Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Holiday Greetings!

Happy Holidays!
It is always so exciting to start a new year--fresh opportunities and a new start.
As you can imagine, I'm still pretty excited about having my first Regency novel published, although to be honest, my feelings range from thrilled to scared to death as the "rubber hits the road" and the dirty work--editing--begins in earnest. And there is always the fear that people will hate it and you won't find an audience. Or that you'll find an audience maybe two people. Frightening.

The really horrifying part is that it only gets harder. You think now that you've sold your first book, things will get easier, but the reality is that the market gets tighter each year as the Internet (well--you're reading this instead of a book, right?), games, television, movies and books all compete for the same limited attention span. Not to mention other worthwhile activities like just going for a walk.

As part of that trend, books are getting shorter and sharper, which I view as a good thing since to be honest, I'm not much on long books. After a while, I just want the author to wrap things up and move on. Lately, I've been reading a lot of short stories, particularly mysteries like those published in the lovely magazine The Strand. If you've never seen an issue and you like mysteries, I highly recommend in, along with The Mystery Scene.

I keep wondering if the short story is going to make a comeback. There are already e-zines available through the Internet and various publishing companies are experimenting with online offerings, as well as an upswing in novelettes for romance and erotica readers. I'm all for various "length factors" because I figure any medium that gets folks reading is great.

Short stories are an interesting format and I keep toying with the idea of writing a few, myself, but to be honest, they scare the dickens out of me. I believe short story writers are exceptional writers because they have to do all their character development as well as story development in just a few pages. No long descriptive passages, no lengthy backstory explaining how the character got the way they are, just quick and hopefully not too dirty :-) scene setting, character description, and story. Short story writers are the slim, muscular atheletes of the writing world.

I personally like a very lean, tight writing style so I'm very drawn to short stories--I just don't know if I can develop both a character and a good story in just a few pages. But I think in today's market, if you can hone that skill, you're going to sell. I don't know if you could ever actually get rich on short stories, but I believe there is an audience out there for them.

What I'm thinking is some sort of RSS feed subscription (I mean, authors do want to get paid for their work) where you could set up a web page with an RSS feed and then post your stories and novelettes. Anyone who subscribes (and pays the subscription fee--which wouldn't have to be really expensive) would then get automatic notification and download of the new stories via the RSS feed. There are tons of free RSS feed clients and the new version of Outlook from Microsoft (Outlook 2007) will include an RSS feed so you can get your news and junk dumped directly into your e-mail bin. Readers can then read their content on any device, e.g. smartphone, pda, laptop, desktop computer, whatever. You could even do a serialized novel/story that way. How cool would that be? You could even include pictures, like Manga stuff, if you're into that.

Companies such as Harlequin are already experimenting with various serials and e-pubs but at the moment, I'm not sure how they're handling the business (money making) end of it. So much of the stuff on the Internet is free--which is what makes it such a terrific resource--but on the other hand, it would be difficult to make a living as a writer if you never actually got paid for your work. At what point do we start charging and what do we charge users for? If you were a writer and never got paid, would you continue to write? You might, but I'm not sure what kind of quality product readers would be getting. There is a lot of truth in: You get what you pay for.

Still, a lot of writers love writing so much, they may write for free. Personally, I find that a little too depressing to think about, but I guess a lot of socialists would really love that idea. I'm a little too much of a capitalist to appreciate the benefits of working long hours to produce something for someone else and never get anything in return except possibly a plaque or a pat on the head.

Anyway, I sure I don't know the answers. I only know that I regard writing as a second job for now and one which I hope to change over to completely as a primary occupation to help me pay the bills sometime during the next seven years. That means I would actually need to earn money for my novels. Now that I have my first publishing contract, I expect to start earning something, but I can't help thinking there are vast opportunities out there for new stories presented via the Internet, with a fair price that readers find totally acceptable.

We live in an interesting time and I hope 2007 continues the unprecedented developments on the Internet. There is no doubt that we are headed in some unexpected directions.

So Happy New Year to everyone and may we all get our hearts' desire!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Writing the "All-Nighter" Book

*News Flash* And now a word from our sponser...My publication date has been changed! Smuggled Rose is now due to be released as an e-book on May 3, 2007! I hope to have a cover soon so you can see what it looks like. And we are still hoping to have a paperback version 6 months later, so I'm totally thrilled! Anyway, back to the REAL subject...

The Anatomy of an All-Nighter Book
Hopefully, David Morrell will not sue me for dissecting his book, CREEPERS, which is a perfect and clear example of a book which is so gripping that you literally stay up all night reading it to find out what happens next. A lot of writers worry about sagging middles or engaging the reader, and sometimes it helps to see how a really expert writer does this. I chose CREEPERS simply because it was so well done and it was so clear how it was done.

Morrell doesn’t pepper you with a lot of backstory and unnecessary information, particularly at the beginning. He establishes who his characters are and what their goals are: to explore an old, abandoned hotel before it is torn down. He lays down hints that the main character has more to his motives, but there is only a hint. You don’t actually find out all his hidden secrets and motives until almost the end.

In previous articles, I’ve talked about making sure your reader understands your hero or heroine, so they can bond with them. This means you have to make sure your reader understands at that hero/heroine’s goals and motivations, but only enough to accept the action and get into the story. It’s a fine line.

Starter Conflict
The hero of CREEPERS is Frank Balenger and we know he’s joined the group of explorers for his own reasons, with the overt explanation that he’s a reporter doing a story on creepers (urban explorers). His explanation to the rest of the group for his presence is actually enough for the reader, too. Morrell throws out hints like:

“I’m beginning to like this guy,” Vinnie said.
Balenger’s muscles relaxed. Knowing there’d be other tests, he watched the creepers fill their knapsacks.

Balenger wants the creepers to accept him as a reporter so he can go along with them. We know there may be more to it, but it’s good enough for us. This is the perfect example of giving the reader enough motivation, enough details to get them involved and intrigued, and to start sympathizing with Balenger, without dumping a whole lotta unnecessary backstory on us. We’re intrigued because we know there’s more to come…

So the first hurdle for the hero is to get the creepers to trust him enough to come along. This is the first twist of tension the reader feels, and the starter conflict. Of course, the creepers let him come along, which brings us to the next twist of tension.

Hints of Horrors to Come
As they break into the hotel, they run into rats and a cat with abnormal physical characteristics like extra legs or ears. There’s no long explanation, which is a mistake a lot of beginning writers make. The characters do a small amount of speculation as they move on into the hotel, but not a lot, because the reader will do all the speculation for them. The reader will pick up these details and tighten the tension another notch all on their own, because readers always play that guessing game of trying to figure out what’s going to happen next and where the author is going with these details. So already, with just a very few details, the reader is thinking:

Is there some sort of biological or radiation causing the mutations?
Are they going to run into a monster?
Or will the original owner turn out not to be dead, but alive due to some biological or radiation thing?

Now the reader is involved. They’re guessing and wondering if they can figure out where the author is going. And they’re worried about the creepers and Balenger. Will they survive? What horrors will they run into?

Brushes with Death
Once the creepers get into the hotel, the tension increases again as they run into difficulties like rotted floors. One character almost falls through. And they see a cat with five legs, again. Something is not right…

All of this serves to create the atmosphere and start building dread. By this time, the reader is going to have a hard time putting the book down, because they want to know what is going to happen next. Are there going to be monsters? Are accidents going to become fatal?

First Major Twist
But you can’t let it rest there. You have to introduce something unexpected now, to increase the tension or you will have…a sagging middle. You see a sagging middle has nothing to do with “no action” or other misconceptions like that. You can have plenty of action, but unless that action goes into a different direction, then it’s just boring.

For example, if Morrell just had more accidents like people falling through holes in the floor or ceilings caving in on them, it would just get boring. It’s happened already. It’s now expected. So more of the same isn’t going to do anything to increase the tension.

Thanks to the detail of the weird cat, readers are also sort of expecting monsters.

So Morrell gives readers what they don’t expect and throws in a completely new kind of threat. Something all his hints about the strange first owner, the abnormal animals, and rotting hotel just didn’t prepare you for.

I am not going to spoil this book by revealing what it is, but trust me, it’s a good twist.

Second Major Twist
Now that he’s introduced new threats into the environment, Morrell doesn’t leave it there. He’s got the screws tightened to the point where you can’t put the book down because everything is dangerous for the characters. How are they—any of them—going to survive?

But wait! That’s only the first 2/3 of the book! Now, he introduces another twist that relates to one of the initials guesses readers might have been making about where the book was going, but is so unexpected and not exactly what they were thinking, that again, you can’t put the book down. This second twist increases the danger, not just for the “good guys” but for the “bad guys” as well!

Final Twist
In the final third, Morrell finally reveals all of Balenger’s backstory and his underlying motives about why he is there—but only because it is relevant to the action. The second twist introduced more elements and one of those elements has a direct relationship with Balenger’s past, his motives, etc. If it had not been related in this way, with direct and personal implications for Balenger, we probably could have gone without ever really knowing about his past. The book would have been just as enjoyable and just as tense (believe me) but there is an extra layer of personal involvement and meaning that would have been missing had he not had the twist have real implications and meaning for Balenger.

This is all sort of airy at the end, mostly because I didn’t want to ruin the story for those who have not read it. Get it and read it. It is a superb example of how to create mounting tension and make that tension and plot twists directly impact the main character in a meaningful way. That’s the secret to creating killer fiction.

Sigh. Now if I could just do that.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Since my first book won't be out for a few months (until July 2007) it should be obvious that I don't have long years of experience with promoting, but I have been querying other writers. It's a mixed bag out there, and no one has the keys to the kingdom.

However, the first thing you need to consider, and I mean really consider, is your audience. If you're trying to reach younger folks, realize that attention spans are very brief. Even if they see your name and book title over and over again, if they can't buy it when they see the ad, it's pointless to advertise. This is particularly true of e-books.

That's where the main "decision point" is going to be. Are you coming out first as an e-book or as a paperback, or even as a hardcover? Because those things are going to affect who--and when you need to first advertise.

For all authors, make sure you coordinate any reviews, advertisements and other promotions with your publisher's marketing department and editor. You don't want to give them the idea that you are going around them. This is a team effort. You are part of a team. You don't want to send a copy of your book someplace for review, only to discover your marketing department has already done that. It's bound to make someone angry. You don't need that.

Remember: this is a team effort. Coordinate with your team.

If you're coming out first in e-book, realize that you are catering to the "I want it now crowd. That's the whole point of an e-book. So you don't want to start advertising months, or even one month, before your book comes out. If you do, by the time the book is downloadable, you'll have lost any small advantages your ad might have garnered for you. In fact, it may be detrimental because potential readers, having tried to buy your book when they saw the ad, won't be able to, and their impression will be that there is something wrong with your book or publisher's site--like--are they going out of business? It is unlikely the reader will try again.

Also, realize that your audience is on the computer. They are not in a library or a bookstore. You don't need to advertise to the more expensive publications that cater to librarians or bookstores, like Romance Sells. There is a small exception to this: if you think you can appeal to the librarians and bookstore managers as readers, who might then chat up your book to their customers, you can consider this, but on the whole, it's a pretty expensive venture for very little gain. Save these for when your book comes out in print.

Make Advanced Reader Copies (ARC) of your book and in coordination with your marketing deparment, send them to folks who do reviews. Getting someone to review your book is one of the BEST (and free) ways to get it known and purchased. Some sites prefer to download the e-book so you, again, will need to coordinate with your marketing department on how to provide a free download to reviewers. Many of them take care of this for you. In fact, most do.

As far as places to advertise, probably your best bet for e-books is Romantic Times. They often do a review (free) and will accept ads. Another place for exposure is RWA's monthly magazine. Some other ideas that are a little unusual, but sometimes work out are:

Mention the book and where to purchase it in your High School and/or College alumni newsletter or magazine. Classmates will often purchase out of curiosity or so that they can brag that they went to school with an author.

Some folks find that MySpace or other sites on the Internet like that are helpful, but they are also collossal time-wasters, so you should consider that factor as well.

Paperbacks/Trade Editions
These are the hard core consumer items, so this is where you can really begin to put in a lot more effort, including book signings, etc. I've been to some book signings and you should be aware that the advantage is NOT in signing the books, the advantage is in getting it mentioned in the newspaper. You may only sign 20 books, which is not going to make or break you as an author, but if the event is mentioned in the newspaper, then you may get people to buy the book the next time they go to the store (or online).

You should schmooze librarians and booksellers--particularly the booksellers. If they don't acquire your book and put them in their store, your chances of getting sold none. They place their orders in advance, so they need to see information about you and your book well in advance of it's initial release. This is where publications like Romance Sells are invaluable. ARCs are important, and if you can get a few ARCs to buyers for a few chains in your area, so much the better.

The advice for hardcover is much the same as paperback, except with possibly more emphasis on librarians. There are a lot of libraries and a lot of libraries buy a lot of hardcovers. So make sure you and your marketing department get that covered as much as possible. Also, attend conventions where there are librarians and booksellers. Make friends with them. Give them ARCs. Do what you can to find out about who does the buying and how decisions are made. Encourage them to make positive decisions about your book.

Finally, I want to emphasize again that you need to work hand-in-hand with your marketing department. You aren't in this alone. They can help you. They want to help you, and they know what they are doing.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Writing and Publishing

It's been a while since I wrote a crafty blog and unfortunately, this isn't going to be one, either! I'm working on a contemporary mystery and need to get back to work on it, so this blog is sort of off the top of my head.

Now that I finally have a publication date for A Smuggled Rose, each day is a new day, and I'm not even in the big leagues yet. I'm being published by a small press publisher who does mainly e-books with some print books released a few months after the e-book. And is truly weird. All of a sudden, I'm invited into all these loops and groups for published writers. I've gotten congratulations from people I don't even know and have no idea how they found out I'm being published. I guess they're on one of the myriad loops which are now inviting me to participate. And you know, a few scant weeks ago, I got nothing.

Which goes to show you, people really like successful people. Even if you're only successful in a minor way.

Why do I mention that? Because just like "real people" in the "real world," if you want your readers to like your characters, your characters should be at least marginally successful. Or good at something, even if it's just shooting boogers across the room (and he scores another one!). One of the hardest creations is a character that the reader can bond with. I've talked about it on other blogs, but characters are sort of like diamonds--there are a lot of facets to creating one which is valuable and worthwhile. You need a lot of sides to the character, a lot of facets, to give them depth, and there needs to be at least one, successful, worthwhile thing about them. If the character doesn't start out successful, then the character's journey most likely should contain an element of growth and so the success is that the character grows in some way. Of course, in literary fiction, the character more often than not, ends up not growing and is spectacularly unsuccessful, which is why it is often so difficult for the reader to "get into" the characters.

We want success. We crave success. We want to be around successful people. Unless they are too successful, in which case, we delight in tearing them down and heaping blame upon them for everything, no matter what they do or don't do (e.g. Bill Gates). However, that is sort of drifting away from the point.

Right now, I'm toying with a heroine in my murder mystery who has uclers and way too much stress in her life. I'm trying not to make her whiney, but she really does have a lot to whine about, and I'm thinking about how far I can go with her before I've gone TOO FAR, because this heroine with the ulcers and the stress, is on the first vacation she's had in five years (trying to relax and let her ulcers go away) and I'd really like her to have the ultimate female insult--get her period. I mean, this has happened to ME so many times...I've saved up my annual leave and planned a big vacation (particularly a vacation at the beach) only to wind up with my period being early or late and sort of interferring with the whole thing. Not that you can't still have a good time and all, it's just not the best.

But I thought about it, and I can't really remember any heroine within my recent memory who has even had a period mentioned, which when you think about it, is fairly...odd. I mean, I've read books where the "action" takes place over a month, and the heroine is just f-i-n-e the entire time, including adventure stories where her airplane/car/whatever has crashed and she and the hero are struggling to the nearest town over a period of weeks, guess period. Which is good, since they often only have the clothes on their backs and nothing in the way of supplies. It does make me wonder, though. It seems to...unrealistic.

Okay, I know if you are under a lot of stress, this might happen, but isn't it a little weird that nobody in a book seems to have any kind of a monthly cycle, but they can sure pop those kids out in the epilogue. Amazing.

Guess those nasty little real life details just need to be glossed over, although it seems a little disengenuous considering how much detail is employed regarding condoms during love scenes in so many recent books. They want the reader to definitely know that all the characters are having safe sex, even if the woman apparently hasn't started to have her monthly cycle yet (even though she's in her mid-to-late twenties/early thirties).

Maybe it's these sorts of issues that make me completely uninterested in writing detailed love scenes or reading them. They seem so ridiculous--and weird combination of complete fantasy (everyone has at least one, if not multiple 'O's), yucky reality (is there anything more yucky than a used condom?), and complete disregard for biology. Or maybe I'm just behind the times and don't realize that young folks now-a-days have complete control over their biology and don't have nasty things happen to them at awkward times.

Then again, books are, by their very nature, fantasies, and none of us want to read about bloated, crabby women. We know the feeling, we don't like the feeling, and we don't want to be reminded.

So I guess I won't do that to my poor heroine, although it really would be just the icing on her vacation cake. I'll think of some other way to torture her.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Lucky 7?

Houston, we have a go...

Cerridwen Press has given me an actual release date for my Regency: A Smuggled Rose. It will be coming out July 7, 2007 (7/7/07). Assuming no disasters, of course. This entire process has me mystified. They decided to sort of delay the release a little because they were organizing their traditional Regency releases by "story tone". Now I'm wondering what sort of tone I have. I suspect it's dark, although it didn't feel all that dark to me when I wrote it. It is certainly not as dark as some things I've read, although there are some sort of dark strands running through it.
I never think of myself as a dark writer, although most of my stories have some very, very dark undercurrents. So, I'm really curious to see how I end up being viewed by readers and reviewers. It will also be interesting to see if others think that major, underlying themes are individuality and the pursuit of freedom. I've been told that this is a theme in most of my work, but I usually think of it more along the lines of an individual's place in Society and how far does one need to go to be accepted or acceptable. Personally, I'm not willing to go all that far. I'm afraid my own streak of independence is often--and uncomfortably--echoed in my characters.
Which is odd for someone who always reads all the documentation which comes with everything, like electronic equipment, and generally tries to follow the rules (as far as I understand them). You would think a person like that would be a conformist, not a non-conformist. Certainly not an individualist who can't stand to be told what to do (unless it is written down in the user manual).
But I guess, underneath it all, I prefer individualists who mind their own business and don't expect me to live up or down to their expectations. I really hate expectations. I hate being told what to do. Just tell me the rules and I'll see what I can do to fit them in. Then leave me alone.
Which pretty much sums up how most of my characters feel about things. So, yeah, I guess individualism and independence are a major themes for me. I can't seem to get away from them.
And theme is important. It can add a lot of depth to your writing. The good thing is that most writers have themes, even if they don't realize it. Cool. The only problem is, most people totally don't get what a theme actually is. They confuse it with their character's goals or personalities. Not the same thing at all. Theme is what is *shown* by your story and develops as the characters' goals and personalities play out through the course of their adventure. It is doubtful your characters--even at their most enlightened moment--would be able to verbalize the theme. Unless they are Melanctha in a Gertrude Stein story, of course ("You have to know what you've got when you've got it"--but Melancthan knew what she had when she had it, and she lost it anyway--and knew she lost it, so...even she--clearly--didn't grasp the theme entirely.) But I digress...
Back to my publishing trauma. I'm now in the process of having to create a, gulp, blurb. I'm totally hopeless with titles and blurbs, so this is not easy. I actually hoped my editor would foist some sort of title and accompanying blurb on me. :-) That would have been great. But she didn't, so I had to come up with a blurb. So I'm looking at two blurbs.
I'd love to know what people think of them and which they prefer. It will probably only confuse me further, but I like to think hearing someone else's ideas will suddenly clarify Life, the Universe, and Everything for me.
Blurb 1
Occasional rose smuggler, Margaret Lane, wants nothing more than to go to London and enjoy a London Season. But after being disgraced by a member of the Ton when her brother failed to honor a gambling debt, the best she can hope for is to be forgotten by Society.

Michael Peyton, earl of Ramsgate, wishes Society and all his responsibilities would go to blazes. He has agreed to an arranged marriage with a woman who cringes whenever he enters the room, and the best he can hope for is to avoid it as long as possible. He never dreams his irresponsible brother would get wounded by the Excise and that a beautiful woman like Margaret would rescue him.

Unfortunately, Margaret's past soon catches up with her, and Michael is faced with a fearful dilemma. If he cannot protect her while still fulfilling his promise to another woman, he may lose both his honor and Margaret.
Blurb 2
Occasional rose smuggler, Margaret Lane, dreams of a London Season, knowing her hopes are unrealistic. A rejected suitor’s gossip has destroyed her reputation and trust, and smuggling roses from France to make ends meet further damns her. So, with lowered expectations, she hopes Society will simply forget her, until she rescues a man from the Excise. Soon she discovers no one has forgotten the rumors about Miss Lane, particularly not the man’s brother, Michael Peyton, the earl of Ramsgate.

Finding his brother in the hands of a well-known doxy is no relief to Michael, who has his own social burdens including a young fiancée who cringes at the sight of him. But when he discovers the rumors about Margaret are pure fabrication, he hits upon the perfect solution to repay her. He grants Margaret her heart’s desire, a London Season, hoping to cleanse her reputation by having his mother and fiancée present her at Court.

Unfortunately, when they arrive in London, the past catches up with Margaret, and Michael must protect her and deny his own heart’s true desire. If he does not honor his duty to another woman, he may lose Margaret’s trust, and love, forever.
That's it - which would you prefer? Would either one make you part with your hard-earned money?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

NaNoWriMo 2006

Finished my paranormal for National Novel Writing Month last night - what a relief. The last few days were really grinding because I had this other mystery idea that must be written disturbing my peace of mind. Now, I can let NaNoWriMo go for another year and work on the mystery. This one will be a contemporary, since I'm hoping to sell my other historical mysteries to Cerridwen Press: and pursue another angle.
It is interesting to me how the market changes and even individual tastes change. I read a lot of mysteries and never thought of them as specific kinds, e.g. cozy, hard-boiled, or whatever. But lately, I've realized that there are a lot of mysteries and thrillers out there which are stepping way over the line for me. They are putting things and images in my head which I don't want there. This surprises me, because I love shoot-'em up, bang-bang movies and thought I didn't mind violence, but actually...I do. I don't mind Bruce Willis violence, but I can't "do" the "Saw" stuff, and I can't "do" a lot of thrillers coming out. I don't want images of rape or torture in my head. Give me a nice, clean shot between the eyes, and I'm good with that. Torture...not so much.
Which brings me to my contemporary mystery and thoughts of classification. Because I don't think of what I read or want to write as "cozy". Are Jonathan Gash's wonderful Lovejoy mysteries cozy? Lindsey Davis' fantastic Falco mysteries cozy? I don't know. People get hurt, get beaten up, but it's cool. The characters pick themselves up, brush off, rinse the blood out of their mouth, and move on (unless, of course, they are the murder victim). I also adore the new line of mysteries from Hard Case - the old hard-boiled detective stories where people get beaten up all the time--but there's no gore, really.
Am I going to yet again write things that are "old fashioned" or (blech) cozy because I don't like the rape/torture realism of todays mysteries and thrillers? Will publishers turn me away, yet again, because my stuff is not "realistic" enough? It is very possible. The mystery I have in mind is definitely going to be humorous. In fact, that's why I'm so anxious to write it--because if I can push my characters into wacky situations that push them to the limit--I love it. I love writing it. But does anyone like reading it?
I hope so. Stephanie Bond seems to be making a pretty darn good career from humorous mystery/romances. I'm not so interested in the romance angle, although there will probably be one, but humorous mystery--sure. What's mystery without a sense of humor? A lot of depression and images stuck in your head you don't particularly want.
Well, be that as it may, tonight is the big night. I start on a contemporary mystery. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

At last!

Happy Days are here again...

It's official. On Thursday, November 16, 2007 at 7PM I signed three copies of a contract with Cerridwen Press/Ellora's Cave. They are publishing A Smuggled Rose as part of their new Cotillion line of traditional Regency romances. It should be out sometime around May 2007.

I love my editor. I love the publisher. I love my agent, who sweated and worked long hours over the contract. I love the world. I love any potential readers I may get.

A Smuggled Rose started out life as Perchance to Dream and finaled in several writing contests. Several agents and editors were mildly interested in it, but because I wrote it about a year before the NY publishers finally closed their trad Regency lines for good, ultimately, no one took it on as a project. I'm so relieved that Regencies are not completely dead, although I'm a little worried that it may only be available as an e-book. I'm hoping they can at least do some print runs.

What is so nice about this is that I have several more already written, and now, they may actually have a home. Assuming my luck changes. I didn't say anything to my editor, but my writing career has had some strange intersections with the rest of the world.

Two of the agents who were interested in this manuscript suffered the loss of family members while considering it.

Two of my other manuscripts were sitting in editors' offices, with editors interested in them, only to discover that the lines the manuscripts were intended for closed and/or terminated.

One hopes this ill wind has finally died down.

It's a little scary, though, to have my toe in the door. I still want that big, NY contract with print runs starting at 20-30,000, instead of the slightly less exuberant expection of selling 1,000 copies with luck, but that's 1,000 copies I wouldn't sell otherwise, and 1,000 readers (one hopes) and I'm good with that.

I also plan to promote the dickens out of this.

So, I'm one step further along in this wild trip. I've even got a new website, specifically for my Regencies, at so I'm gearing up. I'm official now. I really am a writer--and not only that--I'm an author!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Nothing in Particular

Still slaving away at my NaNoWriMo novel, so other than just heads down working, I haven't had any real revelations this week. I am up to 34,000 words, though, and unless I have some sort of a melt-down, I actually expect to hit my 50,000 mark before the end of November. Yippee!

Hmmm, maybe it's not strictly true, however, that I haven't had any revelations. I went to a writers meeting on Saturday where I was surprised to find that I didn't actually learn anything new. That's a shocker for me. I can't remember the last time I went to a meeting and didn't come away with some nugget that helped me with my writing. I had big expectations, too, because it was a special session with a big-time author, with the topic of writing dialogue. The author was a fantastic speaker and really, really funny, so it was enjoyable, but not actually thought-provoking. In fact, I'm having problems remembering what she even said.

Except a couple of things that depressed me:
  • Unpublished authors don't need/shouldn't have web sites. (Well, e-x-c-u-s-e me for living.)
  • Blogs are a waste of time/unnecessary. (Well, fine.)
  • If you give up your blog, it's taken over by porno sites. (Yeah, that is unfortunate, but since they are constantly linking to my site and trying to make mischief, that's sort of expected behavior.)
I guess that's all sort of true and I only excuse myself for having a web site as a lowly, scum-sucking, unpublished hack by saying that I write the newsletter for my local rose society and I have issues of that newsletter on my web site. As well as articles I've written on writing (although the fact that I'm unpublished sort of makes those look suspicious--I mean if I knew anything about writing, wouldn't I actually be published?) and a few other things. So, I'm hoping the site is a resource at the moment, which can be expanded when I publish.

On the publishing front, I understand my contract with Cerridwen is quite possibly in the final stages of negotiation, so I might actually come into visual contact with it before Thanksgiving. Possibly.

Since I'm writing fresh material now, I do feel better about writing in general and new ideas are flowing in like a virtual tsunami. Unfortunately, I think what it's depositing upon the beach of my mind is flotsam and jetsom. I got some real kicker ideas for short story/novelettes, but they are not saleable ideas--they aren't romances--they are just stories set in the Regency about rather unlikeable and nasty people. I'm afraid I rather like unlikeable and nasty people. The one I'm just dying to write is entitled (in my head) The Malicious Young Man. If you've ever read any H.H. Munro (Saki) then you'll have a pretty good notion what I have in mind--if you sort of took Clovis, twisted him up a bit and stuck him in the Regency.

Where would you sell something like that? Shrug. Who knows. I'm going to have fun writing it, though, and maybe I can convince Cerridwen to e-publish it. If it sells any copies at all, I may write a few more and eventually stick them all together into an anthology of sorts. Maybe I'll call them: Malice (for the first story--a shorter title than The Malicious Young Man), Revenge (for the second), and Murder. I rather like the idea. I rather like the idea of writing to suit myself instead of trying to meet the demands of a market that appears to be completely uninterested in the types of stories I like.

Anyway, that's enough for tonight. I've got to get back to work.
Let me know what interests you!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Writing Shorts

Short is sweet ;-)
I've been slaving away at National Novel Writing Month ( trying to hit the 50,000 word mark by the end of November. So far, I've written over 19,000 words. Probably all dreck, but it really does get your creativity thrust into high gear. It has also gotten me out of a desperate slump which I fell into early in 2005 due to some poor decisions (don't jump and sign with just any old agent who makes an offer, make sure they are the right agent--my second agent is a wonderful...but that first one...). From 2005 until now, I struggled just to keep my head above water and not just totally give up on writing. I wrote less than 80 pages of new material. Nothing I wrote or worked on seemed to be working, which made me grow more despondant. And of course in that mood, everything I tried to write was awful and I never finished anything. Even getting a new agent didn't cure me because I was terrified that she would "realize" I was useless and drop me. I felt that I was a complete failure as a writer and that I was beating my head against the wall for no reason.

Except I love writing.
But why can't I get published? What is wrong with me? Why did two agents love that one manuscript, but all the editors thought it stank-on-ice? What was wrong?

Who knows?

Along comes NaNoWriMo. I crawled up out of the pit, shook myself off, and started writing. Agonizing. The first few days were total torture. I had to scrape for each pathetic word. But I wrote every day. I've been writing every day, now, for 8 days and yesterday I took a tottering step away from the pit. I got new ideas. My mind leapt ahead to upcoming scenes and dialog I wanted to write, and it was actually sad that I had to go to bed so that I could go to work this morning. (I shouldn't be doing this, either, but...) I wanted to stay up and get those new scenes on paper.

And I had a minor epiphany. I remembered two years ago that whenever I got depressed about writing, if I just put my head down and wrote new stuff, I could work myself out of it. But the key was, I needed to write new stuff. Every day. Not just edit things I wanted to send to my agent. I love editing--it is far easier than scratching my a$s and trying to come up with new material, but the creative part is coming up with the new material--not editing the old--and it is the writing new material that lifts my depression and makes it more manageable.

That's not the epiphany part. Here is the epiphany part.
You have to write new material every day if you want to publish. I mean it. Get your production up. Editing and re-editing something you wrote five years ago is not going to get you published, assuming publication is your goal.

A dear friend of mine wrote for 18 years and couldn't get published. Then, she went to a class and started writing every single day. She started producing manuscripts at a rate of 1 every two months. A year later, one of the new manuscripts snagged an agent. A year after that, she got her first contract for publication. A year after that, she got TWO contracts for a total of SIX books coming out over the next few years. All because she writes constantly. Each manuscript is better than the last because you incorporate all the things you have learned along the way.

I experienced something similar, but dropped the ball. In 2004, I got deadly serious. I wrote two manuscript, and the second one "almost" got a contract. Instead of getting depressed, I wrote a third manuscript in two months. Another "almost". I wrote a fourth in two months. Bingo. I got an agent. The WRONG agent, but an agent. But things didn't work out. I got depressed and thought I was the worst person and writer in the world because of it. I stopped writing new stuff. I tried to keep going, but over the next 18 months, I only wrote one partial manuscript. My agent dropped me. I got a new, better agent WITH THE SAME MANUSCRIPT. She loved it and is still trying to place it although it doesn't look like it is going to work.

But the point is: when I was writing a lot, I was producing BETTER MATERIAL even though it was written more quickly. Because like any other art, practicing makes you BETTER.

Now that I haven't written for a while, I'm rusty. I did finish a new manuscript after 18 months and sent it to my agent, but she is not in love with it like she was that first one. Although I actually do love it. It has a lot of meaning for me and some themes that were important to me, although I suppose others may not see or like them. And, I'm going to get my stuff published--even if it is e-published--I'm determined. But I know now, and I mean really know something: you have to write to get published.

How many times have you heard that? How many times have you just said, well, duh, I know, so what? And you're writing, right? Scribbling in journals, editing that book you wrote five years ago...
That isn't what that advice means. It means you have to write fresh material, and it has to be a story--not that journal stuff. Journal stuff doesn't make you think about the hero's journey, the sequence of events, and all the other elements necessary for a story. That's why you have to write new manuscripts, even if you just write new pages for one hour a day and spend the rest of your time editing other things for submission.

It's the only way if you don't get that first manuscript snapped up (like some authors I know).

If you're determined to get published, then you have to commit yourself to writing new material every day. Or at least 5-6 days a week. Think of it as practicing the piano. Don't let your skills become rusty.

Write on!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New Writer's Checklist

It's almost NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month: ) so I'm breathless with anticipation--I can't wait to get started on my paranormal. I plotted it out and have been chomping at the bit, wanting to write and starting tomorrow, I can! Whoopee! I love starting new manuscripts. I love the beginning--the setup--it's so much fun when that hero and heroine first meet!

Anyway, because of NaNoWriMo and my obsessive/compulsive/competitive need to WIN, which means writing 50,000 words before midnight on Nov 30, I probably won't be doing much blogging. So...I thought that tonight, I would put together a checklist of all the tips and things I have learned that you need to review in your manuscript before you send it out to anyone. It's the sort of list you need to use about a month before you put your manuscript in the mail, because after all, you actually need time to fix any weird little things you find on the final run-through.

So, here it is, the Writer's Checklist:
Note: I'm going to assume that you're going to figure out what the right answers are to the questions listed below...
  1. First - print out your manuscript (I know it's a pain--but do it). Things will look differently when it's actually printed out. You will most likely find some really odd mistakes that your eyes had just skipped before. Once it is printed: Read it out loud. Can you read through it without stumbling? Does it sound right? Does it make sense? Do you use horrible names for your characters that no one can pronounce--including you?
  2. Do all the characters' names start with the same first letters or syllables?
  3. Is your writing smooth? Is there anything which throws you out of the story or makes you read a line twice to figure out what you meant?
  4. By the end of page 1, do you show your main character's current, immediate situation and initial motivation, even if that motivation changes later? Does the reader understand your character's emotional state? If you are withholding anything about your main character so you can spring it on your reader as a surprise later, don't. The surprise will be on you because the reader won't get past page 1 if they don't understand your main character and pretty understand the initial setup/starter conflict. The more information your reader has, the more likely they are to bond with your characters. This is not to say you should start with a dump of the character's backstory--no--do not do that. We just want to know the immediate situation and the character's current mood/disposition/personality at this point.
  5. Does the action start immediatly on page 1 or is it just...boring?
  6. Are there too many details that don't mean anything? Are only the most important and relevant details included? To set a scene, you really only need a few-very sparse--details. Anything more is boring. Editors call an excess of details: overwriting.
  7. Do we understand the protagonist (see item 3) and does the protagonist have at least 1 trait we like and/or relate to, be it humor, charm, protectiveness, integrity, honesty, or whatever...Show us. Show us on page 1.
  8. Do you use too many big words and obfuscate your meaning?
  9. Is the total manuscript length right for the genre you wrote it for? (E.g. many Harlequin romances are 50,000 - 70,000 words in length, while a single-title like a romantic suspense may be 100,000 words.)
  10. Did you use the right point of view for the genre? Most genres and editors want limited third person.
  11. Is your point of view clear at all times? Is the point of view in each scene "grounded" with the character who has the most to lose or most involvement with the scene?
  12. Do you have too many subplots giving your manuscript the distinct feeling of having everything except the kitchen sink thrown into it?
  13. Do you have a sagging middle?
  14. Do you have at least 2 plot twists or unexpected developments (this helps avoid number 13)?
  15. Do you have a black moment when everything seems lost for the hero or heroine?
  16. Do you have a satisfying ending? An example of an unsatisfying ending would be if your heroine spent the book investigating a murder, only to have someone else solve it or the murderer die offstage somewhere in a manner unrelated to the investigation. Your hero and heroine actually have to have some part in the ending.
  17. Do your characters grow and learn something?
  18. Are your details and language correct for the time period used for the manuscript? Does your heroine say, "Okay," in 1809, for example? Does the hair and eye color stay the same for your characters--unless they deliberately take some action to change them.
  19. Do the characters each have their own speech pattern so that you can tell who is talking by what they say?
  20. Is the world you built, whether it be Regency England or a colony on Mars, consistent?
  21. Is the grammar and spelling correct?
  22. Have you gone crazy yet?


That's the list. Hope it helps.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

In the Beginning

For the last couple of years at the Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference in July, there have been sessions modeled on American Idol where three editors and agents listen to the first page--or as much of the first page at they can stand--and comment. While a number of folks think this is cruel bcause it does, usually, have some element of public humiliation in it, I have found it incredibly useful.

You really begin to understand how an agent or editor can make a decision about a manuscript with perhaps the first line. You learn what works and what doesn't, and it can surprise you. This last summer (2006) there were several entries which, as the editors and agents put it, were not that bad, but they just didn't grab anyone. The writing was okay and the characters were okay--but okay won't get you a contract. Many of them spent the first page just describing things, without giving you any sense of the character's situation and immediate problem.

Even more interesting was the amount of redundancy even in the small pile of entries that were read. I mean, with just a selection of about 20 first pages, you had several where the stories started out the same. What are the odds? You would think there would be more variety in such a small sampling. Two had almost identical first lines, i.e Sex sells. Which highlights the first point you need to know: when agents and editors say they are looking for something different, they really mean it, because they get hundreds of manuscripts which are virtually the same, right down to the first line.

Many authors had cute/shocking first lines like Sex sells which turn out to be as common as dandelions. They forget that all the other authors are also trying to find cute/shocking first lines, and apparently, everyone comes up with lines that are pretty much just cliches.

From the entries read, here is a brief a breakdown of some of the similiarities. These are things that will make the editor/agent roll their eyes because they see these all the time.

  • The hero who is being forced to marry for x reason (usually family duty). There were several entries that started out this way.
  • A wounded hero (one story went on for quite some time expounding upon the hero's headache/head wound, which triggered a lot of snarky comments about whiny heroes by the editors/agents)
  • Heroines masquerading as men


  • The woman is about to get married, but looking into the mirror, she reflects that she doesn't know why she wants to marry this particular guy. Two stories started out this way.
  • Two stories (thriller/suspense types) both started out in South America--a real turnoff for agents/editors
  • Two stories started out in the killer's viewpoint, and/or with an actual killing
  • Heros or heroines with excessively cute children, or just children. As they mentioned, children are not sexy and have a tendency to focus the story away from the romance. The agents and editors did not want to see any more heroes or heroines with children, trying to find a babysitter so they could go out on a date.

However, while those particular scenarios caused a lot of eye-rolling and "Stop!" comments, there were other things besides trite or "I thought this was unique--only it isn't" situations. There were actual flaws that even the audience began to recognize within a line or two.

First Line

The first line has to be good. It sets the tone for the book and there are a number of readers (including editors) who will not read the manuscript if the first line is boring or yucky. If you're writing a thriller, don't make the first line so gross that it puts your reader off. Shocking first lines backfire most of the time (and cause a lot of guffaws). Don't start in the killer's POV. In fact, start in the hero or heroine's POV, because that is the person the reader needs to identify with if they are going to read the book. In a mystery, be aware that if you start in the POV of the victim, you'll make the reader wary about sympathizing with any character because they'll be afraid if they like the character, you'll kill the character off.

Study the first lines in your favorite books and see what makes them work. What grabs you? Your first line is the hook--make sure the barb is sharp enough to catch your reader.

  • If your tone is witty and humorous, make the first line witty and humorous. Or wry.

Well, maybe she wasn't all that blonde, but it'd be a crime to call hair like that light brown. Max Phillips' Fade to Blonde.

Winter is very democratic. Marion Chesney's Hasty Death.

  • Make the first line interesting. Pose or imply a question the reader will need to have answered.

The man first started noticing it in 1998. Lisa Gardner's The Killing Hour. Poses a question you want answered: who was the man and what did he notice?

He fled for the border. Susannah Carleton's The Marriage Campaign. Again, she poses a question: why is he fleeing for the border?

First Paragraph/First Page

Avoid too many details. Be very, very sparing of description and details. Excessive details killed several entries because it took too long for the author to get into the book. You want to get into the characters and their situation as quickly as possible. Preferably within the first line/first paragraph. Save details for later in the book, although even then, make sure the detail counts! Don't add detail just because you can, or because you think it sets the mood somehow. Agents and editors call this "over writing" so be very, very wary of it.

Avoid too much mystery. Don't get cute and withhold information. I know you want to surprise your readers, but don't delay telling them who your hero/heroine is and what their situation is, right up front. If you withhold information, your readers will withhold their interest and you'll lose them. You don't have to give us this for BOTH the hero and heroine in the first line, but you need to introduce us to one of these characters in the first line and show what that character's immediate issue is. Do it within the first paragraph, if possible. If you don't give us some information, we won't care enough to get past the first page.

Now, this initial issue may not be the main conflict (either internal conflict or external conflict) but it has to be some sort of a conflict to get our interest and hook us, and it should be either related to the major conflict, or lead to it.

If you haven't given your reader a sense of the central character's initial predicament by the end of page one, your reader isn't going to get to page 2. If you are a journalist, you know you have to answer: who, why, where, when. You have exactly the same task for page one of your novel.

Remember: you can hook your reader on your first sentence or you can lose them. It's up to you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Marriage is officially dead

I'm so sad. I saw statistics from the U.S. Census the other day and the average U.S. household now no longer consists of married folks and their kids. Less than 48% of households have married people in them--at least people married to each other. Which makes me very glad that I'm looking at the tail end of my life, rather than the beginning of it. I mean, how depressing.

Very disturbing.
And no, I don't think the minute financial/tax penalty for married people versus single people had anything to do with it. I think people now just lack any incentive to make marriage work. In fact, I see this as one thread in a huge blanket of interconnected things. Like books, for example. What is hot in the book industry? Books that end with marriage? No. Erotica. Marriage is no longer THE happy ending. It's not something to strive for, to work at.

People are starting to lose the concept of marriage as the "happy ending" in favor of immediate gratification. The new happy ending is getting the big "O" with or without a partner, multiple partners, or whatever. I suspect this may be because people have not seen happy endings in their own lives. They've seen marriages (when marriages occur) break up. Their parents went from one relationship to another, blending families, breaking them apart again, and reblending until the kids learned that nothing was permanent. They learned at an early age to look only to themselves because all human relationships appear to be temporary: the man who was your father last year isn't this year, and his son, who was your brother last year, is not related to you this year and maybe doesn't even live nearby anymore.

What can your kid do to protect himself or herself? Learn not to attach too strongly to anyone. They learn that maybe the only happiness anyone can find is to scratch whatever itches them at the moment. A few years ago, Demi Moore was a perfect example of this. She was held up by a lot of women's magazines as being "so brave to follow her own star and break up with Bruce Willis" when in reality, all she was doing was having s*x with anyone who piqued her interest and to heck with what that did to her family, her kids and her husband. She didn't care about anyone or anything except that itch. I don't find that brave. I find that sad. I find it sad that people can't look beyond their immediate gratification to see what they have already. I find it sad that people aren't willing to place any value on their existing relationships and families, or to work through whatever issues they may have.

I guess I can't understand it because for me, the decision is so simple. I don't cheat on my husband because all I have to do is think about his face if he were to find out. The thought disappointing and hurting him appalls me. And through all the arguments and problems, I think about *not* having him around, and no matter how tough any one patch gets, it is always better to have him there, than to *not* have him there. So it makes me sad to think that others see no value in the concept of weathering life's storms with someone who is willing to stick with you through all the rain and gales. They just jump ship and swim to some other port.

Jobs...relationships...everything appears to be so disposable. If you have a problem, don't bother to work it out--it isn't worth the effort. Just move on to someone or something else. Everything is transitory. Ultimately, relationships are meaningless because they're disposable, too. Why really connect with someone when there might be a better someone at the next table? Or just connect temporarily, knowing you'll keep looking until you find that "better person".

However, I suspect that although I find this sad, other folks reading this will just think I'm a jerk, because, really, what's the problem? If everyone is happy and you get to have, like, maybe 2000 partners instead of a handful in your life, why shouldn't you? Stability is boring. Get over it.

How really sad.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


If you really, really want to be a writer, there's one thing to realize: you can't wait for inspiration to strike. Think of it like lightening--a near miss is probably preferable to a direct hit.


Anyway, if you want to be a writer, you really can't wait. You need to start writing, now. And you need to keep on writing. And journals are not writing, so forget that. You can't count journals. You have to write every day on a manuscript or short story or something like that. I, personally, think writing every day may be a little excessive--you do need a day or two off each week. That's why they give you two days off each week from other kinds of work. But, you do need to write at least five days a week, preferably on a schedule, and not just that blog or journal junk.

Because the thing is, if you write when the mood hits you, you'll probably do it so sporadically that it will take you ten years to finish one manuscript and editors/agents are going to want to see a little better production out of you.

So set aside a specific time, even if it's just 15 minutes during lunch, 15 minutes before work, and 15 minutes after work. For me, I write between the hours of 8-10pm weekdays and occassionally on weekends. Obviously, I've had to give up prime time television, but hey, that's okay. Everything in life involves tradeoffs. I prefer to be a total ignoramus when it comes to popular culture, than to not write--or write only sporadically. It's either write at night or write in the morning and go to bed early, so either way, I'm not watching television.

Also--get busy. The busier you are, the more you will produce. Set deadlines. Get stressed out. These things are good. You see, the thing is, the more relaxed you are, the less likely you are to bother to write. It seems counter-intuitive, but being busy, knowing you are busy and have to keep to a schedule, will make you actually write more when you do write.

I also have a group which sets weekly, monthly and yearly goals, and we report on whether we've met our goals. The group therefore offers a way to "hold your feet to the fire" as well as offering support and encouragement when you need it. I really, really encourage you to either join a group like this, or create one. Lots of places (e.g. Google, Yahoo, MySpace, etc) offer free group services to let you set up a group, so look into it. It's worth it.

Finally, every year I do NaNoWriMo. That is National Novel Writing Month ( that challenges writers to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Do it. You will amaze yourself and others. :-) You will learn what you really can do when you drink too much coffee, set unrealistic goals, and don't shower for a few days.

You really can write 50,000 words in 30 days. Really. And after a few days, you sort of don't notice the stink anymore.

Now go and do it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More on Creating Sympathetic Characters

Previously, I wrote about creating sympathetic characters, and the focus was on making sure your audience understood your characters' motivations. If your readers know why a character is doing something--even if it is something bad--they are willing to go along for the ride. Mostly.

There's another piece to this puzzle, however. In creating any character, you have to give the reader something they can like about the character. I'm avoiding the word "trait" because that doesn't carry the right connotations for me. The list of these crucial characteristics is not very broad, because the real ones--the ones that will make your readers care about the character no matter what that character does--are just a few in number. They are the ones which make you see some glimmer of the best that humanity has to offer. They are what define us as humans.

Your characters don't have to always display this quality, but they have to display it near the beginning of your book and during the worst moments in the book. They have to display it at the beginning in order to keep your readers reading, and during the darkest moment or moments because this quality shows who they are.

Characters do not need to portray every quality in this list. One is often sufficient. You don't want to end up creating a Sir Galahad who was so perfect that most readers simply couldn't stand reading about him (although I'm just referring to the popular conception of him--not the somewhat tarnished paragon of virtue in the Arthurian legends and Morte de Arthur). Nobody likes perfect people, unless said person is a villain. That's also true for physical perfection, so keep that in mind.

So what is this list of qualities?

1) Integrity. On some level, your character has to show they have some level of integrity. Even a hero who is a crook may have a code--like not ratting on their friends--and it's critical to create a situation in the beginning of the novel that shows the hero or heroine acting according to some internal code.

2) Honesty. Again, the hero/heroine doesn't have to show honesty in all situations, but there must be a line and the reader must realize the hero/heroine has a definite line they will not cross. For example, the hero could lie like a rug to most women--until he meets the heroine. Then, he starts feeling like a cad when he lies to her and gradually, he finds he can't lie at all to her, revealing an innate sense of honesty he never realized he had until he met her, blah, blah. Obviously, this is an angle that works well in romances, but it also works in other situations and other genres.

3) Decency. This one needs little or no explanation. The hero and heroine in most works (other than literary fiction or erotica) must have some sense of decency. No lusting after children, for example--which I had a hard time even writing.

4) A Sense of Duty. This is a great one--it's one of the big reasons military guys/cops/firemen/S.E.A.L.S and so on are so hot. Because they get it. They have a sense of duty. Women readers translate this internally as the type of man she can depend on, and who won't disappear on the way to pick up a loaf of bread when she's 9 months pregnant. This trait is what made Frodo in The Lord of the Rings so sympathetic, and ultimately, what let him destroy the ring and its evil.

5) Protectiveness. If your character sees a wrong being committed against someone, and tries to stop that wrong, you can guarantee that your readers will like your character.

If your hero and heroine display any one of these qualities, you will create a character the reader can trust on some level. A character the reader can sympathize with. Even if the character is otherwise a pretty bad person.

Here is a beautiful example.
In the movie Payback starring Mel Gibson, he plays Porter, and he's really not a nice guy. In fact, he's pretty much a psycho-criminal-dirtbag. He and another criminal steal $140,000, but Porter's wife conspires with his partner to steal the money and leave Porter for dead. There is a lot of violence. Porter acts pretty badly. That's basically the movie.

But you know two things about Porter: you know his wife and partner betrayed him so you feel sympathy for him at the beginning; and throughout the movie, Porter only wants his $70,000--his share. He's not greedy. He's actually got this weird streak of integrity.

This is not my favorite movie, and I don't particularly like Porter, but because of this stubborn streak of integrity that makes him actually decline to take the entire $140,000 when offered it, he gets your attention.

The script writers gave him three things to make the audience care:

  • Porter is betrayed at the beginning and left for dead by his wife and partner. That helps, but you can't rely on the "I'm a victim" sympathy-vote for long. I don't recommend this for heroines unless she proves herself to be strong later because it pushes her too close to the wussy-baby heroine. However, a lot of movies use this as the initial audience grabber (think: The Punisher and a lot of Steven Segal's movies.) So once they have your attention, the writers go on to give Porter...
  • Integrity. Throughout the movie, Porter constantly reiterates--he only wants his share, not the entire $140,000. He's not greedy.
  • Protectiveness. Toward the end we meet a new love interest for Porter. And he gets to protect her from his...yes...his ex-partner.

So even though Porter is a dirtbag, the audience can at least root for him because he displays some of these essential qualities that we idealize. He shows some glimmers of the best we humans have to offer.

And that's how you create a sympathetic character, even out of someone who you actually don't want to meet. Particularly in a dark alley.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Put off until tomorrow...

Sorry - I know a lot of you have figured out that I post new stuff on Tuesdays, but I have to put this one off until tomorrow. But I promise there will be a short thing on developing characters tomorrow. It'll be worth it, believe me.

I had to write the newsletter for my rose society this evening, so I'm running a little behind schedule. At least I'm writing, and I've almost finished my final edits for the paranormal I'm getting ready to send to my agent. I've even renamed the darn thing, since I've thought of a second manuscript in the series and a different title seemed more appropriate. It's got vampires in it--I know--everyone is doing vampires these days, but I do have some different twists, so I hope to see this one in print sometime in 2007 or 2008.

It might have a chance, particularly since I actually won first place with it in the paranormal category of the Dixie First Chapter contest. That was pretty exciting, and the contest coordinator even sent me a lovely crystal box as my prize. (Note to self: write the coordinator a thank you note!) Of course, I'm hoping for the BIG PRIZE--which would be to get the darn thing published with a traditional publishing house. If not, there are always the smaller houses, and one way or another, I'm going to get this baby published.

Anyway, just wanted to let you know the blog will be a day late. But it is coming.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Organization 101 for Writers

One of my writers groups recently had a discussion about ways to keep track of all the stray, creative ideas we get, and how to organize our work. There were some amazing ideas on how to make sure you don't lose anything that might spark a new novel, and how to organize your work once you begin writing.

As always, I have my own opinions and my own way of doing things. I also have one major piece of advice: no matter what you do, make sure you have a strategy using multiple layers. What one layer doesn't catch, the next layer might. It's the same reason a parachutist has a backup chute. Never depend upon just one method.

No matter what you do, you will need to pick and chose a few methods that work for you, and you will need some paper-based methods as well as computer-based. There will be times when you will not be at your computer and you will get the most brilliant idea...

So what do I and other writers do?

Paper-based Strategies
  • Almost everyone who talked about their strategies mentioned that they always have a pad of paper handy, wherever they go. This ranged from small, spiral notebooks to yellow sticky pads, to index cards.
  • Some writers prefer to have a small recorder (iPod, tape recorder, digital recorder, smart phone, whatever) they can dictate to when they get a brilliant idea.
  • Some people (me included) email things to themselves.
  • When a new concept for a novel strikes, some writers use a file folder to hold all their notes, articles clipped from various sources, pictures, and whatever else inspires them. Several authors I know write a big "W" inside the file folder and plot out the novel right there on the folder using the "W" method. (Think: highs-lows of the plot or building to the black moment and then resolution and you'll understand how the "W" relates visually to the traditional 3-Act story.)
  • Some buy those composition notebooks to hold their ideas or begin a new novel.
  • A couple of us use a 3-ring binder. I go one step further and try to buy colored 3-ring binders because my books often seem to associate themselves with a particular color as the story evolves. One author even went further than I did and said she also buys color-coordinated neon paper to match the binder, and she writes notes on the paper of the appropriate color, as ideas occur to her.
  • Binder users also have the advantage of being able to purchase plastic sleeves in which to insert articles, pictures, notes, and what-have-you, to hold things securely together in the binder.
  • When I've finished the 2nd draft of a n0vel, I also print it out on pre-punched paper, printing it double-sided (to use less paper) and put that into the binder so I can read it in a form similar to a book. You'd be amazed at what mistakes you can catch when you see it "down on paper."
  • Some authors prefer those plastic accordian files with lots of pockets to hold material for their novels.
  • I also use a FAX paper scroll as I write, as my continuity sheet. I write down what is going on in each scene, what people are wearing, where/when the action is taking place, etc, so I can visualize it and see it "all at once" on one, long sheet. It has the advantage that I CAN see it, all rolled out, if I want to, versus a spreadsheet which limits you to what your screen can display at any one time. It is also more portable than my desktop computer and it's more fun to scribble on. :-)

Computer-based Methods

  • I use OneNote to keep track of some ideas, blurbs, and things I need to do such as contacting my agent.
  • I use the Access database to track submissions.
  • I recently purchased Writer's Cafe which has two components: Writer's Cafe for keeping track of ideas, web sites, etc, and StoryLine for actually plotting out your story. I think the programmer made a bit of a mistake in creating the product, since you can't link the ideas you've developed in Writer's Cafe with the story you plot in StoryLine, so I don't use Writer's Cafe. I refuse to enter the same information twice. However, it is one way to do things, and might be good for you.
  • There are always word processing documents and spreadsheets. Bob Mayer uses a lot of spreadsheets, particularly when plotting out a novel, since you can use the rows for your multiple plotlines, and the cells to contain your plot points and other critical information such as dates/times, etc.
  • I use a spreadsheet to track how many pages I write each day.
  • I also have the following folder structure for each manuscript I write. The top folder is the main folder, named after the working title of the manuscript. Then I have the various sub-folders as show below:

Manuscript Title (as the main folder title)
Manuscript.doc (the manuscript itself is in this folder)
Contract Information
Assimilated Critiques
Old Drafts

  • I have this "framework" of folders set up, along with a "blank" manuscript.doc file that has the formatting styles I use for manuscripts defined, so when I start a new manuscript, I just copy the entire structure and paste it under My Documents. Then I rename the top folder to be the working title of my new manuscript, I rename the manuscript.doc file to use the real title, and I'm ready to go! I also tend to save a shortcut to my current manuscript on my "desktop" so I can just double-click on it whenever I want to write.
  • The Manuscript.doc file, in addition to have the styles I use defined, also has the title page set up with my agent's information, and a header defined. In addition, I have "pre-done" chapter titles and section breaks between the chapters, so I just have to write. It has twenty chapters already set up, although I frequently end up adding more chapters. The point is to make it as easy as possible to write and stop focusing on the silly formatting details which only contests really care about, anyway.
  • One final trick: in my Manuscript.doc file, I change the header to be "different" on page one (the title page) so that it does not show up on the title page, and then I tell it to start at page 0. That way, the title page is page 0 (with no header printed), and page 1 starts where it should start, with Chapter One, page 1.
  • I also use an AlphaSmart when I'm in writing mode, since it is great for writing, but keeps you from wasting your time futzing around and editing when you should really be writing.

That's a fairly comprehensive list of all the tricks I've heard other writers say they use, and that I use, myself. None are perfect, which is why a layered approach is so necessary. You will probably need both computer and paper methods to make sure nothing slips through your fingers.

Good luck and let me know if you find some other method that works well for you!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Flying off in Weird Directions

Man, last week's post was weird and this week's post is even weirder. It's basically what I learned from cats, dogs and other animals. Because it relates to writing, or maybe it shows how truly twisted I really am.

I got the idea because I was sitting at my computer when my dog snarled. He caught sight of one of the cats who had crept up, wanting to jump into my lap. The dog, although not sitting my lap (because he's *way* too big) objected to the cat doing so.

However, the cat, being the unfazed male that he is, jumped up anyway. On the same theory, one supposes, as those little guys you see in bars who always seem to get drunk, get in a fight, and get the holy heck beaten out of them.

Because you see, after I thought about this incident, I figured out why it seems like woman often have cats for pets and men often have dogs. Because cats exhibit many of the same traits as men and dogs exhibit many of the same traits as women.

And a lot of men like women; and a lot of women like men.

So--back to the guy in the bar.
That guy--he's sort of like my orange cat, Psycho, who completely ignored the dog's growl and did what he wanted to do, anyway. But then, that's why we called him Psycho--he has no sense of self preservation--or any sense, for that matter.

So here are a few generalities. Like any good generalities, exceptions prove the rules.

How Are Cats Like Men?
  • They are frequently aloof and patronizing. They show few emotions and often prefer just to be left alone to sit in their chair at night, watching tv and drinking a beer
  • They rarely come when called (just where *is* your husband, anyway, when you try to call him for dinner?)
  • They're independent and do what they want, when they want to do it (Honey, can you fix the back door? I'll get to it, dear...)
  • They moan and whine for food but when you've got dinner ready on the table, it's not exactly what they want and they just pick at it
  • They want affection when they want affection and it's basically a rub here, a rub there, and then they're gone
  • They're up all night wandering around and howling while they expect you to be right there at home when they manage to drag their sorry behinds back to the house
  • No matter what they look like, they think they're the best looking thing in existance and everyone really wants them
  • They occassionally bring home the odd present, thinking it makes everything okay and proves they're wonderful, big, strong providers

How Are Dogs Like Women?

  • They're always happy to get any attention at all
  • They want to be with you
  • They greet you at the door when you get home from work and they're eager to go out (particularly out for dinner!)
  • They love rides in the car
  • They'll eat anything
  • They're affectionate
  • They come when called
  • They'll do their best to get you out of a jamb or protect you from the big bad police that just arrested you for drunk & disorderly
  • If they get something nice, they'll bury it to save it for the future
  • They can be very chatty
  • They're eager to please and sociable. They're often the peacemaker in the family and are often the ones who find and attract new friends when you go out to places like the park
  • They like to run around in pairs or packs, particularly when going to the bathroom
  • The longer you rub them, the more they like it

Now that you realize how totally true this is, you can use it to your advantage in your writing, the next time you're trying to develop a character.

I mean, when I need to write about some cool hero, I'll just use Psycho, our little orange cat, as the model. We never wanted Psycho. We didn't go out looking for a cat. We just heard a lot of barking one day and found this little orange nutjob--er--male cat sitting in our dog wood tree, observing the dogs going insane because this cat had had the nerve to walk into the yard with 3 strange dogs and eat their food. And then, he had the balls to blithely come down out of the tree and glom on to us humans, not showing the least concern that the dogs totally hated his guts. He could not have cared less. Sort of like that little guy in the bar who is always getting beaten up and can't figure out why.

And this darn Psycho refuses to leave.

He also refuses to listen to anything anyone says or does. If he wants to sit in a lap, he sits in a lap and doesn't care if that lap is busy at the time or if other animals in the vicinity wanted to sit in the lap or are mad that he is sitting in the lap.

He's also toothless, has a split-scared lower lip, and has the worst breath on the planet. His tongue hangs out of his mouth like some kind of drooling, inbred, Deliverance cat. He's ugly, too, no way around that one. But does he realize it? No. He thinks he's the best looking cat around.

Sound familiar? Like that pot-bellied, 60 year old guy with a bad toupee riding around in a red ragtop thinking all the 20 year old babes are just dying to go for a ride with him? Oh, yeah, baby. Psycho.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Circadian Rhythms

You know, I'm not a touchy-feely, New-Age kind of person, but there is one thing I firmly believe: you have to listen to your gut. Sadly, by the time a kid learns to talk, s/he has generally started to learn not to listen for whatever reason. We're taught to ignore our cravings and our feelings. Too bad.

How Not to Get Fat
Eat what your body wants. That's right, just eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. Eat what your body wants. If you ignore your cravings, you will end up eating more of what your body doesn't want because you keep trying to assuage that craving, but it won't work.

When I was a kid, whenever I started feeling a little sniffly, I had sudden, almost overwhelming craving for grapefruit (I know--the image of a 4 year old kid wanting grapefruit is weird, but true). Who knew that years later, doctors would discover that vitamin C is good for colds and that my craving for citrus fruit probably prevented most of the colds I "almost got."

For years I was also thin, until I "learned" to ignore cravings and eat what I was supposed to eat, when I was supposed to eat it. Mistake. Now I'm trying to unlearn bad habits and go back to eating what I want (really want) when I want it. If I want to just eat yogurt, then why shouldn't I just eat yogurt? If I want a steak, why shouldn't I eat a steak, particularly when I'm feeling run-down (well, duh, iron!)?

If you just listen to what your body wants instead of listening to what your head says you want, we might see less obesity. Or not. Let's not forget that you also have to exercise. The human body was not built for sitting around all day long.

How to Maximize Your Writing
Naturally, this ends up coming back to writing, although this advice will actually be true of any endeavor you wish to pursue. Write when you want to write. Pursue your activities when you want to pursue them.

Now, I'm not saying to just be a lazy bum and never write, or skip work to go fishing. We all have to earn a living.

However, I am suggesting that you look at the rhythms of your life. Is there a time when you are burning to write? Certain seasons of the year or times of the day? Then work out a way to write as much as you can during that period. During "off times," switch over to other writing-related activites. When you are in the writing doldrums, do your editing, judge writing contests, send out queries, plan out future novels, whatever.

For a long time, I struggled against the flow but after a couple of years, I've realized: I have a sudden surge of energy and desire to write in the fall. I can write perhaps two or maybe even three rough drafts during the fall. Then, as the weather turns warm in the spring, I struggle to write even a sentence. That is when I switch over to editing what I wrote in the fall, or even, the previous fall. I judge writing contests during the summer, as well, and attend writers' workshops. I take care of the business side of things.

True, I can do this because I'm still awaiting my first publishing contract from Cerridwen Press (my agent is reviewing it right now) and I don't have anyone breathing down my neck to meet deadlines, but here's the thing: I know my rhythm. So, I can write ahead. During the fall and winter, I can frantically write as many manuscripts as possible, knowing that I will then have something to edit and submit when requested. I can build up my "stock" of manuscripts. By doing that, I'm hoping to stay ahead of the game so that I can work in harmony with my cycles.

Ultimately, it is less stressful and more productive. I don't feel like I'm struggling for each word.

This takes some thought and trial-and-error to figure out. You have to relearn things that you may have repressed for years, but if it helps you, perhaps it is worth it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Creating Sympathetic Characters

The ability to create sympathetic characters is a real talent, and one which I'm afraid I'm not so good at. Maybe because what other people consider sympathetic, I consider pathetic and manipulative. Unfortunately, it is the heroine and hero of your book who will ultimately sell it for you, and that is the difficulty.

Because I tend to ramble and know I will ramble, I'll let you in on another secret, right up front. In addition to the fact that selling your book depends upon how well you bring your characters to life (and not on the plot--believe it or not--unless your plot is something like the DaVinci Code), here is another consideration: the reader doesn't necessarily have to like your characters as long as they understand them.

The key is giving your readers enough of a glimpse inside the head of your characters to make them sink into the character, whether they ultimately like them or not.

I've been accused many times of creating unsympathetic characters and after careful analysis, I've realized that that phrase is not really what everyone means. What editors, agents and critique partners mean when they complain about unsympathetic characters is that you have not provided them with enough information to understand the character's emotional state and situation. They can't bond with the characters.

You can have a character who is really, really a terrible person, but you can get away with it as long as:
  • You reveal the character's motivation
  • The character's actions or dialogue are consistent with their personality
  • The character's situation is portrayed well enough for readers to understand why the character is reacting in the way you describe

Within the first chapter of your book, and preferably within the first paragraph, you need to tell your readers who your main character is, what their immediate situation is, what their desires are, and what is stopping them from attaining their desired goal. Sure, that's a lot, but without it, you are risking manuscript rejections adorned with the phrase, "ultimately, I did not sympathize with your characters."

When I first got a rejection with the phrase "I did not sympathize with your characters" I was completely stunned. I ran to my local writing group and asked for help. They suggested showing the "good side" of the character by giving them a pet cat or some such thing. Have them caring for younger siblings or an ancient grandmother. Have the heroine be a victim of child abuse in her youth (apparently a much-loved tactic that Dean Koontz uses frequently).

Not a good suggestion.

This was terribly misguided advice on a number of levels, but unfortunately, I think others have gotten this advice because I see similarly manipulative "add-ons" in other stories. When you do something like this, instead of creating a sympathetic character, your reader just feels, well, manipulated. Lately, if I read a book where the heroine is just a drip and she's forced into a stupid situation with the hero because she's trying to take care of dear old grandma and 3 younger siblings, or she has some kind of a pet which doesn't really have any function in the story, then I feel like the author is just trying to manipulate my emotions and s/he thought I was stupid enough to fall for it.

Me--I ain't that stupid.

This method creates what I call false sympathy. It doesn't actually cause the reader to become one with the character, it just makes them feel sort of sorry for the character.

Our goal is to make the reader become one with the character. We need this, because in the course of our story, our character may say or do things which are not unsympathetic, because we all do things that show our flaws. It makes us, and our characters, human. So we can't just make our hero and heroine into "all things good and sweet" unless you want them all to be drips. We need them to do the occassional stupid/bad/not-politically-correct/flawed thing, but while they are doing it, we want the reader to submerge into the character because they understand the hero/heroine and understand why the character is acting in such a way.

You cannot accomplish this by blatant manipulation.

You can only accomplish this by letting the reader into the character's head. I have a very good friend, Charlotte Featherstone, who has totally mastered this. At the beginning of her novels, her characters are really, really flawed. I mean, they have terrible problems, including things like substance abuse which is normally something I would never sympathcize with. And yet, I love her characters, I feel so close to them and understand completely what is driving them.

She accomplishes this by sinking deeply into the heads of the hero and heroine within the first page or pages, explaining their situation, their goals, and exactly how they feel about it. She lets us into their feelings, all their frustrations, fears, hopes and dreams. Once you understand what drives them emotionally, it becomes impossible not to want to know what happens to them and how they find their heart's desire.

That's the secret. Not a pet cat or orphaned sister.

For me, because I tend to write mysteries and love characters who are more cerebral, it has been very difficult for me to portray these deep feelings, because the characters are actively trying to suppress them. I also tend to like and write characters who are not politically correct and who like to say things that could get misinterpreted. That's where it is even more important to give your reader the information they need to understand the character's situation and feelings. Particularly what is driving them.

One flaw I feel victim to when writing mysteries, is the notion that I wanted to hold back information about the characters situations and feelings to let them be gradually revealed and surprise the reader. The surprise was that the reader never got far enough into the book to care if I revealed the hero's motivation and background on page 87.

You can't do a background dump on page one, but you have to establish who the characters are, what they are feeling and why they are feeling it. If there is some tragedy in their past, you have to describe it in some form or fashion that will form a plausible basis for how the character is acting now. You don't have to reveal everything, but you do have to reveal enough to establish the situation.

Back to unsympathetic characters and not revealing enough about their emotional state.

I had one character, John Archer, who would say things to his grown nieces such as, "Don't be absurd, you silly child." This was meant in a gently mocking, teasing, kidding sort of way. In fact, a lot of my own relatives say things like that to each other (and worse) and it gives me warm fuzzies when they do. It makes me laugh. I love it when people do that mock insulting thing, because it means they are comfortable enough with you to know: you can take it, you can dish it out, and you aren't going to burst into tears. Let's face it, you're only completely polite to people you hate. So, I know they aren't really mad and don't really think I'm either immature, absurd, or silly--or maybe I have actually done or said something that is, but I know they are just teasing me about it. If they were seriously angry with me or trying to really ridicule me, the entire tone would change, and so would the wording.

Sidebar: I guess it's not politically correct to tease anyone any more, which makes me very sad. I keep having this pointed out to me as a terrible flaw in me and my characters. :-(

Anyway, tone is really hard to write. So although I wrote John saying that phrase, almost all the people who read it thought he was this terribly mean person and why would he suddenly say such a terrible thing to his niece to whom he has previously been so nice. They totally did NOT get this. So you either have to hit the reader over the head with it by saying something such as:

"Don't be absurd, you silly child," John said in a teasing voice.

Or risk having 90% of your readers sit back, aghast, at how your previously nice character suddenly turned mean to his nieces. The key is to let your reader know how the character means it. One would hope you would not have to hit them over the head with a sledgehammer to make them understand, but perhaps you do. Perhaps I think readers are smarter than that and perhaps they are not.

Still, I'd like to think a few out there get it and aren't insulted by it when they do get it.


So think about it when you write your characters. Don't make them perfect, just make them understandable.