Writing Tips From A Pro

By Reed Farrel Coleman, Author of Hurt Machine

For the past five years, I’ve taught a summer class in writing—How To Write Genre Fiction or How To Write A Novel—at Hofstra University on Long Island. It’s a three credit class open to regular students, graduate students, and continuing education students as well. Furthermore, it’s an accelerated class in that I must teach a full term’s worth of material in two consecutive weeks—four hours a day, ten days in a row. In order to accomplish this I had to learn how to reduce lessons down to their most impactful, economical forms. Then, two years ago, Larry Light, the current Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America—a position I once held—came to me and asked me to lead an effort to develop an idea called MWA University. This was to be a program where Mystery Writers of America would offer six hours of college level writing instruction on a single day as a member benefit. Six hours sounds like a lot of time, but in reality it is very little to teach the basics of fiction writing. Again, I was forced to concentrate my lesson plans even further. Here are just some of the bits of writing advice I give to my students that I have developed along the way.

Narrative: New writers are often flummoxed by this concept. Here's an exercise: Download the late Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" or "Taxi" or "W-O-L-D". In these songs, all about five minutes in length, Chapin perfectly exemplifies a complete narrative. There is a beginning, middle, and end with deep characterization, and emotional story arcs. If he can tell stories this complete in five minutes, imagine what you can do in three hundred pages.

First or Third Person: First person allows for an intimacy between the narrator(usually the protagonist) of the story and the reader that is unachievable through third person. However, first person can be very limiting because all the information to the reader must be delivered through the narrator/protagonist's experiences. The reader can never know what is going on in another character's life when that character is not with the protagonist. It also means the protagonist must be constantly "on screen". Third person allows for broader experience in that the reader can have a greater sense of the complete picture. It may even allow the reader to know what is going on in the lives and minds of several characters even within a single scene. The price a writer pays for writing in third is lack of intimacy and potential confusion.

To Outline or Not To Outline: Fiction writing is an odd combination of comfort and discomfort. I, for one, never outline because it robs the spontaneity of the writing experience. I feel once I've done an outline, I've already written the book and I have no desire to write it twice with no surprises. On the other hand, many successful authors do rigorous outlining. They feel they cannot enjoy the writing process if they haven't gotten the heavy lifting of plot out of the way. Just as with routine, experiment. Find out what works best for you and stick with it.

Rule of Three: A difficult issue for new writers to make sense of is how to handle critiques and criticism. One the one hand, you can't change a manuscript to suit every individual bit of criticism you receive. On the other, as I mentioned earlier, you can't remain stubbornly wedded to your manuscript as if it was biblical scripture. When seeking feedback or when you begin the search for an agent or publisher, follow the rule of three. If three people mention one specific weakness in your manuscript -- The protagonist wasn't likeable. The plot was confusing. Your antagonist was one dimensional. -- you might want to pay attention.

© 2011 Reed Farrel Coleman, author of Hurt Machine

Reed Farrel Coleman, author of Hurt Machine, is the former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. He has published twelve novels -- two under his pen name Tony Spinsosa -- in three series, and one stand-alone with award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen. His books have been translated into seven languages.

Reed is a three-time winner of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year. He has also received the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards, and has been twice nominated for the Edgar® Award. He was the editor of the anthology Hard Boiled Brooklyn, and his short fiction and essays have appeared in Wall Street Noir, The Darker Mask, These Guns For Hire, Brooklyn Noir 3, Damn Near Dead, and other publications.

Reed is an adjunct professor at Hofstra University, teaching writing classes in mystery fiction and the novel. He lives with his family on Long Island.

For more information please visit http://www.reedcoleman.com/, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter


  1. I completely agree that first person narration is the best and intimate...


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