, their physical characteristics, their emotions, psychological profile, and their history. If the writer knows their characters, he/she will know how they will react in various situations.

What is the plot line (s) of the story? How will your character work through the situation?  And how will it be resolved? If more than one plot line will they connect at the end or resolve separately?

I also want to cover formatting. I’m a visual person. When I’m writing I need to have the manuscript look like a book. I format when I start – for a 6 x 9 trade paperback, which my books are, the perfect margins for publishing through CreateSpace are: Left: .8; Right .8; Top .95; Bottom .8; Header and Footer at 1.0.  I also number chapters as go – although this is sometimes time consuming when I’m moving chapters around, I find it is helpful to find my place when I return to the manuscript. I also page down with each chapter, keeping everything consistent – four returns from the top with chapter number centered on that fourth line. Then two returns before first line of text, with that line starting on the third return. The first line of text for each chapter is aligned on the left margin, with following chapters indented one half inch. I’ve trained myself to this consistent formatting which saves me a lot of time and effort at the end.

Everyone writes differently, but I hope these guidelines will be helpful to the critique group. [Posted 1 July 2018]

Short Story Writing

The Central Virginia Sisters in Crime of which I am a member is in the process of producing another short story anthology. I decided to submit a story with the theme Deadly Southern Charm. I never realized know how different writing a short story would be from writing full length novels. Thanks to our Inklings writing group, our May meeting featured guidelines for writing short stories

Develop the characters and setting early in the story and both have to be indepth and real. Understand the plot line and make sure there is some kind of conflict involved. This can be against another character, society, nature, or even the protagonist him/herself. The best short stories have an underlying theme. Think about what that will be and follow your characters’ lead.

I plan to finish the first draft this weekend, and then go through a fiction critique checklist. I’ll ask questions such as: Is the reader immediately drawn into the story, is there a connection with the characters, is there conflict, is pacing right, and how do I feel at the end of the story?

Once those questions are answered and the story is edited several times, I’ll put it through the Prowritingaid software for the technical stuff - grammar, style, pacing, etc. 

My story is set in Fredericksburg (rules state the story has to be set in the southern states). At this point there are three characters, but I may develop a fourth. The word count is only 2,000 - 4,000 words so I will have to be concise, which is the challenge of writing a short story. 

An aside: I started another short story set in Savannah, Georgia. When I talked with a friend about it, she said, no. This is not a short story. This is another book series. 

I’ll let readers know how I make out. Whether my story is selected for the anthology - or not. Either way, it is a great writing exercise and something I have never done before. [Posted 9 June 2018]

Let’s Talk Marketing

During the CRRL Writers Conference on November 11, 2017 held at the Porter Library, I was on the panel that was asked to cover the topic of marketing as well as the topic of traditional versus self publishing (or Indi publishing). 

Marketing requires a whole other skill set for writers, and one in which many writers are not comfortable. But if you want to develop a following, it is something an author has to do. 

Social media is at the top of the list. Develop a website, blog, Facebook page, LinkedIn account, and Twitter. I started a Facebook page and blog right way, and recently decided to take the plunge and develop a website to feature my Caitlyn Jamison series.

As a self-published author, I had to create a marketing plan that I am comfortable with. I am in the process of building a list of venues in which I can feature my books.

Sign up for a table at local book festivals, connect with local newspaper journalists that will write an article on your book, develop an author presentation and reach out to book groups and libraries, offer to do a guest blog for a genre-related blog, and don’t forget to alert your email contact list that your new book is available. Run contests. 

Space the events out to keep sales coming. When at events, have someone take a photo of you to post on Facebook to remind Friends and their Friends (ask FB Friends to share) of your book.

I was pleased that the traditionally published authors on Saturday’s panel dispelled the myth that publishers do all the marketing - not. The authors were brutally honest about what they went through to get published, and then what they have to do to continually market their books. If you don’t want to do your own marketing, there are marketing firms that you can hire, but as one panelist said, after a bad experience and losing thousands of dollars, buyer beware. Just because you hire a firm, doesn’t meant they are going to do right by you and your book.

For additional articles see the Caitlyn Jamison Mysteries blog.

Character Development
Mystery author Elizabeth George states “Story is Character,” and I have found that to be true. So how does a writer develop characters to have an impact on readers?

First, a thorough and thoughtful, physical, emotional, socio-economic description has to be developed for each character. Once that is developed, the author knows how each character will react to situations. It also keeps the author on track so a mistake isn’t made by having a character’s eye color at the beginning different than at the end - assuming contact lenses aren’t involved - smile. 

A character can be described from another’s point of view. That description can include how the person presents with regard to stance, expression, speech. You can sometimes tell a person’s age just by the words they use. 

And then you live in their skin. As you write and get into the “groove,” you will become that character. It is then the character’s thoughts feelings, voice, emotions pour out. Let it. That is when your characters come “alive.” It is an amazing feeling to give birth to characters and have them develop right before your eyes.

The Importance of Plot
A good story will transport the reader to places he/she has never been. The writer’s job is to develop an interesting plot and character (s) that compels the reader to keep turning pages. So where do plot ideas come from? The answer is, everywhere. 

One of my plot ideas came from my passion and desire for justice. Too many people were getting away with ruining lives and not suffering the repercussions. [Think 2008 financial crisis]. Other plot ideas came from my passion for teaching people about a little known mental health disease, current social issues, and about my genealogy hobby. 

The key word here is passion. A writer has to have a passion for the story and their characters. When that mix happens, plus some good use of grammar … the book is a winner. 

Point of View
Understanding point of view is probably one of the most difficult lessons a writer has to learn. Rule of thumb is to have one point of view per scene. In other words, one person leads the conversation. There can be more than one point of view per chapter, and those are separated by a couple of lines. But then you don’t want to have too many points of view. What I have done to provide myself an overview of how the book is progressing, and also to track point of view, is I made a chapter by chapter synopsis that includes from whose point of view the information is coming. A glance through this synopsis document tells me I have several people featured in the first few chapters. The question is - will those different voices confuse readers, or will it introduce the characters, which is what I intended. I have to give this some more thought.

A Writer’s Journal
I keep a writer’s journal for each book. The first page has a working title and some plot ideas. Since this is the second Caitlyn Jamison mystery, I have bios on the main characters. The supporting cast will be developed as I go along. The second page has the publishing stats of the first book, i.e. margins, pagination, author price (I learned the more pages in the book the lower the royalty-Fatal Dose is about 40 pages longer than Unexpected Death, so my royalty for Fatal Dose is about 40 cents less.) I also jot down the ISBN number of each book and the number of pages in each.

On the following pages I continue to jot down plot ideas, and introduce characters. Plots change as the characters are developed, so my “Idea” entries change as the book progresses. 

While working on the third book, I am busy marketing the first two. Those venues with contact information is captured in my journal. Also captured are books with citations that I use for research. 

When I get well into the story I start tracking my word count. I keep a listing of each day’s progress with notes on what needs to be done. 

When I get stuck, I review the notes in my journal. An interesting way to see how thought processes change as the book matures. [Posted 3/31/18

© Ray & Mary Maki 2017