Friday, December 30, 2016

A Matter of Style—On or Off the Grid

This top post of 2016 was first published on March 17.

Image courtesy of vikas bhargava

Hello, dearies! While Mother Nature has seen fit to deck the yards in our neck of the woods (So many lovely daffodils!), there are a great many readers who are suffering the ravages of floods and other assorted nasty weather. To them we send our wishes for safety and a quick recovery.

I will admit that while the local weather has been mild, the interior of my home currently looks like Tornado Alley. It’s bad enough that the squirrels are laughing at me; I’m unable to locate my beloved Chicago Manual of Style!

Fear not, duckies. Whilst grumbling and tossing various bits of clutter, it is still entirely possible to set one’s mind at ease regarding elements of writing style. Simply visit the online edition!

For a fee, groups and individuals may access everything that the print edition has to offer, as well as taking part in the Forum, an online kaffeeklatsch for writers and readers of every stripe. Site visitors who do not purchase a membership may still access the always-helpful Tools and Q&A sections.

Well, I haven’t found my print edition yet, but I have managed to unearth that package of pencils that I bought last month. All I have to do now is find the sharpener …

Ah, well. It’ll show itself eventually. In the meantime, keep your chin up, keep your pathways clear, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!

In keeping with the spring foliage, The Style Maven is "busting out all over," and intends to visit the gym as soon as possible in order to rectify the situation.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Character Goals

This top post of 2016 was first published on April 21.

It's spring in the northern hemisphere, and a good time to check in with our goals (especially those we might have made a few months ago at the start of the year).
But what about our characters? To create a life-like character the reader will identify with, like, and root for, we must give that character motivation and goals.

What does your character care about? This element of caring sets the character up in how he/she is going to live life, how he’s going to react to certain things. Giving your character something to care about commits her to a stance to live by.

What next? We know what our character cares about, so now what? We have to challenge him, threaten her and what they care about. You throw them into a situation that challenges the part of them that cares and threatens the thing they feel is important.

A precious collection is stolen. A girl enters a dangerous relationship. Perhaps it’s a parent whose child has been injured/abducted/died. That parent’s goal could be healing, finding the child, revenge, forgiveness—all sorts of motivations that will carry him or her through this story journey.

You create risk. This doesn’t always have to be through a villain—it can be weather, hard times, a moral dilemma, friction between the characters. The twists and turns of your plot will come from these things.

How does the character react to this conflict and risk? Motivation is what causes the character to act. Is it to save his own life? Someone else’s he cares about? To preserve her reputation?

The reasons relate to the character’s inner character. Something drives him to rescue the kidnapped child, slay the dragon, challenge the alien invaders of track down the mass murderer.

Motivation also often comes from a desire for change. Give a character so compulsive a desire to make a given change that he can’t let it be, and you have the basis for a story. And your character MUST change. It doesn’t need to be huge, it can be subtle. It can be a character’s struggle with addiction, mid-life crisis—trying to get out of a rut, a change in attitude toward something or someone.

Readers don't examine stories looking for the motivational aspects. However, they instinctively know when they aren't there. They'll know the story is flawed and will stop reading.

So, we not only need goals as writers, but we need to create goals for our characters. What are some of your characters’ goals or motivations?

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 is Dare to Dream, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, is also available. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Who's Telling This Story Anyway?

This top post of 2016 was first published on May 24th.

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

I’ve heard some fiction authors talk about characters as if the writer is the boss and the characters are employees who do what the boss tells them to do. I’ve heard other authors talk about characters as if the inmates are running the asylum: the writer enters the schizophrenic place in his or her mind where imaginary people appear, and those people say and do things that feel outside the writer’s control.

Just who’s in charge here?

In the instance of characters as employees, sometimes the author has a plan and then changes his or her mind, and the characters follow the new plan. In the instance of characters as instigators, sometimes the author has a plan and then the characters change their minds, because they know that nobody with their characteristics would ever engage in such shenanigans. We sometimes say such characters have minds of their own, but since they live in our minds, aren’t their minds just another corner of ours? Perhaps the subconscious.

Maybe we can take it a step farther, and consider whether we and these characters form part of what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious: the human tendency, as a group, to be disposed to shared experiences and repeated patterns of behavior. In other words, we all share in human nature, so when we dive deep within ourselves for answers, we often find universal wisdom, something all storytellers dip into. We recognize archetypes of humanity and therefore have an innate sense of the way certain character types are likely to respond to certain situations.

That might sound like it takes the magic out of storytelling, but maybe it is the magic: the way the collective experience of human nature can still hold our rapt attention after so many millennia of stories. 

Sometimes authors write stories that seem to come through them as if from some other realm. If we’re lucky, we experience the feeling that the characters we create take on lives of their own. At those moments, the story almost writes itself.

Is that really so strange? After all, it’s not much different from the way we live our lives.

Every moment, life asks us to make choices that can carry us to a variety of destinations, some mundane some interesting. We never know exactly where we’re headed: life or death, love or loss, victory or defeat, peace or battle. Most of the time we may simply get out of bed, work, eat, use the bathroom, exercise, watch Netflix, brush our teeth, and trot back to bed. But one day we might answer a situation with a new decision that leads to the unexpected, uncomfortable, exciting possibility of change.

What if I quit my job and work for myself? What if instead of boarding my flight to the Midwest I switch my ticket to Asia? What if I step on stage and tell that story, sing that song, dance that dance that I never dared before? 

That’s what happens in stories, the “What if?”

We’re each living our own stories, the questions similar to those we ask when we write fiction: just who is running this show? God? Fate? Chaos? Me? I prefer to imagine a dance of all the above, which implies both greater meaning and personal agency. But, in the end, none of that changes the way I choose to tell my story: something happens, I make a choice, which affects the next thing that happens, which is also affected by other people’s choices. Then I make the next choice.

Sometimes I make choices so quickly I’m not fully conscious of them. Yet somehow, between my choices and the events that unfold in response, life takes shape. The bolder my choices, the more engaging my life. The same is true of my characters and their lives. 

What if we trusted that process, allowing our characters’ lives to unfold without wondering who was in charge? What if our fingers just kept moving words across the page and we watched to see what lives those words conjured? What if we trusted in the act of opening ourselves to the possibility that in a story anybody might do anything at any time, expected or unexpected?

I say we let our characters do what they want, and trust that it also happens to be what we want them to do, whether we’re aware of it or not. I say we trust that our characters and ourselves are all in this together.

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 Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, 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 Ventura, California.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Editors Rant: Jessica d'Arbonne

This top guest post of 2016 was first published on September 13.

The stupid mistakes that put me in a rejecting mood:
As an acquiring editor, I spend many weary hours combing through my slush pile. Sometimes this process is exciting and fulfilling—like when I find exactly the sort of diamond in the rough I’ve been hoping to find for months. And sometimes it’s the worst part of my day. But it’s never more baffling, tedious, aneurism inducing, and annoying than when I’m faced with stupid and avoidable mistakes.

Many of these mistakes are merely nuisances, and not automatic cause for rejection. But think about it: why would you risk putting an editor in a bad mood right before she reads your query letter? Other mistakes are so egregious or just plain brainless that they immediately set off my highly sensitive Reject Reflex (every editor has one).

If you’re the sort of author who takes painstaking, neurotic care with every one of your query letters, it’s probably unimaginable that an aspiring author would be so careless as to not only irritate an editor, but to shoot their publishing prospects in the foot. And yet, I find authors making these same dumb mistakes every time I wade into the slush.

1. Research the publisher before you query them! If you've written a book of poetry, don't send it to a publisher of nonfiction. You will be rejected. Every publisher and agent has a different specialization, and we rarely deviate from our chosen path. We will not make exceptions for you. As soon as I see the word “memoir” in a query letter, I toss it in the pile of stuff to reject. I could’ve turned down I Am Malala three times by now and I’d never know because I. Do. Not. Publish. Memoirs.

2. Don't send your query letter to every single person at the publishing house. The rest of the staff will just forward your emails to the acquiring editor, who will then be inundated with copies of your query letter and therefore very, very annoyed. And in publishing parlance, “annoyed” is synonymous with “in a mood to reject the next poor fool who crosses me.” If you’re not sure who should receive your query letter, consult the submission guidelines.

3. Include your name and the title of your book in your query letter. I just... why is that so hard? I once referenced an author’s “untitled manuscript” in their rejection letter because they literally did not give me that information anywhere in their query letter. He sent me a very snippy note back informing me that his manuscript certainly was not untitled, it had a very nice title, thank you very much. I could have told him the title was missing from his query letter. But I didn’t. Because he got snippy with me.

4. If a publisher or agent has already rejected you because they don't publish books like yours, do not keep querying them. They'll just keep rejecting you. I know these repeat offenders probably aren’t reading my rejection letters (the irony is not lost on me), but if they did, they’d know not to waste their time anymore. I will remember you. And I will remember that I already told you three times we don’t publish books on chupacabra husbandry.

5. Proofread your query letter. Thoroughly. Sometimes there’s an obvious typo in the first sentence and you’re so wrapped up in other things that you miss it. But the query letter is a litmus test for your writing skills, and if you can’t even successfully proofread a letter as important as the one you send out to impress publishers and agents… well, then what does that say about your writing skills? Fix the typos or you will be judged.

By virtue of visiting writing blogs and being part of online writing communities, you’re probably the kind of author who takes a lot of time and care with their query letters, and not the kind who keeps making these stupid, time-wasting errors. So consider this a bleak look at your competition: those who aren’t putting in the same amount of effort you are to send strong queries out to the right agents and editors. Keep putting the same amount of professionalism and time into your query letters that you expect editors and agents to put into evaluating them, and you’ll be fine.

And for god’s sake read the submission guidelines.

Jessica d’Arbonne is an acquiring editor at the University Press of Colorado. She is an alumna of the Denver Publishing Institute and Emerson College. You can follow her on Twitter @JessDarb.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Encounters with Книги

This top post of 2016 was first published on May 10.

Дом Книги (Dom Knigi—the House of Books) - Moscow
Recently my editor told me translation rights for the first three books of my Daisy Dalrymple mysteries have been sold to a Russian publisher. As I studied Russian (50 years ago!), I’m hoping that not only do they follow through and print them, but that they send me copies, which doesn’t always happen. I would definitely attempt to brush up my Russian to read them—or at least bits of them.

If you’ve never been to Russia, you probably don’t know how incredibly generous the Russian people are. You have to be careful about what you admire, because they’ll give it to you. Before I realized this, I was given several classical LPs and some books. (Both were subsidized in the USSR.)

I still have all but one—a tiny volume, about 1 1/4" by 2", of poetry. I mentioned it to an academic librarian friend who was excited about having recently received a box of miniature books. She looked it up in the World Library Catalog. She discovered only one or two other libraries possessed it. I decided to give it to hers, as there was little chance I’d ever try to read it. The print was way too small!

One of my favourite stories from my youth is about books and Russia, though not Russian books. I went to the USSR twice, with student groups. On one of those trips, among my fellow-travellers (not in the Commie sense) was Sean, a young Irishman. When we reached the border, everyone had to get out, not only for customs but because the Russian railways’ gauge is wider than standard European so we had to change trains.

And go through Customs, in a large shed populated by grim-faced Soviet agents. Actually, Westerners tend to see all Russians as rather grim—the easy American smile of greeting is just not part of their culture. If you get a smile from a Russian, he really means it.

Customs men rummaged through our suitcases. One emerged from Sean’s with half a dozen books in his hands. He looked through the lurid covers, pausing at each one as Sean grew paler and paler. They were a set of paperback James Bond books. The agent reached From Russia With Love—and stopped.

He beckoned to the nearest man, who came over. They studied the cover together, flipped through the book, consulted each other, and went off with all the books to show them to—presumably—the boss. Several more gathered around to take a look. Sean was green by that time.

We wondered if they’d arrest just him or our entire group... But they returned all the books to him. He packed them up and we went on our way.

On the way home, in the boat-train from Dover to London, Sean disappeared for a while. When he rejoined us, he was wearing a full Red Army uniform, including the cap with the Red Star. He had swapped the James Bond books for it.

What with one thing and another, I would love to see some of my own books in Russian. I wonder if they’ll change my name, as a Czech publisher did (to Carola Dunnová), or leave it as is, like the Polish translator. At least I’ll be able to tell, unlike the Hebrew version of one of my Regencies, where I could only read one page—the copyright page, where they had spelled my name wrong!

If they invited me to a launch party at Дом Книги (Dom Knigi—the House of Books) in Moscow, I’d go like a shot.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies. The paperback edition of Superfluous Women is coming out in June.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

An Excerpt from Succulent Wild Love by SARK and Dr. John Waddell

This top post of 2016 was first published on February 4.

We wouldn't want to neglect real life (a.k.a. non-fiction) in our month of romance from the male perspective, so we are delighted to run an excerpt from Succulent Wild Love, a new book co-authored by SARK with her beloved, Dr. John Waddell. The happy couple share their advice on how we can all keep the love and romance in our lives even when there's only one piece of blueberry pie left. 
Believe You Can Create a Joyful Solution
An Excerpt from Succulent Wild Love

Most people spontaneously look for solutions that meet everyone’s needs. We want to please the people we love and want to please ourselves. It’s when we get stuck that we start to look for a compromise or think someone has to sacrifice.

To create a Joyful Solution, you start with the attitude that everyone can get what they want. That is the biggest factor. Starting from that approach is so powerful because when you believe that everyone can get what they want, you can help the other person get what makes them happy.

Often people are focused on scarcity: they think there is only a limited amount of whatever, so they have to put all their energy into trying to get what they can of it. Then the other person picks up on that and feels pushed away. And then they feel they also have to put all their energy into getting whatever they can, and it becomes a tug-of-war.

But the dynamic changes dramatically when you approach the other person with the attitude of “This is what I want. Help me understand what you want, because I want to help you get what you want too.”

When people feel that, the tension dissipates. From that emotional place they will often happily make adjustments because they see it as getting them closer to what they want.

So, creating Joyful Solutions begins with believing you can. The greatest limitation to finding a fully satisfying solution for everyone in any situation is the belief that compromise is as far as you can go.

There is nothing inherently wrong with compromise, but intimate relationships feel more secure and supportive when both people know they’re on the same side. When people are limited to compromise or even sacrifice, each person tends to think they must push against the other or give up.
The Two Key Parts to Finding Joyful Solutions
Finding the Essence

While you may not always be able to get what appears on the surface, you can find a way to get the essence of what you want. Say there is only one piece of blueberry pie left and two of you want it. If your friend eats it, there’s none for you. A good compromise would be for each of you to get half. That’s easy, and most of us would stop there. Everyone gave up an even amount.

But what if you don’t want to give anything up? If you stay focused on either you or your friend getting that last piece of pie, then you’re stuck — there’s only one. Instead, each of you can ask yourself, “What is the essence of what I want?” Perhaps one of you wants the taste of blueberries and the other wants pie or just a sweet dessert.

On the surface, it looks like you want the same thing — that last piece of pie. But what it means to each of you can be vastly different. Getting the pie is the solution to fulfilling a desire. When you look at the essence of that desire, you can begin to see that there might be other ways to fulfill it.

So the question to ask is, What is it that each of you is looking for when you say you want the pie (or whatever the surface issue is)?

A friend of ours who is a mediator has a great story about two farmers who were fighting over an orange grove. When they were finally forced to sit down and talk to each other, to their surprise, they found out one wanted the orange rinds and the other wanted the juice.

Go Wide

Once you know the essence, you can begin to go wide — that is, look for alternatives that can fulfill the essence. In our pie example, you might ask, “Are there any other sweet desserts in the house? Can we easily get something even better somewhere else?” You could even go on a dessert-hunting adventure.

The main things that keep people from joining together to create Joyful Solutions are anger and mistrust. If you wait to approach the other person until you or they are angry, or if you have a history of approaching each other with criticism, one or both of you will not want to participate.

Succulent Wild Love at Amazon
So if you feel angry, before you begin engaging with the other person, use your Inner Feeling Care System to rebalance yourself. When you know you can create solutions that feel good, it will be relatively easy to take charge of your anger rather than having it take charge of you.

Once you begin to send clear, unambivalent messages that you want to help the other person (knowing you can get what you want too), any anger or mistrust they have will dissolve over time.

SARK (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy) and Dr. John Waddell are the authors of Succulent Wild LoveSARK is a best-selling author and artist, with sixteen titles in print and well over two million books sold.  Dr. John has been helping individuals and couples lead happier lives for over 30 years through his clinical psychology practice and metaphysical teachings. Visit them online at
Excerpted from the book Succulent Wild Love ©2015 by SARK and Dr. John Waddell.  Printed with permission of New World Library.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Things I Learned From Listening to Audio Books

This top post of 2016 was first published on May 31.

I have been absent from The Blood-Red Pencil for several months. Just thought I'd point that out in case you hadn't noticed (smile). I was laid low - really low - with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome the end of January, and it has just gotten to the point where I can do more than recline and listen to audio books. No reading, no writing, no television, no driving; and for several weeks nothing more than hobbling from the bed to the bathroom to the couch at my daughter's house. One of my sons joked that Ramsay Hunt must have been a CIA interrogator in a past life.

I believe it.

While being incapacitated, I did a lot of thinking about how other authors deal with health issues that throw great challenges at them. A blind writer who continually loses tools no amount of technology can replace. A friend who slogged through her last book hampered by the sludge of a mind drowning in personal problems. Another friend who continued to write during her losing battle with cancer. The writer who has such severe back problems she can only sit at her computer for a couple of hours a day.

I am lucky.

I also did not intend for this post to be just about my unwanted visitor. I wanted to write about some interesting things I noted while listening to audio books. Most of us know that reading our work aloud helps us catch awkward wordage, repetitions, and other  bits that weaken our work. Patricia Stoltey offered some great tips for what to listen for in her post here back in 2009 - Self-Editing One Step at a Time. 

What I didn't realize until recently was how much we can learn from listening to audio books. The ones I listened to ranged from mysteries by Robert B. Parker, Lee Child, and Louise Penny. I also listened to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Comparing the last two to some by Parker, I noticed that the dialogue was handled so much better by Stieg Larsson. All those dialogue attributives that Parker uses were hardly ever used by Larsson. Instead, he used actions to designate the speaker.

Parker has always been one of my favorite authors, and while reading his books the "he said" "she said" attributives will fade into the background as I focus on the witty dialogue that he did so well. Fading didn't happen with the audio book. In fact, the "saids" became so  annoying I couldn't ignore them, and I made a mental note to take a lesson from Stieg Larsson.

From Louise Penny I learned the art of the hook at the end of a scene or chapter. In The Long Way Home she ended one chapter with a question that wasn't answered until two or three chapters later. Very early in the story she introduced an inscription on a wooden bench but didn't let the reader know what that inscription was until three chapters later. Both were minor things, but things that kept me listening until the reveal. So we don't always have to have something monumental as a chapter hook. The little things work quite well.

Do you read your work aloud? Listen to audio books? What have your learned from that? Please share in the comments.

 Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent mystery, Doubletake, was named the 2015 Best Mystery by the Texas Association of Authors. She has a number of other books published, including the critically-acclaimed Season Series that debuted with Open Season. Information about her books and her editing rates is available on her website. When not writing, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

When Do You Fire A Protagonist?

This top post of 2016 was first published on June 9th.

Image from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen/Illustrator: Charles E. Brock (Macmillan & Co, 1895)

I picked the wrong protagonist. It took 20 versions and 100 pages of my historical novel-in-progress for me to admit fellow work-shoppers were right. I value feedback from writers I respect, but I do take care to avoid group-think. In this case, colleagues simply called to my attention what my manuscript was already screaming: “You have to rewrite me from a different point of view!”

The problem was that I had chosen to write a story revolving around a girl who was only three years old at the start of the tale. I thought she would turn thirteen within a couple of chapters. She didn’t.

I had one other point-of-view character to play with, but he was already playing the role of antagonist.

Many great adult novels have child protagonists—To Kill A Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Secret Life of Bees to name a few—but rarely are they toddlers. Francie Nolan spends only the briefest time as a baby in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and author Betty Smith deftly handles that with an omniscient voice. That was not the most effective voice for my story.

Me? I was about to saddle readers with the limited perspective of a barely verbal child. I don’t believe a protagonist is required to be relatable, but this was a bridge too far: a character too young for self-reflection, empathy, or the ability to decode social cues. She lacked the vocabulary for complex sensory experience or dialogue, was incapable of hiding secret motivations, was unaware of mortality. I had written this kiddie into a corner.

She would have turned thirteen halfway through the novel, but that was too long. I could not start the story later because of the way the plot was designed to move toward a shocking but inevitable event.

I had to fire my protagonist.

For her replacement, I turned to her twelve-year-old sister, whose relationship with the little girl was central to the story. This was not a matter of simply making whatever happened to the little sister now happen to the big sister. Although the basic plot and events remained the same, I had to filter those experiences through a different mindset.

In some ways, I was starting from scratch.

What’s more, the two sisters could not be together every moment, so I had to give up many scenes I had imagined and replace them with something as yet unimagined. I was crushed to realize that the antagonist and the little sister would be the only witnesses to the event I believed was most critical, which meant readers would have to witness it through the antagonist’s perspective instead of the protagonist’s. I felt as if I were leaving readers alone with a bad man. Worse, I feared I was leaving the new protagonist out of a critical piece of the puzzle.

I was wrong.

Writers don’t put together ready-made puzzles. We create puzzles through the process of writing.

My new choices forced me to face the way events in a family ripple outward, to dig deeper into what family means, to consider why we try to protect our loved ones and why we fail, to explore sexual politics. I spent more time developing the antagonist’s relationship with the new protagonist. Then I used his effects on her to forge her into a hero I never expected.

At first, my new protagonist seemed to me to lack fire. She was domestic, obedient, motherly, unambitious, feminine. She married at thirteen, a tragedy in itself. I married at 39, which some might consider tragic, but it was my choice.

I could not relate to her at all.

My challenge was to find reflections of her within myself, and to ask: how can I give victory to this girl within the confines of her historical era, domestic sphere, and economic limitations. How can I liberate a pre-feminist woman?

It’s not a new trick. Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Louisa May Alcott all came into their powers before women’s suffrage. They were feminists before feminism, their protagonists as subversive as many modern female protagonists—for simply insisting their viewpoint mattered. I’ve also sought to honor my protagonist’s role in the sphere of hearth and home, to reveal how sacred that role can be.

As with any worthy endeavor, I’ve faced unexpected challenges, which have taught me unexpected lessons, which have led to unexpected conclusions. All because I fired a protagonist for being underage.

Have you ever fired a protagonist?

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s an editor, ghostwriter, and coach who has collaborated on more than twenty books. She teaches young writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a TV journalist 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 Ventura, California.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Avoid Sad Sack Protagonists

This top post of 2016 was first published on June 2nd.

Your characters should be multi-faceted. They should have strengths and weaknesses.

Wounds from life that haven't healed can supply internal conflict or motivate them to take on the overall story problem.

However, if your character is so lacking in self-esteem that he is not equal to tackling the overall story problem or so sniveling or pathetic the reader can’t get behind him, it is a serious plot fail.

If you decide to burden your characters with low self-esteem at least understand the why and how. Use the problem judiciously to motivate them, not from a standpoint of ignorance. Choose the degree of affliction carefully.

As children grow up, there are several ways in which their self-esteem is damaged.

1. Healthy self-esteem requires competence.

A child needs to feel self-confident and independent. If Dick, as a child, is not allowed to master things, to build self-confidence and independence, he becomes weak and helpless and develops an inferiority complex.

These problems can complicate Dick's relationships, friendships, social connections, and job performance. Dick's inferiority complex can create conflict in all layers of story problem. Wherever he goes, whoever he meets, he will feel "one down." He will hear implied criticism where none is intended. He will grow resentful of everyone he deems "one up": those who are smarter, richer, or more successful.

How far he goes to level the playing field depends on the type of story you are telling and the type of character he plays. Is he the villain? Is he a foe? Worse, is he a friend?

2. Healthy self-esteem requires confidence.

If Jane lacks confidence, she might irrationally defer to others. She can lack ambition and be pessimistic. This creates conflict with her lovers, family members, friends and business partners. In this state, Jane makes a good foe. It's hard to be friends with her. Her friends will grow tired of her negativity and inability to make a decision.

3. Healthy self-esteem requires self-respect.

If Sally has low self-esteem, she'll have a hard time appreciating other people. The darker side of low self-esteem can drag her into drug addiction and crime. She does not love herself, so she cannot feel the love other people try to give her. She will take every positive comment they make as a personal attack. Sally makes a poor friend and coworker. No matter how hard you try to make Sally feel better, she'll twist what you say to fit her negative self-image.

Misery not only loves company, miserable characters will go to great lengths to drag others down with them.

Severely broken characters do not make good protagonists, unless it is a literary story where you follow the character’s arc from low self-esteem to high self-esteem.

Everyone has down days, but if Dick is depressed, he always feels low. It keeps him from succeeding in relationships, friendships, at work, and in social organizations. He won’t make a good antagonist or hero in a Thriller or action tale because he can’t summon the requisite energy.

Depressed characters can be the protagonist in a literary story where they overcome the problem.

Depressed characters can be friends and foes in the other genres.

I've read a few stories with depressed, self-loathing main characters. It was difficult to root for them.

There is a trend to utilize horrible people as protagonists. For some writers, the ploy has worked but with mixed reviews. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling comes to mind.

I don’t read those books, probably for the same reason I don’t watch “reality” TV where dysfunctional people “show their backsides,” as my granny would say, for public entertainment.

I am troubled by the presentation of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse as humorous rather than tragic. Abuse is a sad reality for too many people. As a writer your manipulation of the characters and plot illustrates abuse as excusable or criminal. But that is a topic for another day.

Your protagonist does not have to be perfect, but he must inspire the reader to root for him. We can root for him to succeed in his overall story goal or fail at it. Either way, by making us care about the story outcome, you supply the needed tension to keep readers turning pages.

Sad sack protagonists can make readers toss your book into the garbage bin and leave scathing reviews.

For more information on building characters through personality types and nature/nurture, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict and SBB: Build a Cast Workbook.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hollywood, Here I Come

This top post of 2016 was first published on April 28th.

From April first to the third, I blew my budget on a trip to California for the Sisters in Crime Hollywood Conference at the Hilton Hotel in Universal City. The SinC organization put on a great conference, and it didn’t cost the Sisters one cent. Well, except for travel and hotel, but the conference was free.

Every morning started with a continental breakfast except for Saturday when the Los Angeles Chapter of SinC put on a magnificent spread. Lunch was provided Friday and Saturday, and I have to say the Hilton food was outstanding.

The conference included panels with Hollywood industry veterans that included writers, producers, editors, screenwriters, cable and network professionals, directors, program and development honchos, literary agents and managers, and even an entertainment attorney. The speakers explained their jobs, told antidotes, gave us ideas how to connect, and graciously offered five minute pitches to the attendees.

Before the pitch session, we had pitch specialists help us compose a one line pitch to grab a producer/director/agent's attention. If you think it’s hard to explain your book in a sentence that would knock a producer’s socks off, you’re right. The person who helped our group was terrific. When the time came to pitch, most of us were nervous. I pitched the first book in my series, Mind Games, to a lovely gal who is director of development at Cartel. When the timekeeper came in to signal the end of my five minutes, I slipped the development director my bookmark containing all my books in living color, and was ushered out the door.

The subjects of the six panels:
1. Who’s Looking for What?
2. What Makes a Good Character?
3. From Page to Screen
4. Getting Past the Gatekeepers
5. The Steps from Development to Green Light
6. Let’s Make a Deal

My take was what a lot of us felt: MIXED MESSAGES. We want your book, we want to find you, BUT, you must have an agent with connections to film and TV in order to get your book in front of the right people. This was something I suspected but it spelled disappointment nevertheless. Not that I thought anyone would walk away with a contract. I'm not that naive. One writer I know wangled an invitation to send her book, so best of luck to her. I gave my bookmark to the woman who said they were always looking for good material. We’ve since connected on Facebook. I hope she’s curious enough to check out my stories. But the best way to gain the attention of Hollywood is to write a bestseller, a la Gone Girl, get lots of reviews, and then maybe, just maybe, someone will find your book. We all know how easy that is. :-)

The highlight for me was an hour speech by bestselling author, Megan Abbot, who’s adapting two of her novels for film. She, like Gillian Flynn, has the star power and writing creds to be able to negotiate that kind of control. Advice for the rest of us, should we be lucky to ever land an option or contract: stay out of it. They will do what they want with your words and your story. Megan was funny, natural, and informative about the ins and outs of writing for film. Everyone thought she was great. I know I did.

The other delight was actress-turned-mystery writer, Harley Jane Kozak, interviewing actress, writer, director, and producer, Alison Sweeney, who stars in Murder She Baked on the Hallmark Channel, based on the books by Joanne Fluke.

Hallmark produces ninety movies a year, and is the best outlet for cozy mysteries, which unfortunately, I don’t write. I’m a Lifetime Channel gal myself. (Hear me, Lifetime? I’m ready. Got eight stories you can adapt to the small screen. Even wrote a screenplay for one of them.)

Best of all was the camaraderie of the Sisters. I met a few Sisters I knew from online, got to know a few more. To top off the weekend, three of us did Rodeo Drive. We sauntered into all the designers' stores, checked prices, and hot-footed out of all the designers' stores. But we had a fun afternoon. Even our actor-to-be Uber driver drove us around and pointed out the high spots. Was the trip worth it? Every penny.

What’s next for me? I wrote a screenplay for my book Hooked in 2014, entered it in a contest—one of the things they suggested we do to get our work into the hands of film professionals—and though it didn’t do well, I plan to learn how to do it better and rewrite it. I also want to finish the two books I’m working on. So full plate for 2016. Wish me luck.

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.

Monday, December 5, 2016

What is Deep POV?

This Top Post of 2016 first published on May 17.

Just when you think you’ve figured out this thing called Point of View, you get an editor who says “go deeper.” So, what does deep POV mean, anyway?

Basically, it is taking the author completely out of the story, leaving the reader inside the head of the character. As readers we want to experience this character’s adventures vicariously. We want to see, smell, hear, taste and touch the same things the character does. The character is interpreting the story for us just like we interpret what happens in our lives. That means that in deep POV even the “less exciting” parts like description become exciting because they show emotion and personality.

Part of going deeper into POV is the “show versus tell” technique. Because we want to become Indiana Jones or Bridget Jones or whoever we’re reading about, we don’t want to be TOLD that Indiana is afraid of snakes. We want to FEEL his fear, to taste it, smell it. We don’t want to be told that Bridget is lonely, we want to be lonely too. Use the five senses liberally.

Drop the taglines (he said, she whispered etc). Example: “Why do you insist I make that speech?” she asked. Mary’s hands shook and she knew she would have butterflies. (Drop the “she asked” and go with the action or reaction.)

Weed out the thought and sense words. If we are in Mary’s head, we know she’s thinking (again no tagline needed). Likewise with words like “felt”, “saw”, “watched” and “knew”. We don’t need to be told that she felt her hands shake or that she has butterflies—describe how those butterflies feel inside her. She watched a smile spread across Dick’s face. Simply: A smile spread across Dick’s face.

So, don’t create distance between your reader and your character by inserting your (telling) self. Let them hear the character’s voice. Let them feel her fear/joy/confusion etc. It’s personal and intimate. Readers will form a stronger connection to the characters and then they will have to know what happens to them, so they’ll keep turning the pages and wanting to read your next book.

Do you have any more tips on creating Deep POV?

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

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Happy Holy Days and More

Words are so powerful. Last year, with all the debate around Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays... I came up with a series of these memes. I'm fairly certain we can all find the sacred in the season, and within the context of our own story.

Photo credit: Dani Greer 

As we do every December, we'll share some of our previous posts, and this year, you'll get another chance to read the Best of 2016. It was a good year for us, and we hope you'll join us here in 2017. Happy holy days!