CoGold 2015

It’s almost conference time. This year I’m on a ProTrack panel, Tactics and Techniques for Keeping a Series Fresh. Since I have nine books in one series and two in another (counting two novellas, I guess it’s closer to four) this is a subject I have given a great deal of thought.

When I wrote the first Anna Strong novel, The Becoming, I was not sure how far the series would go or if I would be contracted to write another after the initial three. But I was thrilled to be offered first a contract for four and five and then six and seven, then eight and nine. I think it’s very smart for writers to have a series arc in mind when they start. I didn’t. My writing partner, Samantha Sommersby, and I have planned ahead for the Fallen Series, though. We have plots for books three, four, five and six.

With the Anna books, the recurring theme was Anna trying to balance her life as a vampire with her human side—trying to maintain ties to her human loved ones. Each book had an overarching story line that involved not only a mystery, but the internal struggle facing Anna. Another theme was recognizing that the villains in my stories were not always the vampires or werewolves or witches, but humans who often commit greater atrocities against each other than any mythical creature.

In the Fallen Siren series, the battle is against the Goddess Demeter who cursed Emma to mortal life as punishment for losing her daughter Persephone to Hades. There is a very real mystery to solve as Emma is an agent in the FBI’s Kidnapping and Missing Persons Unit. But the internal struggle for redemption is always foremost in Emma’s mind.

The most important key to keeping a series fresh is the growth of the protagonist. Characters that continue to evolve and change, sometimes in ways you don’t anticipate, is the great joy of writing a series.

I hope you’re planning to attend conference this year. Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned veteran, Colorado Gold has a lot to offer. Classes to improve craft, tips for marketing, self-and-indie publishing, agent and editor confabs…not to mention socializing in the bar and chatting up old friends while making new. We are lucky to have a vibrant writing community here in Denver. Take advantage of it!

What is Inspiration?

By Jeanne C. Stein

One of the first questions every writer gets is: What inspires you as a writer? My very first response was: everything. But then I realized I was confusing inspiration with the process of taking an idea and developing it into a story.

Two different things.

The muse that sparks an idea can be anything. I get ideas from newspapers, television shows, eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations, other books. Ideas float on the air like dandelion snow. You only have to hold out your hand to grab one.

Inspiration is something else. Inspiration is what makes me sit down at the computer every day. It’s what helps me through the dark days when it seems I’m fighting a losing battle against the indifference of critics and sometimes even my agent and editor. It’s fighting the urge to give up when a brand new writer comes out of nowhere and wins that huge contract complete with movie and TV rights and a six-figure advance.

And then reading the book and realizing, it is that good.

Inspiration is that voice inside you that says keep going. It’s the message of my female characters Anna Strong and Emma Monroe that I want women to hear. It’s the voice that says women are strong and clever and capable of great bravery—with or without super powers.

So the short answer is a writer needs to be her own inspiration. She needs to have faith in her abilities and the determination to persevere. She can take strength from those around her, but ultimately, she is responsible for herself.

We are all our own inspiration.

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson 10 – Common Mistakes

By Jeanne C. Stein

We’ve now covered the nuts and bolts of writing genre fiction. In the last two lessons, we’ll move on to the world of publishing. The first lesson is on ways a writer can sabotage her own career. We’ll divide this into three categories:

Common Mistakes in Writing

Common Mistakes in Submitting to an Editor or Agent

Common Mistakes in Dealing with an Editor or Agent

Mistakes in Writing—some we’ve already discussed:

1. Starting projects and not finishing them. Especially bad if you find yourself hop scotching from one project to another. Remember Heinlen’s rules…you MUST finish what you start.

2. Using passive instead of active verbs.

3. Relying on narration instead of exposition—show don’t tell.

4. Using five words (or sentences or paragraphs) when one will do. Write tight.

5. Losing viewpoint or forgetting the goal of your scene.

6. Interrupting the action with backstory.

7. Ending a chapter on a low note instead of with a hook.

Mistakes in Submitting to an Editor or Agent

1. Not sending out projects when you’ve completed them. Not querying agents and/or editors the minute your story is ready.

2. Not going on to the next project the minute the first is finished. When you make a sale, the first thing the editor or agent is going to want to know is what else you have completed or near completion.

3. Not knowing the market you’re aiming to enter. Read your competition.

4. Not following submission guidelines—seems so obvious, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised how many editors and agents talk about the manuscripts they’ve received on pink or purple paper in an archaic font because the writer thought it would “stand out.” It does, but not in the way intended. It screams amateur. All publishers have websites in which they set out submission guidelines in careful detail. Follow them.

5. Not being professional—see above. Also refers to dog-eared manuscripts that have obviously been seen by more than one editor. ALWAYS send a fresh copy, though in this time of e-submissions, this is no longer always a consideration. Some editors still like the old ways, though, so again, follow submission guidelines. Also, make sure the submission contains NO typos or grammatical errors. If you’re not sure, hire a professional copy editor to go over it with a fine-tooth comb.

Mistakes in Dealing with an Editor or Agent

1. Missing a deadline. Better have a damned good reason. Publication schedules are set up a year or more in advance. If you know you’re not going to make a deadline, let the agent and editor know as soon as possible. If it’s going to be a LONG delay, you may lose your place in the queue which will push back your publication date. Something not to be taken lightly.

2. Calling your editor or agent too often. If it’s your agent, the time he’s wasting talking to you he could be using to talk to an editor about you. Which would you prefer? If it’s your editor, you are not her only writer. You do not want to aggravate her. She’s your champion in the publishing house. If you have a legitimate reason to call, by all means do it. If it’s to see “how things are going”, call your mother instead.

3. Accepting the worse case scenario. One of the hardest things—if your agent calls and says he’s sent your stuff to five or six or ten houses and no one is buying, accept it. Don’t burn your bridges by screaming he didn’t do his job and everyone in the publishing business is an idiot. You can think it. Just don’t say it. Besides, you have that next project waiting, right? Pitch that.

4. Changing agents. Tricky. In fact, I’m going to go into finding an agent later and what the relationship should be.

5. Getting stuck on one idea. Submitting the same basic story four or five different ways. If it hasn’t sold, don’t waste your agent’s time. Move on.

Okay—we’ve got our manuscript completed. We’ve checked it and it’s a perfectly formatted, pristine copy. Now what?

There are two ways to go—agented or unagented. It you choose to submit your book on your own, deciding on a publishing venue will be discussed next chapter. For the rest of this lesson, we’ll look at agents—finding the right fit.

One of the most important questions to ask yourself is what kind of relationship you want to have with your agent. I know plenty of writers who’ve developed a close friendship with their agents. They call to chat. They discuss every bit of business, however minute, with them. They use the agent as a critique partner, letting them read the manuscript before it’s submitted to the editor and rewriting according to the suggestions offered.

The second is strictly a business relationship. Contact is limited to projects to be pitched and deals to be made. If the writer asks for an opinion on a manuscript, the agent will respond. But the agent’s role is to build the writer’s career via contract negotiations.

How can you tell which type of agent you’re querying? Get their client list and ask.

How do you find an agent with a client list? Part of the reward of doing your homework and reading your genre is that at the beginning and end of almost every book, there will be an acknowledgment page. More often than not, a writer’s agent is recognized there. If you read a book that you found similar to yours in tone and content, querying that agent would be a good place to start. Google the agent’s name. With the Internet, you can quickly find out what company he’s with. Checking out the company will provide you with names, addresses, submission guidelines. It will also tell you whether or not an agent is accepting new clients. Sometimes they aren’t. Don’t waste your time querying that agent. Move on to the next.

There is a website: www.agentquery.com that lists acquiring agents and spells out what genres they’re interested in representing. This is a good tool. Use it.

You have your “A” list of agents. You’re ready to start querying. What about the query letter? It should be short, no more than one page, arranged as follows:

First paragraph—introduce your book, the genre, a one or two line “TV Guide” description.

Second paragraph--go into a little more detail about the book. The protagonist, the story question, what makes it unique.

Third paragraph—introduce yourself, list writing credits, any background that makes you marketable. Offer to send a synopsis and the first three chapters at the agent’s request.

Thank the agent for his/her time. Sign off.

Do not send the full manuscript unless the agent asks for it. If you’re sending a snail-mail letter, always include a self-addressed, stamped return envelope. Many agents are accepting email queries now. Cuts response time immensely.

But remember—at this point, patience is called for. You may have to wait two weeks to get a reply from an email query, six or eight from a snail-mail query. That’s why it’s to your advantage to send out a half dozen at once. If you get a response requesting an “exclusive” read of your material, you can stop sending out queries. But even then, you should ask for a reasonable response time—say six weeks. After that, if you haven’t heard, start the process again.

If you hire an agent, you may or may not be required to sign a contract. The going commission rate for an agent is 15%. NEVER sign on with an agent if he requests a “reading” fee. On top of commission, however, he may charge you for manuscript copying, postage fees, long distance phone bills etc. It depends on the company and is something you should inquire about before signing.

As your career progresses, other considerations arise. You may at some point want to change agents. This can be traumatic. If you have a valid reason for doing so, by all means make the move. The agent, after all, works for you. But ask yourself first if the problems you’re having are your agent’s doing or your own. Are you producing new material? Are you following his or advice? Are you demanding too much? Are you doing everything you can to further your own career?

It is YOUR career.

I’ve thrown a lot at you in this lesson. If you’ve decided to go it alone, our last lesson will be choosing a publisher…big press, small press, self-pub. I’ll explain the good, the bad and the ugly of each.

Extra Reading:

From a Blog by Chuck Sambuchino reprinted on Writer’s Digest on Agent Pet Peeves

Example of a successful query by agent Jenny Bent

This is just one in a series of successful queries by top notch agents. Here is the complete line-up:

Pamela Vaughan’s:

The Ultimate Online Editing and Proofreading Checklist

Many of you may already be familiar with Writer’s Digest, the book club and website. If you haven’t signed up for their free newsletter, you should. Here is a sample article you can peruse. Some are free, some are by subscription, but all are well done.

How to Write Effective Supporting Characters

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Nine-How Much Sex? How Much Romance?

By Jeanne C. Stein

Sex in writing is always a touchy subject—pun intended. Where does love making end and erotica begin? How much sex is too much? Do you have to have sex in your story?

Let’s start with the last question first. To be frank, most readers of genres such as UF or (of course) romance, expect sex to be a part of the storyline. PART of the storyline. They also expect it to be pertinent to the story, not tacked on as an afterthought. It’s different in erotica--sex IS the story. In UF or paranormal or straight romance, sex should be a natural element of the bigger story though it does not necessarily involve long-term consequences—or romance in the classic sense. Remember the difference between paranormal romance and UF? We may have a committed couple, but there’s no guaranteed happily ever after. In romance, happily ever after or happily for now is implicit. Regardless of genre, however, writing sex can be fun.

But writing a sex scene is not as easy as one might think. How far do you want to take it? Do you want to stop at the bedroom door or fling it wide open and invite the reader along? For our purposes, we’re going to assume you’re inviting the reader in.

There are two main elements to writing a good sex scene—the emotional and the physical. Sexual tension between the characters should have been building long before they land in bed. Danger can be a catalyst for sexual tension, conflict can be a catalyst. The characters may be long time friends or lovers, they may have just met and extenuating circumstances thrust them together. After a dangerous or life-threatening situation, slaying a dragon, for instance, or banishing the resident evil, sex is often used as an affirmation of life.

So we’ve set up the scene. Our characters are headed for the bedroom. How do we describe what happens next?

Depends on what type of scene we’re presenting. Is this a tryst between two lovers who know each other well? Will they take their time? Will they light candles and slip into a bubble bath? Will they kiss long and passionately? Will there be extended foreplay?

Or is this the frantic coupling of two people who have survived an unspeakable horror and want nothing more than to block it from their minds? Are they in an elevator or a taxi or in the back seat of a car? Do they fumble and tear at their clothes? Do they explore each other with fingers and tongues? Is the consummation an act of desperation or thanksgiving?

Set the mood.

Now on to the hard part: describing the action. Use all five senses. Set aside your inhibitions. If you’re writing the first type of love scene, the language and action will be romantic and sweet. If you’re writing the second, it will be abrupt and crude.

Your characters should talk to each other. Your characters should describe what they’re feeling. Your characters should have physical reactions to what is happening to them.

Now, here’s the secret. If your sex scene doesn’t turn you on—chances are it won’t turn your readers on, either.

Does that mean it has to be graphic?

Not at all. Here’s an example from author Jeaniene Frost:

He laughed—and then whirled me up in his arms so fast, my feet were still flexing for another step His mouth crushed down on mine, taking my breath away, and the same mindless compulsion that had led me to act so bizarrely upstairs manifested itself in another form. My arms went around his neck, my legs wrapped around his waist, and I kissed him as if by willpower alone I could erase the memory of every woman before me.

I heard a rip. Felt the wall at my back, and then the next moment, he was inside me.

I clung to him, nails digging into his back with mounting need, mouth locked onto his throat to stifle my cries. He moaned into my skin, free hand tangled in my hair as he moved faster, deeper. There was no gentleness to him, but I wanted none, exulting in the unbridled passion between us.

Everything inside me suddenly clenched, and then relinquished in a rush of ecstasy that streamed down to my toes. Bones cried out as well, and a few shattering minutes later, relaxed against me… (From Halfway to the Grave)

If you’re not comfortable writing or reading open door sex scenes, don’t do them. They will lack sensuality and emotional content and the reader will recognize it. So will an editor or agent. Better to stay in your own comfort zone. Show us something that has an emotional and sensual set up but ends at the bedroom door.

Another point, it helps if what happens in the bedroom furthers the storyline. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. There may be repercussions as a result of the coupling that are not manifest right away, but are made evident later. That’s okay, too.

Is there a difference between sex and intimacy? You betcha. Though they’re often used interchangeably, intimacy implies a close personal relationship that goes beyond the physical. An important aspect of any romance. That isn’t to say that our protag should be shown as lacking moral fiber—we want her to be sympathetic. But in some genres, UF or paranormal romance, we are writing characters that exist beyond the bounds of a normal world. A world that may not recognize them or worse, brands them as outcasts. Finding solace in sex is a way of retaining that human connection.

Our last two lessons will be more about the business of writing than the elements of writing.

Next month we’ll look at the many ways writers sabotage themselves —both in their writing and with their careers.

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Eight–Suspense

By Jeanne C. Stein

How do you keep a reader engaged? Creating and Maintaining Suspense

Our goal as a writer is to entertain, and make the reader care about your story.

How do you do this? By creating and maintaining an emotional bond with the reader, by manipulating their emotions, by creating and maintaining suspense.

We’ve already decided that we want our books to be as thrilling as possible. That each chapter should end with a hook designed to grab our readers and not let ago until they’ve reached the last page.

Let’s look at some of the most popular ways authors accomplish that same idea throughout their books.

1. The ticking clock. The ticking bomb. This is probably the most often used. Our protag is up against a deadline. If she misses it, the world as she knows it will be changed forever.

2. The “fifth” character. Also called the “disposable” character. A character the reader has come to know and love. Our protag’s friend, sometimes, our protag’s mentor. As readers, we are invested in that character. We love him or her. Then in a startling development, that character is killed off. It ups the stakes for the protag and ratchets up the emotional impact for the reader.

3. Personal agendas. Giving our secondary characters motives unknown to our protag that make it more difficult for her to achieve her goal. This sets up anticipation in the reader who realizes a verbal or physical clash is bound to occur.

4. Red herrings. Should be used sparingly. It’s okay to create a couple of false leads, but peppering the book with a different one every chapter will frustrate the reader. The opposite of this, of course, is one we mentioned earlier: cheating. Don’t wait until the very last chapter and spring an antagonist on us we’ve never met before.

5. Greatest fear. Make our protag face what she fears most. Can be a physical or psychological or moral challenge. The important thing is that the result of failing that challenge means utter disaster.

Those are a few of the more common ways to create suspense. Now how we write it.

We mentioned Dwight Swain in the last lesson. In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, he shares the secret. They are called Motivation/Reaction Units. Or stimulus/response units. Here’s how they work.

The motivation is something our characters see, hear, feel, smell or taste. It’s a stimulus that results in a reaction or response. Motivation is external and objective—something happens. The reaction is internal and subjective—our character’s response.

Jack Bickham in his book The 38 Most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to How to Avoid Them) puts it like this:

The law of stimulus and response works at the nitty- gritty level of fiction, line to line, and it also works in melding larger parts of the story. For every cause, an effect. For every effect, a cause. A domino does not fall for no immediate reason; it has to be nudged by the domino next to it.

Taking this one step further—the reaction/response must always occur in this order: feelings, reflex action, rational action. For example, our protag is attacked unexpectedly. First, she’s surprised (feeling), then she falls back (reflex action) next she gathers herself and responds to protect herself (rational action.)

Why do I say reaction MUST occur in this order? Because it’s logical. When the telephone rings, we answer it. Not the other way around. Sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? It’s such a small thing, why should we pay much attention? Because a sentence constructed this way: I walked to the door when the bell rang, marks us as amateurs. Remember when I said editors and agents are looking for reasons to stop reading our submissions? This is a big one. Along with typos, improper manuscript presentation and improper grammar. We’ll hit more ways to shoot ourselves in the foot in Lesson Ten.

But back to writing the page-turner. What else do we need to make our books come alive? Action verbs. Sophie plunged head first into the water. She didn’t throw herself quickly or drop precipitously into the water. Use action verbs. Omit adverbs and adjectives. Keeps the writing fresh and taut.

Use all the senses. Use sensory details and internalizations to:

Make the reader buy into our world (by suspending disbelief).
Create empathy with our characters.
Modulate pacing and tension to keep the reader hooked.
Keep the reader oriented in the story.
Key the reader to the important plot points.

Sensory details place the reader in the story through:

Sight
Sound
Smell
Taste
Touch (sensations)

Here’s an example:

Sophie smelled brine and seaweed before the cold enveloped her. Salt water burned her throat as the darkness rushed up to meet her. There was no sound. Just immense silence followed by…nothing.

Of course, you’re not always going to use ALL five senses. But use more than one. Brings the action to life.

Don’t interrupt action with back-story. There’s nothing worse than being pulled from the NOW for a trip down memory lane. If your protag is fighting for her life, there’s a good chance she’s not going to be thinking about how she came to be in this predicament. She’s going to be concentrating on overcoming her opponent. It’s all the reader should be concerned with, too. Our aim is to create a powerful emotional experience.

Let’s review, then, how we construct a good novel. We use:

Scenes containing Goals, Conflicts, Disasters

Sometimes followed by Sequels: Reaction to the disaster presenting a Dilemma, which leads to a Decision (used sparingly)

And we write these scenes and sequels as a series of Motivation/Reaction Units

In every paragraph, motivation/reaction units should propel the action. Every paragraph. It won’t be easy at first. In fact, what I want you to do now is to look at a scene you’ve already written. Make it the best scene in your entire book.

Now rewrite it as a series of motivation/reaction units. Get rid of everything else. Make sure the sequence of your M/R units is correct: feelings, reflex action, rational action (including dialogue, by the way.)

Done right, you should have an action packed scene that leaves the reader breathless.

Here are some examples of the Good, Bad and Ugly of what we discussed:
The Good: Warren Hammond’s EX-COP:

She ran her hand across the rack’s surface and began fiddling with the shackle again. I found my eyes moving from one rack to another. She caught me in the act, and smiled naughtily, fully back into her kinky librarian persona. I felt a good kind of stirring in my stomach that made its way down into my pants. For the first time in forever, I felt intoxicated on something other than booze.

The Bad:

She left the bar, drink in hand, and headed back to her table. Oh no! Somebody bumped into her, knocking the drink out of her hand.

The Ugly:

Bryce turned to see Jackson, who had just tapped his shoulder. He shoved Jackson with two hands, the memory of what Jackson had done to him making it impossible to control his emotions. Bryce’s cheeks burned red with a rush of blood.

The Ugly Revised:

Bryce felt a touch on his shoulder and turned to see Jackson. The memory overwhelmed. Blood rushed into his heating cheeks, anger surging beyond his control. He shoved Jackson with two hands.

Remember, too, every stimulus deserves a proportional response.

Try these simple exercises:

Stimulus: The waitress whizzed by, dropping the bill on the table, a waft of perfume hitting my nose a moment later. I eyed the bill, the seven-digit number making me think those were some damn expensive eggs, until I realized I was looking at a hand-written phone number.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The growl echoed in the dog’s chest, ears pressed against her head, and she pulled her lips back. Incisors. Canines. Molars.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The guy came out of nowhere, shoved me back against the car. “Give me your wallet.”

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: I looked at the wad of cash in my hand. The bank teller had given me too much. “I think there’s been a mistake, “ I began. She looked me right in the eye, “I never make a mistake,” she said.

What would be an appropriate response?

Next we have some fun: SEX—Do we need it (in our books, I mean ☺ )? How much do we need? How do we write it?

Remember, until next time: BICHOK—Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard!! See you in May!

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Seven – Conflict

By Jeanne C. Stein

What is conflict? Why is it important in your writing? Those are redundant questions, aren't they? In fact, you've heard them so many times, you're sick of them. They are mentioned in every article, every class, every discussion on writing.

Why? Because conflict is crucial to good story telling.

A dictionary definition says conflict is a continued struggle or battle between opposing forces. Sums it up pretty well. Without it, there’s no story. If our protag slays her demon in the first chapter, if Sleeping Beauty meets her prince and he whisks her off before she takes a bite of that apple, we have no story.

Conflict has to be built into your plot in such a way that from the first page to the last, tension builds and grows. How to do it? Let’s see if we can figure it out. For our purposes, I’m going to divide conflict into two categories: external and internal.

We’ll look at external conflict first. In most genre writing, the external conflict usually involves the main story question. It’s our protagonist’s quest. It’s set up in the inciting incident that calls our protag to adventure. It involves the tests and obstacles she must overcome. It’s the action that propels the story.

Let’s look at how we do it. Dwight Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer broke it down for us in a simple and beautiful way: Scene and Sequel. Even better, he told us what to include in each.

Scene: Goal, Conflict, Disaster
Sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision

What does this mean? The easiest way to explain it is to show it. Our protag for this simple example is a vampire. She is after a potion that is believed to hold the secret to regaining her mortality, something she desperately wants. She knows where it is (goal). She gets there. The potion is guarded by a supernatural determined to keep it from her (conflict). They fight. She wins. When she opens the bottle, it’s empty (disaster.)

Disaster is the hook that keeps the reader interested, keeps him turning the page when he knows he should turn off the light and go to sleep. You want a hook at the end of each chapter. In the next lesson, we’ll look at ways to do this and what elements you want to include in every scene to make it come alive. Right now, I want to continue with the discussion on constructing that page-turner.

Here’s where I’m going to differ from the common school of thought. Swain suggests after every scene there should be a sequel. A time for our protag to react to what happened, assess what she needs to do next and make a decision how to proceed. It’s introspection. It’s a place for back story. It’s where the reader can catch his breath.

Do we want the reader to catch his breath?

I say, no.

If you look at how thrillers are constructed, it’s ALL scene and very little sequel. Don’t we want our books to be thrilling?

Okay, you ask, but if all we show is action, where does our protag do the things the sequel is designed for? In our example, how do we show her recovering from the fight, facing her disappointment at finding the bottle empty, deciding what to do next?

We can do it all in a few short sentences. We can do it by having her describe what happened in a conversation with a secondary character. We can do it by showing it in the following chapter: our protag in bed the next morning physically hurting from the fight (reaction), distressed because she’s no closer to her goal than before (dilemma), determined to hunt that potion down regardless of the cost (decision).

And we do it in a few sentences, a couple of paragraphs at most and we’re off to the next scene. Often, we don’t need a sequel at all. We can do the things I described above while our protag is on the road hunting down the next clue to that potion. Keep the action moving forward.

Now for internal conflict. This is harder because it can be seen as contradicting everything I’ve said above. Actually, it doesn’t.

Internal conflict is what our character feels and thinks about what is happening. There’s very little “scene” in internalization and yet it’s a vital part of our writing because it gets to the core of our characters. We want the readers to see them as real. We want to understand their thought processes. We want to feel what they feel. And we want to do it all without long narrative passages. How? We do it exactly how we described “sequel” above.

Here’s an example from my book LEGACY—

Mom doesn’t acknowledge my leaving. Dad resumes his place at the table. Trish follows me with her eyes.

There’s a fissure, cold and brittle as ice, forming in my chest. It expands until my heart aches from the pressure.

I shouldn’t have worried so much about breaking their hearts. I should have worried more about breaking my own.

End of Chapter 25. Then Chapter 26 starts:

I spot Williams’ tail for the first time when I leave Mister A’s….

Right back into the action but there’s no doubt how Anna is feeling at the end of Chapter 25. It’s internal conflict presented in three short paragraphs.

Naturally there will be times when our protag has a problem to think through or there is back story pertinent to what’s happening now. I’m not saying eliminate ALL internalizations. I’m saying make them relevant to the present and don’t use ten paragraphs when one will do.

A word about unsympathetic characters. Think Dexter from the John Lindsay series and the Showtime adaptation. How do we make a police blood splatter expert by day and a serial killer by night sympathetic? By spotlighting his inner conflicts, his constant battle to “appear” normal, to “feel” what others feel. And he does care intensely about his family. All these conflicts come into play and make us as readers care about what happens to a protagonist who probably should have been locked away in the very first book. He’s the ultimate anti-hero precisely because he has people who love him and who he loves in return…and who he will do anything to protect.

Next month, we look at ways to keep our reader engaged—the building blocks to creating and maintaining suspense: stimulus/response.

Happy Writing!!

Adventures in Genre Writing Lesson Six: Dialogue

Dialogue – Putting Words in Your Characters’ Mouths
By Jeanne C. Stein

Last month we looked at plotting and defining our inciting incident. In this lesson we’ll touch on one of the most important building blocks in writing: Dialogue.

There are lots of authors who excel at dialogue, but none better than mystery writer, the late Robert B. Parker.

The first thing you notice when you open one of his books is the white space.

White space? What’s that?

It’s all that space on the right margin of a page when the four deadly sins of dialogue are excised. What are they?

1. Info-dumps.
2. Unnecessary attributes.
3. Unnecessary adverbs.
4. Clichés.

White space occurs when characters speak realistically.

Parker is so adept at realistic dialogue, that he practically tells his entire story in dialogue. I suggest if you aren’t familiar with Parker, you pick up one of his books and see what I mean.

If we start with the basics, dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters. It should be relevant, advance the plot and reveal something about the character speaking—his emotion or state of mind. Those things are obvious to most of us. What isn’t so obvious is how we actually translate it to the page.

Let’s look at some examples of dialogue that illustrate the four deadly sins I mentioned above.

1. Info-dumps. This is also called “As you know, Bob…” You have two characters meeting for the first time in your book. They have a history. Their meeting involves something that has already taken place, something the reader may or may not know. The conversation goes like this.

“Hello, Jack.”

“Hello, Eddy.”

“Jack, did you hear what happened to our good friend, Jim?”

“You mean the terrible attack that landed him in the hospital with two broken legs and three cracked ribs that occurred just last week when he was caught by rogue demons on his way home?”

Have you ever heard anyone talk like that? Of course not. But it’s seen a lot in unpublished manuscripts and sadly, in some books.

How do you fix it?

“Hey, Jack. Did you hear about Jim?”

“Couldn’t believe it. Cracked ribs and two broken legs. Those demons are out of control.”

2. Unnecessary attributes. May not even need to give you an example, but just in case:

“Hey, Jack,” Mary said.

“Hey, Mary,” Jack replied.

“Where are you going?” Mary inquired.

“To see Jim. As you know, he was attacked by demons last week,” Jack answered. “I’m bringing him a protection charm.”

“Can I go, too?” Mary asked.

“Sure.” Jack replied. “He’ll enjoy the company.”

If you have two characters on stage, we need only the first tags (and sometimes not even that) to follow the dialogue.

3. Unnecessary adverbs. Again, may be obvious. I’ll use the same example as above.

“Hey, Jack,” Mary chirped excitedly.

“Hey, Mary,” Jack replied happily.

“Where are you going?” Mary inquired quizzically.

“To see Jim. As you know, he was attacked by demons last week,” Jack answered soberly. “I’m bringing him a protection charm.”

“Can I go, too?” Mary asked hopefully.

“Sure,” Jack replied, nodding enthusiastically. “He’ll enjoy the company.”

Dialogue itself should reveal the character’s emotions without need of adverbial helpers. In fact, as a general rule, omit adverbs from ALL your prose. If you’re doing your job, you don’t need them.

4. Clichés

People use clichés because clichés are descriptive shortcuts, which is one way to say, they are phrases whose meanings we recognize immediately. They convey universal understanding. Not necessarily a bad thing it itself.

Every cliché was once fresh and witty. Over time, though, some have become stale and will mark you as a lazy writer, especially if overused. When you find yourself writing, quick as a bunny, try to rewrite it. Find a fresh and different way to say the same thing.

A rule of thumb for clichés is that if you think you’ve read it before, try rewriting it.

Bestselling romance author Sharon Mignerey gave us the following acronym for elements of good dialogue: SCRAPE.

Dialogue should reflect:
S - Setting and Subtext
C - Character Consistency
Dialogue should be:
R -Revealing and Relevant
A - Atmospheric and Appropriate

Well done dialogue:
P - Propels Plot
E - Evokes Emotion
-© 1999 Sharon Mignerey (used with permission)

One other aspect of dialogue that can be troublesome is conveying dialect. If you have a character with a distinct pattern of speech or an accent, it’s tricky to carry that off through an entire book. Better to give us a sample when we first meet the character, remind us of it as the story progresses, but write most passages without reverting to the dialect. A hint of the character’s Scottish brogue or Irish lilt or that he has a speech impediment is all that’s needed to remind the reader.

All this is basic, certainly. But good dialogue reflects character and moves our plot forward so much better than long passages of narration. It’s fluid. It reveals our character’s mind set and conveys emotion. It keeps the reader engaged.

Another author who has mastered story telling through dialogue is Jackie Kessler. Her protagonist is Jesse Harris, a succubus-turned-human. Here’s a brief example of dialogue from her second “Hell on Earth”  book, The Road to Hell:

“Oh,” Daun said. “Never mind. I get it.”

I turned back to face Daun, who was straddled over my hips, watching me. “Get what?”

“You’re distracted.”

“Am not.”

“No? You’re crying.”

I was? Shit. Dabbing at my leaking eyes, I said, “Sorry, I’m okay now.”

“Uh huh.”

“I am. Really. Have at it…”

Lots of white space. No unnecessary tags. Conveys emotion. Reads smoothly, especially aloud.

# # # #

So, in summary, to make dialogue sparkle:

Keep colloquialisms and slang to a minimum.

Use a natural cadence and manner.

Be fresh with your dialogue, rewrite clichés.

Read your dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural.

Next up: Conflict. What is it? Why is it important?

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Five

By Jeanne C. Stein

Story Structure – Plotting, Inciting Incident

This class we look at story structure, beginning with constructing a plot.

There are as many ways to plot a story as there are writers to plot them. When I started writing the Anna Strong series, I used the “seat of the pants” method—I knew the beginning, I knew the ending, I knew the characters. I planned to let the story unfold as I went. It had always worked before.

But I hit a snag. In my sixth book, I couldn’t get past the first chapter. Panic set in. I had only four months to write that book and I wasted one trying to get it off the ground. For the first time, I had to sit down and write a detailed synopsis.

I hate writing synopses. But it saved my butt. Thirty-two single spaced pages later, I had the story. After that, came the book. I realized my problem all along had been that I hadn’t clearly defined the story question. Now that I’m writing collaboratively with another author, we actually do a scene by scene, detailed outline so we can each work on different scenes at the same time and they will meld together.

And that brings me to the point—no matter what method you use, defining the story question should be the first step.

What is a “story question”?

The story question is the theme of your book—it’s the defining objective your protag struggles to achieve. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? For some of you, it is. You know exactly what your story question is. You have already come up with that log line (the TV guide, one line description) that you’ll use to catch the attention of an editor or agent. You are the lucky ones. For the rest of us, it may take as much time to define the question (or questions—there can be more than one) as it does to flesh out the rest of the story.

Now, let’s assume we all have our story question. As I mentioned before, there are many, many devices out there to help you translate that idea into a book. The three I’m presenting are not genre specific. They are the most popular and easy to use.

The W Curve—just what it sounds like. The top of the W (1)is the beginning; the first down stroke(2) is a setback; the top of the second upward slash is the midpoint (3), a point where it looks like our protag has won the day; the second down stroke (4) is when we realize she not only hasn’t won the day, but she’s in danger of losing everything which leads to the final upward slash (5) where she fights her way back in a stirring climax that leaves our readers breathless and clamoring for a sequel.

Stein image

The W Curve is probably the simplest plotting device of all. The beauty of it is that you can add as many “W’s” as you like to correspond to subplots. Subplots are important because they add depth to the story. Just as real life is a balancing act between what we intend to do and what we sometimes are forced to do because of extenuating circumstances, our characters should face the same dilemmas. External conflict (the main story question) and internal conflict (how our characters react) each play an important role in bringing our stories to life.

Writers who use this method, often add the “M” curve for the antagonists journey, matching stroke for stroke how the villain is going thwart the hero until the very end.

Outlining—Not necessarily the way you did it in school, although many writers use the classical form. More often it’s a list of the main points and a rough idea of what you intend to do with them. It’s setting stakes and creating conflict. It’s chronological and covers the hook or initiating event, rising action, climax and resolution. It can be a chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene breakdown, which is what Samantha and I do. It can be a synopsis.

Three Act Structure—Sound familiar? Of course. It’s the way every movie, TV show or play is constructed. A Beginning, a Middle, an End. As you might expect, the beginning introduces the characters, the setting, the story question. The middle, well, it’s just that (and it can be deadly, no pun intended.) Hopefully, your middle will be fraught with tension and escalating danger. Here’s where subplots play an important part. Where everything changes. Where it looks like our protagonist will lose it all. It’s where she experiences her darkest hour. Then, we reach the end. She faces her greatest challenge, her biggest fear. It’s the resolution. It’s the return to “normal.”

In every case, the resolution must be satisfying. It must fulfill every promise you’ve made to the reader. It should leave them clamoring for the next book.

Now that I’ve described some plotting devices, let’s look at how to use them.

Let’s assume we have the story question. We have our protagonist and antagonist. We have a pretty good idea of our secondary characters. If we choose the Three Act Structure, for instance, the beginning should comprise about the first 50-60 pages of a 400-page book. The first pages of a book are the most important you’ll ever write. Editors and agents often say they won’t look past the first paragraph if it doesn’t grab them. In fact, at a recent conference, Senior Berkley Editor Ginjer Buchanan said just that in a panel entitled "What SF Editors Are Looking For." She won’t read past the first page if there’s not a fresh voice and unique opening scene to capture her attention. Sad but true. And what does she look for? That the writer has a command of the basics of writing, a unique story, a compelling story, a story worth reading.

So what must the opening do?

Set the hook.

With action, with character, with setting. Let’s look at some examples.

One way is to introduce your protagonist by showing her in action. If she’s a supernatural, she’ll be chasing demon bad guys. If she’s human, demon bad guys are chasing her. No long passages about the setting or the weather. No back story to explain how she found herself in that predicament. No detailed physical descriptions of how her hair is as black as a raven’s wing or her eye’s as blue as a cerulean sky. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. Right now, you want to hook the reader with excitement. Draw them into the story, set them down smack dab in the middle of the action.

With action: Here’s the opening of Jeaniene Frost’s Halfway to the Grave:

"I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck. I pulled over, holding my breath, as the sheriff came to my window."

With character: Who is our protagonist and why should we care about her?

Here’s the opening of Marta Acosta’s Happy Hour at Castle Dracula:

"If I had been a rational human being, I would have had a normal job and I would never have gotten involved with any of them. But I was not a rational human being. I was and remain a square peg in a round world."

With setting: what can we identify with in our protag’s world…and what’s different?

Here’s an example author, Devon Monk. The first sentence from Magic To The Bone:

"It was the morning of my twenty fifth birthday, and all I wanted was a decent cup of coffee, a hot breakfast, and a couple hours away from the stink of used magic that steeped through the walls of my apartment building every time it rained."

See the hook? Starts out sounding like a typical day in anyone’s life. Then, bang! Magic!! Not only introduced as a subject but introduced in a way that says we’re now entering the UF Zone. In one sentence we learn the age of our protagonist, that she’s hungry and thirsty, that she doesn’t live in a typical apartment building and that most likely, she’s not going to get the two hour escape she wants.

Each example establishes a unique and compelling voice using language, style, attitude and pacing.

The beginning is where the story question is established or foreshadowed. Conflict is introduced. The reader gets to know your world. It’s a lot to ask of a few pages, but it’s necessary if you want to grab and keep the attention of an editor or agent and after that, all those readers who’ll be lining up to buy your book.

Set the mood with tension, anxiety and emotional control.

Build empathy with the character.

Create setting and build the world.

Next lesson, we have our beginning, now what?

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Four – Character Development

By Jeanne C. Stein

I’m in China the rest of the month on vacation. No laptop. No cell phone. Will I survive? If I’m back next month, you’ll know I did!

Since we spent most of last class discussing rules, here are some of NYT bestselling author Jeffrey Deaver’s regarding characters:

1. They must be likeable
2. They have to do something
3. They have to speak realistically (Lesson Six for us)
4. They have to be multi-dimensional
5. They have to be sympathetic—even the villains

In Lesson Two we took a brief look at character development—deciding whose story we wanted to tell. The protagonist. Generally, she’s the first character we come up with when plotting a new book. How do we make her likeable? We give her a name, we describe her physically, we give her a job, sometimes a hobby, and populate her world with friends and family. We make her sympathetic and interesting.

We set her up in her world and then we tear it apart.

In UF, that often involves introducing paranormal characters or if our protagonist is a paranormal character, introducing a personal threat to her or her world. We give the character a problem or a goal—something that will cause conflict. Something that makes her have to do something. We set her on a quest. Same if you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, a cozy, a romance.

Before we talk about the villain, let’s mentions secondary characters. These are different from “throw away” characters—the waitress at the diner, the bag boy at the grocery store. Throw away characters appear briefly, should have only a one or two sentence description, if any at all, and never appear again. You don’t want to yank the reader out of the story with a long, detailed description of a character that is not relevant to your plot.

A secondary character, on the other hand, might be our protagonist’s sidekick or mentor. A romantic interest. A secondary character should never overshadow the main character, but rather reflect something about her. A secondary character might be the object of the conflict—our protag must save him or her from the big bad. It’s often the relationship of our protagonist to this secondary character that makes her multi-dimensional.

As for our villain(s), Deaver reminds us that even they have to be sympathetic. No, that doesn’t mean we have to make our readers like them, but it helps if we can make our readers understand them. Antagonists often have a huge stake in the outcome of their conflict with our heroine. Sometimes it’s the destruction of one world to allow another to take its place, sometimes it’s revenge for a real or imagined crime committed unknowingly by our protag or someone close to her, sometimes it’s simply to save his own skin. Something has set the villain against our protag, his motivation is as important as hers. It may not be moral or just or even reasonable, but without it, you have caricature instead of characterization.

So, how do we develop our characters quickly? And why do we want to?

Simple. The sooner we throw our protagonist into the fray, the faster we hook the reader. How do we do it? Show her in action. The scene may or may not have anything to do with the primary plot, but what she does will define her for the reader. It’s also a good way to introduce the world and secondary characters without pages of info-dump to set them up. Action is always better than words.

What else do we need to know about our characters?

In UF, for example, if they are supernatural, what are their powers? Did they come by them naturally or were their powers thrust upon them? Are they unique even among their own kind? How so? Do they have natural enemies? Does the human population know of their existence? Is the protagonist aware of her powers or does something happen to activate them?

Our villain—is he unique among his kind? Does he target our protag for a specific reason? Why is her after her? To steal her powers? To prevent her from becoming…what?

Think about your protagonist and antagonist. Think about how you want to introduce them to the reader. The antagonist may not show up in that first chapter, but your protagonist will. How do you go about making that character as interesting to the reader as possible?

Now, speaking of characters—our interview today is with Mario Acevedo. He writes the popular Felix Gomez vampire series. If you haven’t sampled a Felix Gomez novel, you need to. He has a unique spin on his UF world.

1. You are often included in lists of Urban Fantasy Authors. How do you feel about the tag and do you like it? Why or why not?

As a tag, I prefer Testosterone-laced Macho Supernatural-Mystery-Thriller. Barring that, Urban Fantasy is okay. Stressing the Urban part, my hero likes his neighborhood cafés and he hates being more than stumbling distance from a bar. For the Fantasy part, he thinks the ladies consider him a hot number.

2. What makes your books fit in the UF genre?

By Urban I mean that as gritty and contemporary. Fantasy, well, I’ve got vampires, aliens, zombies, dryads, and efficient government workers.

3. Did you set out to write UF?

At the beginning? No. I tried the idea of a vampire-detective and it stuck. Like mud.

4. Why do you think UF is so popular with readers?

Given the choice, which would you rather do: work retail or fight vampires? In one you wear polyester; the other, leather and stainless steel.

* * * *

You can tell from his answers (and the titles of his books) that humor plays a big part in Mario’s books. To him, it comes effortlessly. To me, it’s daunting. Infusing humor in your story, though, is a way to add another dimension to your characters. Look for Mario’s next Felix adventure coming soon.

For those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, have fun!! This is the first year in awhile that I haven’t. I’ll miss it. Try to join some of the online groups and attend as many of the local write-ins as you can. There is energy in a group of writers!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!! Or as they say in China: 感恩节快乐

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Three – Some Rules

By Jeanne C. Stein

I know, I know. I, more than anyone else, hate it when someone says there are “rules” to writing, especially since exceptional writer W. Somerset Maugham warns: There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

And of course, for every rule we set there will be an exception that works perfectly well. But the rules I’m setting forth here apply to ALL writing. They are basic, maybe too obvious, but worth mentioning. Think of them as a motivational tool!

First, Robert Heinlein’s Five Rules—

Heinlein (1907-1988) was one of the first authors of bestselling, novel-length science fiction. He was also one of the first to break into mainstream markets and is often called the “dean of science fiction writers.” He freely gave away his five rules because he said almost no one would follow them—hence he was not afraid of competition. What are they?

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.
3. Your must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put your story on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold.

Did I mention they were obvious?

Let’s start with rule one. How many people do you know that have either started a novel or said that they plan to write one “someday?” They are not writers. A writer puts his butt in the chair everyday—even if it’s fifteen minutes at lunchtime, during the baby’s nap or an hour before bedtime. If you are serious about writing, you will make time. One of the participants in a past class said she wrote 79,000 words in 28 days writing just two hours a day. Some of you have participated in Write a Novel in a Month challenge held in November of every year. It can be done. It takes desire and discipline.

Rule two—another no-brainer. Yet, there are countless unfinished manuscripts floating around out there waiting for the magic moment when their authors find time to finish them. Refer to Rule one.

Rule three—This does not mean NEVER rewrite. It means don’t keep REwriting Chapter One because you want to make it perfect. If you have a critique group, let them offer suggestions as you go along, but forge ahead. Don’t get hung up on one sentence or page or chapter. When the manuscript is finished and you get an editor or agent, they will tell you what more needs to be done. A note here: I have been told by fans of Heinlein that he really DID NOT ever rewrite! I think that may be a little extreme! One of my favorite authors, though, the late Robert B. Parker also said he never rewrote anything. I wish I could be that confident in my writing!

Rule four—May be the hardest rule of all. It’s scary to launch your baby on the world, but you have to. Research markets, research agents and editors, network at conventions. Get it out there.

Rule five—I take it back. This may be the hardest rule. If you’re lucky, you’ll strike gold right out of the box. If not, take whatever comfort you can from knowing that authors from J. K. Rowling to Stephen King have faced rejection. Many rejections. It’s different when it happens to you. It’s personal and it hurts, especially if it comes in a form letter. On the other hand, sometimes you receive a real letter offering advice and extending an offer to reread the manuscript after you make whatever rewrites are suggested. This is a very GOOD rejection letter. It means you’re on the right track.

Okay—let’s move on to some of my own personal guidelines:

1. You want to write the great genre novel—read that genre. To grab an audience, you need to know what it wants.

2. Now that you are familiar with what that audience wants, write for that audience.

3. Learn about conflict—creating it, resolving it.

4. Structure your story for maximum impact.

5. Beginnings and endings are most important—learn to make them so good, your readers will not be able to put the book down once they start and disappointed when they get to the end because they want more.

Rules three, four and five will be covered in subsequent lessons.

As for rules one and two, I know the popular conception is that since it often takes two years for a book to go from acceptance by a publisher to release, if you write what’s hot in the market NOW, by the time your book is released, the wave has passed. Perhaps. On the other hand, if you write the book you WANT to write, if it’s well written and compelling, it doesn’t matter what’s “hot” in the market. Well-written stories find an audience.

Remember, the best writers are readers. They read everything…fiction and nonfiction, genre and literary works. And they write. Everyday.

One well-known and prolific writer, the late Elmore Leonard, had his own set of rules. But they can be summed up with this: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

Amen to that.

Next month we’ll start looking at developing our characters.