Plotting

No, not what you’re thinking… this isn’t a lesson on how to plot.

This is a musing on how plotting happens.

Which means?

I was shoveling a foot of snow out of my driveway last Tuesday afternoon and I found myself plotting. I’ve been in a restaurant trying to keep my mind on the conversation at my table, and found myself plotting. I’ve been watching a movie, and found myself plotting.

It’s insidious. It creeps into my consciousness no matter what I’m doing. It’s either the story I’m currently working on or it’s the one I’m planning to work on next. It’s a new character that’s begging to be introduced or an old character that does something unexpected. It’s the answer to the corner I’ve painted myself into. It’s the ending I didn’t see coming.

Plotting is a fluid process. Even when I’ve carefully laid the story out scene by scene, I’m often surprised by an idea that seems to pop into my head. It’s what makes writing so much fun.

But not always for those who have to live with you. Sometimes my husband will be chattering away and suddenly he’ll stop and look at me. “You haven’t heard a thing I’ve said, have you?” he’ll ask.

He doesn’t even wait for an answer. “You’re plotting, aren’t you?”

Can’t deny it. I’m a writer. It’s what I do.

Except during the Super Bowl this year… Best.Superbowl.Ever.

So, how about you? Where do you do your best plotting?

Yes, Virginia….

Okay, I'm doing something totally out of character for me. It's Wednesday and my post is due up tomorrow. Have I prepared one? No. Hence this impromptu entry which may or may not succeed. If it does, I thank the spirit of Christmas. If it doesn't, well, our intrepid editor, Patricia, will surely let me know.

What's on my mind? I imagine the same things that are on the mind of every RMFW member this time of year. First, the holidays. I think I've finished my shopping, but I always think that two weeks before Christmas and something (or someone) springs to mind and I'm off again. I've shopped online more than I ever have this year. AND I've had packages sent directly to the recipients instead of repacking and shipping them myself. Maybe not so personal, but a time and money saver for sure!

Which brings me to the second topic. Do you spend too much money at Christmas? I'm sure I do. But I wouldn't change it. I love finding the perfect gift for a friend or relative. I shop by item and not price tag. I'm also adding a special touch this year. Since I'm trying to downsize and no longer put up a big tree, I'm giving away ornaments that I've accumulated through the years. My daughter already has our heirloom ornaments, but these are "special moment" ornaments collected on vacations, etc. The recipients won't recognize the significance, I'm sure, but I'm happy to pass them on to good homes.

Next, writing. I have--count'em--four projects going at once. I didn't think I could do more than one book at a time. But let's face it, the publishing world has changed. Readers don't want to wait a year for a book anymore. While the traditional houses seem to think that's still the norm, we who are morphing into "hybrid" authors, know it's not. It's tough, for sure. But I firmly believe to succeed nowadays, AT LEAST two books or novellas or anthologies a year are  not only desirable but necessary. That means settling that butt in the chair for more hours than ever before.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanzaa or the winter solstice, this is the time to reflect on the good things in your life. I love Thanksgiving because it's an excuse to overindulge, but this time of year, friends and family are even more in the forefront of my thoughts. I'm happy that my daughter is happy and settled in her life, that she's found a life partner. I'm happy to have critique and writing partners that I count as friends. I'm happy to have achieved a measure of success, however small, in what is my passion as well as my work. I'm happy to have a family who loves and supports me.

And I'm grateful to RMFW. I know many people say it, but I can testify it's true. I never would have gotten published had it not been for this organization. You who are aspiring writers, took an important first step when you joined. Pat yourself on the back for that, and take advantage of all the gifts RMFW has to offer you.

It's as close to a writing Santa Claus as you're ever going to find!

Happy Holidays!

 

Immortality – would you really want it?

I first published this post two years ago on another blog, but recently, I got into a discussion about immortality and it made me revisit the subject.

I write about immortal characters –vampires and more recently, a siren.

If you write about vampires, immortality is a subject you give a lot of thought. It goes with the territory. Besides needing to drink blood to survive, the one constant in all vampire mythos is eternal life. In fact, it’s what distinguishes vampires from other supernatural creatures—while a werewolf, for instance, emphasizes what is mortal in us—primal urges—a vampire emphasizes what is immortal—never ending life.

As I get older, the thought of immortality sounds better and better. For the first time in my life, I may have more years behind me than ahead of me. It’s scary. I think back on all that’s happened in my lifetime. Wonders of space and technology, both for good and bad, are opening up new frontiers.

Who wouldn’t want to be around for a hundred or a thousand more years to see what will be accomplished?

But at what cost?

My protagonist, Anna Strong, a newly turned vampire, has a human family and she deals with the ramifications on a daily basis. She knows she will have to face the loss of everyone she has ever known and loved. Can she ever regain the warmth of a family? Or will her existence be reduced to mere survival?

Can vampires fall in love? Can they really care for each other? Power and control are part of the makeup of a vampire. Does being forced to associate with such beings make eternal life more of a curse than a blessing? In literature, vampires often seek relationships with humans and not just as a convenient food source. Perhaps vampires recognize that having a finite life span enables mortals to have deeper, more meaningful relationships than immortals with unbounded lives.

In the case of Emma Monroe, the siren in The Fallen Siren series, while she is not a predator, she, too, is a cursed character who has been sentenced to live as a mortal until she can redeem herself in the eyes of the vindictive goddess, Demeter.

Her crime? Allowing Demeter’s daughter to be kidnapped by Hades. No matter that she and her sisters were tricked by Hades. No matter that the loss of their friend Persephone was as devastating to them as it was to her mother. No matter that Demeter got her daughter back. Emma roams from one mortal life to another, prohibited from finding love, alone, separated even from her sisters. Redemption is her only hope and in this life, the way she tries to accomplish this is by rescuing women in peril with the FBI’s Kidnapped and Missing Persons Division.

A high price to pay for immortality.

So the question I put to you today, is would you accept the “gift” of immortality? How much would you be willing to give up to live forever?

I look forward to your comments.

PS. If you’re curious about the Fallen Siren series, there is a free prequel novella, Captured, available on Amazon. Hope you enjoy it!

Halloween – yea or nay?

Here we are the second week of October and already, I’m thinking Halloween.

I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween.

Oh, when I was a kid, we did the costumes and trick or treat thing. And in high school there were the parties. In college, I was much too “serious” a student to join a sorority. I was engaged to a military man so campus life for me consisted of attending classes and the occasional civil rights demonstration (this was the sixties, after all).

Then it was onto life on various military posts. Again, there were parties, but I can’t ever remember wearing a costume to one. When I had my daughter, we did fun things with her. But in the way of the world, she grew up and wanted to do her own Halloween things with her own friends.

So it was back to ignoring the holiday.

Then I started writing vampire stories. In formulating one story line, I discovered that Halloween had an interesting history rich in plot possibilities. What was that history?

1. Present day Halloween traditions can be traced to the ancient Celtic Day of the Dead.

2. Wearing costumes and giving out food were protection from, and an offering to, the souls of the dead, believed to be out and about on that day. Dressing like fairies, witches and demons and performing antics in exchange for food is the genesis of trick or treating.

3. The customs of bobbing for apples and carving pumpkins go back even further to the holiday of Samhain (pronounced sah-ween), a celebration of the harvest.

4. Samhain was the biggest and most important holiday of the Celtic year. It was the day the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld. People sacrificed animals, fruits and vegetables and lit bonfires to aid the dead on their journey and keep them away from the living.

5. Christian missionaries were responsible for changing the practices of the Celtic people. In 601 AD, they assigned November 1st as All Saints Day, a substitute for Samhain, to replace the Celtic’s own holiday. But Samhain never died out completely. The evening before was (and is) still celebrated as the day of the traveling dead.

Of course, I’ve simplified and abbreviated the history. There’s a wealth of information on line if you want to learn more. The point is on October 31st, the dead are thought to be able to walk the earth. I used it as the chance for a witch to call up a demon. There are countless other possibilities.

Halloween takes on a much more exotic and dangerous element if you look at it as an ancient people once did. Maybe that’s why I’ve never liked the holiday. The little kiddies in the cute witch or devil costumes look harmless. But what about the adult in that Jason mask? Or that spooky figure dressed up like a demon? This is the one night of the year that you can’t always trust your eyes.

So, how about you? Do you love Halloween? Do you dress up and set those inhibitions free? What costume have you worn that was (or is) your absolute favorite? Or are you like me, sulking in the dark on Halloween, lights out, waiting for the night to be over?

Or maybe plotting how to use this night of the walking dead in your next book?

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!!