Friday, April 24, 2015

Contrasts and Layers

sebp on morguefile
Most people like contrast. A neutral wall becomes a focal point in a room if decorated with colorful artwork or contrasting stripes. Bland chairs and couches make a fashion statement when adorned with brightly colored, harmonizing throw pillows. Conservative suits and shirts invite brilliantly hued or dazzlingly printed ties to show them off. Beige or black skirts and pants beg for multicolored tops or jackets. All the above transform boring into fascinating.

Similarly, layers pique interest. A winter or spring outfit layered to address cold or changing temperatures often garner second looks. Gorgeous rose blossoms sport layers of delicate petals. Vegetables also come in layered forms—cabbage, lettuce, artichokes. Delicious lasagnas and pizzas with multiple toppings, as well as some dips and desserts, offer layers of “yummy” to hungry diners.

pippalou at morguefiles
Our books benefit greatly when both these elements are incorporated. Contrast, for example, can elevate a mediocre story to a must-read novel. How does the protagonist differ from her family? What if the good guy and the bad guy come from the same background? What catapulted one into a bright future and the other down a path of crime and self-destruction? Why does one victim sink into a life of despair while another rises to help other victims overcome their pain? How does major trauma make one person strong and drive another to suicide? The “what-ifs” are almost endless, and the potential for an engaging book practically shouts from contrasting scenarios.

Sarah Unversaw - My great-
grandmother as a teen
The use of layers adds dimension and depth to stories. We are all products of our pasts and family  lines. Recent research suggests that much more can be inherited than just eye and hair color, stature, physical characteristics, and possibilities of certain diseases or other health issues. Some researchers contend that attitudes and actions may be passed from one generation to the next—even if a person has never met the ancestor(s) who possessed those characteristics. Imagine how this possibility might pit a protagonist against family history to enhance your story. Or what if you’re telling the story of identical twins separated at birth? Some captivating tales of uncanny similarities between such twins defy logic and open doors to potentially incredible (and layered) stories. Peeling back family layers, as well as personality layers, opens up a whole can of storyline worms to keep readers coming back for more of your riveting books.

~~Don't miss the start of Kathryn Craft's blog book tour for her new release The Far End of Happy. Kathryn will be our guest on May 1st, discussing the importance of effective layering with examples of how she has applied this to her book. Follow Kathryn's tour here.~~

How do you use contrasts and layers in your stories? Sometimes these come naturally as we write, but other times we need to intentionally incorporate them. Have you experienced the need to consciously include these elements?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What Brush Do You Prefer?

My editor recently returned her edits for Deadly Production, my next Mapleton mystery. It's the fourth book in the series, and she said this was the cleanest manuscript of all the books she'd edited for me. But, she did have one overall comment.

She said, "It reads like a sequel." Of course, we both know it is, but she suggested more details, both about Mapleton and the locals. Before I plunged in and added details, I needed to look at the first three books to make sure I wasn't changing things around. Putting the mayor's office on the wrong floor, or moving other buildings, for example. Or taking a tall, skinny character and making him short and fat, or white when he was African American in another book.

You know what I found? Very little. Most of my character descriptions throughout the entire series were painted with very broad brush strokes. A few words here and there, but I never stopped to give a full-blown description.

Ozzie is the cook at Daily Bread and appears off and on in most of the books. This is all the description I had for him:

He checked the counter, where Ozzie, whose broad girth and extra chins attested to enjoying his own cooking. … Ozzie plunked a mug in front of him and filled it with hot, black coffee, a shade or two darker than his skin.

For Gordon, the hero of all the books, there's almost nothing. In book 1, Megan, a female lead, notices his eyes:

Somewhere between blue and green, the color of Aspen Lake after it rained. (And, because she's a woman, she'll notice things in a more 'picturesque' fashion than Gordon, the cop, does).

Later, she's describing a man she saw to Gordon.

"I remember noticing the Florida plates, assumed he was a retiree. Maybe because he was bald, but that's silly. Guys can go bald at almost any age."

Gordon rubbed the top of his head, thankful he wasn't one of them.

Here, the reader can see that Gordon does have a full head of hair, and that he's a bit vain about it as well.

Laurie, Gordon's admin, has been in all four books, and all we know about her is that she worked for Gordon's predecessor for over a decade before Gordon became Chief, she's very efficient, and she has a daughter.

I admit to my lack of physical descriptions of my characters in my mysteries. I prefer to show their personalities. For example, Ed Solomon, one of the best cops on Gordon's staff, is never described, yet we know that as well as being a good cop, he has a wife and kids, he's a good father, and he has a sense of humor.

At other times, there are specific bits of description, but I like to include a little more about the character along with the physical traits.

Detective Colfax, who's a semi-regular, is introduced as follows:

Mid-forties. Average height, beginnings of a paunch, but his relaxed stance was deceptively casual. Steel-blue eyes grabbed every detail. Soft-spoken, but people did what he said, no questions asked, Gordon knew, after working with him earlier.

I think Michael Connelly said in all his Harry Bosch books, he had a total of about 80 words of description. John Sandford said he summarizes Lucas Davenport as "tall, black hair, a scar on his cheek and a clothes horse." There's something to be said for letting readers fill in the details. Lee Child's descriptions of Jack Reacher weren't extensive, but they were enough to have fans in an uproar when Tom Cruise was cast to play the 250 pound, 6-4 man with hands the size of hams.

(My romantic suspense books are another story, but there's no room to go into that today.) One final point. My editor edited the first three Mapleton books as well, and this is the first time she's mentioned wanting more description.

What about you? Do you like broad brush strokes or a lot of detail?

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Outlander and Outliers

I read the first three books in Diana Gabaldon's series Outlander in my late twenties. In 2001, I realized I had missed a few and read them a second time. I've more or less kept up with them since then, but seeing the show come to life on television in 2015 has inspired me to go back to the beginning and start over with Book 1.

When Gabaldon wrote the first book in the series, publishers weren't quite certain what to do with it in terms of marketing.

Is it a historical novel? A paranormal time travel? A romance?

For me the series is the perfect example of how to layer genres.

In order to break it down, you have to look at the structure.

Which conflict takes center stage: the historical event, the time travel plot, or the relationship between the two people?

Outlander is primarily a romance with secondary layers of time travel and history.

Passage through the stones is the only "magic" element, so it isn't paranormal per se.

Gabaldon found a way to weave in multiple historical elements into the different books: World War II, Culloden/Jacobites, and the American Revolution. So, it can't be labeled a particular historical era.

The romance is definitely a selling point. There is poignancy in Claire's love for two very different men. There is hot sex with a kilted highlander, yet it is not an "erotica" novel.

The series also had the uncomfortable element of man on man rape, risque for the time in which it was published. In the current era, we are protesting rape culture and are spreading awareness of male rape victims.

There is no question that the series hinges on the triangle between Claire, Jamie, and Frank, but calling it a mere "romance novel" does it a disservice. Many complex relationships are represented.

Claire is forced to make hard choices as she shuttles back and forth between the past and the present. Her daughter with Jamie is drawn into the same complex decisions.

We get fascinating history lessons along the way from the lens of a character who has foreknowledge of how it all ends. For me, this added a layer of tension: to know and be powerless to change it and the question of if she somehow managed to change it, how would the ripples extend into the future/her past?

Genre is important from a marketing standpoint, but your novel doesn't have to be a one-trick pony.

Bottom line, write a rollicking good tale, layer it well, build complex characters, and you'll earn devoted fans. For me a great book is one I'd read more than once.

I sincerely hope they film a series for each of the books before the cast of the show becomes too busy to finish it. I love seeing my favorite characters come to life. Meanwhile, I'm on an enjoyable book binge.

For more on writing romance, check out these links.

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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Capitalizing on Captions

A cream puff, soon to be devoured.
Hello, dearies! It’s been a week for ducks here, with rain a near-constant companion for the last several days. Lacking suitable damp-weather gear, I've taken the downpour as a sign to stay in and perfect my cream puff recipe.

In between nibbles, I’m delighting in turning the glossy pages of various baking tomes. The recipes are nearly as inviting as the photographs, and the photographs themselves caught my attention for another reason entirely.


How often do we really pay attention to captions beyond their informational content? Figure 1. A stick-thin model pretends to enjoy a bite of artisan bread, which she will promptly spit out once the camera is off. While you as an author are sensibly focused on providing the best possible narrative, your editor will be on the lookout for appropriate punctuation and capitalization throughout the book; this includes captions.

The CMOS is generous in its treatment of captions, those helpful little accessories that provide the finishing touch to an illustrated work. Captions may range from a few words to a paragraph; the odd incomplete sentence may be concluded with a period to maintain consistency.

Sentence style is recommended for caption capitalization; if a formal title of another work is included, it appears in headline style. If your caption includes an illustration number, that number must be presented as a distinct part, typically through the use of boldface or a period. Italics are needed when locators are included, such as above left or overleaf.

It appears that the rain has ceased for the time being; perhaps a walk around the block is in order, especially after so many cream puffs. While I attempt to burn off a calorie or two, try an experiment. Choose three pictures for your current work-in-progress, and sort out suitable (and suitably capitalized) captions for each. Share your results in the comment section, if you are so inclined. In the meantime, have a lovely week, stay dry, and remember—a well-turned phrase is always in style!

Having fallen into the cream puff trap, the Style Maven is learning to like kale in an attempt to avoid learning to like letting out seams. You can follow her adventures as The Procraftinator here.

Monday, April 20, 2015


It’s a writer’s truism: the most important paragraph is the first one. It opens the door to the reader, inviting him or her to come into the place you have prepared for them. Your opening must convince them that this place is somewhere they want to visit, and perhaps stay for a long time.

I have two rules for writing openings, which I (almost) always try to live up to. Here they are:

The first rule is to provide a few sensory details in the first paragraph, so the reader feels as though they are “there.”  What does the character or setting look like? Colors, shapes, designs? What sounds are there? Loud voices, whistles, screams, bells? What smells? Strong like gasoline? Sweet like lilacs? Wet wool drying on a radiator? What tactile sensations? Soft wind on skin? The rough scrape of a poorly shaved chin? 

The second rule is that the first scene should either encapsulate or foreshadow the theme of the entire chapter or book.

Here’s an example from a book I worked on a few years ago. It is a memoir for an 80+ year old man, who was a curmudgeonly but lovable fellow. It contains his musings on the “big” questions of life – like how did the world get so screwed up and what can we do about it; who or what is God; the differences between men and women; and other topics philosophers have been arguing over for centuries. My client believed he had answers for many of these questions.

The first chapter in the book is his take on the meaning of life. Yes, really. So my problem in writing the opening was how to provide sensory details on such a big, vague subject, and give the reader an idea of what the whole book was going to be about. This was my solution:

In the first scene, he and his cousin, also in his eighties, are standing together at their grandfather’s grave. They are arguing over their different versions of where Grandpa is now. The cemetery overlooks San Francisco Bay, and the crisp wind blowing off the Bay ruffles their gray hair up so high they look like fighting cocks.

What do you think? Would you want to come inside this book?

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit

Friday, April 17, 2015

More on Expository Technique

Photo by Jackie, via Flickr
In last month’s post on expository technique, I identified reportage as the most utilitarian, least evocative mode of exposition. By way of supporting evidence, I provided parallel passages demonstrating alternative strategies for relaying expository information to the reader. By force of habit on my part, these passages were all written in third person. But what holds true in third person doesn’t necessarily apply in other modes of narration.

On the contrary, there’s a case to be made for arguing that reportage is the very essence of first person narration. This is owing to the narrow restrictions in first person vision and perspective. Information pertaining to setting, atmosphere, backstory and plot can only be layered into the narrative through the medium of the narrator’s self-expression. First person reportage is thus both highly selective and highly subjective.

The challenge for the writer is to establish the first person narrator as an authentic source of information, preferably asap. Success is often predicated on being economical with the word count. When it comes to selective detailing, there is no better stylist than multi-award-winning children’s and SF author, Jane Yolen. A particularly clear demonstration of first person expository technique in practice can be found in the opening paragraph of her YA novel Snow in Summer, (Philomel Books, 2011):
I have an old black-and-white photograph on my wall of all the things Papa loved. Its edges are curling and brown. In those days in the small towns of West Virginia, we didn’t have cameras that could take a picture in color. I’ve no idea who took that photograph, but I do know how it came into my hands. Cousin Nancy gave it to me years after this story happened.
This short passage – a mere 70 words long – serves several narrative functions simultaneously. Let’s take a closer look.

The focal “prop” is the old black-and-white photograph. This photo anchors the narrative in place (“small town West Virginia”) and in time (the past, within the living memory of the narrator). By alluding to “all the things Papa loved” the narrator establishes her credibility as a witness to the events of the past. Her use of the childlike term “Papa” in preference to the more formal “Father” infuses the narrative with a tone of retrospective tenderness. This small detail defines the essence of their relationship.

The fact that the narrator doesn’t immediately reveal what is in the photo engages our curiosity: what are these “things Papa loved”? The unanswered question concerning who might have taken the photo is trumped by the disclosure that it was given to her by “Cousin Nancy”. This familiar reference signals that Nancy also has a significant role to play in the story which is about to unfold. By now, the reader is hooked. We read on, eager to find out how these different pieces of the puzzle fit together.

It’s true that Jane Yolen makes it look easy. But if you’ve ever struggled with exposition, take heart: performance improves with practice.

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

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Loving Libraries

Woodland Park Library, Teller County, CO
This is National Library Week. Do you love libraries? I know I do. When I was a child, my parents told everyone we had to move because I'd finished the local library. Okay, so maybe only the children's section, but I was an avid reader and loved our trips to the John C. Fremont Library in Los Angeles. We were allowed to check out ten books, and it was all I could do to carry them.

Sadly, our new home wasn't as close to a library, and I was busy with school—but the school did have a library, and in junior high I chose "library service" as one of my electives. I got to spend an hour a day surrounded by books.

Years later, we moved to Florida, and I instilled the library habit in my kids. I can still remember how they'd arrive home with their piles of books and say they'd already finished some of them. And yes, they were little, and the books were mostly pictures, but all of my kids seemed to emerge from the womb able to read.

In Orlando, our library system actually delivered requested books to your door. Their reasoning was that one car out making deliveries was more efficient than ten cars driving to the library to pick up books. My husband used to open the door in the morning and say, "The library threw up on our porch again."

Now, living in the boonies, our library system is much smaller, but with the beauty of computerized catalogs, I can request a book here in my county and have it delivered to my library (not my front door, sadly) from anywhere else in the state.

One of my publishers, Five Star, targets the library market and the books I publish with them are available to readers at no cost. I love that people can meet my Blackthorne team that way.
All they have to do is request that their library carry it, or borrow it through an inter-library system.

Libraries are also a great way to try out new authors. Check out a book, give it a try, and if you like it, you can come back for more. Plus, libraries have so many wonderful programs. They're a place to learn, to meet authors, to use computers, for kids to learn to love books … so many opportunities.

Libraries, like so many other institutions, have to deal with budgets, and they need our support.

What about you? Do you use libraries? Do you have fond memories of libraries?

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.


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