Author Archives: jeannecstein

About jeannecstein

Jeanne Stein is the award winning, national bestselling author of the Urban Fantasy series, The Anna Strong Vampire Chronicles. Anna Strong was named one of Paranormal Fantasy’s Top ten Ass-Kicking Heroines by Barnes and Nobles’s reviewer, Paul Goat Allen in 2013. Jeanne also has numerous short story credits, including the novella, Blood Debt, from the New York Times bestselling anthology, Hexed. Jeanne lives in Denver, CO and is active in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (where she was honored by winning the Writer of the Year award in 2008.) She has taught at numerous conferences and on-line academies. Her newest venture, The Fallen Siren Series, is paranormal romance written in collaboration with Samantha Sommersby under the pseudonym S. J. Harper. The first book in that series, Cursed, debuted last year. A prequel novella, Captured, is available free on Amazon and the second book in the series, Reckoning, will be released October 7.

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.

Lesson Two: Where to start? Point of View, Setting and World Building

By Jeanne C. Stein

The topics we’re going to cover today involve some basics of storytelling. In fact to some of you, this may be nothing but review. Especially if you were lucky enough to attend last weekend’s conference. It’s the first one in the seventeen years I’ve been a member of RMFW that I had to miss. I’m going through withdrawals. Anyway, if so, skip it and come back next month when we’re going to tackle some “rules” of genre writing.

The first consideration of any work is determining whose story we’re going to tell. Point of view. Whether you plan to use multiple POV’s or one, establishing our protagonist and antagonist are crucial to good story telling.

First, then, what is POV and what are the different kinds? Let’s review the most popular briefly:

1. First person – the one telling the story. Told in one perspective, the narrator’s, as he or she experiences it.

I saw the boy the same time he saw me.

2. Third person – the one telling the story is a witness; may or may not be not involved directly in the story.

She saw the boy at the same time he saw her.

3. Limited omniscient – the “God” point of view. Everything is revealed through a non-participant in the story. Allows you to relay events happening to more than one character in the story, but feels more detached.

She was looking at the boy and at the same time he was looking at her.

There are others, Second person for example, but it is a difficult one to pull off and not used as frequently.

You looked at the boy at the same time he looked at you.

There are many resources available if you need more examples or clarification. If you decide to write in more than one POV, for instance, first and third, there are some factors you must consider to keep the narrative from being jumpy. You can change perspective via chapter changes or drop downs. You can keep POV shifts uniform, that is first person, third person, first person, third person. The thing to keep away from is head-jumping or shifting from one POV to another in the same paragraph or page. That is extremely difficult to pull off and often is very distracting to the reader. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Can you think of an author who pulls this off smoothly? Nora Roberts springs to mind but she’s had years (decades) of practice.

Once we’ve decided how we’re going to tell the story, we cast our characters.

What defines a compelling, interesting protagonist? She should be multi-dimensional, meaning she has inner conflicts as well as outer problems. She should be believable and consistent throughout the story. That is not to say that she cannot grow from the beginning of the book to the end. She must grow in order to make her sympathetic—we want the reader to be cheering her on, after all. To that end, she must have clear motives and goals. As for physical description, some writers are very specific in describing physical characteristics, others, not so.

Whether you want to describe your character down to the mole on her rear or paint her in broader brush stokes is a matter of personal style. Devoting four pages of your first chapter, though, to a minute blow by blow of your heroine staring at herself in the mirror is a good way to lose your readers before you’ve had a chance to hook them. We’ll discuss this more in Lesson 5.

What about the antagonist? The same rules apply when introducing the villain(s) in your story. No matter how horrific his (or her) actions, it’s important to remember that the villain has a reason for doing the things he does. He has clear motives and goals that while they may be in direct conflict to our heroine’s, are as real and compelling to him as her own. Cartoon villains aren’t interesting to a reader, just as a one-dimensional heroine isn’t interesting. The most successful, suspenseful stories are those that keep the reader guessing until the very end. And the highest complement is a reader who says, “I never saw that coming.”

One caveat, however: springing a villain on the reader that we haven’t met anywhere in the story before the end is cheating. As is the “evil twin” ploy. You can hide clues, conceal the villain, create mistaken assumptions to confuse our readers. But don’t cheat. The answer must be buried in the story somewhere.

Some writers devote a great deal of time to defining their characters, writing detailed biographies that cover everything from IQ to their childhood pets. If that appeals to you, by all means do it. Horoscope signs, Tarot Cards, Myers-Briggs personality tests, Enneagram Types—use whatever you want to flesh out your characters. What you mustn’t do is include every detail of the results in your narrative. Better to show personality traits in the reactions of your protag to story events than tell us why she’s reacting a certain way.

Of course, some writers start with a story and construct the setting and characters around it. Nothing wrong with that approach. Whether we decide to use a real city (or rural setting) or to make one up, anchoring our readers in things they recognize is the first step to getting them to accept the things they don’t, especially in a genre like Urban Fantasy.

An example of this is Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. We watch Rosemary decorate her New York apartment, make curtains, set up a nursery. It’s so real, we fully accept that in the apartment down the hall, a powerful coven of witches has enlisted her own egocentric husband in a conspiracy against her.

Some writers use real places, others find it easier to create a fictional locale, still others use a combination of the two. It makes no difference. How you describe your setting, how authentic you make it feel, is the important thing. If you are going to use a real place, familiarize yourself with it. You can take certain liberties (I turned the streets in Mission Beach around a little so Anna’s cottage would face the ocean) but if you say a highway runs north/south and it really runs east/west, someone will notice. And they’ll call you on it. Readers pay attention to detail. This is where Google Earth and Google Maps come in handy. Except when done intentionally, there really isn’t an excuse for getting a point of geography wrong. Literally, the whole world is at your fingertips via the web.

Obviously, you have to be careful about the way you use real businesses or people. Calling the real-life mayor of your town by name and then branding him an ax-murderer or pedophile will likely get you in trouble.

So once you’ve decided where you want to set your story, the next decision is to define the paranormal aspects of the place. This is the crux of world building in genres like UF and it’s great fun. How do you want to populate your universe? Is magic universal? Or are humans unaware of the otherworldly creatures in your story? Do you want to use vampires or werewolves or shapeshifters or any of the more exotic paranormal creatures—fairies or angels or demons?

Don’t be afraid to tweak the mythology either. You can change any “rule” you want as long as you explain it to the reader. If it’s logical to your story, the reader will accept it. Just remember: once you set your rules, stick to them. If your protagonist has to hide his real nature from the world at large, it adds another layer of conflict to the story—particularly if exposure would mean becoming the target of bigotry and fear.

Think about the story you want to tell—define your protagonist and antagonist, set the world, populate it.

We’ll end this lesson with another interviewee: Anton Strout is the popular author of the Simon Candrous series and the new Spellmason Chronicles. His novels are perfect examples of UF. See if you recognize why.

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?

I like the tag, personally. I know some writers hate to be pigeonholed, but writing is a business and there’s simply no escaping categorization. And hey! There’s some good company in my category- Butcher, Hamilton, you- and Urban Fantasy sounds like so much better a category name than Buffy/Ghostbusters Fan Fiction!

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

My series takes place mostly in and around Manhattan, which is about as urban as you get. And my main character works for the Department of Extraordinary Affairs’ Other Division, which is an underfunded agency dealing with paranormal activities. These are folks trying to get through their workday, somewhat normal people dealing with fantastical things happening all around them that the average New Yorker tends to block out or not pay attention to. So my writing is a mix of city life and the paranormal that lands me smack dab in the middle of UF.

3. Did you set out to write UF?

No. I set out to write a story about this average guy named Simon, but over time, I realized I wanted to tell a ghost story/mystery set in New York City. I wanted to write the type of things I like to read… or watch. I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan. I love his mix of the fantastical and the humorous and when I write, I strive towards that type of balance in my own work. I was also a huge fan of Douglas Adams and his humor and I didn’t really know many humorous urban fantasy authors were out there, but I knew I wanted to be one once I looked at the first draft of Dead To Me and said “Oh, that’s what I was trying to do.”

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

I think there are several reasons. I think readers like stories about familiar fairy tale monsters set in places they can identify with, such as the modern world. There’s built in accessibility. Also, I moved to New York because there was a romantic notion to it all, and mixing the spooky in with that really appealed to me. When I set a scene, I try to think what the average reader knows about New York. I can skip describing a location for three pages, simply by mentioning a scene outside the Empire State Building. Even if the reader’s never been, they still have seen it in movies or on TV or in other books. That gives me more time to spend giving them the payoff from character development and dialogue. Perhaps it’s a bit of a shortcut, but I think it just makes sense for the writer using the modern world.

You can check at www.antonstrout.com or the League of Reluctant Adults for future release dates.

* * * *

Set in New York, the protagonist a bureaucrat employed by an agency that deals with the paranormal—Urban Fantasy—genre.

Next time we’ll look at how you write for a genre audience.

Adventures in genre writing…Lesson One

By Jeanne Stein

Welcome, everyone. Let’s have some fun.

I suppose most of you looked at the topic question and shrugged. Genre is everything that’s not literary, right? It’s what Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers is all about, right?

But the subcategories of genre books have both expanded and tightened in the last few years. An example is Urban Fantasy.

Until around 2002, all paranormal works (and I’m using this term to refer to the type of book in which science or technology do not play a major role in the story) were categorized as fantasy, horror, or paranormal romance. Each was specific in its content and readers knew what to expect when they picked up a book from Carol Berg or Robin Owens (fantasy), Anne Rice or Stephen King (horror), J. D. Robb or Christine Feehan (paranormal romance.)

Paranormal romance, in particular, was (and is) a hugely successful genre. However, there are rules to be followed in any romance category. The most important is that by the end of the book (or story arc if it’s a series,) the hero and heroine MUST end up together. Happily-ever-after is not only expected, it’s demanded. The romance is the driving force of the book whether the characters are human, otherworldly, or a mixture of the two.

Into this mix came a new type of book. Edgy, contemporary, set in an urban (or suburban or rural) setting, generally written in first person with a kick-ass heroine who does not depend on a male partner for protection or to save her when the going gets tough. The biggest distinguishing factor, however, is that at the end of the book, there will most likely be NO happily-ever-after for our protagonist. She may have a lover, may even find herself in a committed relationship, But in urban fantasy, that relationship will be constantly challenged and will not define who our heroine is or how she lives her life. The romance, if it’s there at all, will play a minor role in the story.

The tag “Urban Fantasy” was coined specifically to differentiate these stories from paranormal romance. The interesting thing, however, is that readers of paranormal romance made the shift to UF in record numbers. Not in place of paranormal romance but in addition to it.

The same could be said for the mystery genre. We now have contemporary mystery (Marcus Sackey), historical mystery (Josephine Tey), suspense (Lee Child), thriller (James Patterson), crime novels (Lawrence Block), police procedural (J.A.Jance), the private eye (Robert B. Parker), cozy (Agatha Christy), legal (John Grisham)…the list goes on. Like Urban Fantasy, each has its own characteristics and a reader knows going in what to expect.

As do the agents and editors. Which is why it’s so important to properly classify your book. It’s not enough to tell an agent I’m writing a romance. You have to tell them the kind of romance you’re writing. Is it contemporary (Nora Roberts), historical (Catherine Coulter), erotica (E.L. James), category (meaning the type of lines put out by Harlequin or Silhouette—RMFW’s own Cindy Myers fit here), Regency (Elizabeth Michels), Fantasy or Paranormal (Christine Feehan), Time Travel (Diana Gabaldon), Gothic (Mary Stewart), Suspense (Jayne Ann Krentz).

So here’s your first assignment. Categorize your WIP. And if you have a well-known author whose work contains the same elements of yours, the first line of your query might be: Fans of John Grisham will love my legal thriller (BLANK). Share if you’d like.

In the introduction I mentioned a list of authors who will be adding their own particular spin on genre tags and how it affects their writing. One of the most popular is Charlaine Harris. Charlaine began writing straight mysteries—the popular Aurora Teagarden and Lily Bard (Shakespeare) series. It was Sookie Stackhouse, debuting in 2001 that made her a super-star. The popular Southern Vampire Series caught the imagination of the reading (and now television) public in a huge way. In its last season, True Blood is wrapping up. But on the horizon her cozy series, the Amanda Teagarden mysteries, has been picked up by Hallmark. Her latest work, Midnight Crossroads, is a paranormal mystery set in another fictional town, Midnight, Texas.

Here’s what she had to say:

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?

I write Rural Fantasy, as anyone who’s read my books will appreciate. But I’m always lumped in with Urban Fantasy authors. I don’t mind. My work suits that tone, though it’s distinctly not urban. I’m not a tag lover, but at least when you say “He/she writes Urban Fantasy,” there’s a general understanding of what that comprises.

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

Supernatural characters, a blend of humanity and the fantastic, and the dark workings of the magical world affecting the mundane world of regular humans.

3. Did you set out to write UF?

Ha! That term didn’t exist when I began to write the Sookie Stackhouse books. There was Laurell K. Hamilton, and there was me, at least as far as crossover writers went. Some straight science fiction writers had been writing works that would now be classified as UF, but I wasn’t familiar with them.

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

I think almost everyone would like to believe there’s more. They’d like to believe that even if you have to pay your electric bill and worry about your kid’s grades in school, there are werewolves around the corner and vampires in the bar.

_________

Next lesson, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of genre writing—determining point of view, setting and world building. Think about your characters—whose story (or stories) you want to tell—and their relationship to the world.

Any questions? Put them in remarks.  Want to share your log line? Share away.  See you in September (egad!!)

Adventures in Genre Writing- Part I

Thanks for visiting this RMFW blog. My name is Jeanne Stein. I currently write two series: The Anna Strong Vampire novels and a new series, The Fallen Siren Series with co-author Samantha Sommersby, under the name S.J. Harper (I’m the ‘J’.) I also have stories in over a dozen anthologies, two of which made the New York Times Bestseller list. I write Urban Fantasy. I’ll be contributing each month on the second Thursday of the month. And I’ll be talking about the craft of genre writing.

What we’ll be covering in these topics applies to all genres. While some are specific to UF/Paranormal/ SciFi, world building, for instance, most pertain to crafting a good a story. I’ll also talk about the business of writing, something often neglected but very important. The publishing world is changing daily. You need to be aware of how those changes affect you.

. I’ve organized the topics as follows:

1. What is genre? Descriptions, Author Lists, Examples

2. Where do you start, especially in the Scifi/Paranormal/UF world? POV, Setting and World Building

3. How do you write for a genre audience? Some “rules”

4. Character development

5. Story Structure – Plotting, Inciting Incident

6. Dialogue – Putting words in Your Characters’ Mouths

7. Conflict – What is it? Why is it important?

8. How to keep a reader engaged — Creating and Maintaining Suspense

9. How much Sex? How much romance?

10. Common Mistakes

11. The Market – Big Press, Small Press, Self-pub

Following the end of most lessons, I’ll include a brief interview with a popular genre author. Among them are Mario Acevedo, Charlaine Harris, Jackie Kessler, Richelle Mead, Lynda Hilburn, Mark Henry, Anton Strout, and Devon Monk. Each will each make an appearance and share some of their thoughts about being characterized as an Urban Fantasy author. A few have sent pictures of their writing spaces. Since if you’re like me and curious about where these successful authors work their magic, I hope you enjoy these glimpses into their working worlds.

I’d like this to be an exchange of ideas. I’ve been writing a long time and published since 2002, but I’m learning new things everyday about writing and the publishing world. I’m happy to share. Writing is a complex, surprising, often frustrating business.

It’s also the best job I’ve ever had.

We’ll only be meeting once a month—but if you have any questions you’d like to see addressed, send them on. I’ll check in here often.

See you in August and we’ll get started!