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Showing posts from January, 2013

Authors, Stay Off the Page

Last time I spoke of character voices . This time, I'd like to look at your voice. After  a presentation I gave for a local book club, one member said she'd read one of my books. Her comment was, "You write the same way you talk." And, after I sent a chapter to my critique partners, one said, "This sounds very Terry." That, I think, sums up "voice." Any author starting out tries to write what she thinks a writer should sound like. She might work hard to make her characters sound unique, and true to their backgrounds, but all the other stuff—the narrative parts where the character isn't speaking—sounds stilted. It sounds "writerly."  But what the characters say isn't the same as "Voice." It's all the other words, the way the sentences are put together, how the paragraphs break. Can anyone confuse Suzanne Brockmann with Lee Child? Janet Evanovich with Michael Connelly? Even Nora Roberts has a distinctive

Interpersonal Characterisation

Think of the last book you read or movie you watched that made you reach for the tissue box (if only metaphorically, perhaps). Can you remember the exact scene that required you to deal with some dust in your eye? Was it a dramatic action scene, or was it a reaction scene? I’ll use the movie The Champ as an example. A character dies in a dramatic action scene, but it is not the death scene that has the audience weeping. The actual lump-in-the-throat moment occurs several minutes after the death scene when a young child reacts to his parent's death. If the movie had ended with the death of a main character it would only be an average film; it is the relationship between father and son that gives it heart, and the raw grief of a child that creates a tear-jerker. Interpersonal relationships between your characters allow you to suggest to your readers how to feel about them. Readers feel empathy more easily for characters who are loved by other characters. And as for the antagoni

Seasons and Colors of Fiction

Multi-state blizzards terrorize travelers, heavy snow packs send skiers slipping and sliding into the mountains, yet spring hints of its approach. This month in Colorado, we've endured a sub-zero cold snap and enjoyed unseasonal temperatures in the sixties. While winter has by no means taken its leave, we will soon witness a massive rebirth of all that lies dormant beneath its frozen floor. Cloudless blue skies and sweltering summer days will follow the awakening of life and stay for a welcome visit before marching into the intense colors, pungent smells and warm-sun, cool-air days of autumn. Finally, winter will return, and the cycle repeats itself. Spring speaks of children’s books, budding writers, and young adult stories. Pastel tales and the bloom of youth skip across the pages of Green Eggs and Ham , Winnie the Pooh , The Little Train That Could , and the adventures of Harry Potter, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and a multitude of others. Writers birth new characters and new

Mystery, Magic, and the Aha! of the Reveal

A suspense story is unlike any other fiction. The plot entices, the characters connect, but that unique sense of intrigue comes from something illogical, almost magic: the art of the reveal.   Magicians also create intrigue and for centuries have developed techniques for building suspense into their acts.   They tantalize our curiosity with illusions passed down through generations. Mystery authors like myself can learn a lot about suspense from them. In Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, The Prestige , screenwriters put forth three fictional parts to a good magic trick. I use them in crafting my reveal: The Pledge:   When opening an illusion, the magician presents an ordinary object. The audience gets to wonder what the trickster might do with it.   In a mystery, the author first builds an ordinary connection between the main character and the reader. Whether the protagonist is a powerful queen or an aspiring artist, I give her an ordinary trait my reader can connect with. Like the

Give Stories Added Depth With a ‘Ghost Plot’

Our most effective stories are often those which achieve the illusion of hidden ‘depth’. The reader glimpses a world, multi-dimensional, behind the story. So the tale appears real. We can conjure this effect of smoke and mirrors in many ways. Perhaps we set the tale, wholly fictional, in a real location and cram it with authentic detail. In Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse stories - set in Oxford, England - the reader can sit on the actual chair at the Turf Tavern where the characters - and Morse himself - once sat. The chair is real. So the story must be too... Or we interweave the story with genuine events, as witness Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night . Or we present our story, wickedly, as non-fiction. Paul Kavanagh’s thriller Such Men Are Dangerous was accepted by many readers as the dramatised autobiography of a real CIA agent, until it was exposed as a publisher’s hoax. Defoe’s chilling A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was widely believed at the time to be an eye-witne

Busted!—Diane Setterfield Caught Rendering Poignant Turning Points

Sometimes novels come up short. It may happen to you. Before beefing up the story with new characters and subplots, however, make sure you’ve tended to its depth. You might want to follow this simple plan: Seek out the “hot” story moments worthy of further mining (they will look suspiciously like emotional turning points). Apply added word count there.  We readers want to linger in emotionally rich moments. Such turning points are the purpose of the fiction—we've suffered along while extreme pressure is brought to bear on the protagonist, and reveling in her moments of indelible change, both small and large, is our reward. To make that change believable the reader needs access to the inner torment of the point-of-view character. Real change never results from hasty decisions—the protagonist needs to be wrestling with some big issue that will ultimately reveal her true character. In the gothic novel The Thirteenth Tale , here’s how author Diane Setterfield pulls off a lon

Under Construction: Drawing the Blueprint

Photo by Will Scullin Did you ever consider the correlation between building a house and writing a book? This year, we’ll explore those similarities, one each month, taking the book-writing process from blueprint through construction to sale. Beginning writers, I invite your questions and comments. Contractors (published writers) and subs (editors, proofreaders, book and cover designers, marketers, etc.), I invite you to share your expertise. We’ll explore the writing process from the first budding idea to the marketing of a published book, perhaps even diagramming a few sentences. Does anybody remember doing that in high school English? Our topics will include • Drawing the blueprint – creating outlines and character sketches, • Excavating – researching (essential for fiction, too) • Pouring the foundation – solidifying theme, • Laying the subfloor – determining timelines, • Framing walls – structuring story, • Constructing trusses – writing effective sentence

Keeping Your Promise

“You promised!” is a cry often uttered by frustrated toddlers denied a treat. Frustrated readers feel this way when a writer makes a promise she does not keep. At the outset of every story, a writer promises to tell the reader a specific sort of tale. This promise should be clearly stated in the synopsis or back cover blurb. There is a difference between premise and promise. Premise is the story idea, such as a tragic love story about ferrets. The premise could feature giant cockroaches invading the planet, a guy meeting the girl of his dreams, a terrorist attack, aliens descend, a murder is committed, an asteroid heads toward earth, a mysterious virus strikes, a heist is planned, a criminal breaks free, a thief needs to be caught, a monster eats Manhattan, or an evil wizard seeks control of Wonderland. Translating the story idea into a novel-length manuscript is where the work begins. You must pick a promise, also known as genre. The term genre is often considered a four-lette

The Birth of Fantasy (Tolkien, Before and After)

The birth of Modern Fantasy as a distinct literary genre can be arguably dated to 1965, the year in which Ballantine Books brought out the first authorised paperback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings .  This singular work, rooted in an erudite philologist’s musings on the origin and transmission of languages, captured the imagination of the American reading public.  Sales figures soared, Tolkien’s name became a household word, and American publishers embarked on an urgent quest to find more works of fantasy to satisfy public demand. But where to look? In theory (at least) they didn’t have to look very far. The hallmark elements of Tolkien’s fantasy  – non-human races, inhuman monsters, imaginary landscapes, epic battles, heroic legends – have been around since the dawn of Western Literature.  Classical examples include Homer’s two Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Latin epic, The Aeneid , and Ovid’s Metamorphosis , all of which are infused with narra

Character Voices

First, I'd like to thank the folks here at The Blood-Red Pencil for inviting me to become an official member of their team. I've enjoyed my slots as a guest, but now I'm a "regular." I'm going to start off with two posts about voice. The first is about character voices. The next time I'm up, I'll talk about the authorial voice, which is more elusive. I recall reading my first book by a best-selling author. A male character discovered a young girl, about 5 years old, who had been left to die in the woods. He brings her to his cabin and finds she cannot or will not speak. I was impressed with the way the character spoke to the child—it seemed exactly how someone should deal with that situation. However, as more characters entered the story, I discovered that he spoke that way to all of them. Not only that, almost every character in the book spoke with that same "Talking to a Child" voice. Obviously, it doesn't bother the millions who buy


The New Year always seems to start with new goals, new projects, even resolutions to better ourselves in some way or another.  But, of course, a few weeks in, many of those fall by the wayside and we’re left in a funk, compounded by feelings of failure for capitulating so soon! Especially in a creative endeavor such as writing, those little demons can wreak havoc on our psyches.  And there is, really, only one antidote to all of that: Inspiration.  Elusive at times, but oh-so-joyful when we’re in the midst of her spell. The word tracks back to mean, literally, in spirit. Those times when our fingers take off on their own, whirling through the keyboard (or pen to paper) and some outside force drives the story, the characters, and we find ourselves in the zone.  Everyone knows this feeling. We live for it. But, of course, so much of our time as writers is spent slogging through the muck and the mire, cubby-holed-up in a quiet office somewhere, alone, trying to cajole that dang muse

Visiting the Virgule

Solidus, duckies! Well, it certainly sounds like a greeting, doesn't it? Alas, it’s only a dressed-up word for the oft-used forward slash. Let’s have a look at some of the common uses of this leaning tower of punctuation. Probably the most recognized use of the forward slash is to offer alternatives. Choices such as either/or and he/she make use of this informal notation. Spaces on either side of the slash are unnecessary, but can be included if one of the separated terms is, as the Manual states, an open compound. Plain as a trench coat, yes? On we go. If you’re tired of using en dashes when writing dates, you can slip in a forward slash. This is handy when noting a span of two years ( 1973/74) , or when indicating a specific date ( 6/18/42). The Manual suggests using this kind of date notation only in informal pieces, to avoid confusion. While American writers tend to indicate the month first, writers from Europe and Canada more often use the day instead. The f

Who Will Read Your Stuff?

Many writers say, with great pride, that they “write for themselves,” as if this means they are a “real” writer, in touch with their Muse. But this is only true if you are writing a journal, meant just for your eyes.   Books, articles, blog posts, indeed anything written, are communication vehicles. Effective communication is two-way. The written word is no exception. You have to know what is important to your reader. Otherwise, he or she will not read your writing. People have a choice to read your book or blog, or not to read it. It’s as simple as that. How you present your ideas must be done in a way that your readers will understand or be entertained by. Yes, I am talking about slanting your writing. Some people think that “slanting” your writing to what your reader cares about is selling out, betraying “the muse”, pandering, or manipulation. No! Slanting your writing so that your reader can “get” you is simply good communication. It shows respect for your reader. Y

Spaghetti is NOT a Finger Food...

… and Other Life Lessons . Today we talk to Jodi Carmichael, the newest author at Little Pickle Press about her first publication, a middle grade novel about a young boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. Dani:   Jodi, how did you come to write Spaghetti? Jodi: It’s a funny story. I was asleep and Connor, the 8-year-old main character in Spaghetti , woke me up chatting about his day. He wouldn’t stop talking until I typed out everything he had to say. It was like I was channeling him. It was the single coolest experience I’ve had as a writer. Dani: Did you submit it to various publishers? Jodi: Only to a few. Connor feels like my third child and holds a special place in my heart, so I was careful about which publisher I contacted. Plus receiving rejections on his story felt more personal, like my own child was being rejected. Dani: What were your expectations around getting the book published? Jodi: I’d read a lot about how greatly publishing has changed over the

Writers Do Worry

Believe It or Not, writers do worry. In fact, we worry about a lot of things. I could come up with a long list of things we worry about, but then I'd be worried readers would be worried about us. And I've already got enough to worry about. One thing I recently worried about was my favorite aunt reading my latest book, Angel Sometimes . I had every right to be worried since I sent her an autographed copy and I mentioned her in the "Author's Notes". And a shout-out to Mattioma Roe. You inspired Angel to get her G.E.D. I also stuck a note in the book telling her NOT to read the book. So she, of course, read Angel Sometimes . Actually, she finished it last week while she was visiting me. Why didn't I want her to read it? Because it's got some curse words in it and nobody curses around Aunt Matti. When I asked her if she liked the book, she said, "Yes, but Angel does have a mouth on her." I then reminded Aunt Matti that Angel lived on the stree

Time Out For a Little Fun

It's still early enough in January to be thinking about resolutions. Not being one to rush into anything, I have spent the first week or so just trying to come up with some to add to Elspeth's fine list from earlier this month. (I really don't like being told what to do, even by myself.) Anyway, one of my top goals - isn't a goal easier to deal with than a resolution? Resolutions are so…. resolute and so hard to ignore. Whereas a goal is not as intimidating. So back to my top goal. I decided this year I will write first. No matter what. Right after I finish this game of Solitaire. Smack. Did you just slap my hand? "Yes I did. Step away from that game." But… but. Can't I play just one hand? "No." Not even…? "Nyet." Did you just yell at me in Russian? "Yes. You seem to have a problem with English." I do not. I understand English just fine. And I use English all the time in my writing. "But you are not writin

What's In a Place Name?

This month I'm exploring names and their uses in writing. Today, in particular, I'd like to focus on names of places.  Whether you realize it or not, what an author chooses to call the name of a place does have an effect. It can be a way to steer a reader to or from a particular genre. Kat and the U.S. Marshal  by Celia Yeary is one example of a Western romance, accurately set in Old San Antonio, Texas. Of course, there are exceptions to any rule and any genre. What comes to mind is the movie, Cowboys and Aliens , a surprising, yet successful combination of Western and science fiction, set in the 1873 Arizona Territory, yet featuring a strange combination of aliens, spaceships, Apaches, outlaws, a gold mine, and more. For the most part, though, you want to stick with the name of a location that makes sense. For example, it wouldn't do to name a city Chicago, when the story actually takes place in England, or in a time period before America was even discovered.  There