Thursday, February 28, 2013

Maryann Miller Interview about Stalking Season

When not writing, Maryann likes to play on stage.
 Here she is as Mildred in "Squabbles."

Today we welcome one of our own for an interview. Maryann Miller has a new book out from Five Star Cengage/Gale, the second in her police procedural series set in Dallas, Texas. Stalking Season was released December 19th, 2012. The underlying ground in the series explores issues involving racism, rooted in the partnership between the two female police detectives, one white and one black. Here’s a brief synopsis:

In this second book of  The Seasons series, homicide detective, Sarah Kingsly, and her partner, Angel Johnson, are pitted against an uncanny killer while still struggling to feel like real partners. Neither wanted the pairing in the first place, and it isn't getting any better. A young girl is killed in a cheap motel, and when her identity is discovered, an influential Dallas businessman brings the heat down on the department. It isn't easy to work under the thumb of the mayor and the police commissioner, and it doesn't help that Lieutenant McGregor has his own issues with the brass.The investigation takes the detectives inside an exclusive gentleman's club, a prestigious private school, and leads to a killer that surprises them all.

Dani: Okay, so let’s get right to the gentlemen’s club part! Did you actually go to one to do research?

Maryann: Yes, I really did. It is hard for me to write a scene set in a real place that I have never seen. I always scout locations for places where major scenes take place in a story. I must say, my son, who is my research assistant, enjoyed the visit to the club more than I did. He took copious notes about the dancers, just in case I needed lots of detail. (smile)

Dani: What made you take on the subject of sex in this second book? Was it something you read in the newspaper that struck a chord? How did you get the idea for this story?

Maryann: Unlike the plots for my other books that started with a real crime or a real person, this one started with wanting a different kind of killer. As I played around with finding a not-your-typical serial killer, the character came to me. Then I had to decide what would motivate this person to kill young women. All that thinking evolved to the young girls dancing at the club, initially just on a lark.

Dani:  Let’s touch on the ongoing subject of racism in this series and some of your other writing. What’s the motivation for using this theme in your fiction?

Maryann: That probably stems back in large part to my involvement in the civil rights movement as a young college student. (There, I've dated myself.) In working with people of all colors, I have discovered that we really can't experience the issues of prejudice and bigotry the way the other person does. I have a good friend who has had many discussions with me about this, and she said that even though I did experience some discrimination because of my background, it still did not put me in her shoes. She has also been very willing to acknowledge that racial prejudice is a two-way street. Until we can stop defining ourselves in terms of color, the prejudice is always at work, even in small ways. I find all of this incredibly interesting, which is why it does creep into my work.

Dani: Are you working on the third book now? You have a wicked set-up at the end of this book, and I’m anxious to see where it leads!

Maryann: Thanks, Dani. I am working on the third book. It is still early in the process, so I really need to buckle down and concentrate on finishing. It is called Out of Season and we will take a break from the serial killers. The set-up you mention does get followed up on in this next book.

Dani: I just got an email from LJ Sellers (who visits us tomorrow) asking readers to stop by her Facebook page and inviting them to leave a review of her latest book. I notice you only have one review on your Facebook page for Stalking Season. Do you ever ask your readers to do this? If so, how?

Maryann: Requesting reviews on Facebook has not been something I have ever tried. If I know someone has read the book, I do send an e-mail thanking them and asking if they could post a quick review. Obviously, that has not spurred a lot of response. (smile) I have also posted on Twitter how important reviews are to authors, but I have not specifically asked for a review of a particular book. I need to be more diligent about seeking reviews. And, of course, if anyone who reads this has read the book, I would love to have a review.

Dani:  If I wrote a quick review of Stalking Season, here’s what I’d say:
The ongoing personal issues between the two women partners, as well as the sexual misadventures of the young victims, probably make this novel more interesting to female readers. Much of the action is emotional on many levels, and certainly women will view the “gentlemen’s” club setting in a markedly different way to most men who might shrug and think, “What’s the big deal?” I found the themes particularly relevant to the modern world, where racism is often swept under the carpet, cheap sexual themes are ever-present in the media, and women are more objectified than ever. Each protagonist is likeable in her own way, although decidedly different and the development of the friendship between the two is well-crafted and heartening. It’s probably my favorite part of Miller’s writing, and makes me look forward to the next installment.
Maryann: You should go put that review on my Amazon page. (laughs)

Dani: By golly, I think I will. What about you, readers? Do you make it a point to leave an Amazon review on a book page? If you loved the book? If you hated it? How long does it take you to write an Amazon review, and what do you focus on? How do you determine the star rating for a book? Please leave us a comment!

Dani Greer is founding member of this blog, hopelessly trapped in a submissions mailbox sorting through manuscripts, dreaming of planting gardens and knitting socks, while watching with dismay as more snow begins to fall. Suffice it say say, she is ready for a change of season. Hey, that could be a title in Maryann's series! Aren't I clever?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Seven Proven Ways To Pack Suspense Into Your Stories

How many ways can you hang a page? Or a scene? Or a chapter?

Page hangers are a relic of the Victorian three-deck novel that was delivered in monthly installments. Each installment ended with a little advertisement for the next one. How ever would our hero escape from that flooded cellar and those hungry red-eyed rats? Yet even today they are a fixture in best-selling suspense novels.

Mistresses of melodrama Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell use so many page hangers - around three per scene - that they must pluck them out of a database.

Not every novel calls for hangers, of course, but the ploy is useful when the scene shifts into a different point of view or sub plot. It buys the author time. We’ll put up with a lot of digression if we're sure that the mystery posed by the page hanger will soon be resolved.

 Here are seven proven page hangers and how to use them in your story to create suspense.

1. The seamless transition

This is not so much a hanger as a link between sub-plots. One character sets the scene, suspensefully, for another character to appear. S/he then introduces a further plot thread.

‘“Uh, huh, look who’s coming.”

“I thought Bill was on holiday.”

“Never trust good news.”

The man who entered looked like a bank vault, but was not as pretty.’

At once, Bill is on the set and characterized as a Bad Guy. The transition is seamless. We can look forward to a new episode, filled with conflict.

2. The blatant hanger

‘If only I had known!’ Today this long-whiskered hanger is best reserved for children’s stories where its young audience might still find it thrilling. It’s also risky. It throws the reader out of the time line.

‘I kissed her hand. I waved her goodbye. I could not have known that it was the last time I would ever see her.’

Indeed, how does the narrator know it, unless the entire story is related from some perspective in the future? The reader will be confused if we haven’t made that perspective clear at the start.

3. The helpful environment

Any element in a scene set can be given a symbolic meaning to hint, in the last paragraph, at interesting things to come. Typically, this foreshadowing is ominous:
‘The clock began its relentless tick to midnight.’

But it doesn’t have to be: 
‘The sun emerged at last. It was going to be a perfect day.’

4. The rhetorical question

Highlight any intriguing question - it need not be integral to the plot - and let the narrator ask that question of themselves or others.

‘What could be so odd about a luxury villa on sale at a distress price that nobody would even inspect it, let alone buy it?’

What, indeed? The reader lusts to know.

5. Foreghosting by dialogue

‘Foreghosting’ is a subtle form of foreshadowing. In this case, a character might sound a warning or make a cryptic prophecy.

‘“I'll tell you one thing. You’re not going to like what you find in that room.”

What’s in that room? We’ll have to wait a few pages to find out.

6. The reader knows more than the character does

In any story, the reader usually knows more than the characters do. We have a wider perspective. So we shiver if a scene ends:

‘“Don’t go on Morder Fell at night, master Brown. It changes in odd ways after dark.”

Changes? I laughed. I was a seasoned fell walker and I had no patience with the superstitions of the village.’

We enjoy the bumptious ignorance of master Brown. We know, simply from the context of the story, that he will soon meet a dreadful fate on Morder Fell...

7. The 'Perils of Pauline' page hanger

When tension mounts, you can introduce a temporary pause just before the climax by dropping in variations of these all-purpose hangers - then inserting a double carriage return:

‘I thought the day could get no worse. I was wrong.’

‘I looked where he pointed and my world fell apart.’

'His next words sent ice up my spine.'

'Suddenly, she felt very afraid/lost her appetite/the day seemed very cold...'

Of course, if you overdo such hangers your character is going to appear permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Ration them to one per 20 pages!

Should we use page hangers?

The trick is to vary our page hangers so creatively that the reader doesn’t notice them. Otherwise, they’re counterproductive. ‘Here comes another hanger,’ our reader will sigh. And they’ll put our story down.

What page hangers do you enjoy reading - or writing? Which do you think are the most effective? Add a comment and share your thoughts.

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).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

How to Design Your Submission Package

Ideally, a novelist’s submission package is comprised of three elements: the query, the synopsis, and the sample pages. This post is not intended to help you write them. I’ll sprinkle in a few links from the BRP team to help with that. This is to help you understand how they work together to either disappoint or entice an agent.

Think these materials are too brief to fairly represent your project? Read on. You may be surprised how revealing they can be. Let’s look at each aspect of the package in terms of its function.


Query: The Hook
The query is the bedrock of the submission package. It may be all an agent ever sees, since many request a query only. Rest assured that if written well, it is enough to earn an invitation to send more.

In just a few paragraphs, this page suggests whether you are ready to make the transition from writer to published author. Its opening is your pitch, one or two concise, cogent paragraphs meant to align us with your protagonist's goal, hook us with its major complications, and suggest why any of this matters.

Note the italicized words.
  • Concise: In one or two paragraphs you must suggest the arc of your entire novel. An arc has spring and snap. Each word is vital; bait the hook and reel in the reader. Bloated, ineffective phrases will result in rejection.
  • Cogent: This is not the place to be cagey. Communicate your protagonist’s core problem and how you will complicate it. The words you choose will layer in your understanding about what sells in your genre. If this agent represents the genre, the words will speak to him.
  • Hook: Each sentence should build upon the last until you arrive at the story question. A hook does not need to be huge to be effective; it has to be barbed. Don’t waste space conveying plot. Your pitch has hit its mark when you’ve enticed the agent to read more.

Including word count proves you can produce within an acceptable target. Your bio will convey your understanding that writing careers are not plucked from thin air; they are built on platform.

Synopsis: Story Structure
The purpose of the synopsis is to assess your storytelling ability. It should expound upon elements of structure relevant for your project, such as the protagonist's desire, dramatic imperative, the stakes should he fail, a few of the increasingly troublesome complications keeping him from success, the conflicting desires of a small handful of supporting characters (only a few!), the dark moment when all seems lost, the climax when your protagonist must put his back to the wall to fight for this goal he desires most, and suggest the resolution. Convey all this in a way that suggests what kind of change is instigated by your story.

Your ability to do this in a brief span of pages suggests you haven’t really just opened a vein and let it bleed; you have crafted a salable story.

Sample Pages: Dramatization
The sample pages show that you know how to dramatize the story your synopsis promises to tell. Since they are typically the most oft-revised pages in your entire project, they should serve as a marquee for the quality of your writing.

This is not the place for inane dialogue or clutter. And you won’t hook the reader by making her guess what your book is going to be about. This is your story’s prime real estate. Start in scene. Using the conventions of your genre, orient your reader by giving a little information and withholding just enough to raise a question that will bond us to your protagonist and tip us into the next sentence. Then repeat over and over, seducing the reader into the text.

A good submission package may take you months or even years to develop. It is your one and only shot with this agent so is well worth your attention. If you are self-publishing you will need these materials for marketing, so begin work on them as soon as you start to have a handle on the overarching story, and continue to revise them through subsequent drafts. Once you are sure that you have promised an intriguing story—and delivered on that promise—you are ready to submit.

Do you have questions? What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the submission process?

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation service that offers submission package reviews. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks in January 2014. She blogs at The Fine Art of VisitingConnect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Is It a Love Story?

Genre is the promise you make to your reader to give them the kind of story they want without annoying them by giving them information they don’t want.

So what happens when your premise, that brilliant story seed that came to you in a dream or while pacing your kitchen at 3:00 a.m. on a sleepless night, doesn’t fit neatly into one of those broad categories? What if the term genre makes you feel slightly nauseated or makes you fear you’ll have to kill too many darlings? 

The answer lies in the story skeleton you select and how you layer the conflicts.

Let’s say you have a brilliant story idea about a scientist named Dick trying to win the heart of Sally, the girl of his dreams. Meanwhile, Jane asks him to solve the problem of a meteor streaking toward earth. In addition, Dick really hates Ted because Ted is eager to replace him as head of the space defense department. You want to cram all of this into one story. But what kind of story is it? 

That depends on how much page time you want to devote to each layer of conflict: the romance, the impending meteor strike, and the interdepartmental competition. 

To make it a romance, the love connection between Dick and Sally becomes the Overall Story Problem. Jane and the meteor strike provide either antagonistic or interpersonal conflict. Ted’s agenda provides either antagonistic or interpersonal conflict. Perhaps Ted also wants Sally. Perhaps Jane also wants Dick or wants Ted. Debating the merits of eternal love versus the eventuality of Earth’s annihilation could be Dick’s internal conflict. The main turning points and overall focus stay on Dick and Sally’s relationship with interpersonal and antagonistic conflicts creating obstacles along the way. The meteor strike and conflict between Ted and Dick are secondary issues. The reader is worried these complications will keep Dick and Sally from making it as a couple.

Let’s switch the focus and make it a Thriller. The meteor strike becomes the overall story problem which provides a ticking clock for tension. The romance angle and the competition angle make solving the overall story problem of the impending meteor strike harder for Dick solve. Everyone has a stake in or opinion on the meteor strike. The reader is worried that the people in the story won’t survive. If you make Ted the antagonist, he might think it is time for humans to be removed from the planet. Ted does not want Dick to thwart the meteor. Jane could become Dick's ally, but her efforts could hinder rather than help. Dick’s relationship with Sally could provide his internal dilemma. Their relationship may fray or unravel under the pressure. It’s hard to care about being a good partner when the world is about to end. The dire situation adds poignancy to their love story. The main turning points and overall focus stay on the meteor strike while the rest of the cast complicate things.

The story seed could be applied to many of the story skeletons. In addition, there are subgenres to consider. We will examine how Romance subgenres affect the story premise in my next post. Stay tuned to the Blood Red Pencil for more story analysis.

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.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Defining the Reader Part 2

Google Images
After you’ve thought about the qualities of your potential readers, you might want to stake out some of them before you begin to write for them. Here are some more ideas that might help you find out what your readers care about. 

Go out to coffee with a friend or acquaintance who typifies your ideal reader, and have an in-depth conversation with them about the subject of your writing. Ask them what they care about, in terms of your topic. What questions does he or she have? Does he or she have any objections to your position? What problems do they have that your writings might solve for them?  A good idea is to record these conversations (with their permission, of course.)

Or you might want to take surveys of your potential readership.  If you have an email distribution list, or a group of friends on a social networking site, or have joined clubs or other interest groups, ask these same kinds of questions of them.

Social networking sites can be very valuable for finding out what people are thinking. For instance, when I want to find out what my potential readers are thinking about a particular subject, I’ve learned that asking a question in my status line on Facebook or Twitter will bring me many opinions. Or I might ask that same question in a Facebook group that pertains to my subject.

Find out what your potential readers are thinking and wondering about. How will your writing help them? Ask them and find out!

Try to make your ideal readers as real to you as possible. You might want to browse through magazines and cut out pictures which represent who you are writing for, and put those pictures right by your computer, where you’ll see them. Or you can write about your readers – just a paragraph or two about who they are, what they care about, and what you want them to “get” from your writing, and why they would want to “get” it.  Anything that helps you visualize these people will help you write for them.

I sometimes have dialogues (imaginary) with my hoped-for readers. I talk to them as if they are sitting right in front of me. Even if my book is written in the narrative style, I’ll pretend that it isn’t, and address my reader as “you.” This makes them real to me.

Sometimes I even give them names, but don’t tell anybody.

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, February 22, 2013

Defining the Reader Part 1

Google Images
Last month I wrote about why it’s a good idea to write for your readers, not just for yourself. But how do you know who your readers will be? To figure out who is most likely to be interested in your subject, and who you want to be interested in your subject, you need to ask yourself some categorization questions. These questions can range from general and broad to as detailed as you want.

The two broadest and most general are:

1.  Gender.  Are your readers more likely to be men or women? There have been many things written about the differences in gender communication styles.

2.  Age.  Are your readers likely to be under thirty? Over fifty? Mid-life, seniors, Generation X, Y, or Z?
But don’t stop there. The more detailed you make the description of your ideal or most likely readers, the better you will be able to grab their attention. Here are some other categorizations you might want to ask yourself about the readers who will most likely read your book, or who you want to read your book.

  • Knowledge level.  Will your readers be experts, or conversant, with your subject, or are they from the general public whose knowledge is limited? 
  • Financial status.  Are your likely readers people with money or people who are struggling with money? Money is an important factor in people’s “care abouts”.
  • Education level.  Are your hoped-for readers mostly college educated or not? Do they have specialized knowledge, such as medical or legal knowledge?
  • Social status.  Are your readers members of a particular social class or sub-culture?  If so, is this status based along cultural or racial lines, or financial wherewithal?
  • Geographic location.  Are your readers from the Southern States or Eastern Seaboard or Great Midwest? Or even – are they mostly Americans?
  • Interests. What are your readers’ hobbies and favorite pastimes?  For example, a book about how to write one’s memoir would probably appeal to amateur genealogists. 
  • Political ideas. Are your readers right-wing conservatives or left-wing liberals or middle-of-the-road Independents?
And so on … are your readers outdoors people or couch potatoes? Engineers or artists?  Romantics or realists? Intellectuals or jocks? 

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

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Creating That Perfect Cover

Covers have been a recurring theme this month. I thought I'd share how my cover artist, Dave Fymbo,  and I worked to create the cover for Book 3 in my Pine Hills Police series, Saving Scott. I asked Dave to share his process, and this is what he said:

I start by asking clients what the book is about, what the tone should be, and if they have any images or colors in mind. Then I'll do an initial exploration. I search for free images that would work as well as lay down some text options. Sometimes the right font is the design. But usually the hardest part is finding the right image. For the first round I send between 5 and 10 options. Then I strip away all the text and go round and round until the imagery is perfect. This often includes compositing multiple photos, adjusting colors and contrast, and lighting effects.

(You'll notice he'd already inserted my name in these samples. That's because this is the 3rd book in my Pine Hill Police series, and having continuity is important so readers can identify both my name and the series. The font and placement is the same for all the books.)

We discussed these, and from this selection, we eliminated the scenics because they didn't fit the story(and the book takes place in the summer, so the snow wouldn't work). We also eliminated the chocolate, because although it fit the bakery, it wouldn't match the focus of the book, which was Scott's personal growth, not Ashley's bakery. I also told him I didn't want a "cheery" color scheme, because of the nature of the book.

Once I'd looked at his proposed images, I narrowed it down to three. By this time, I'd decided on the title, so Dave started working those treatments into his samples.

The bakery building and the street scene gave the cover a "cozy" feel, which wasn't appropriate for my romantic suspense genre. Dave worked on the remaining "possibles" and sent another round. I told him which background I preferred, and then he really got to work. In his words:

Once the client picks a background, then I'll start on text exploration. The right font is key. The text is really what separates a professionally designed cover from something that looks homemade. If you have smaller words like "the" or "in" it's helpful to make them smaller. Colors, shadows, 3D effects all help to make a title that pops off the page. Again, I like to send at least 5-10 font choices, so that authors can pick their favorites. And if they don't feel like any are working, I'll come up with 10 more.

And he means it. Dave has the patience of a saint, I swear. After we decided on the right image for the cover, he was willing to tweak things like colors, fonts, lighting, and teeny tiny nudges to the layout—I think we ended up with 16 variations before we agreed we'd found The Cover.

This is the final version:

Dave's philosophy: Because it takes a long time to write a book, the cover should match the writing effort. You can find more about Dave's work at his website.

 You can see all the Pine Hills Police Covers here.

One last tidbit - since covers are one facet of indie publishing, I thought I'd mention that I did a series of "lectures" at the Coffeetime Romance & More forum (and there's no genre discrimination--indie publishing is open to all). If you want to see them, you can find them here.

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, February 20, 2013

5 Tips to Effective Dialogue


Writing dialogue trips up the best of us, at one time or another. On the other hand, often comes the comment, “This author has a great ear for dialogue.” So how do we tame this beast and go from the former to the latter? A few tips will take us a long way here.

1. Formal and Stilted Dialogue, and everyone sounding the same. Often, without the tags, I cannot tell who’s talking, and I should be able to. For most new writers, this is almost a given, and I see all the time a variation of this:

“My name is Bill. What is your name?” he asked.
“My name is Theresa. Good to meet you, Bill,” she replied.
Yep, this is an exaggerated example, and for comparison:
“Name’s Bill,” he said, a grin spreading over his rugged face. “Yours?”
“Theresa. I know you from somewhere?”

I.e.—get something done in the dialogue with every spoken word as well.

Dialogue should rarely be in complete sentences—we just don’t talk that way. Unless, of course, you’re writing a very formal and stiff character, and this is a character trait. Otherwise, use more contractions, and we all have our favorite words and phrases, slang, etc. Put this in. Get quiet and listen to your characters speak, then write what you hear.

Now, on that note, be careful not to pepper the dialogue with too much dialect. Toss in just a smattering, to give a flavor for the speech patterns, but not so much as to make this unreadable. It's like putting salt into a stew—you want to put in enough to bring out the other flavors, but too much makes it inedible.

2. Look At. This almost universal foible will sink a scene.

He looked straight at her and said, “X.”

Not only does this fill the passage with wasted words, but a huge opportunity is missed here to evoke emotion and description. And often, ‘look at’ is the only action happening through the discussion.

Instead, use this space to show the non-viewpoint character—reinforce what he looks like; create his emotion:

His slate-gray eyes softened as he said, “X.” Or: His steely blue eyes narrowed at her in suspicion.
And in the latter, if you’ve couched the scene correctly, you can even omit the ‘in suspicion.’
Now, break that rule if whether he does or does not look her in the eyes is important—i.e., if he’s hiding something, or conversely, has the courage to do so under tough circumstances.

3. Tag Modifiers. Somewhat a continuation of above, the tags tell me rather than show me. If you must write, ‘she said anxiously,’ then the dialogue itself is lacking (and again, ‘told to’). I should get the anxiety from the spoken words, and the actions/mannerisms of the speaker: “He’s missing,” she said, wringing her well-manicured hands.

I’m not saying to never describe the dialogue, but rather to give me a picture of the emotion, rather than telling me about it (that old ‘show-don’t-tell’ rule popping up again). On the rare occasions where describing the dialogue is merited, do so up front, so that I can hear the tone as the words are spoken, not afterward: Softly he whispered, “You’re mine.”

4. Talking Heads. You know what this is like—we have pages and pages of dialogue, with no action in between, no notice of what’s going on around the characters, no expressions, mannerisms; no evoking characterization. I can’t help but see heads just floating in white space. Disconcerting with two folks talking, but downright frustrating in a group. Often I lose track of who’s talking when and especially if everyone sounds the same, I have no clue!

Instead, use this space to again reinforce your characters’ physical descriptions and emotions. We, as writers often have crystal-clear images of how our people look. But our readers need help—again, not a beating-over-the-head type help, but gentle reinforcement. And again, rather than telling me, show me.

Rather than, ‘He looked baffled as he said, “X,”’ which I cannot see, ‘His high forehead creased as his full lips went slack.’

And evoke emotion: “She left me.” He grabbed his wiry hair in both hands. “Why?”

Use it as well to let me know if an ill wind has just blown in from the sea, or the crowds have thinned as darkness falls, to evoke a sense of impending bad juju.

5. Ancillary Dialogue. Every single word counts, no matter what you’re writing, even the spoken ones. What I often see is this, at the end of a passage of dialogue:

“Let’s meet to talk about it.”
“Where do you want to meet?”
“How about the pub at three.”
“That sounds good.”
“See you there.”
“Bye.” Lucy hung up the phone and thought about how excited she was to see him again.

Aaaccckkk! I’m pulling my hair out by now :) Instead, paraphrase this, in one sentence:

They agreed to meet at the pub at three and Lucy looked heavenward and smiled.

Of course, a plethora of other dialogue problems exist, but these are the big five, the ones I see over and over, and trip up the best of us at times. Again, all words in whatever you’re writing count. Give them punch!

More tips on dialogue were shared by Jodie Renner in an earlier BRP Post.

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, February 19, 2013

Skype in the Classroom with Shaunda Kennedy Wenger

Kids love meeting authors, no doubt about it. That's great, because authors can serve as valuable tools for teachers by serving as exciting mentors for their language arts curriculum. But in today’s classrooms, shrinking budgets are making it more and more difficult for schools to bring authors on campus to meet and workshop with students. However, technologies like Skype are emerging as a bridge to help keep students and authors connected in the classroom.

When I Skyped with second and third grade classrooms in New Hampshire last year, it was easy. Neither I nor the students had to stray far from our home bases. The students gathered in their classroom, and I sat down at my office computer. Although this was a first time experience for both the hosting teacher and me, we both managed to pull it off without a hitch.

Today, I'll give a list of the tools that are needed by the hosting teacher. Get ready to write the following list down. You may be amazed at how simple it is to get an author visit going, especially when you realize your classroom already possesses most of the tools you need. You'll need:

1.      Internet access
2.      A desktop computer or laptop
3.      A webcam or document camera
4.      A Skype account which you create on your own for free at from the computer you will be using. This will entail coming up with a user name that an author or another classroom will use to "call" you when it is time to connect via your computers. Make sure you exchange user names with each other prior to the visit so that you can each go into your Skype account and add the other's user name as a contact prior to the visit.
5.      A digital projector that will project the classroom computer onto a large screen that all the students will be able to view.
6.      Sound/Speakers.

That's it! Don't forget to send copy or two of your books, of course. It will help your students get more out of the visit if they are familiar with the stories that the guest author has written.

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon - Making Connections for the Classroom (for both author and teacher).

Shaunda Kennedy Wenger is author of two middle-grade novels, The Ghost in Me and Reality Bites, Tales of a Half-Vampire, as well as an award-winning chapter book, Little Red Riding Hood, Into the Forest Again. She blogs at

Monday, February 18, 2013

What’s In a Name?

In my previous installment, I posed two 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? I’ll be dealing at length with Question A in up-coming posts by way of exploring the challenges of writing fantasy from a practical perspective. For the moment, I’m going to focus on Question B: Why are so many mainstream writers, critics, and academics so hostile to the genre?

Two key factors are involved in the answer: on the one hand, semantics; on the other, marketing pressures within the publishing industry during the genre’s infancy. In this month’s article, I propose to address the former factor, taking as my chapter and verse a quote from Shakespeare’s Juliet who asks plaintively, “What’s in a name?” (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.1-2)

At the University of St. Andrews in 1938, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered a now-famous essay titled On Fairy Stories. In this essay (later published in Tree and Leaf), he invoked the term fantasy to describe The Lord of the Rings and all other works of a similar nature. Tolkien equates fantasy with what he calls Sub-creation: the process whereby the writer creates a fully-realised secondary world within the cosmos of his own imagination. By identifying his work as fantasy, this reticent scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature gave name to the genre a quarter of a century before it was born.

And therein lies the rub. From an etymological perspective, Tolkien wasn’t speaking the same language as his 20th century colleagues in the fields of mainstream writing, scholarship, and publishing.

If you consult the OED, you discover that fantasy derives from the Latin word fantasia (appearance, image, perception). This word in turn harks back to the Greek verb stem phainein which translates roughly as “to bring to light” or “to effect an appearance”. Over time, these antique root words beget modern progeny: epiphany (revelation or insight), phantom (ghost, apparition), fantastic (incredible, amazing), fanciful (whimsical, vainly wishful), fantasize (to indulge in vain or idle daydreams), and fancy (to have an intense desire for something trifling, as in “I could really fancy a beer right now!”).

The above list of modern derivations demonstrates the process whereby the word fantasy gradually lost its original metaphysical significance and accumulated a range of slighter connotations until eventually it comes to represent the antithesis of rationalism. It’s therefore not surprising that in our present-day empirical materialist epoch, any work billed as “fantasy” is often dismissed out of hand by the Establishment as a piece of foolish nonsense, fit only for children - and adults too weak-minded to face up to the realities of the modern world in which personal worth is measured exclusively in terms of money and power.

This concluding observation anticipates speculation concerning the appeal of fantasy literature. The gift that Tolkien and his successors bring to the modern world is a kind of vision: the stubborn conviction that despite all appearances, there is always – however improbably – room for hope.

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

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Combat the Dangers of Sitting

An excellent interview with a young chiropractor who has developed a series of simple exercises any writer can use. Here's the fundamental exercise:


Friday, February 15, 2013

Between the Covers

This month we’ve shared covers that inspire potential readers to open the books they enclose and peer into their pages. From Morgan Mandel’s discussion of StephenWalker’s cover designs to the reveal of Kathryn Craft’s fabulous cover for her debut novel, The Art of Falling, due out in January 2014, we have explored the vital role of covers in marketing books — that first impression we never get a second chance to make.

However, February traditionally speaks of love rather than book covers. Television commercials tout gifts of flowers and chocolates for the object of one’s affections. And back when I was in elementary school, the Valentine’s Day party was one of those memorable traditions we looked forward to every year — but book covers? love? Am I digressing here? Or does a powerful connection exist between these seemingly unrelated topics?

As the saying goes, a book should not be judged by its cover. This works both ways: a gorgeous, gripping, or intriguing cover does not guarantee a book of equal quality, nor does a plain-Jane cover necessarily denote a dull, boring story. But since our goal is to sell books and create fans that can’t wait for our next novel to come out, we must wrap our great cover around an equally great story. Here’s where the love comes in. (No, I’m not talking about a steamy romance.)

Love of the true variety is warm, unselfish, and inspires us to give our best to those we love — even more than they expect from us. How does this apply to writing?

Do we love our story? If not, why are we writing it? Do we love our readers? We’d better if we want to sell books. Do we love the cover that’s going to be its calling card? If we do, we had better be certain the story that lies between its front and back lives up to its promise and our readers’ expectations?

Above is the original artwork for my first venture into the thriller realm. The title and author’s name will be red (color cloned from the graphic) with a white drop shadow. Artwork was done by a pro, and feedback from those who’ve seen it has been great. Now comes the tricky part: the book must live up to the promise of the cover. How will I accomplish that?

I must love my story enough to nurture it, tweak it, rework it as often as needed, and send it out for critical evaluation and correction (edit) before releasing the finished version to the reading public. The title must in some way tie into the dancers and the prone form in the pool of blood on the cover, as must the story. Also, I must love my readers enough to give them a compelling page-turner they can’t put down. I owe them that because I love that they have purchased my book, and I want them to find its interior as interesting as the fantastic cover — and more.

When you choose a book to read, what do you expect from the cover? When you create or select a cover for your novel, how do you relate it to your story?

Retired editor Linda Lane is returning to her first love — writing novels. She’s also opening up a cozy online bookstore where readers and writers meet. Other features of the store include a blog, Q and A sessions, serialized novels, mini-flash-fiction contests with prizes, beta readers or a writing group, and more. We’re still getting it together, but please stop by to visit. You’ll receive an invitation to our grand opening in a few weeks.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Importance of the Cover

When I wrote my first fiction book, Angel Sometimes, there were a lot of decisions I had to make.

First, I needed to decide if I would query it, ask the publisher of my three non-fiction books to handle it, or self-publish. At the time, I wanted to get the book up on Amazon as an e-book, so I decided to do it myself. For me, the most difficult part of the process wasn't writing or editing, or formatting it to meet the requirements.  I had to figure out how I wanted the cover to look.

Hours of many days were spent looking at pictures online, some free, others at a reasonable rate. I couldn’t find what I was looking for -- a flower garden.  I had a flower garden in mind because it plays an important role in the story. In the end, my husband and I drove to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and took pictures there. After a few hours of walking and snapping shots, I came home with one that I liked enough to use as the cover art.

That was the original cover for Angel Sometimes on Amazon. I say "original" because the more I looked at it, the clearer it became that it was not the right cover. Number one, there was no way for the reader to understand the significance of the garden until the end of the book. Number two, the picture seemed too soft for the book. Number three, it needed  a cover that was bolder, more eye-catching, and more "telling".
So I went back to the online sites for photographs. Only this time, I searched for water scenes or mermaids. There are mermaid photos, but most of them were women in a costume sitting on a rock. That wasn't what I wanted. I wanted her to be swimming. I also didn't want the reader to see the cover and feel that was the way Angel looked. I preferred readers to have their own vision of her.
I gave up and bought a beautiful underwater scene -- no mermaid. This was the cover I designed using that picture:

Ultimately, I decided I needed a professional cover artist, so I signed on with Patty G. Henderson.  
Luckily, Patty did not give up. She created a beautiful cover with a mermaid. She even manipulated the picture so that the mermaid's face was not visible. I loved the cover so much, I put it up as the e-book cover and used it for the paperback and my business cards.

Probably all of you are readers. How many books have you picked up then set down without even flipping through the pages -- because the cover did not appeal to you? I think the right cover is essential and can play as big a role as the back cover blurb in determining if the reader will buy the book.
What do you think? Do covers influence you to pick up the book? Buy the book? Do you turn to a professional to design your covers?

Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, and the Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services and writing coach. 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, February 13, 2013

Love is Ageless

Since tomorrow is Valentine's Day, I thought it would be fun to share some thoughts on love from one of our frequent guests at The Blood Red Pencil, Slim Randles. Slim writes a popular column, Home Country and offers it up just for pure enjoyment.

In the week before Valentine’s Day, Marvin Pincus had two new customers for his (free of charge, of course) love advice and fly-tying consultation services. He tied up a midge for one client, a salmon streamer wrapped in lead for another, and wished them well. This was his busy time, of course. He knew another would come in mid-May, in desperate anticipation of June weddings.

 “Marge,” he said, sipping coffee and looking out at the snow, “I think we need a vacation.”

Marjorie Pincus smiled. They’d both been retired and on permanent “vacation” for years now. “I’ll go if it means I don’t have to make the beds or do the dishes,” she said.

“The only thing is, what if someone needs the fly tying love advice service while we’re gone?”  This bothered Marvin. A man who spent more than 40 years being dependable every day can’t be expected to just turn it off like a faucet.

“Honey,” Marge said, “maybe you could designate someone to be on call? Like a doctor does? You know?”

Marvin thought about that and buttered some toast. “Only one I can think of who could tie flies well enough would be Delbert McLean, our chamber of commerce. Knowing him, instead of giving love advice, he’d talk them into starting a business here.”

“You have a point,” Marjorie said, laughing. “But what would be wrong with just going away for a week and letting people figure out their own love lives for a while?”

Marvin sat quietly and Marjorie looked at him and thought how maybe she should be his customer. She was under no illusion about her looks. She was old. Old and wrinkled. She was hoping Marvin wasn’t just married to her because he was used to it. She studied his face, and strangely, didn’t really notice his wrinkles.

Marvin smiled at Marjorie then. “Any vacation ideas?”

She shook her head. He saw in her the years of love and friendship, and he saw, right in front of him, the same gorgeous, sexy young woman he was once ready to kill for. She hadn’t changed a bit.

He took her hand. “How about we drive for a hundred miles, get a motel room, watch old movies and eat take-out pizza?”

“You’re on!”
Brought to you by A Cowboy’s Guide to Growing Up Right, for young people of all ages. Read a sample at 

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. Sometimes she plays on stage, but she does avoid computer games as much as possible.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Three Dynamic Ways to Open Your Story

‘My life began the day I killed my psychiatrist and started an illicit relationship with my tortoise.’

Are you still with me? Of course, you are. A story that opens with an intriguing mystery, even a silly one, is a story that gets read. And we don’t have a second chance. The first paragraph is the advertisement for our story. Imagine if an advertiser started with his name, the dimensions of his factory and the biography of his parents. Would we buy his product? Hm…

A lot of stories are like that. The writer ‘eases us in’ with a long slab of scene setting or character description. Meanwhile, where’s the story? The reason to read on? Here are three tested ways to open a story and persuade the reader to read on:

 1. Drop in a time bomb.

Every good story or novel hinges upon one key incident. Maybe our character chances upon buried Nazi gold, or Jane discovers her husband is unfaithful, or a child witnesses something she was not supposed to see. Without that incident there is no story. Imply it in the first chapter or, in a short story, the very first scene. Otherwise, what’s the story all about? Why should the reader read it?

‘Raoul was a strong man, made wiry by forty years in the mountains. Still, he sweated as he dragged the boxes into the cave. Night had fallen by the time he had buried them in debris and swept away his footprints. The cave would keep its secrets, he thought. Provided others did. His face grew grim.’ 

Now the fuse has been lit. Will the cave ‘keep its secrets’? Will someone reveal them? The opener has shaped, suspensefully, the story to come.

2. Introduce an emotional conflict quickly.

A story grips us when it stirs us emotionally and also contains uncertainty from the outset. Suspense means ‘uncertainty’ (literally, ‘hanging between two places’). Get that suspense into the first fifty words.

‘Joe had never been late for dinner before. Storm or blizzard, you could set your watch by him. 6pm. The table set, the ketchup bottles all in place, and Joe saying grace. Now it was 7.10pm. She stared at an empty chair and waited for the phone to ring.’

Something has happened to Joe. What? We’ve also learned a little about Joe’s character, obliquely. No need to tell us he’s a Christian, a stolid man with old-time virtues. We can infer it.

3. Enchant the reader.

If your story rests not on a mystery or dramatic conflict but on, say, the delicate interplay of relationships between characters it must still enchant the reader from paragraph one.

‘You cannot have a murder without a body, can you? No. Or so I had always thought, being a coroner. But what do coroners know about the many ways of dying? They know only of bodies. Dying is a separate art.’

That opener was written by one of my students. It’s poetic but engaging. The reader concludes ‘this author can write!’ And they read on.

The one big mistake that writers make with openers.

Perhaps the greatest error that new writers make is to bury a potentially good opener deep, deep in the story. In an analysis of some 3500 stories submitted to the Writers’ Village short fiction contest across three years, 38% lost points because the opener arrived too late.

‘What did you do with the body after you removed the hands?’

That intriguing line, adapted from an actual entry, summed up the entire plot, but it came on page five after a turgid preamble. What a great opener it might have made! The story could then have flashed back to the discovery of the body, the police chase and the arrest of the killer. And the close might have returned to that first chilling question to round off the story in a satisfying way.

Often the simplest way to improve a story is to find the most dramatic line or passage you’ve already written, wrench it out of the narrative sequence and put it at the start. Then link it back to the ensuing scenes. One simple way to link two scenes is to echo some key theme or phrase. Remember our previous example?

‘Dying is a separate art.

But it was not of bodies I was thinking that bright spring morning in March 1598, merely my breakfast. I had just started upon it when I was startled by a loud knock at the door of my apothecary shop. [Etc]’

The first passage is a prelude to the story, a reflection. Its significance does not become apparent for several pages. But the word ‘dying’ links it to the next passage (‘bodies’). The transition is seamless.

Unless you have a strong opener, an ‘ad’ for your story, nobody will discover your product. Grip us in the first few words and maybe we’ll buy it!

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).

Monday, February 11, 2013

Breaking the Literary Atrophy

Atrophy: decrease in size or wasting away of a body part or tissue ~

When we hear or read the word atrophy, we tend to think about muscles . . . parts of the body as the definition above suggests.

But what about writing? Can't it suffer from atrophy, too?

Surely, for some writers, there are moments (sometimes long stretches of moments) in which no writing gets done. We might call it writer's block. We might call it focusing on work and family and whatever else is on the list that goes before writing, but the fact remains, the word count is at a standstill.

There are some of us that can easily jump back into writer mode as if we never left, but there are others who find coming back to the page a daunting task. It's as if they lost the know-how of writing. Lost the joy and wonder of it as well.

I call this Literary Atrophy: the decrease in size or wasting away of writing in one's life.

The MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia suggests that to treat muscle atrophy, an individual should develop "an exercise program (under the direction of a therapist or doctor)" ("Muscle Atrophy").

To treat literary atrophy, writers should develop a program as well. Here are a few steps to help in doing so.

Step One: Get an accountability partner. Just as a patient should talk with a therapist or doctor, a writer should talk with someone who can help them back into their writing. This can be a fellow writer, a mentor, a writing group, a critique group. It should be someone you trust with your thoughts and your work and someone who is not going to let your writing muscle languish further. You need, in short, a drill sergeant. They should be tough . . . yet loving. Find this person, talk briefly to him/her about your writing woes, but mostly spend time talking about what you want to do writing wise, what time you have to write, and what role you want your partner to play in this journey.

Step Two: Find your writing "retreat". Almost three years ago, Kathryn Haueisen Cashen wrote "Create Your Own Mini-Writing Retreat" for Writer's Digest, and even now, the advice in it is important for most writers. Often, to hear "retreat" is to think about week long stays at places away from home where you are focused on all aspects of writing. Most of the time, we don't have the time for week long stays. According to Cashen, we can plan mini retreats. We can go to our favorite cafe. The library. Set up a spot in our home dedicated just for writing. Spend a day, or two, at a local hotel. The point is to find a place, a regular place, where you can bring all your writing essentials and where you will be comfortable writing.

Step Three: Devise a short-term writing plan. If you haven't exercised in five years, you wouldn't go to the gym, put 500 pounds on a weight bench, and try to lift it, would you? (I hope not). Why would you then develop such grandiose expectations for your writing if it's been a long time since you've written? With your accountability partner, talk about your plan. Decide on a length of time. Two weeks would be good. Decide on your retreat locale. Decide on what you will write, when you will write, and what goals you are setting in terms of how much you will write. Also, this is a time to think about other aspects of writing. Perhaps your goal is to start submitting to agents. If so, then time to research agents would be important. If you plan to work on a new writing project, perhaps you need to schedule in your research time on settings, characters, etc. These things and others like creating character charts and plotting and outlining are important to consider for your plan, too.

Step Four: Assess plan with accountability partner. After the plan has concluded, assess what transpired. Did you complete your goal(s)? What worked and what didn't work throughout the plan to help facilitate the results achieved? How can you eliminate the negatives and accentuate the positives?

Step Five: Revise plan and move forward with regular writing and assessment. The ultimate goal is to strengthen the writing muscle, and to do so, you need a regular writing program and assessment of that program.

As you work to break your literary atrophy, don't forget to add one other thing to this process: REWARDS. What you are doing (or are about to do) is no small task. Sometimes, the road back to smooth, steady, regular writing is bumpy with many side streets to distract you. As you move forward and strengthen your writing muscle, as you complete a writing to-do, be good to yourself, treat yourself. It will keep you happy and positive, and ultimately, that will keep you wanting to come back to the page.

Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both academically and creatively while also interviewing women writers on her popular blog, ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. In 2012, her second mystery, Into the Web and her short story "I Wanna Get Off Here" (in the short story collection, The Corner Cafe) were published. Her next release, Saying No to the Big O, will be published in mid-February. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University ... and trying to find the time to WRITE.