Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The April Fool

Rider-Waite Tarot
Am I the only Aprilian morosoph here? Probably not, but my reasons are likely crazier than most.  Once again I’ve decided to participate in the A-Z Blogging Challenge. With more than 1,300 other bloggers, I’ll be posting daily on topics following the alphabet from day-to-day. You can see what I have to say starting tomorrow at my News From Nowhere blog.

Blogging that much and that often is intense, but I decided to add to the craziness by also joining Camp NaNoWriMo for another 50,000 word novel-writing challenge. A few of my friends in the Colorado Writers and Publishers group on Facebook have a cabin at the Camp and we’ll all plow through together, insane fools that we are. Specifically, my posts will talk about the novel and how the writing is coming along.

In truth, all this writing is less about playing the fool than putting a stop to months of fooling around. I haven’t written anything serious since before Christmas, and as I was brainstorming topics for the A-Z Challenge, words like aging and dying seemed to hit home… hard. I’ll write more about those subjects and my feelings as well as how it’s going throughout the month, so bookmark my blog and come leave me some comments!  You can also follow along at Facebook and Twitter.

What about you, friends? Any interesting April writing projects on your desk? Do you find that winter coming to an end changes your focus? Are you more inclined to write, or are you suffering from spring fever as the days warm up? Do tell!

Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil. She's smiling now, but wait until the end of April!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Are You In or Out of Control?

Are you out of control? I confess that in some ways, I am. In others, I'm not. 

Take for example, my dog, Rascal. I devised a system to get her to go out to do her duty. I put a treat or two on the floor leading to the door, and then she willingly trots into the backyard. So, I've trained her to go out, or have I? Maybe she's trained me to give her treats.

One more animal example. Once again, this year in Illinois, we had a cold, snowy winter. In the morning, I'd let Rascal into the yard, then I'd venture out and feed the birds and squirrels with crumbled up, unsalted corn chips placed on the patio and under the tree. It's now spring, and the snow is almost gone. I'm guessing there's more natural food around now for my yard buddies. Still, the birds come to the patio in the morning to get their chips, and I  can't resist feeding them.

Then, the funniest thing of all, when I let the dog out, one particular squirrel dashes across the phone wires at record speed, then down the post, into the backyard, and over to the tree. It's figured out that once Rascal appears, food will be near. I can't bear to disappoint the critter, so I toss around some chips for it. So, I ask you, have I trained the squirrel, or has it trained me?

Enough about animals. Now, about writing. I self-publish, which affords me control over when, where, and how my books are released. I can make my own covers, choose my editor, my venues, what kind of books I write, and how long they are.

However, am I really in control? Often, I spend too much time on Facebook, Twitter, and e-mails, and not as much time writing. Also, when I feel a self-made pressure to get down to writing, suddenly I notice projects that really need doing around the house. Believe me, there are plenty, since my control over the house also fluctuates.

Yes, I often veer onto other paths, instead of writing. Now, I ask you, does that mean I have no discipline, and am out of control? Or, does that mean, I'm actually in control of my writing life, and have the liberty to do what I wish? This week, I'm racing to get Easter Basket, my latest novel, ready on time for Easter.

Will I make it? If I don't, I still have the option of changing the text on the cover and making it a Mother's Day book, which would work just as well in this case. That's the beauty of self-publishing.

Why am I mentioning all this? You may not know it, but today is National I Am in Control Day, a time to take stock of how much in control we are, and what we can do to gain a semblance of control in our lives.

Are you in or out of control? I'd love to hear your examples, either about writing or otherwise.

Experience the diversity and versatility of Morgan Mandel. Romantic Comedies: Her Handyman, its sequel, A Perfect Angelstandalone reality show romance; Girl of My Dreams.  Thriller: Forever Young: Blessing or Curse,its sequel: the Blessing or Curse CollectionRomantic suspense: Killer CareerMystery:Two Wrongs. Short  and Sweet   Romance: Christmas   Carol.  Twitter:@MorganMandel Websites: Morgan Mandel.Com    Morgan Does Chick Lit.Com.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The 3 Cs of Successful Authors

There are thousands of people the world over eager to write stories, some because they want a creative form of expression or to communicate a message, others because they think it is a lottery ticket to fame and fortune.

There are three main traits I believe a writer must possess to have a glimmer of a chance of winning that elusive ticket.

1. Creativity

You must possess an original mind to come up with new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no storyteller has ever gone before. A good writer has a unique way of expressing himself with words and a facility for language. You can lack this trait and still write a pedestrian story, rarely will it be a memorable one.

2. Curiosity

I’ve met people who seem to completely lack curiosity about other people and the world around them. Their world must be very … beige.

Sadly, I’ve read a few manuscripts by these people. It wasn't  pleasant.

Being a writer is about asking questions, getting underneath the skin of other people, and examining what makes them tick. It is about posing and answering provocative questions.

It is about looking at the world (and fictional worlds) with a critical eye, taking in the colors and textures, the absurdities and the pathos and being able to illustrate them with your word brush.

You can write a book without it, but it will read like an instruction manual.

3. Commitment

Writing, revising, editing, proofreading, publishing or self-publishing, and promoting are excruciating and tedious. So many people start a book then stall or quit when they realize how much of their time and soul they must invest.

Being an author requires you to do things that may not be in your nature to do, such as self-promotion and donning a public persona. You have to become a business person and build “a brand.” You have to glad-hand and network. It would be nice if it was just about the work and if that work translated into instant money and fame. It would be lovely if an agent just happend to discover you sitting on a bench in Central park, drawn to your inherent wit without having read a word of your masterpiece. Call me when that happens. I will alert the media!

A writer can spend years on a story that ultimately ends up in the trash bin. It takes a lot of courage and dedication to finish a project when there is no guarantee it will sell or sell well.

You have to believe the time was worth it and find the exercise enriching regardless of the outcome. You need to believe that it was time well spent: time you could have been with your friends and family, participating in hobbies, traveling the world, or binge-watching favorite television shows.

It is my belief that only when these three traits come together that a dabbler becomes a serious contender.

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 DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

It's About Conflict

From the New Yorker
I saw this cartoon from the New Yorker and it reminded me of an underlying theme in so many of the panels I attended at the recent Left Coast Crime conference. LCC is more reader-oriented rather than craft-oriented, but even in the panels targeting readers, there were writing tips hidden amongst the panelists’ responses. One repeating theme was conflict. Without conflict, there’s no story, so creating conflict is obviously any author’s challenge.

For example, the first panel I attended was called Couples Solving Crimes, and the second was Guns and Roses: Romantic Elements in Crime Fiction. In the first panel, the couples involved weren’t necessarily working as partners, which one might have expected in a mystery crime panel. Instead, they were often partners off the job, or had jobs that brought them together. But each panelist did mention that having dual protagonists, or a protagonist and a sidekick, was a way to increase the conflicts in the books. You can have conflicts between partners, conflicts of personalities, and conflicts about their jobs.

The second panel was made up of authors whose characters in the books were in romantic relationships, but again, each panelist stressed that having a relationship could add conflict to the stories.

In a third panel, Do the Twist: Keep the Audience Guessing, the topic of conflict again was a major focus. Readers like plot twists. The best endings are completely unexpected but inevitable. A “Why didn’t I see that?” is what an author loves to hear. Twists are obstacles, and obstacles are conflict.

I remember one of my first critique group leaders who, when I’d been writing and submitting chapters of my first book, Finding Sarah, said, “Oh, don’t let anything bad happen to Sarah. I like her.” Needless to say, I left that group in a hurry.

Tension and conflict keep the reader turning pages, and that’s what it’s all about. Character A wants X. What happens if he can’t get it? What happens if he can? There are three routes you can take. One, he gets what he wants, which pretty much ends the conflict. Two, he can’t get what he wants, which will send him in another direction. But the best source of conflict is for the answer to be, "yes, but."  Give the character a choice, and have one be, “It sucks,” and the other, “It’s suckier.” He wants a raise to pay for his mother’s medical expenses. Okay, give it to him. But in order to get the raise, he has to work on weekends, which are the only days he can see his children. What does he choose?

What kinds of conflicts will keep you turning pages? What books have you read (or television shows have you watched) that are more like the cartoon in this post?

And, since I have a new release, there's a giveaway over at my blog good from today until April 1st (no joke), along with a chance for you to do something for a good cause. Hope you'll check it out.

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, March 25, 2015

Can We All Just Behave?

Last month here at The Blood-Red Pencil I wrote about moral and ethical lines that we writers need to consider before we cross them just to make a buck. We had a great discussion about what we are comfortable writing, as well as our responsibility to consider what we're contributing to society with our work.

One of our regular BRP contributors, Diana Hurwitz, had this to say on the topic:
Stories have the power to shape the collective consciousness. You can write with brutal honesty about what has happened and what could happen without suggesting that it should happen. Your work has a slant - perhaps a subliminal one. As a writer, you should at least be aware of the message you send and make sure it is the one you intended.
How we use our words is indeed important, and it is also important to consider how we act as professional writers. Addressing that need to always put a professional foot forward, was an interesting article on Writer Unboxed, written by Katharine Grubb. She asked some ethical questions that focus  on how writers present themselves and handle business dealings, such as:
  • Are we honest in all our financial business dealings?
  • Do we refrain from slamming another author's work?
  • Do we publicly bemoan every negative review?
  • Do we love our readers?
On that last point, Katharine said:
When we slip into anything less than love for our reader we turn the beautiful into the ugly.
I liked that reminder that we need to have that kind of respect for the people who read our books.

In the blog piece, Katharine linked to the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) - a professional association for authors who self-publish, and the organization fosters ethics and excellence in self-publishing. One of their campaigns is encouraging ethical behaviors, and authors can  make a pledge to keep those high standards. There's even a neat badge you can put on your website.

To join the campaign, a writer agrees to the following code of behavior:
When I market my books, I put my readers first. This means that I don’t engage in any practices that have the effect of misleading the readers/buyers of my books. I behave professionally online and offline when it comes to the following practices in my writing life:
The campaign has a list of eight ways to adhere to this code covering courtesy, respect, and honesty.

I'll have to admit that I found it a bit disheartening that writers need to be reminded of these things, but then I remembered that there have always been some writers who just don't seem to get it when it comes to professionalism. Most notable are the authors who have used interviews and social media to rant about a negative review or make themselves appear more important than they really are. On the ListVerse website is a list of ten writers who took themselves too seriously. Among them are Nicholas Sparks, Anne Rice, and Jacqueline Howett.

Earlier on there was Gore Vidal, who publicly shared his hatred of so many people including Joyce Carol Oates, journalists in general, Henry Miller and Walt Whitman. He was notoriously outspoken in interviews and once told William F. Buckley, junior to shut up. L. Ron Hubbard was noted for fabricating his past, and Norman Mailer was no saint. He stabbed his wife, then allegedly told a friend, "Let the bitch die."

Imagine how those bad boys could have burned up the Twitter feed.

In this age of instant everything, it is too easy to dash off some Tweet or comment on Facebook that may come back to bite us in the butt. What do you do to resist that impulse? Have you ever not resisted the impulse? What is your response to a negative comment or review of your work?
Posted by Maryann Miller - novelist, screenwriter, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent mystery, Doubletake, was chosen as the Best Mystery for 2015 by the Texas Association of Authors. She also writes the critically acclaimed Seasons Mystery Series. All of her books are available as e-books and as paperbacks, and a complete listing can be found on the books page of her website. For information about her editing services, 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. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Using the Calendar for Inspiration

Dave from MorgueFile
With the Ides of March nine days past and spring having arrived on the twentieth, we find a wealth of grist for our writing mills. Did you know the assassination of Julius Caesar isn’t the only marker that establishes March 15 as a date in infamy? “Beware the Ides of March,” according to the Smithsonian, extends well beyond Caesar’s murder to our present day. Their list of same-date tragedies includes some surprising entries.

French raided southern England in 1360.

A Samoan cyclone in 1889 smashed three U.S. and three German warships in the harbor at Apia. Over 200 soldiers died.

In 1917 Russia’s Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne, making way for Bolshevik rule and setting the stage for the execution of his family.

In 1939 the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia, effectively eliminating it as a country.

A disastrous blizzard in 1941 killed 60 people in North Dakota and Minnesota and another six in Canada.

In 1952 a deluge pounded the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean and set a world record of 73.62 inches of rain in 24 hours.

In 1988, a NASA report indicated the Northern Hemisphere’s ozone layer was disappearing at three times the expected rate.

The World Health Organization in 2003 issued a global health alert over the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak that struck more than 8000 people and killed 774.

These catastrophes may seem more than enough to suggest skipping March 15 altogether, but they also till fertile soil for the creation of countless stories. From historical fiction (or fact) to modern thrillers, powerful and poignant characters could come to life amidst these tragedies.

Badeenjuh from MorgueFile
So we move into spring. This season of renewal stands out as the one most often anticipated with nostalgic longing and welcomed with hopeful hearts. While its official date is March 20, it can seem to come later for some of us above the equator. Have you heard of springtime in the Rockies? Beautiful as it can be, it often brings the heaviest snows of the year.

Do you feel the beginnings of a story here? What would prevent spring’s fulfilling its promise of hope and renewal? Could our protagonist from the sunny South get lost in one of those snows? Might the season mark the death or departure of a loved one? What if a farmer on land homesteaded by his family a century ago faces foreclosure instead of planting season because of the ongoing drought?

Do you use dates, observances, or other familiar points of reference to ground your stories and draw your readers in? Can you extend these to your marketing plan and bring in a new audience?  

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Maguffin Plot Device

So, what is a Maguffin, you might ask, as I did when I first heard the word. Is it some kind of puffin  or penguin-like animal? Or maybe a “Big Mac” sized muffin?

The term appears to have originated in 20th-century filmmaking, and was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s who described a Maguffin as that object of desire everyone in the story wants, but whose only purpose is to bring the protagonists and antagonists together.

A Maguffin (often spelled "MacGuffin" or "McGuffin") is a plot device, something in the plot that someone (or everyone) is after, making it a focal point of the story. It may be a secret that motivates the villains. A common Maguffin story setup can be summarized as "Quick! We must find X before they do!"

The most common type of Maguffin is an object, place or person. However, a Maguffin can sometimes take a more abstract form, such as money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or even something that is entirely unexplained, as long as it strongly motivates key characters within the structure of the plot. The Maguffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers.

The Maltese Falcon is such a device, as is the stone in Romancing the Stone, The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the One Ring in Tolkien's trilogy.

Here are some examples of others:
  • The crystal egg in Risky Business. It has little or nothing to do with the story, but it is always prominent in Tom Cruise's character's mind because any damage to the egg will tip off his parents as to his antics and adventures while they are out of town, so he gets into a lot of other trouble trying to keep the egg safe and in his possession. 
  •  The "Unknown" grave filled with gold in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  Most Maguffins are moveable objects (ala the Maltese Falcon), but there are plenty of breathing and unmovable Maguffins as well (gold mines, people and the like). 
  •  R2-D2 in Star Wars is the main driving force of the movie, the object of everyone’s search.
  • The meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane
The term has also lent itself to a number of "in" jokes. In Mel Brooks's High Anxiety, which parodies many Hitchcock films, a minor plot point is advanced by a mysterious phone call from a "Mr. MacGuffin". In one episode of Due South, the MacGuffin is a matchbook that makes its way around the episode, going from character to character. The hotel maid in this episode is named Mrs. McGuffin, and earlier in the episode, a mall security guard's name is Niffug, C.M. (McGuffin, spelled backwards). Also, the basement janitor in the hotel in part 1 is named Mac Guff.

What is the Maguffin in your story?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, have just been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Grappling with the Facts

Photo by Reck via Flickr
Even experienced authors struggle with exposition from time to time. To begin with, there are issues having to do with ratio and proportion.

Provide too little expository information, and your story will lack texture. Provide too much (or provide the wrong kind), and you risk weighing down the narrative with excess baggage.1 Writers get migraines trying to decide which facts are vital to story development, and which facts can be left on the cutting room floor.

Next there’s the issue of expository technique. The most straightforward tactic is reportage. With this method, the writer uses authorial overvoice to provide the reader with compact parcels, as needed to move the narrative along A typical example of reportage-in-action would read something like this:
Meg and Walter Clancy had three children. Laurel and Lucy were normal healthy kids, but Jeb, the youngest, was diabetic. He had to have a special diet and needed two insulin injections a day just to stay alive. It annoyed Walter that Jeb was too small and weak to play football. It also annoyed him that Meg was always worrying about the boy. He didn’t think Jeb would ever be good for anything.
This paragraph gives us plenty of story-relevant information. Unfortunately, it’s also visible from space as an “info-dump”. Ideally, you don’t want your readers to notice what you’re up to. So let’s explore some alternative approaches.

One alternative option is to use targeted scripting. In the version given below, the writer employs dialogue as a strategic device for layering in information.
“Walter, where’s Jeb?” called Meg.

Eyes on the TV, her husband grunted, “Most likely plastering around on his computer.”

“Will you call him down? Dinner’s almost ready, and he needs his insulin before I serve up.”

“What, right now? The Cowboys are on the goal line.”

Their older daughter Laurel called through from the study, “It’s ok, Mom. I’ll do it.”

Ten minutes later, the Clancy family was gathered round the table. Walter stared at his plate. “What the hell is this?”

Their younger daughter Lucy piped up. “Butternut squash risotto.”

“It’s one of Jeb’s favorites,” Meg explained.

“Well, it’s not one of mine,” growled Walter. “I’m off to get myself a Big Mac and a chocolate milkshake. Anybody else want to come? No? Fine, I’ll see you later.”
Another option is to use set design. Here, the writer surrounds a point-of-view character with scenery and props that will nudge that character’s thoughts in the right direction to “drip-feed” expository information:
Meg Clancy was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when she heard her husband’s old Plymouth pull into the driveway. A moment later, the door from the carport flew open, and the twins bounced in, still in their cheerleading outfits. “How was the game?” asked Meg.

“We lost,” began Lucy.

“But Jay and Fraser played great,” finished Laurel cheerfully.

Walt Clancy appeared behind them. “The team needs a new coach,” he grumbled.

Jeb trailed in after his dad. He looked pale and droopy. Meg stiffened involuntarily. “Are you feeling low?” she asked.

“I’m ok.”

“Do a blood test. The kit’s beside the fruit bowl.”

Jeb wordlessly retrieved the black leather case that held the necessary apparatus Meg watched out of the corner of her eye as he pricked the tip of one finger, squeezed a bead of blood onto a testing strip, and inserted it into the small glucose monitor. “Six point three,” he reported.

That wasn’t too bad. No need to worry – for the time being, anyway... Meg heaved an inward sigh, remembering how easy life used to be before the diabetes kicked in - back when Jeb could eat ice cream and chocolate bars just like anybody else, and didn’t have to take insulin shots twice a day.

Being a diabetic was a rotten way to live. But the only alternative was being dead.
Of the three methods of exposition illustrated above, reportage is certainly the most efficient. The two alternative methods, however, yield much more engaging results.


1If you’ve done a lot of research, you may be tempted to demonstrate the fact by packing the text with incidental information. If this happens, remind yourself that exposition should serve the story, not the other way around.

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Make Me Laugh

Photo from the archive of American Television
According to the calendar I was given, today is "Let's Laugh Day." I guess that means I'm supposed to either write something funny or talk about writing funny. The former would be a post that sucks more than a vacuum cleaner. I'm not sure I can do the latter a whole lot of justice, either, but I'm game.

While I do have a sense of humor, I don't/can't write comedy. Sure, my characters joke around a bit, and I hope my readers get a smile or two, but to bill my books as humorous fiction would end up in more 1 star reviews than [insert metaphor here.]

Writing humor is one of the places where using metaphors, clichés, and the like becomes an asset rather than a liability. Comparisons can work to your advantage. I saw this quote the other day: "Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter. There are 140 characters and terrible things are always happening." Even though I've never watched Game of Thrones (and, as an aside, at this point I wish I did get HBO, because my daughter was an extra in one of the episodes this season), I 'get' the humor.

Insider jokes can work to a degree. Movie examples: The scene in the Indiana Jones movie where Indy reaches for his whip, but it’s not there, so he just shoots the guy. If you hadn’t seen the setup in the other movie, it wouldn’t have been funny. Or in Mr. Baseball, where Tom Selleck is confronted with a platter of sushi and decides that the little mound of green stuff is the safest way to begin. Sushi wasn’t so popular when that movie first came out, and you could tell who in the audience was ‘in’ on the setup by the pre-reaction gasps.

But writing humor is hard. When we watch a comedian, we have the voice inflection, body language, facial expressions, and timing to help sell the schtick. When the robber says to Jack Benny, "Your money or your life" and he tilts his head, lifts his hands, and waits for several long seconds before saying, "I'm thinking," the humor is front and center. Writing denies us that luxury.

Janet Evanovich, well-known for her humorous Stephanie Plum series, said, “I refuse to be politically correct.” … "We can use humor to say things that may be too painful to say any other way.” And, speaking of Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum series: I handed my husband one of her books and said, "You might like this." Which led to us having to invoke the "No reading Janet Evanovich in bed" rule, because bursting out laughing kept waking the other of us.

And, although my husband and I both found Evanovich funny, our basic ideas of humor are quite different. He orders slapstick comedies from Netflix, watches reruns of the Three Stooges, and doesn't see anything funny in a romantic comedy. I'll try to explain why I've laughed so hard I'm crying at something I've watched on television, and he looks at me in total confusion. And, frankly, I doubt he'd have though it was funny even if he'd seen it himself.

Comedy uses surprise. Who didn't laugh when Grandma Mazur shot the chicken on the dining room table? Or when the character in the beauty salon says, "I have a gun," and six old ladies under hair driers pull weapons from their purses?

But no matter what, whether your humor works or it doesn't, the story has to work.

What books have you read that you've found funny? Which ones were billed as funny, but you didn't see the humor?

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, March 18, 2015

Novels with a Message

As a writer or reader, how do you feel about novels with a message? A writer aims to tell a good story to entertain, but do you tackle subject matters that have socially conscious significance? As a reader, do you prefer pure entertainment without a brain strain, or do you enjoy reading a book that makes you think? I’m not sure I’ve incorporated “issues” in my books intentionally, but every one of them makes a statement about something important, at least to me.

I’ve written seven books, an eighth coming out soon, and I’ve dealt with an array of topics that I hope causes people to think. Greed is a big story motivator for me because it drives people to do things they might not do if money or power wasn’t involved.

The best compliment I ever received about any of my books came from a woman who lives with a man who spent ten years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, even though DNA at the scene of the crime didn’t match his. He was convicted on bite marks. Yes, the victim was bitten, and the suspect’s teeth matched the bite. The bite “expert” was the only witness, and he was paid $60,000 for his testimony. After ten years in prison, my e-mailer’s partner was exonerated after the real killer committed another crime, leaving the telltale DNA.

The woman told me that I absolutely nailed the character in my book, Murder Déjà Vu. My protagonist, Reece Daughtry, spent fifteen years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was fast-tracked to prison on circumstantial evidence presented by an aggressive district attorney eager to close the case on the heinous crime. Oh, and maybe to make a name for himself. After being released, Daughtry suffers from a form of PTSD, and my e-mailer said she recognized the symptoms.

We know now that this happens all the time. Being able to match saved DNA from crimes to a national data bank has helped free countless individuals serving unwarranted sentences. Organizations such as The Innocence Project have sprung up to fight for those individuals wrongly accused.

I’ve tackled other subjects too. My Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series is a mother lode of social consciousness. One reviewer of Mind Games, the first book in the series, chided me for depicting the racism Diana’s father exhibits toward Diana’s love interest, New Orleans police lieutenant Ernie Lucier, because he’s multiracial. The reader said it was an antiquated portrayal. Uh, really? I don’t think I have to elaborate on that one, considering what’s going on in this country today. My other books tackle such issues as a biased justice system, disability, billionaires trying to control the world, and child abuse. Not light reading, for sure.

Incorporating controversial topics wrapped in a page-turning story of fiction can be tricky. The objective is to present the subject without beating the reader over the head or preaching.

As writers or readers, how do you feel about novels with a message?

Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Rules of the Read: Pet Peeves

Hello, loves! A week without snow and ice is a delightful week, indeed. Watching the neighbors bask in the glow of sunlight reflecting off of one’s winter-pale legs is somewhat less delightful, but we can still be thankful for the warmth.

Warmth. That reminds me of a conversation that I once had with the news editor of our local paper. Not that his was a warm personality; on the contrary, his charm rivaled that of a glass of cold gravy. No, the warmth in question related to the fact that I felt an urge to strike him with a fire extinguisher. The discussion centered on his, shall we say, creative use of grammar. He insisted that certain phrases were perfectly acceptable for use in news stories because “people talk that way all the time.”

People wear florals with plaid, Honey; that doesn't make it a good idea.

While style manuals give a fair amount of leeway in certain areas, there are a number of phrases that never fail to cause teeth to grind. The use of over when discussing quantity, for example. The store sold over four hundred copies of that designer coat last spring. Using over instead of more than is almost guaranteed to bring out the homicidal maniac in some editors.

Redundancies are another source of annoyance. As an added bonus, we’ll send you a free gift when you apply for store credit! Egad. I’m certainly glad that I won’t be required to pay for my gift, but I’d love to know what the baseline bonus might have been.

These are only two possibilities; throw in the “there, their, they’re” debate, and you have the makings of a mind bomb of nuclear proportions.

What say you? Are you inclined to grant a bit of artistic license where language is concerned, or do you brandish a virtual pointy stick with which to poke a lazy writer? Leave a peeve or two in the comment section, if you please. In the meantime, there are twenty-seven bags of red mulch to be spread in the flower beds. A dash of color will be nice; the weather may be doing its impression of spring, but the yard is still winter gray.

Have a lovely week, take a nice walk, and remember—a well-turned phrase is always in style!

The Style Maven has been sharpening her garden shears in preparation for a pruning spree. The hybrid rose/waitabit bush near the back walk is now taller than the house. The survivor will write the next installment of The Procraftinator.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Fictorial

Recently I wrote an Amazon review of a new novel, Dream of Darkness by John Yeoman*, book two in a mystery series set in the late 1500s. I’m a sucker for both mysteries and historical novels, so it’s not surprising that I enjoyed this book, especially since Yeoman is an outstanding writer.

But this book is a lot more than a mystery or even a novel. John Yeoman** is not only an outstanding writer, he is an outstanding teacher. Dream of Darkness proves it.

Dream of Darkness is a fictorial. If like me you are not familiar with this term, here’s the description from its Amazon page: “an intriguing crime mystery – and also a step-by-step guide to writing your own novel. It’s one of the world’s first ‘fictorials’, an historical crime novel packed with clever but unobtrusive tips that show you precisely how it was written.”

Before I began to read, I admit I was dubious. Sounded confusing. As I shuffled through the pages of the first chapter, it also looked confusing. There were 27 sidebars in Chapter One alone! But then I began to read, and it took about two paragraphs to hook me. My review tells why:
This book succeeds on many levels. Suspense, intriguing characters, gruesome murder, historical accuracy that makes the 17th century come alive – pretty much everything you’d want. And then! Yeoman gives the reader a course in just how he accomplished all these wonders. He has included sidebars (which you don’t have to read or even see if you don’t want to) which give the reader insights into why he chose to use specific techniques, particular words, sentence structures, and so on. When I began to read the book I was hesitant to believe he could pull this off, but he did. Both newbie and professional writers will love this book for the writing secrets he shares, and mystery aficionados will love it for the story. This is “show not tell” taken to a high level.
Those 27 sidebars in the first chapter included insights, tips, advice, and explanations of techniques such as: ways to write an opening scene; how to introduce the protagonist; definition and use of character signatures; the use of body language in characterization; providing authenticity; animating dialogue with conflict; when head hopping works and when it doesn’t; linking moments of tension; and lots more. Each of these tips is illustrated perfectly by the story. And somehow Yeoman keeps the reader’s interest alive in both. Just Wow.

(*Dr. John Yeoman passed away in 2016. **Archived link.)

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 12 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 40 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit KimPearson.me.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Celebrations and Inspirations

With St. Patrick’s Day just days away, Emancipation Day coming up on April 16, and Cinco de Mayo on May 5, I was thinking about various observances that can add richness to our writing, inspire a story (or stories), and open doors to our own pasts. What begins as research for a book may end up a journey into our ancestral roots—or vice versa.

Great-great-grandfather John Unversaw
thwarted attack on Union munitions
depot during Civil War.
In the late 1990s, I wrote a family genealogy after interviewing elderly relatives, reading old wills and documents, and searching a newspaper morgue in an Indiana town. Decades ago, obituaries offered a wealth of information about the deceased, and I learned a lot from them that no one had ever told me. Old newspaper photos and pictures long stored in relatives’ attics added faces to the accounts. The book grew to over 80 pages.

As a small child, George
Clements, M.D., came to the U.S.
from Ireland with his mother,
my great-grandmother.
Back to St. Patrick’s Day. One of the curiosities I discovered involved my great-grandmother, who arrived with her young son from Ireland in the mid-1800s and soon thereafter married my great-grandfather in Pennsylvania. (I hadn’t known any of my relatives came from Pennsylvania.) After futilely searching several ships’ manifests and lacking the knowledge to trace her in Belfast, I finished the book based on old obits, documents (some well over 300 years old), and stories passed down from one generation to the next. Today, inspired by commercials for Ancestry.com and gifted with the time offered by retirement, I want to try to trace my great-grandmother and other relatives from the Emerald Isle. No doubt, a new tale—one never imagined in my early writing days—will spring from that search. I can hardly wait to get started!

Have you researched your family history and been inspired to write a story (fiction or nonfiction) based on your findings?

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Feedback with Compassionate Detachment

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee
I feel sorry for the first writers who ever came to me for feedback. My initial writing experience was in news, where deadlines were brutal and so were the editors. We believed that was because nobody had time to waste, but I now believe it was because we were young and stressed out and didn’t know another way. I’ve discovered that providing feedback with the goal of serving both writer and story can be faster and easier, if you know how.

I learned the hard way, the first time I judged a writing contest. I meant to be empathetic and constructive when I told a writer that her story about financial hardship was an opportunity to broaden readers’ minds. Unfortunately, I included this: “…take a moment to explain why you couldn’t get a better job.” She was outraged, believing I was judging her for not having a better job. Egads, that wasn’t what I meant at all! I was just suggesting she write more detail. I was a professional writer and I had failed to communicate.

I felt terrible.

I had many positive teaching experiences before that, so I chose to see this as an opportunity to improve. I sought more training and a new perspective on feedback. Creative writing is always deeply personal, fiction or non, and I’ve learned that’s why it’s important for feedback to be both compassionate and detached.

I’ve since developed a reputation among coaching clients, writing colleagues, and students for giving feedback that encourages and motivates. Here are a few tips that have helped me:

1) I take responsibility for my opinion by emphasizing “I” statements over “you” statements. This helps writers take feedback as opinion, rather than personal blame or praise, encouraging them to decide whether their writing needs to change or just needs another audience. For example:
  • I’d like to know more about this character’s relationship with his father. 
  • I’m confused here. Is it possible to clarify? 
  • I find myself wondering how this character felt when she saw the body.
    2) I address what I observe in the writing rather than my opinion of the writer:
    • The opening effectively introduces the character’s motivation: her father betrayed her, and she has never trusted men since.
    • The dialogue in this section didn’t feel realistic to me. I had a hard time believing a three-year-old would talk that much about death.
    3) I spend less time making suggestions than I do asking questions:
    • What do these people really want in this relationship? 
    • What’s at stake for the protagonist? 
    4) I clarify that my intention is to serve the story, not to prove I’m right, sometimes adding phrases like, “As a reader…” or “From an audience’s perspective…”
    • I like that she notices his cologne. As a reader, I’d be interested to know exactly what he smells like to her and how that scent affects her.”
    • From a female audience’s perspective, this kind of language might sound sexist, which might make it difficult to root for him.
    5) Instead of pointing out what’s missing, I ask for more information:
    • I don’t understand why he reacted that way. I’d like to know more. 
    • How does meeting someone else who has lived with this kind of secret affect him?
    6) I beware of information overload. In evaluations, I offer no more than three challenges the author faces to take the writing to the next level. It can be difficult to remember more, and the writer may shut down. I use terms like “challenge,” and “take it to the next level,” not to add a spoonful of sugar, but because I believe it’s more accurate than talking about what’s “good” or what “needs work.” Growth in any craft is a lifelong journey. I find it helpful to remember we can always improve tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we’re failing today.

    7) I try to spend as much time on strengths as challenges. It’s important for writers to recognize what’s working, so they can lean into that. What’s more, writers who regularly receive feedback want to know whether their changes are effective.

    By giving feedback with compassionate detachment, I’ve discovered something unexpected. In the powerful movie Whiplash, the megalomaniacal music teacher declares: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” I disagree. When I emphasize what’s working and simply ask questions about the rest, my students improve faster – especially the geniuses.

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

    Wednesday, March 11, 2015

    Time Out For Some Fun

    On this dreary, gray day in my neck of the woods, I thought it would be good to cheer myself up. I miss the sun. I need the sun. And when I don't get enough sun, everything that goes wrong is magnified. Ever feel that way? Of course you have. The business of writing is sometimes wrought with frustration, and adding any stressers like daylight saving time and no sun, makes for screaming fits and hair pulling. 

    So let us take a moment for a deep breath. Here we go... slowly in, hold it, and let it out. Repeat ten times. There much better. Now for a chuckle or two. Enjoy....

    This first cartoon is from Shoe by Gary Brookins and Susie Macnelly. Cosmo is digging through the usual mess on his desk - can we relate or what?  - and finds a ticket for a shoe repair shop. "Geez! The date on it is October 9, 1982. I wonder if ol' man Swettsock is still around?" 

    So Cosmo goes out and sure enough, the shoe repair shop is still there. He goes in and hands the ticket to Mr. Swettsock who says, "Yeah, that's been a long time. Lemme look in the back."

    He goes in the back and calls out, "Would they be saddle shoes, by any chance? Black and white with red laces?"

    "Yeah, that's them. Hey, that's amazing. " Then Cosmo thinks, "This guy's incredible."

    Mr. Swettsock comes back and hands the ticket to Cosmo. "They'll be ready Thursday."
    I loved this from Mallard Fillmore  by Bruce Tinsley.  Mallard is twirling a basketball on his finger and says, "March madness is just a week away!.... So get ready for the most incredible spectacle in sports.... Three solid weeks full of announcers...using the term 'scholar-athletes' with a perfectly straight face."
    If you have hands-free voice commands in your vehicle, you will relate to this from Dustin by Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker. Ed and Helen, Dustin's parents, are in their car. Ed is driving and he says, "Think I'll try out this GPS that I bought on Ebay."

    Helen says, "This should be fun..."

    Ed asks for direction to 310 East Main Street and the GPS system responds, "Getting directions to: free tend yeast cane fleet."

    Ed says again, "Directions to 310 East Main Street."

    The GPS spits out, "Getting directions to: repent seats tame heat."

    Ed turns to Helen and says, "Good thing I know how to get there."

    The GPS voice says, "Getting directions to: goosing iPhone cow moo wet hair."

    Ed bangs his head against the steering wheel.


    Long, hard slog today writing the Great American Tweet. (That was it...what do you think? Pulitzer?)
    - Greg Tamblyn

    Having been unpopular in high school is not just cause for book publications.
    - Fran Lebowitz

    I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.
    - Woody Allen 

    I just got out of the hospital. I was in a speed reading contest. I hit a bookmark.
    - Stephen Wright 

    As a pioneer in free ebooks more than ten years ago, I feel like I have to keep up, hence my announcement today that to go with the new Kindle Zero, the free edition of my new book comes with a new Buick LeSabre or a large Fig Newton, your choice. While supplies last, one per customer.
    - Seth Godin 

    Don’t tell my mother I work in an advertising agency. She thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.
    - Jacques Seguela 

    The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were.
    - David Brinkley 

    Did you like the quotes? Which was your favorite? Do you have a joke or funny quote you'd like to share? Please do. 

    Posted by Maryann Miller - novelist, screenwriter, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent mystery, Doubletake, was chosen as the Best Mystery for 2015 by the Texas Association of Authors. She also writes the critically acclaimed Seasons Mystery Series. All of her books are available as e-books and as paperbacks, and a complete listing can be found on the books page of her website. For information about her editing services, visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to read the comics in the newspaper, take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. 

    Tuesday, March 10, 2015

    Déjà Vu All Over Again

    Spring came early to Western Oregon this year. Crocuses and daffodils started to bloom in February instead of March, but they’re the same old daffodils. Yet year after year, “my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils.”

    This year, March brings me a different renewal: My very first mystery is being reissued, in trade paperback, twenty years after its first publication. Of course, even with a brand-new cover, it’s not quite as exciting as when it came out in 1994, but it’s still a thrill. It’s been “out of print” (except in Polish and Hungarian) for quite a while.

    I write “out of print” in quotation marks because it doesn’t mean what it used to mean, that the books are unavailable unless the reader hunts them down in used-book stores or libraries. Only an author’s most dedicated fans would make the effort to obtain every title. And if they did, it resulted in no profit to the author.

    Now, we have ebooks. Practically anything published today will probably be easily accessible till the fall of civilisation.

    Not necessarily a good thing—there’s a lot of junk that would never have made it into print, as well as everlasting electronic versions of junk that did get into print and would quickly have gone out of print. I suspect that a fair number of gems will be buried by the sheer volume of rubbish.

    I wonder whether the invention of the printing press caused the same apprehension. After all, the monks copied sacred documents. With printing so easy, who could tell what might be produced!

    Do I sound jaundiced? It’s probably because I’ve just discovered that I really can’t make my plot work in the setting I’d chosen, so I have to move the whole kit and caboodle to a different village. It’s a complicated mixture of deleting, editing, and rewriting, and it’s driving me nuts. I’m just glad I’d only written 17,000 words, which will shrink to about 12,000, I fear.

    But still, when I find a moment to wander round the garden, my heart dances with the daffodils. And Death at Wentwater Court will reappear in print, fresh new art and all, on March 17th.

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

    Monday, March 9, 2015

    3 Ways to Reclaim Your Passion for Writing

    I have a confession.

    Sometimes, more times than I care to admit, my passion for writing wanes. It hurts just writing that, but it's true.

    And there are many reasons why this occurs: fear, self-doubt, the busyness of life, just to name a few.

    But when you are a writer (and by this, I mean not just one who writes, but one who is compelled to, who MUST write), you have to overcome everything that keeps you from the page and get to writing.

    When we realize that our writing mojo is on empty, it's important to take some measures to remedy the problem.

    Here are three suggestions that I use to kick-start the writing.

    Think about Your Love of Writing
    Why do you love to write? This is not the time to think about your current situation: that is, the situation where you are not writing and you feel your desire is long gone. This is a time to think about your past writing experiences. Why did you start writing? How do you feel when you write? What do you think about yourself and your writing when you write?

    Recall Your Favorite Writing Experience
    What has been your favorite writing experience? What was the project? How did you feel while writing the project? Why is it your most favorite project? These feelings you write about? Incorporating this positive feelings into your current situation can aid you in bringing forth much writing.

    Acknowledge the Fear That Usurps Your Writing
    Everyone has fears. The goal is to not let fears destroy what you're trying to build--whether that's a character's life or your own life. Acknowledging your fears allows you to deal with them. What negative thoughts do you have when you attempt to write? Where do these negative thoughts come from? Where do they originate? How accurate are these thoughts? Usually, fear is not TRUE; it's something we've conjured up in such a way that it looks real. It even has a physical identity it becomes so real. Try to get outside of your negative thoughts and that place where fear resides and truly examine each of your fears, each of those negative thoughts that try to kill your writing. How real are they? Write positive truths to negate each of those negative thoughts. Repeat those positive truths aloud.

    What do you do when you feel your writing passion wane?

    Creative Passionista Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her author website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment.

    Saturday, March 7, 2015

    Learning Emotional Complexity from Women Writers

    March is Women’s History Month. When I found this out on that great well of information known as the internet, it got me to thinking about the great women authors who have influenced my writing over the years. Maybe it was because I attended an all-girls school, but as I look back on my literary education, it’s mostly classic authoresses, like Jane Austen, the Brontës, Emily Dickinson, and Harper Lee, who loom large in my imagination.

    Jane Austen - Image courtesy of Wikicommons
    There’s something about the unique emotional complexity of some of the great female authors that I believe all writers should study and try to emulate. In many cases, the worlds that women write about are far closer and more intimate than the worlds of their male counterparts. Jane Austen was something of a revolutionary for writing about the necessity of a good marriage and what the lack of one meant for women at the time she was writing. Harper Lee took on the injustices she saw around her through the eyes of innocence and feeling. I’m sure you can think of dozens of other examples of women who wrote about the emotional truths of the world through the lens of their own experience and the experiences of their contemporaries.

    Emotional complexity is what separates the great characters from the cardboard cut-outs in our prose. It’s easy, as an author, to fall into the trap of wanting to make your main characters the clear-cut heroines and heroes of your story, giving them simple motivations and impeccable morality. But characters that do everything they should tend to fall flat. One thing all of my favorite classic woman authors have taught me is that heroines with feet of clay often have the best character arcs. L. M. Montgomery might not make everyone’s list of Great Women Authors, but for me, reading about an impertinent red-head with a quick temper and her head in the clouds taught me more about creating wonderful characters that are remembered by millions a hundred years later than just about anything else. And when you look into Anne’s history and the emotional battleground that was her childhood, you begin to see how Montgomery subtly deals with the plight of orphans and the abuses they were subject to in her time. But she does it through an intimate portrayal of one girl and the way her life was turned around rather than examining the big picture of the problem, like Dickens did in Oliver Twist. Both books have impact, but the Anne books touch a whole different level of affection in us, and spend more time showing us how everything turned out okay in the end rather than dwelling on the darkness.

    L.M. Montgomery - courtesy of Wikicommons
    In the Romance world, where I do my writing, editors will quite frequently tell their authors to dig deeper into the emotions behind the characters’ actions. Characters and their relationships and what makes them tick are the heart of a good Romance. At the same time, the larger literary world often dismisses Romance as exaggerated and unrealistic. Needless to say, this irritates me to no end. I also wonder if it would annoy some of these great ladies of literature. The very thing that set them apart from so many of their contemporaries and made them notable falls under attack too often, even now. In some ways, I feel like we’ve taken a step backwards in terms of writing about emotions, particularly in Romance, where Erotica is the flavor of the day. But I could write an entire post about those trends. I’ll spare you for now.

    So as you craft your story, whatever the genre and theme, take some time to consider the emotional complexity of your characters. Learn from the shining examples of women writers who have managed to reach a deeper level in the hearts of readers through the unique perspective they provide.

    Merry Farmer is a history nerd, a hopeless romantic, and an award-winning author of thirteen novels. She is passionate about blogging and knitting, and lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. Connect with Merry at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.