Thursday, January 31, 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 voice that is recognizable whether she's writing a romance as Roberts, or one of her "In Death" futuristics as JD Robb.

Your voice will develop over time and (one hopes) will become recognizable. It's important to learn the 'rules' of writing before trying to be distinctive. In the art world, we recognize artists by their style. But they, too, can change. 

Before many create their own recognizable style, they learn the basics. Before your voice will develop, you have to write. And write. And write some more.

Try looking at your manuscript, or the book you're reading. Find a passage that's filled with narrative. How does the author deal with it? Is it in the same vein as the dialogue, or do you get jolted out of the story because all of a sudden there's an outsider taking over? If it's a funny book, the narrative needs to reflect that sense of humor. If it's serious, the author shouldn't be cracking wise in narrative. If your character speaks in short, choppy sentences, then he's likely to think that way, too. Again, the narrative should continue in that same style.

You want your voice to be recognized, but not intrude on the story. If you want the reader caught up in the story and the characters, you, the author have no business being on the page. Every word on the page should seem to come from the characters, whether it’s dialogue or narrative. You’re the conduit for the story and the characters. You’re there so they shine, not the reverse.

It takes practice—and courage, because you have to put "you" on the page, and not the "writer." But when you finish, you should have your own special work. You won't be a cookie-cutter clone. Rule of thumb—if it sounds "writerly", cut it. When the words flow from the fingertips, that's probably your own voice coming through. Let it sing.

Terry Odell

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

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 antagonist has an excellent article that shows how even a character who is in the “right” can be derided as the bad guy simply for having the opposite perspective to the protagonist (along with villainous acting and make-up, of course).

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry is told countless stories about his nemesis, Lord Voldemort, before he ever meets him face to face. The other characters have visceral responses to even the mention of Voldemort’s name. And, as a clever counterpoint, Harry’s own name is met with reactions ranging from interest to awe, eliciting curiosity from the reader at vital points in the book's beginning.

Readers can understand on an intellectual level that your protagonist is extraordinarily brave because you told them, but they won't own the emotion that a brave person can provoke until you show them that response through another character.

If you have a character who seems to be lacking depth, try digging more into how s/he makes another character feel. Your characters must react to each other before your reader can follow their lead.

Elle Carter Neal is the author of the picture book I Own All the Blue and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at or

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

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 books.

Summer heat sizzles between the covers of romance novels and spawns hot new authors, while those who’ve weathered many seasons bask in the shade, pounding out their next hits and maintaining sales of past successes. Brightly hued flowers and kelly-green grasses inspire the creation of vivid yarns, colorful stories of bygone days, and the escapades of young and old alike.

Rich, deep reds, golds, oranges, and browns of autumn suggest mysterious plots, intense thrillers, and authors who long to expose the story behind the story and explore the darker side of human nature. Characters of extraordinary integrity emerge from cream-colored pages, humble mortals rising above weaknesses of flesh and spirit. Crimes of passion and passionate loves walk beside crimes of hate and lost loves into the minds and hearts of readers. Experienced writers stretch imaginations to send their characters beyond the lightheartedness of summer into the cavernous depths of human emotions.

Then it is winter. The world has become black and white again. Stories of good triumphing over evil abound, as well as those in which the aching cold stills a lonely heart. First-time older writers—seasoned citizens with many years of life behind them—find time to pen the stories long incubated within their souls. Authors with a host of books to their credit reach out with thought-provoking tales to touch readers of all ages. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple proves the viability of elderly protagonists. The popularity of Jessica Fletcher (mystery writer J.B. Fletcher) in the long-running TV series Murder She Wrote indicates that no mandatory retirement age exists for writers or protagonists in the eyes of the reading (or viewing) public.

Are you a young, middle-aged, or seasoned-citizen writer? If you are an experienced author, how have the passing years changed your writing? How have the seasons and colors of fiction affected it?

Retired editor Linda Lane is opening a virtual bookstore where writers can gather in a cozy environment, support one another, learn from the pros, and mingle with their fans who come to purchase books and meet their favorite authors. The bookstore's blog will invite all to participate, and writers can enter mini-flash-fiction contests. Serialized novels will entertain those who come to read, and authors are welcome to submit their stories for possible serialization and world-wide exposure. Site is currently under construction, but feel free to visit:

Friday, January 25, 2013

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 magician's pledge, this connection builds suspense.  The reader can't help but wonder what's going to happen to her.

The Turn:  The magician now takes that object and does something extraordinary with it.  Illogical, unbelievable, the turn must amaze the audience.

In the same way, the inciting incident of a mystery has to leave the reader intrigued. After being exposed to so many books and films, the average reader expects the unexpected so my mystery has to turn the corner to extraordinary. 

The Prestige:  This is the trickiest, most dangerous part of any illusion.  The magician must elevate his illusion to a climax, then restore that ordinary object, the original pledge.

Like any showman, the mystery author has to utilize his full arsenal of tricks to pull off the prestige.  Our pledged character must somehow restore normalcy–a sense of safety or justice–by making it ordinary again.  The solution to the mystery is called “the reveal”, but I still pull out an illusionist's trunk of magic techniques to craft my reveal like a prestige:

Architecture (e.g., trap doors, false locks, etc.):  Just as the magician's assistant helps the masquerade by working the secret architecture backstage, my characters all have their own roles to play outside of the main storyline.  Most mysteries work with first person or limited third person POV for this very reason.  Any character not present in the current scene is up to something–building an architecture of illusion.

Sleight of Hand:  In the same way a magician uses quick movements or distractions to pull off a deception, I use fast twists and red herrings to distract the reader.

Smoke and Mirrors:  By hiding important clues within irrelevent action, I can create a feeling of intrigue.  Secondary, mirror characters can both highlight and build friction with the protagonist and antagonist.

Humor:  Laughter takes a person out of their logical mindset. Anything's possible in a joke. 
At the end, the Aha! comes when the reader delights in the fact that she didn't figure out the puzzle, but now can see my carefully laid clues before her. She didn't really want to solve the mystery too early. She wanted to be fooled, fairly. 
"The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you... then you got to see something really special... it was the look on their faces... " -- from The Prestige, 2006

Lucie Smoker's
imagination grew up in a Little House on the Prairie and at 221B Baker Street. Her best friends were her little sister Minnie, The Hardy Boys, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Like them, she followed a path of adventure, sometimes intrigue, but then she fell in love and finally found home down a long, empty road. Lucie loves to connect with readers through Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. Her debut mystery, Distortion, is available worldwide in paperback, or electronically in Kindle, and Nook from Buzz Books USA.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

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-witness account but is entirely fictional.

Or we can hint at a back story or prequel to the tale. The characters appear to have some independent existence in an alternative world that persists outside the story. In Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels, we continually bump against allusions, only half explained, to her complex past. Conclusion: this lady is four-dimensional. She’s real.

Alternatively, we can create a ‘ghost plot’.

Image courtesy of
A ghost plot is a thread that unfolds behind the principal narrative, like any other sub-plot. But it may have nothing to do with the main story. It’s something that exists solely to give an illusion of dimension to the narrative. How can you create a ghost plot?

Draft two narrative threads - a main plot and a sub-plot. They have their own characters and settings. Optionally, they might be set in different time periods. Give each a complementary theme. And interweave those stories so that each one acts as an ironic chorus or commentary on the other. For example:

Main story: A modern couple are planning a grand church wedding. Crisis succeeds crisis. The bride’s mother interferes so much that it seems the marriage will never take place.

Ghost plot: Flash back to the 18th century. The celebrated clock maker Joseph Knibb is trying to finish an expensive time-piece commissioned by an absent-minded lord. Every week, the lord bustles in and changes the design. Knibb pulls his hair in despair. Finally, he brings out the design he suggested at the start, which his patron had dismissed.

Now the lord loves it. What a brilliant new concept, he says. So original! Knibb is a genius...

Switch back to the main plot: The bride puts her foot down. They’ll hold their wedding in a supermarket, she says. The mother beams. What a brilliant new concept! So original! Her child is a genius...

The two plots echo each other, yet they are wholly unrelated except by theme.

Should we link those plots in the final episode? Could we have the bridegroom give his bride a wedding gift - a family heirloom which turns out to be the fabled clock of Joseph Knibb? That would tie the threads together in a neat ironic close.

But it’s not necessary.

The reader will still detect the resonance of themes in the two self-contained stories and, if they’re well told, will smile at the timeless perversity of human nature. Whether or not the plots are linked, the story has acquired depth.

In summary, an unusual way to make your tale appear multi-dimensional is to run a separate story - a ghost plot - behind the main narrative. It’s immaterial whether the stories are linked in any direct or causal way. The ghost plot exists primarily to create an illusion of depth, the irrational sense that we are glimpsing a world that exists by itself, outside of the story space.

It’s autonomous and real.

Dr John Yeoman passed away in 2016. He held a PhD in Creative Writing, judged the Writers’ Village story competition and was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. His Writers’ Village short story contest drew 1500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. Some of his blog posts are archived here, (however the writing class enrollment and downloads are no longer available).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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:
  1. Seek out the “hot” story moments worthy of further mining (they will look suspiciously like emotional turning points).
  2. 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 long-awaited moment in which the narrator Margaret, the woman reclusive author Vida Winter has chosen as her biographer, shares her own deep wound. It is a secret that was kept from her most of her youth, and then kept by her, so we know that airing it has the power to change her. The death of a character both Margaret and Vida Winter cared for, on top of an entire book worth of confession from Vida Winter, finally prompts the revelation:
My scar. My half-moon. Pale silver-pink, a nacreous translucence. The line that divides. 
“This is where she was. We were joined here. And they separated us. And she died. She couldn’t live without me.” 
I felt the flutter of Miss Winter’s fingers tracing the crescent on my skin, saw the tender sympathy on her face. “The thing is—” (the final words, the very last words, after this I need never say anything, ever again) “I don’t think I can live without her.” 
“Child.” Miss Winter looked at me. Held me suspended in the compassion of her eyes. 
I thought nothing. The surface of my mind was perfectly still. But under the surface there was a shifting and a stirring. I felt the great swell of the undercurrent. For years a wreck had sat in the depths, a rusting vessel with its cargo of bones. Now it shifted. I had disturbed it, and it created a turbulence that lifted clouds of sand from the seabed, motes of grit swirling wildly in the dark and disturbed water. 
All the time Miss Winter held me in her long green gaze.
Let's look at how this works.
  • From a character given to languid structures such as the one in the third paragraph, note the child-like sentences. They evoke stuttering; this is hard for Margaret to tell. 
  • Note the parenthetical delay set off by an em-dash—(that underscored the importance of her words, should the reader somehow fail to intuit them) before Margaret utters her conclusion.
  • Note the amazing one-word dialogue from Miss Winter—every aspect of the book has brought them to this point and this one word says it all. Margaret incurred this wound in toddlerhood and carried it alone to womanhood. She needs mothering, from an old woman who has never been a mother, but who knows what it is like to lose a twin. The one word she utters—“Child”— is just right.
  • And note Setterfield’s nod to this technique: her character was kept captive by the long green gaze just as the writer was held by a moment Setterfield wisely refused to turn from.

Try it. Before you broaden your story, make sure you’ve mined its depths for all they’re worth. You may have more story yet to tell!

For more on emotional turning points, see my previous post, The Plot that Swam Away.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right." Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

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 sentences,

• Installing the roof – deflecting fallout,

• Enclosing the structure – controlling flow,

• Hanging drywall – closing gaps,

• Finishing the interior – self-editing and proofing,

• Painting the exterior – hiring an editor,

• Putting up the For Sale sign – donning a realtor’s hat.

Blueprints detail placement of plumbing and electrical fixtures; locations and measurements of rooms, doors, and windows; roof pitch; etc., to make the completed structure to be habitable and functional. How does this relate to writing a book?

Just as a house doesn’t magically appear on a vacant lot, an unwritten story doesn’t pop up on your monitor. You need a plan—outline, a work crew—characters, and a strategy (story) to tie them together. Then you need to construct it. Written notes (not mental ones) describing basic plot and defining character personalities, preferences, background, family, education, job, idiosyncrasies, physical appearance, etc., will keep you on track.  (See Terry Odell’s post on “Character Voices”)

This “blueprint” maintains character integrity and story flow because we don’t have perfect memories. My editing days abounded with characters that changed hair or eye color, places of birth, physical sizes and attributes, and a host of other inconsistencies that befuddle readers. Following detailed character sketches keeps characters true to themselves and consistent in appearance, and consulting an outline (plot map) keeps the story on track. Digression comes too easily; and interesting as a new path might seem, its inclusion may disrupt your flow. Stay focused—yet be open to suggestions by your characters. Let them to tell you their story; they may choose a route that works better than yours. It’s okay to change the blueprint if the new design improves the story. For example, the antagonist in my first book changed my planned ending. Had I not let him show me the path he needed to take, I would have forced a climax that didn’t work nearly as well as his.

Do you create “blueprints”? Have your characters ever changed your story?

Linda Lane is channeling her years of editing experience into a cozy new hangout for writers. Her website, still under construction, will feature a bookstore, blog, contests, Q and A discussions, serialized stories, and more. Visit her at and

Monday, January 21, 2013

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-letter word. I say, “Pshaw!” Think of genre as the skeleton key that opens doors instead of a cage that limits your freedom. Genre plays an important role in storytelling. Ancient man did not sit down at the communal fire and promise to tell a testosterone-filled tale about hunting then launch into a boring account of how he picked nits from his partner’s hair. He would have been justifiably chased into the woods by people armed with clubs.

A premise can combine several ideas such as vampires and a love story. However, you must decide if the focus is going to be on vampires killing off humans thus preventing the lovers from getting together or a Romance about people who happen to be vampires. Right off the bat, the concept of vampires will intrigue some and repel others. That is acceptable. You can’t please everyone. If you want to write a vampire tale, write it. If it is good, there will be an audience. If it is bad, there might be a key element of it that attracts readers anyway.

Romance genre readers may not read Horror and vice versa. Horror stories can have light moments, but Horror fans expect to be frightened from page one. If your story does not deliver on that promise, Horror fans are disappointed. Regency Romance lovers expect a love story set in Regency England. They are offended if you throw in a serial killer.

If a reader is warned beforehand that your story explores the mind of a pedophile, she may pass it by. If the cover tells her she is getting a light-hearted Romance and you toss in a pedophile, she will toss your book in the nearest trash bin. Next time she sees a book written by you, she will shudder and move on. I once sat down to read what was billed as a light-hearted Comedy. There were some funny lines, but the story was about child abuse. I was not amused.

Carefully selecting the promise you want to make to the reader then keeping it is the secret to winning loyal fans.

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.

Friday, January 18, 2013

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 narrative elements imaginatively adapted from myth and legend. Out of the meeting between Classical and Germanic culture comes the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, whose eponymous hero battles monsters on sea and land before finally succumbing to the dragon in mortal combat. 

In a subsequent fusion of cultures, Old English epic gave way to Norman French chansons de geste, which in turn gave rise to what can be loosely termed “chivalric romance”:  fanciful tales of knight errantry. In the wake of the Crusades, these romances become interestingly infused with new fantasy elements derived from Islamic folklore:  evil sorcerers, books of magic, secret gardens, enchanted palaces.  These works, especially those belonging to the Arthurian cycle (notably the works of late twelfth century poet Chretien de Troyes) were extremely popular.1

However, the poetic masterpiece of the Middle Ages is a fantasy trilogy:  Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Composed in the early 14th century, this extended narrative poem in three volumes chronicles the speaker Dante’s visionary journey from Hell, through Purgatory, to the heights of Heaven.  His spirit guide for the lower realms is the poet Virgil; for his heavenly journey, he is accompanied by Beatrice, simultaneously his idealised Beloved and angelic wisdom personified.  A numinous anima figure, Beatrice prefigures Tolkien’s Galadriel.

The romance tradition continues to develop throughout the Tudor/Jacobean period.  Many of Shakespeare’s most popular plays - As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest – are fantasies, as witnessed by the presence of non-human characters (gods, fairies, spirits) and lashings of magic.  Beyond Shakespeare, we have Milton’s “dark materials” epic fantasy Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope’s comic fantasy The Rape of the Lock.  But the most significant development of all in the history of fantasy was the transition from poetry to prose with the advent of the Gothic Novel.

The movement kicks off with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The  Castle of Otranto in 1764.  It’s a phantasmagoric tale that begins with a giant helmet falling out to the sky.  The ensuing story is a chivalric romance gone mad.  It was, however, a success, prompting other experiments in prose fantasy.  Possibly the most disturbing of these was Matthew Gregory Lewis proto-horror novel The Monk (1796) in which Lewis with ghoulish gusto gives free rein to his personal fantasy notions of what goes on behind closed doors in a Catholic monastery.  By savage contrast, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831) is a true literary classic, arguably the first science fiction novel in English.  Another iconic example of the Gothic novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897.

Which brings us into touch with another writer of the period:  William Morris.  More widely recognised for his role in the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris experimented with writing fantasy in the pre-Shakespearean mode.  In 1896, he published The Well at the World’s End in two volumes.  The following year saw the publication of The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Both novels have a fanciful charm that survives the ponderous quaintness of Morris’s prose style.  They are unquestionably fantasy novels – which is why, in the post-Tolkien demand for more fantasy fiction, Betty and Ian Ballantine relaunched them in the now-famous Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, published between 1971-1974.

This series included a number of other proto fantasy novels.  The earliest author on the agenda is the Scottish writer George MacDonald, represented by two adult fantasy works:  Phantastes (subtitled “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women”) which appeared in 1858, and the vastly darker and more challenging Lilith (1895) whose central character Vane finds himself shuttling between overlapping realms of existence. Another personal favorite of mine in the series is Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow, first published in the 1920s, which brings a Spanish flavor to the fantasy tale.  I’m also very fond of The Kai Lung anthologies of Ernest Bramah, which are full of oriental colour and mischief.

But the Ballantines were also looking for new talent.  And they made discriminating choices.  Their first wave of acquisitions included Joy Chant (Red Moon and Black Mountain, 1973) and Katherine Kurtz, whose first Deryni trilogy, published in 1974, introduced historical fantasy as a new sub-genre.  Since then, fantasy has boomed.  The runaway success of the Harry Potter series in recent years attests to the genre’s commercial appeal. Though the popular demand has never been greater, it’s curious to note that the fantasy genre as a whole is generally disparaged by literary critics.

In my next installment, I will be addressing two related questions:  (a) what is there about fantasy literature that elicits such enthusiasm among so many readers? and (b) what are the reasons underlying the corresponding critical contempt?

Watch this space.


1The dominant story strands of the Arthurian romances were eventually woven together into narrative prose by Sir Thomas Malory in his Morte d’Arthur, published by William Caxton in 1495.

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

Thursday, January 17, 2013

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 her books, but it bugged the heck out of me. And it's consistent with all her books in that series. It wasn't just a one-time deal.

It's important in a book that characters not only sound like themselves, but don't sound like each other. That means knowing their history, their age, education, as well as occupation, nationality—the list goes on. Ideally, a reader should be able to know who's speaking from the dialogue on the page without beats, tags, or narrative.

Cowboys don't talk like artists, who don't talk like sailors, who don't talk like politicians. And men don't talk like women. They're hard-wired differently. I'm a woman, and in my first drafts the dialogue will lean in that direction. After I've written my male characters' dialogue, I go back and cut it down by at least 25%.

A few tips to make your characters sound like themselves. (I could go on forever, but one of the guidelines I was given for these posts was to hover around the 500 word mark.)

Don't rely on the "clever." Dialect is a pitfall—more like the Grand Canyon. If you're relying on phonetic spelling to show dialect, you'll stop your readers cold. Nobody wants to stop to sound out words. You can show dialects or accents with one or two word choices, or better yet, have another character notice. "She heard the Texas in his voice" will let the reader know.

Give your characters a few simple "go to" words or phrases. For me, this is often deciding what words my character will use when he or she swears (since I write a lot of cops and covert ops teams, swearing is a given). Then, make sure he or she is the only person who uses that word or phrase.

Keep the narrative "in character" as well. This especially includes internal monologue, and even extends to narrative. Keep your metaphors and similes in character. If your character's a mechanic, he's not likely to think of things in terms of ballet metaphors.

What your character says and does reveals a lot to your readers. Workshops I've attended have given out the standard character worksheets (which have me screaming and running for the hills), but it's the "other" questions that reveal your character. What's in her purse? What's in his garbage? What does he/she order at Starbucks? Would he/she even be caught dead in a Starbucks?

How do you keep your characters distinct? How do you get to know them? Do you need to know a lot before you start, or are you (like I am) someone who learns about them as you go?

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, January 16, 2013


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 to get us back to the song and dance. As we all know, writing is a lonely endeavor. It’s a lot of hard work. From that point of initial inspiration to finishing a manuscript, well, we pretty much all could write a book on what’s required.  And sometimes I wonder why I just didn’t take up basket weaving (not that, mind you, I have any knowledge that it’s easier!).

I often think, when in that sort of trudging through the slough of despond, about a little book I read a zillion years ago called Hind’s Feet on High Places.  The main character slogs metaphorically and literally through and every time she’s about to give up she’s told, “Call the shepherd!”  This is a spiritual book, and I’m not here to proselytize for any religion.  In fact, I tend to think of the shepherd as that illusive muse called Inspiration.

And when she just won’t seem to come, I’ve learned to submit to the slogging.  Yep, to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, to quit putting an emotional value (such as, ‘You can’t write your way out of a paper sack!’ etc.) on the process, and to just write.  Of course, often in revision I can easily tell those un-inspired places.  Big deal.  They can always be rewritten, with renewed vigor, and, funnily enough, often end up some of the best pieces of all.  When Inspiration leaves, I’ve come to trust that she always at some point returns.

I’m mentioning all this now because after two years of that slogging, our new book, What's Wrong With My Family? And How to Live Your Best Life Anyway came out this week! What fun. A new book published always causes Inspiration to sing. It makes all the drudgery worth it, all the blood, sweat, tears (and wanting to shake my co-author! LOL) now be viewed with rose-colored glasses. A book!

Of course this gives a shot in the arm for new writing projects as well.  But, I know, sometime down the road, I’ll again hit a big ocean of mud. When I do, I’ll “feel” my way back to this day, the emotions surging up to propel me into this place of euphoria.  And, then, once again, Inspiration will sing.

With this latest release, award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has five traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

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 forward slash can be used as a sort of shorthand for other notations, such as the word per in the following sentence: Even at $1/dozen, those shoes are no bargain.

It took several minutes before I realized that my cell phone made use of the forward slash in its calculator function. Couldn’t just use a divide symbol, oh no. The programmers are apparently devotees of the Manual as well, making use of the slash as a fraction bar.

Of course, we can’t forget the use of the forward slash when quoting poetry. Multiple lines of poetry, when quoted in text, are separated with spaced slashes to show line breaks. “The sweater now adorns my self / but looked much better on the shelf. / It suits me not; I blame the hue / I should have chosen one in blue.” 

That’s all we have time for today, dearies. The temperature is dropping into the single digits tonight, and I must bank the fire. If you think of any further uses for the forward slash, send them along c/o The Style Maven, won’t you? Heh, heh.

Photo courtesy of Darrick Bartholomew

The Style Maven made six attempts at a flourless chocolate torte before deciding that she’s much better at folding laundry than at folding egg whites. Follow the domestic adventures of her alter ego on The Procraftinator web page.

Monday, January 14, 2013

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. You are paying attention to who they are and what they care about. Aren’t you more likely to listen when people pay attention to your interests, and offer you respect by talking in terms you understand?  Of course you are. It’s the same with writing.

Tailoring your writing to your readers’ “care abouts” will allow you to elicit emotional responses from them. You want bells to go off in their heads, or for them to snap their fingers with delight, or be dazzled by the brilliant light you have poured over them. Emotional responses lead to action or change. That’s ultimately what you’re trying to get from your reader – you want them to do something, learn something, or feel something. 

You can only emotionally hook them if you know what they care about.

You might be tempted to think that your particular topic is something that everyone needs to know about. Maybe so, but no matter what you think, not everyone is going to be interested in what you have to say. So the first step in writing for your readers is to define who they are.

It is true that with written work going out into the big wide world, you cannot know for sure who will be reading what you write. But you can know two things:  you can know who is most likely to read it; and you can know who you want to read it. Is the topic of your writing going to appeal to men more than women, or vice versa? Will it appeal to people in their thirties and forties, or seniors over 65, or teenagers? Are you writing for experts in your field, or laymen? Do you want to win over the liberals, or the conservatives? Are the people who will want to read your
thoughts going to be intellectuals or jocks, engineers or artists, or of a particular ethnicity? Get as detailed as you want. For instance, are your hoped for readers middle-class moms, or environmental activists, or people challenged by cancer?

Why is this important? Because you are going to tailor the writing to whomever your audience is. Different people respond to different kinds of words, different slang, different metaphors, different jargon. This does not mean you are pandering or betraying your own muse. All it means is that you are treating your readers with respect, and paying attention to who they are.

After all, the reason you write is so someone else will read it. It’s not about you.

As a ghostwriter, my topics are all over the map, and so are the readers. So I’ve learned some tips to define these elusive creatures. Next month I’ll share some more ideas with you.

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, January 11, 2013

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 past five to ten years, so I was ready for anything. From speaking to other new authors, I expected to have no marketing support, little attention, and have to do a majority of the PR. (This is now fairly typical in publishing.) With Little Pickle Press my experience has been a welcome surprise. They spend a lot on money on marketing and it shows.

I not only want my book to excel, but I want to make a decent living as a working author, so I’ve been willing to do anything and everything to make Spaghetti successful. Little Pickle Press has been very open to me helping out wherever possible. It feels like I’m a part of the team – which is pretty awesome.

Dani:  What in the publication process was different from what you expected?

Jodi: The e-book has got to be the biggest. At first, it was hard to wrap my head around, but I am so glad I followed my intuition and went with Rana’s (LPP's chief executive pickle) vision. We’ve been doing extremely well on Amazon and we have still to launch on the other platforms.

Editing was a dream. I got to work with Judy O’Malley who has worked with some of the biggest names in children’s literature. I never expected my chapter book to have so many beautiful illustrations, either and because we launched digitally first, we were able to do this.

Dani:  How is the book being promoted and to whom? Is this a niche topic? Who is your largest audience?

Jodi: We hope our largest audience to be every 8 to12-year-old child on earth! Yes, we have set our sights high! We do have a primary audience of kids that are on the autism spectrum, as Connor has Asperger’s Syndrome. I purposely left his diagnosis out of the text for a few reasons. I wanted the book to have a mass appeal; I wanted any child that was having difficulties in school to relate to Connor; and I didn’t want it to be Connor’s main characteristic. My goal was to have Connor be a smart, quirky boy who just happened to have Asperger’s.

Dani: Will the book have a print version in the future?

Jodi: Little Pickle Press has a print version ready to go – we’re just waiting for a sufficiently large order to justify a print run. Even though the e-book is amazing and we’re meeting our environmentally responsible mandate, I am really jonesing for a paper copy.

Dani: Where can we download the book? And how can we connect with you?

Jodi: Currently you can download a Kindle version from either or After March 3, the e-book will be available on iOS, NOOK, KOBO, and Sony. 

And, you can reach me on my website at or on Twitter at @Jodi_Carmichael  or on Facebook!

Dani: Thanks for joining us, Jodi. Terrific article about your book and Asperger's in the Winnipeg Free Press. It's loaded with all kinds of good information, readers, if you have questions about Asperger's.

If you have questions for Jodi, please leave them in the comments. She'll be dropping in to visit and respond.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

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 streets for five years. Aunt Matti smiled a closed lips smile and said, "Mmuh-huh."

Personal comment here: I don't really think Angel curses more than most young people today, but she does curse too much for my Aunt Matti.

Will my next book, Dismembering the Past, have as many curse words? Nope. Not because of Aunt Matti, but because Hallie, the protagonist of this new series, did not live on the street and cursing as part of her normal life would not fit her personality.

I believe writers have to write true characters. Some of them curse, some do not. Some characters chew tobacco, some do not. The list, of course, could go on and on. If you know the characters you're writing, you'll understand them and why they do things or don't do things.

If you're a writer, what thing does your character do that you hadn't expected? If you're a reader, is there any quirk a character has that would change your opinion of the character? Basically, I'm asking:
Does your character have

Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, and the Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its fourteenth year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Angel Sometimes, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Dismembering the Past, is due out in Spring 2013.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

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.


Did you just slap my hand?

"Yes I did. Step away from that game."

But… but. Can't I play just one hand?


Not even…?


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 writing."

Uh, right. But sometimes playing a mindless game helps when your subconscious is trying to work out a story problem.

"Snort. Do you really believe that?"

Of course. It's the same principle as washing the dishes or cleaning the toilet. Concentrate on something other than your story issue.


Nine? What's that?

"Not the number. It's German for 'no'."

No, what?

"No, playing games is not the same as washing dishes or cleaning toilets. Who ever got addicted to those, huh?"


"Nothing to say to this?"

Leave me alone. I'm playing a game.

Maryann Miller
is a novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her latest release is Stalking Season, the second book in the Seasons Series. The first book, Open Season, is available as an e-book for all devices. To check out her editing rates visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas, and sometimes she plays on stage. She also tries to avoid computer games as much as possible.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

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 are countless workable possibilities for a Chicago, Illinois setting. I chose Chicago and its suburbs when I wrote the mystery, Two Wrongs, so I could include many Chicago area landmarks, such as the old Marshall Field's store, and also DePaul University, where I attended college and met my husband. 

Again, while working as a secretary at a Chicago law firm, it was natural for me to choose that city as the location for my romantic suspense, Killer Career, about a lawyer who wants out of her profession. 

There are countless other examples of towns and settings for novels that make sense.

I invite you to name one from either your own book or someone else's that you enjoyed, and share it with us in the comment section.

Morgan Mandel writes Thrillers, Mysteries and Romances, depending on her mood. She is a past president of Chicago-North RWA and prior Library Liaison for MWMWA.Her most current releases are the humorous romance, Her Handyman, & the thriller,Forever Young: Blessing or Curse.Coming soon is Blessing or Curse, second in the Always Young Trilogy.Find all her books

Monday, January 7, 2013

Grammar ABCs: R is for Repetition

Susie decided she’d had enough of his insubordination. It was time to let him go. “John,” she said, “You have been insubordinate one time too many. You’re fired.”

Many beginning writers feel they must set up the dialogue by explaining first what the character is going to say, or to emphasize a point by repeating it in dialogue, but it is not needed. Unnecessary repetition weakens sentences and adds extraneous words to your manuscript. Say it once, cut to the chase.

Another example of saying the same thing in different words: Many unskilled workers without training in a particular job are unemployed and do not have any work. (“Unskilled” and “without training” mean the same thing, as do “unemployed” and “do not have work.”)

Better: Many unskilled workers are unemployed.

Be aware of repetitive phrases:
• Circle around 
• Continue on 
• Final completion 
• Frank and honest exchange
• The future to come
• Repeat again
• Return again
• Revert back
• Square in shape 
• Red in color

Also be aware of using the same word too many times in a paragraph or on a page. Use your imagination (and the Thesaurus) to come up with alternatives.

When you are ready to rewrite your manuscript, go back through it with a highlighter and mark all these redundant, repetitive words and phrases. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll be able to trim your bloated manuscript and substitute meaningful action, reaction, and emotion to build tension, conflict and character.

What are some of your favorite repetitive words or phrases?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.