Monday, August 3, 2015

Children in Writing

When I first began moodling the main characters in my murder mystery series - a high-powered attorney who is a partner in the family law firm, and his new bride, a child psychologist and writer - they were mostly just the perfect couple on whom I could hang my social justice plots. But the two of them had different ideas about how their relationship, and their life together, would develop.

First, both developed a strong focus toward building their rural kingdom (it's just a setting, damnit!), and before long, having children and raising a family became a huge issue, especially for my heroine. How do characters take over like that? Soon I found myself searching for photos of the perfect redheaded boy to enter the story (perhaps in book #3 after the heroine suffers some fertility anguish?), instead of teaching readers about the dangers of GMO crops, fracking, and other really important stuff.

Children add elements to fiction that completely change the dynamics of a story, just as they do in real life. This month on the Blood-Red Pencil, we'll explore the topic of children as related to writing, publishing, and even teaching. With back-to-school themes on many minds, it's perfect timing.

We're also welcoming a new member to the blog - Jason P. Henry - who has contributed two posts recently, and now will share his journey to publication every month, as well as information about the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, which he is heading up this year.

Be sure to bookmark this blog and visit us on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to join the conversation. You can also connect with us on Twitter and Facebook. We love your questions and input, so please leave us a comment!

Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Art of Word-Painting, Part One

Photo by SuperFantastic, via Flickr
We’ve all heard the phrase “taking a plunge”. It metaphorically denotes an action tantamount to falling/jumping off a cliff into deep water. The person who “takes a plunge” (voluntarily or involuntarily) ends up completely immersed (if only temporarily) in a new environment.

Reading a book involves “taking a plunge” into the world the author has created. If you’re the author of the book, you want your reader to become immersed in your story asap. This holds true, regardless of genre. Whether you’re writing a crime thriller, a fantasy epic, or a piece of literary fiction, it’s important that you should give the reader a strong sense of place and time and atmosphere.

Which brings us to the issue of descriptive technique. For your first draft, it’s perfectly fine simply to write whatever first pops into your head. For your next draft, however, you owe it to yourself to review your diction (word choice), figurative language (metaphors, similes, etc.) and selective sensory and/or concrete detailing.

This month, let’s focus on Diction.

Diction covers the choices you make with regard to individual nouns and adjectives, verbs and adverbs. In the case of nouns, as a general rule of thumb, the more concrete and specific your choice of noun, the more evocative your description will be. By a similar token, if you choose a noun with vivid connotations (good or bad), you often can (and should!) dispense with a supporting adjective.

Take for example a sentence like My aunt drives a rusty old car. “Car” is virtually non-descript; it could apply to any automobile of any make or model. The only thing that sets it apart from other automobiles is the fact that it’s “old” and “rusty” (which again isn’t much to go on). When it comes to revision, ask yourself, “Is there a single noun I could use that would convey the same impression more vividly and concisely?” Options would include alternatives like My aunt drives a rust-bucketor My aunt drives an Edsel.1 It’s always a Good Thing if you can make one word do the work of two or three.

A similar rule holds true when it comes to verbs and adverbs. When you’re revising, be on the look-out for adverbial phrases like “She ran quickly to the window” or “The taxi turned crazily around the corner”. Get rid of the adverbs (quickly, crazily) and find more evocative verb substitutes: “She darted to the window”; “The taxi careened around the corner.” Once again, choosing a single verb over a verb phrase conveys a more vivid impression.

Making revisions like these will not only liven up your writing, but also sharpen things up when it comes to pacing.

1 British readers, substitute Reliant Robin.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lessons in Story Structure in Unlikely Places

Over the Fourth of July weekend, like many Americans, I went on vacation and drove to my destination. A local radio station had recently played every number one hit from the 80s over a weekend, so I put together a playlist of all those totally awesome songs to keep me company on the long drive. So when one of my adolescent favorites—“Take On Me” by A-ha—started playing, I was instantly transported back to those carefree days.

I particularly remember the music video for this song. In fact, here it is:

Not only is this one of my favorite music videos ever made, it’s more or less a romance novel. Within the space of three or so minutes, it condenses everything that the structure of a romance novel should have.

Let’s take a closer look at that.

We begin with backstory. Our hero is a cool racecar driver. He’s got some rivals too. The tension is set up and the antagonists are introduced.

In comes the heroine. Of course, this is a paranormal romance. It’s somewhere in line with time travel, only instead of falling in love with a portrait or something along those lines, the heroine is enamored of a drawing in a comic book. And then she’s drawn into the comic book world.

Things start off well for the hero and heroine, but more conflict is introduced both from the heroine’s side, when the waitress thinks she’s skipped out of the restaurant, thus crumpling the comic book and damaging the world the hero and heroine now inhabit, and from the hero’s side, when the antagonists find the young lovers.

A chase follows, and even though the hero and heroine face it together, they reach the point where the hero has to make a sacrifice in order to save the heroine. She escapes from the comic book world—much to the surprise of the patrons of the diner—but then rushes home with the comic book to see if there is anything she can do to save the hero in turn.

Lucky for our heroine, and maybe with the help of some fabulously 80s band members, the hero manages to escape from the antagonists by joining the heroine in the real world. The two lovers are united, and presumably they live happily ever after.

One of the reasons this is absolutely one of the most brilliant music videos ever made is because it follows all of the elements not just of a story with a classic three-act structure, but a romance novel. What separates a romance from any other story is the focus on the relationship between the hero and heroine. In “Take On Me,” the plot breaks down into the hero and heroine meeting and falling in love, adversity coming between them and pushing them apart, and the two of them battling to overcome those obstacles in order to get back together and have their happily ever after.

It doesn’t matter if your action centers around a comic book chase or the social interactions of a Regency ballroom or opposing tribes of shape-shifters, this structure simply works. Readers are drawn to stories where they can fall in love along with the hero and heroine, then hold their breath and cheer for them as they overcome the obstacles put in their path, and finally let out that cathartic sigh of victory once the baddies have been overcome and true love wins.

So watch that video again. If you find yourself stuck in your story, give it another look. Perfect structure, all within three minutes. It’s no wonder it was a huge hit!
Merry Farmer is a history nerd, a hopeless romantic, and an award-winning author of thirteen novels. She is passionate about blogging and knitting, and lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. Connect with Merry at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Words

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

A word is not reality. It’s a metaphor for reality. So, in a way, every word is a story. Just open a dictionary and look up any word: pronunciation, part of speech, definitions, usage, origin, and whatever else your dictionary tells you. Let’s try it with “sentient” and the American Heritage Dictionary:

Sentient (sĕnshənt, -shē-ənt) adj. 1) Having sense perception; conscious: “The living knew themselves just sentient puppets on God’s stage” (T.E. Lawrence). 2) Experiencing sensation or feeling. [Latin sentiēns, sentient-, present participle of sentīre, to feel…]

According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of “sentient” was in 1632.

Every word has a history. Each word we personally know also has a history within us. To me, “sentient” is the story of HAL 9000, the self-aware computer who killed astronaut Frank Poole and tried to kill David Bowman, in the book and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Sentient” calls up the chilling moment when Dave retrieves Frank’s body from space and HAL won’t let him back into the ship:

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Dave: What's the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

As storytellers, we use words to create sequences with beginnings, middles, and ends. We use words to define patterns of desire, conflict, and change. We use words to express the rhythms we feel in our bodies. 

At one writing workshop I took, the instructor told us her baby was only a few months old but already knew what a story was, reacting differently to the rhythms of storytelling than to other types of speech. Surely she hit on the reason I love stories: before I ever understood what anyone was saying, I knew the rising and falling tones of a bedtime tale, the feel of warm arms around me, heartbeat in one ear, words in the other, sensations that told me I was loved.

Sometimes I turn to fellow writers, teachers, and mentors for advice on craft. Often I read literature, sending the words of great authors tumbling through my mind until they break down into building blocks I can rearrange into new stories. 

But in the end, the stories I tell are up to me.

I’ve found that the magic of storytelling is in surrendering, not to anyone else’s notions, but to the words in my head. I believe this: my subconscious knows better than I how to tell a story. Only it can call up all the words I’ve stored through a lifetime of reading, watching movies and TV, listening to radio, and talking. Sometimes the best writing strategy is no strategy at all, simply the willingness to let the subconscious take over.

Writers wander alone into our mysterious heads not because we’re crazy—though some may be—but because it’s the only place to find the words we seek. We wander alone into our wild hearts, not because we crave loneliness, but because it’s the only way to feel the rhythm that is ours and ours alone. I have a voice, and the only way to hear its uniqueness, distinct from all others, is to sing alone in the dark.

If you cannot stand loneliness, find a writing group. If you need support, go where other writers are. If you need feedback, seek mentors. But here’s my two cents: ultimately, only your own instinct can decide which words to use to sing your song. Don’t wait for others to inspire you. Don’t wait for inspiration at all. I suggest there’s no better reason to tell your story than a simple love of words.

I’m not saying I want nothing more. I want plenty. But before everything else, comes the words.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” – Genesis 1:1

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles TimesDenver PostConnotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Does Genre Matter?

In my book, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, I discuss the difference
between premise (the story concept) and the promise you make by the genre you pick.

I explored the theme further in an earlier post: Keeping Your Promise.

Writers unleashed in the independent publishing arena might feel they can fire genre expectations entirely since they no longer have to tick boxes for agents or editors. They may feel they no longer need to write the dreaded synopsis.

Not so. Why? Reader expectation still matters.

Let's say you go to a new restaurant with friends. It isn't your usual chain restaurant. Unless you are a foodie and love to experiment, you hope to find something on the menu that is recognizable. Something you know you will enjoy, perhaps a good burger.

When you order a burger you have certain basic expectations: a bun, some kind of meat patty, and condiments. There are millions of variations of burgers, from tofu and soy meat, to bunless burgers for those cutting carbs. Unless these variations are listed on the menu, you expect them to bring the beef. If you receive your burger and it doesn't remotely resemble what you wanted, you may force yourself to eat it. Maybe you'll enjoy it anyway. Maybe you'll loathe it and go online and complain about the restaurant's poorly written menu and bizarre food options.

One thing is certain: if you didn't enjoy the dining experience, you won't go back.

I am not saying that you can't mix genres, twist genres, or invent your own. What I highly recommend is that you make a promise to your reader through the dreaded "synopsis" which will turn into your story blurb. From one sentence "log lines" to the paragraphs on the cover, it is only fair to warn your reader if you are veering from the norm. Tell them which way the story is weighted. Is the core story a mystery with a little romance thrown in or a romance with a little mystery thrown in? Readers have distinct preferences.

Discussions are ongoing about rating labels for books much like rating labels for television and gaming. Not everyone wants to read explicit sex or gory details. For some, torture takes the thrill out of a Thriller.

You should also consider trigger warnings. There are certain topics that a reader does not want to accidentally stumble across if they have an aversion or sensitivity to it: war, gruesome details of explicit sex, murder, torture, rape, incest, child abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, etc. Some argue that these things happen and people should write about them to bring them into the light. I'm not against that. Those stories need to be told if we ever hope to change things. But the trigger issue is critical to the readers affected by them.

Don't blindside your audience.

It is bad business to make false or misleading promises to your readers. I guarantee that anger and disgust drive more people to post reviews than pleasure. Cause someone pain and they will strike back.

The other key point is that certain genres sell better than others. You may be tempted to skew your back blurb to attract a specific following, say Science Fiction. Beware an angry hard core Science Fiction fan if you serve them a light-hearted erotic romp through space.

They have virtual light sabers and know how to use them.

Diana Hurwitz
 is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Tale of ?Two? Genres

I’ve been writing “genre fiction” for 36 years. I began with romance, then moved on to mystery.

That’s the simple version.

For a start, I wrote Regency romance, not just any old romance. It’s a very distinct genre, set in England in the early 1800s, when Jane Austen was published. The doyenne of the (sub)genre was Georgette Heyer, who set the standard for humour, well-developed characters, historical accuracy, and lively dialogue. Fans of regencies often don’t read any other kind of romance.

Given the limits of the genre, I managed to write all sorts of stories, some set around historical events such as the Battle of Waterloo, some comedies of manners, some exploring serious subjects like the mistreatment of chimneysweeps (Crossed Quills). I also branched out into several sub-sub-genres: fantasy—fairytales rewritten with a Regency setting (The Magic of Love); time travel (Byron’s Child);
and a ghost story (The Actress and the Rake).

One of my regencies was classified by the publisher as a “Regency Historical,” largely, I gathered, because it was considerably longer than normal.

The genre “Mystery” turns out to be even more complex. Most people agree that my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, is historical. Some, however, contend that a book can’t be called historical fiction unless it’s set at least 100 years before the present. The Cornish mysteries, set around 1970, have even more dissenters from the historical label. It’s not historical if it’s set in the lifetime of the writer. It’s not historical if it’s less than 50 years ago. Et cetera.

I’ve even heard from medievalists that nothing after 1400 (or is it 1500?) can be described as historical as that’s when the “modern era” began. I hope they have their tongues in their cheeks!

As far as I’m concerned both my series are historical. Yes, I lived through the ’60s and ’70s, but I have to do research about the past when writing both.

Another battle is whether to call both series “cosy/cozy” or “traditional.” I used to be quite happy with the cosy label until a flood of craft mysteries arrived on the scene, in which the mysteries of the craft get as much attention as the mystery of the crime. Nowadays I much prefer to be placed in the traditional group.

Both terms are ill-defined, but they do guide readers to the type of stories they prefer. That, I suppose, is the purpose of the whole shebang.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Seeking the Muse

By Jason P. Henry

Throughout my life I have been an artist, a musician, and now a writer. Creativity runs thick in my blood. As a result, I have spent (perhaps wasted) a lot of time seeking the muse. She was such an elusive, fleeting, little tart. I always felt like I was three steps behind her, that I didn’t have what it took to catch up and drain her of the inspiration I desperately needed. I was a vampire, thirsty for that creative rich blood, and I was dehydrating.

Then I learned a valuable lesson about her. She was there, within my grasp, the whole time. My muse, she’s a stalker. The whole time I was looking for her, she was standing right behind me, waiting for me to turn around so she could smack me and say, ‘Here I am, stupid, now sit your butt down and write.’ When I learned, better yet, when I accepted, how devious my muse truly is, I stopped looking for her. I simply started waiting for those subtle, sucker punches and her sultry, little voice seductively whispering the words ‘Here I am’ into my ear.

Now, without trying, I see her everywhere; standing on street corners, in the seat behind me, across the room at a restaurant, in the news, on the radio, and even on the vehicle in front of mine. No matter where I am, she’s there. She doesn’t just kick me in the gut me to get my attention either, sometimes she does all she can to completely frazzle my nerves. Her approach is more like a haunting. Ever wake up from a sound sleep in the middle of the night, open your eyes, and then crawl out of your skin because you are certain there was a face leaning over the bed and staring at you? Yeah, my muse can be a lot like.

An example? Thanks for asking.

A couple of weeks ago I was driving along, happy and content, not even thinking about writing. Then I rolled to a smooth stop at a red light, right behind a dark blue S.U.V. with its rear window decorated. The window was adorned with a memorial. Not uncommon but, for some reason, this one caught my attention.

In Memory of
Gone but NEVER forgotten.

It was a little unsettling to see my first name on a memorial like that. Not that I have an unusual name, it was the principle of the matter. However, what really rattled my cage was the apparent date of death, which happens to be the exact date of my birth. Now, regardless of your beliefs, that’s enough to jolt even the most steadfast fortitude. I told you, my muse is not a nice person, and she had just throat punched me. When I was able to breathe again I realized that, once more, reality had just become stranger than fiction. A story was already writing itself about a guy who develops an unhealthy obsession after seeing such a heart-stopping tribute.

I write thriller, suspense, and horror. So it would seem that this life moment was tailored to my style. Who knows me better than my muse, right? The truth is, it’s suitable for many genres. A romance author could have seen the same memorial and went a completely different direction than I’ve gone. That’s the beauty of inspiration, the same moment can move twenty different people in twenty different ways.

Pardon my language for a moment, because it’s time for me to share a little secret. Writer’s block is bullshit, it’s an excuse. There, I said it. How many of you hate me now? Here’s another one: The muse is a farce, a ghost, she’s more fictional than your novel. Personally, I love the term ‘muse’, regardless of how mythical it is. But, ‘muse’ is a word used by artists to describe something they are looking for, that they hope will provide them with inspiration.

Stop looking! Every moment of every day, regardless of your genre, you are surrounded by writing material. You simply have to be willing to open your mind (not your eyes) and take notice. Train your brain. Know your genre and then start looking at the world differently. Look at everyday things and ask yourself, how could I use that in my writing? Soon, you’ll find inspiration comes naturally, and you too can call your muse a stalker.

When he's not working with the dedicated and passionate people of Pikes Peak Writers, Jason P. Henry is lost in a world of serial killers, psychopaths, and other unsavory folks. Ask him what he is thinking, but only at your own risk. More often than not he is plotting a murder, considering the next victim, or twisting seemingly innocent things into dark and demented ideas. A Suspense, Thriller and Horror writer with a dark, twisted sense of humor, Jason strives to make people squirm, cringe, and laugh. He loves to offer a smile, but is quick to leave you wondering what lies behind it. Jason P. Henry is best summed up by the great philosopher Eminem “I'm friends with the monsters beside of my bed, get along with the voices inside of my head.” Learn more about Jason at


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