We sing because we have a song

This week I wrote, “The End.” It’s a rare treat--for me, that is. Some prolific writers (Marie Force comes to mind, and Nora Roberts) can write a full-length novel in 60 days or less. My speed is more like one book a year.

Please indulge me as I savor it. The book: Crimson Secret. Book Four in the Coin Forest series, set during England’s War of the Roses. I even developed a positioning TM tag line for the series: History  made passionate in medieval England.

I love these characters. I lived through their adventures, and they were exotic and breath-taking. I agonized over their life-and-death decisions, and enjoyed their triumphs. I love this story.

Now comes the revision process, during which we reach inside, grab our toes and pull, turning ourselves inside out as each paragraph, page and chapter is reviewed, revised, enhanced, deleted and polished to make it the best story it can be.

After that, my heroic beta readers will read it from cover to cover, and the gem will be polished again.

bird-287109_1920 singing 2.5 in
Because I so love the music, I must join the chorus. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Then, because I’m an independently published author I will work with my book cover designer (my talented daughter, Jalena) to design an eye-catching cover that will provide clear proof of the genre and convince readers to buy it.

To add to that marketing effort, I will solicit reader book reviews, format my novel for Kindle, Nook, iBooks and Kobo and write an intriguing book description. I will send ARCs to procure testimonials. I will blog and tweet and Facebook my way through those pre- and post-release weeks. I will go on blog tours, make community appearances and may produce a video trailer and appear on radio and podcast interviews. I will enter contests, because winning them provides more prestige for the novel.

I used to be a traditionally published author, and I did much of the same work for those novels.

Few people know the work involved for both traditionally published and indie published authors. But we do it, for one book, two books, ten. Thirty. Each novel is a cherished story, one that we hope will bring readers the same joy as it did us.

Why? Why do we do it?

A dear friend of mine, Joya Wonderlight, is a gifted piano teacher with high enthusiasm for children, music, and life.  A plaque on her wall reads, “Use the talents you possess – for the woods would be silent if only the best birds sang.” …many variations exist of this quote, credited to Henry Van Dyke.

An unattributed Chinese proverb says, “A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.”

These concepts are why I write. Writing enriches our lives. Good writing entertains, but it also stimulates the imagination. It validates our human existence, with all its trials and emotions and joys. It enlightens and invites thoughtful reflection. It can improve a reader's afternoon--or change his or her life.

It changes writers' lives, too. To bring a story from beginning to end is a tremendous workout for the mind. We become more aware of universal needs, and the bond we share with all of humanity. And we become better writers, because with each book we write, we become better and better at our craft, and the quality of our message.

Which birds sing the best? That’s a subjective question. Each person’s voice is unique and who among us would want to silence the forest?  Because I so love the music, I must join the chorus.

I love reading my work to my critique partners. We share a unique friendship, and I have come to love them as a special family in my life. We share a passion. I love it when they are pleased with my pages. I love it when I am pleased with their pages. We see and celebrate our progress. These friendships are gifts.

I also love my readers, and reading their reviews of my novels. When a reader writes that they loved my story so much they're going to read it again--when they intuit the theme of my books, love my characters, are eager to read my next release--that I've made the 15th century come alive for them.--it's a heady brew of emotions. Relief. Pleasure. Excitement. Connection. Before I was published, I used to fear reviews. I have discovered that they are another gift.

The other reason I write is because, in addition to the challenge of creating and delivering a story intact from my heart to the page, writing is a form of self-discovery.  I have learned much about my hopes and dreams by creating and following my characters’ desires. And just in case I get so  confident that I think I've conquered the hero's journey with its many satisfying goalposts, life often surprises me.

Which is good. This keeps life interesting, and our pens moving across the page. We sing because we have a song.

Why do you write?

Writers and Public Speaking

A couple of weeks ago, some RMFW author friends and I were discussing book promotion, and the topic of public speaking came up.  Public speaking. As in one of the most fearsome activities a person can do. These brave souls are willing to think about taking heart and book in hand to stand up in front of total strangers. They’ll speak with microphones or just more loudly than normal, they’ll gesture, they’ll change voices with each new character, all in hopes of selling more books. How cool is that!

Carol Berg speaks at RMFW
Public speaker Carol Berg.

I decided to look into what it would take to join or form a speakers’ bureau. To do so, I interviewed Karen Loucks Rinedollar of the Denver Speakers Bureau.  I also joined Toastmasters last May, and have found public speaking a fascinating subject.

JOINING/FORMING A SPEAKER’S BUREAU

Karen was generous with her time and she shared both some thoughts on speaking and on forming a bureau, or place where those looking for speakers can find talent to fill their needs.

“To sell more books?” asked Karen. “To sell more books, write more. Become a New York Times best-selling author before trying to join a speakers’ bureau.”  While kindly said, Karen left no doubt that people wanting to get involved with public speaking need to have credentials that make them more desirable as “draws” to a public speaking event.

But writing more doesn’t necessarily mean writing more books.  She suggested developing a great and actively read blog (I understand RMFW’s blog is always looking for contributors), or writing article in your area of expertise. If your main character is a mad scientist, is it possible to build credibility by writing scientific articles for Popular Science?

“Establish yourself as a professional,” said Karen. “That makes you more attractive as a speaker.” And more likely to be picked up by speakers’ bureaus.

Absolute speaker musts? According to Karen, there are two big items:

  • Have a good website. Event planners look for speakers on-line as much as anywhere else, and you should have a portion of your site dedicated to enticing them.
  • Post great samples of your work—Yes, you can use an iPhone recording as you get started, but be sure to show samples of how you interact with your audience and use your best video clips to do so.

As a parting thought, Karen expressed some caution. “When you work on public speaking part-time, you’ll get part-time success.”

TIPS FROM TOASTMASTERS

When I joined Toastmasters, I had visions of being coached and growing to be the next Steven Colbert. Now I spend a couple of hours each week with people who talk both extemporaneously and in prepared speeches. Colbert? Not so much, but as with a critique group, Toastmasters offers a great opportunity to test your speaking skills, as well as developing other leadership qualities. This organization is well worth the investment.  Here are some tips for public speaking from my time spent among my public speaking friends:

  • Choose a good topic to speak on. Yes, even in a book signing, you’ll want to have something interesting to talk about.  Do you write mysteries? Maybe you can research and talk about local cold cases or what it’s like to ride along with the police as a Citizen’s Academy member. There are four purposes to public speaking: entertain, educate, inform and persuade. Oh, and the persuading doesn’t include, “buy my book” talks.
  • Respect the clock. This one is a very difficult challenge, but I’ve seen speakers who go on five, ten, twenty minutes overtime, and their audiences become uncomfortable and antsy. Practice, practice, practice, with a timer!
  • Be prepared to speak extemporaneously. At many writers’ conferences I have heard speakers talk about how boring it is to be asked things like, “where do you get your ideas?” or “how long does it take to write a whole book?” But, as a librarian friend told me, “These are the questions that readers really want to hear answers to.” So be prepared. Write the story of writing a story. Buy into it, and I think you’ll find some good material for public speaking there.

Are you public speaking to promote your book?  Maybe you can share some tips with the rest of us. Would you like to see “Public Speaking for Authors” at Colorado Gold? Please let me know.

Lessons From Ten Years of Writing

Yes, the lessons I've learned in ten years of writing. This is not to be confused with David Morrell's excellent book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing.

So on my own personal blog, I’ve been meditating on the last ten years. In January of 2006, I joined an RMFW Critique Group in Evergreen (with Jan Gurney and Diane Dodge) and later that same year, I went to my first writers workshop in Big Sur, California.

So it’s been ten years since I got serious about this writing gig. If you want the full Ten Years of AMR experience, you can hit my blog. http://aaronmritchey.com/the-blog/.

So I’m going to bullet point the lessons I’ve learned in no real order. The first one is good, though.

  • Write the books you love. There is no guarantee that if you write the most marketable book in the world that it will go anywhere. Write what you love and excites you. Try to only work on projects that move you emotionally. That’s where the rich stuff is.
  • Know enough about the market to be dangerous and don’t be afraid to write stuff that defies the market. Be bold.
  • It’s more fun to write books people can read than to write books no one but you can read.
  • It all changes. The game changes. The market changes. Strategies change. It all changes.
  • A lot of this game is luck. Play the game a lot.
  • Know your enemy. The enemy is not the industry or other writers or any of that. The enemy is your own laziness, doubt, and fear. Fight that enemy by writing books.
  • Every writer writes in their own way. Embrace your way but stay open to change. If you ever get your hands chopped off, you might need to dictate your books. Or if you're a slow writer, contracts might force you to speed up. Stay flexible.
  • Holding your own book in your hand, your book, your words, never gets old.
  • Don’t comment on reviews. Don’t comment on good reviews and certainly don’t comment on bad. When your friend leaves an iffy reviews, don’t pester them for more details. Let it all go.
  • I can write more and revise less if I plot out my story. I use a Save the Cat outline. Use lots of tools.
  • Be gracious. If you are rich and famous, or if you are poor and struggling, be gracious.
  • Most writers are very nice. Most writers are completely fascinating creatures. The few who aren’t are easily avoidable.
  • Not everyone who has been supportive of you on your rise to fame will be supportive once you get published.
  • Books need to be crafted and they need an outside eye to cut, to smooth, to polish. Find trustworthy people to help you craft both the book you are writing and your writing in general. There is a number of ways to accomplish this: a critique group, a critique partner, beta readers, professional editors, et cetera.
  • A good critique makes you excited to improve the work and a bad critique doesn’t.
  • Embrace the awesome responsibility of being the final judge of your work. Don’t give away your power to those who might not care about your project, who might be jealous, or who might be blind. It’s your book. Be willing to fight for it.
  • Love writing, love your characters, love your worlds. Allow yourself to get lost in the process. Chris Devlin taught me that one.
  • When in doubt, fake it until you make it. If you don’t feel like an entrepreneur or a sales person? Fake it. Stretch. Pretend. The world doesn’t care about how you feel. It cares about what you do.
  • Find a community of authors to support you. When the industry drops an emotional bomb on you, call three different people and talk about it three times. The negative feelings will disappear. If they don’t, find three more people and tell them the story. We heal through our mouths.
  • Read contracts. Don’t sign them if you don’t have a way out or if you lose rights to your book forever. In the words of Prince, forever is a mighty long time. Avoid contracts where your soul is a line item.
  • Fight for what you believe in. Believe in yourself and your books. Fight for them, but not to the death. Life is better than death.
  • Don’t bash and critique other writers or their books. Unless they ask you to. Then ask them if they want the full-on spicy kung-pao critique before you unload.
  • Published books don’t need your critique. It’s done. Over. Be supportive and if you can’t be supportive, be silent. As a writer, avoid leaving scathing reviews. What’s the point?
  • Finish projects. There will always be a shiny new idea wearing red lipstick and a short skirt. Stay with your current project and finish it before you start buying the new idea drinks.
  • Plan the book, write the book, revise the book, query the book. If no one touches it, publish it yourself. And move on to the next project.
  • Do things that make you uncomfortable. Do things that scare you. Be heroic and remember, the dark moment always comes before the grand victory. We are blessed and damned as artists in this world. Embrace the journey. Because it will all be over soon enough.
  • Holding your book is holding the minutes of your life in your hands. And the best part? The books will live on, maybe quietly, maybe loudly, but they will live on. Writing books is cheating death.
  • Training to be an author should entail the following: torture (learning to handle pain), sales (learning how to sell anything to anyone), and taking holy orders (learning the discipline of an ordained monk). And maybe writing lessons. Maybe.

And so, those are some of the lessons I’ve learned. It’s been a good ten years, but do you know what? I’m looking forward to the next ten. I’ve never been stronger, I’ve never been wiser, and though much is taken, much abides.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

Real Life Research

I’ve always written historical fiction, mainly romance, which required a great deal of in-depth research, digging around in old documents, looking at ancient maps, reading tattered journals, even finding out what they ate that last night on the Titanic. Google was my very best friend. But after the latest “thanks but no thanks e-mail” I’ve decided to start working on a more contemporary series, and suddenly a whole new world of research opened up.

Now, I can actually find living, breathing humans who’ve been there, done that. I’ve used in-person interviews before, quite a lot, actually, for articles published in magazines and newspapers. Now it’s time to put those interview skills to work for book research.Interviewing

I started out like I always do, with a list of questions that I knew I needed answered to be able to fill in holes in my story. But the fun part was that several of the answers actually started a chain of domino reactions that took my story in different and exciting directions.

If I’d been sticking to internet or books for my research, I would have missed out on that. It’s a little out of my comfort zone, because it means going to places I wouldn’t choose to normally, like the police station. Putting myself into uncomfortable situations, like having a martial arts specialist show me what to do if I’m on my back, an assailant sitting on me, being strangled (NOT fun). But it also meant finding out some cool tricks of the trade for restoring classic cars.

Phaeton with title copy

My point is that in-person research is hugely valuable. Not only do you get information you need, but you see expressions and hear inflections in their voices that give you insight into their emotions. All of that can help your story be more realistic.

I also received more information than I needed, but since I’m working on a series, I’m pretty sure the “extra” will be useful somewhere down the line. I have a couple more people I need to meet with, and some of them are going to be difficult to find, but I’m persistent, and I can write around the missing pieces for a while. I could end up having to re-write some parts once I get that data, but I usually do with my historicals, as well, when I find a tidbit that I just can’t leave out.

I think I’m going to enjoy being in the real world again. But then, there is that paranormal, historical part of the series that will give me my history fix….

How about you? Do you use in-person interviews to add realism?

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About Your Readers

As a writer, we research. It’s what we do. We research settings. Disorders. Things that go bump in the night. Urban and suburban legends and the occasional garden gnome murder spree. We know what the height of fashion was in 1723 and who wore it best. We know our guns. Our poisons. And the quickest way to a man’s heart, which is usually a knife and not food as we’ve always heard.

We KNOW this because we’ve researched it.

Okay, maybe not the last thing, but the rest of it.

So what do you know about the/your reader?

The being a general reader in your genre, and then more importantly, the reader of your books. How old are they? What do they do for a living? How do you gain more of people like them and keep those you have?

Now many authors might not care, but not you, you smart and very attractive author. You know that the reader is the very reason you publish books. Without him or her, you might as well daydream, and avoid those pesky plot holes and dialogue tags.

The best way to research who your reader is and where to find them is by asking your current ones. I have a survey on my monthly newsletter. I can change it depending on what sort of marketing I’ll be doing and what burning questions I have about my readers. This works two-fold, I get promotional insight and I also invite my readers to engage with me.

It shows that I am genuinely interested in them. In who they are and how we can interact. Basically, I am totally nosy. If you aren’t or you don’t have this kind of time, which is fine as you can still gain the insights you need, I suggest sticking with the more generic version of demographic stats each genre has on the reader. Just google Romance reader statics and you’ll find plenty of info.

We have the how, but what about the why? How does knowing what platform a reader prefers will sell more of my books? If you’re self-published the answer might be apparent, publish to that platform. If you’re traditionally published, it’s a little harder to see.

According to Nielsen data, Amazon holds a 61% share of the ereader market. Now you as an author don’t have much say in where or the platform your publisher chooses. But you can use this information to limit your marketing scope. Why not try placing ads targeted to your reader demographics on a Kindle? I don’t suggest it though, as another stat comes into play. Most people aren’t reading on the ereader itself, but using an app on a mobile device. Wasted ad dollars, all found out because of reader research!

See, I saved you a few bucks right there.

I hope you see the value of reader research and will become a fellow stats geek with me, as I hate to geek out alone.

What type of reader research do you do? How have you used it in the past? I have plenty of ideas, so let’s talk readers!

Tweetleedee, Tweetleedum: Give Us Your Twitter Link

Twitter logoHere's the chance for all you Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers to share the link to your Twitter ID (and we'll hope everyone who visits this blog post follows the link to your page and follows you on Twitter).

First share your name and @ ID -- as in:

Patricia Stoltey  @PStoltey

Then sign in to Twitter, go to your profile page, and give us the real url to your Twitter page -- as in:

https://twitter.com/PStoltey

That's all there is to it!

Tweet, tweet!!

The Panic

Do you get panicked about your writing or your writing career? Do you think you're the only one?

Most of us feel the panic from newbies to old veterans of the publishing business.

The panic particularly hits me and my friends when we're behind deadline, of course. Or at the end of a contract where the books haven't done particularly well and you know that series (or your career with the house) will be dropped.

Or if you're in the self-publishing business, when you lay out a large sum for advertising and wonder if you'll get any kind of return. Or on the release of your first piece of work. Or crafting your next story. Or behind on YOUR deadlines.

And, yeah, this includes me. I'm only slightly behind my schedule for Ghost Maker (due April 30), but I'm nervous. I'm also working on releasing my first self-published novella, and that seems like a climb up Long's Peak, complete with mis-steps, long drops and fatal falls. Recently a situation came up with Berkley that had me so scared and angry that I had disturbing dreams.

Now, I've given workshops on overcoming the panic, and at the Colorado Gold Conference. I HAVE the tools to work through it. Many tools.

But I delay in putting them to use because I'm locked into trying to pretend I can write like normal.

Yesterday, I finally got out of the house and took my travel computer elsewhere to work. And, yes, I got my daily wordcount done, a good amount of research stuck in my head, and a cup of good French onion soup. It helped.

Like I said, I have tools. So here are some of them for you, in no particular order:

If you don't know where the panic is coming from you might want to journal (handwritten!) Or freewrite until it spills out. Freewriting is pencil/pen to the page and write. Don't think, write, no going back, erasing, fixing spelling, nothing. Mind and emotion dump. If you're using standard 8 x 11 paper, a new freewriting person should get to the point about 1.5 pages in.

Or write down all your fears about the current work: the hero is wimpy, the heroine is unsympathetic, the writing is trite and full of cliches. Drain all that negativity out of yourself. Then destroy that paper. Rip it up (do not burn it on your desk full of papers).

Or, while we're on this topic, write out all the things you love about this story. Why you wanted to write it. (And YOU are ALWAYS the only one who can write this particular story). Reaffirm that it's an important-to-you piece of work.

Look at your office, is it too neat (ha, ha) or messy (bingo!). Remedy that.

Take a shower and linger. Or a bath, even, I've had friends say that submerging the whole body (yes, the HEAD that has the BRAIN) under water.

Exercise, get out and get walking and thinking.

Go further, get out of the house to write. Go to a coffee shop or other place where you know others will be working on computers, minimize distractions. Or, if you're writing about a local place (for me, Manitou Springs) and feeling flush, go spend a night there with your computer and write, write, write.

Can't face the blank white screen? Change the color of your document if you can on your PC, or if you use Scrivener, or pull out a piece of paper and start writing by hand.

Subliminals and sound waves. These work for me (or I've convinced myself they work for me). Apps and "music" that come over earphones at a certain frequency to change your brainwaves – some I have are labeled "Morning Espresso," "Concentration," "Creative Thinking," "Lateral Thinking."

Just Write. Put your butt in a chair, set a timer for a certain amount of time (I prefer a half hour) and write. Jot down phrases that come to you about the scene that you can work with, a bit of dialogue.

So those are ten techniques to take you out of your mind/emotion panic and act, but, really, if you know that going and sitting in a salt light cave will help, do that.

We can all do this. And if the panic seems to bad, call a friend, we've pretty much all been there. When I talk to my friends and we expose our panic, we always end the call or the chat session with, "YOU CAN DO IT!"

Yes, you can.

May all your writing dreams come true.

Getting Your Priorities Straight

"We all have the same number of hours in the day."

I don't know about you, but when somebody says this, I generally want to kick them in the shins or slap them with a large, dead fish.

It always seems to get said with a self righteous air, as if the person uttering the words has everything in their life perfectly under control. They are never late for work. Never miss a deadline. Never find themselves scrambling to fulfill an obligation at the very last second.

The fact that the words are true just makes them more irritating.

Unless somebody has invented a time machine and is doing an incredible job of keeping it hidden in their garage, we all get the same allotment of twenty-four hours in a day. Except this week, of course, when those of us living in misguided countries have an hour stolen from us, but that's another story.

Some of us have a lot more living to cram into our time allowance than other people do. Some are contented with a slow and steady space. They go to work, come home, pet the cats, eat a tidy, low fuss dinner, watch TV and go to bed. I don't personally know anybody like this, although I'm told they exist. I don't think I've ever met anybody who felt they had more than enough hours in the day. People only trot out the "we all have the same number of hours in the day" statement when they're talking to somebody else.

My point is that until Science and Magic get their acts together and create a time turner, we're going to have to muddle along with not enough time to do All The Things. We can try, and sometimes even pull it off for awhile, but sooner or later we have to sleep. And the body, mind, and spirit will all rebel at some point if we push too hard, and find a way to force us to slow down. A rest enforced by physical illness, depression, anxiety, or some other system breakdown will slow us down more in the long run than a more reasonable pace.

So what's the answer, then, for those of us overwhelmed by the drive to do everything?

I think it starts with setting priorities.

I ran into a Facebook meme the other day about this which was pretty simple and brilliant. Every time you catch yourself saying, "I don't have time," change those words to "That's not a priority." And then listen closely to yourself.

"I'd love to write but I just don't have time," becomes, "Writing is not a priority."

"I know I should read but I don't have time," becomes, "Reading is not a priority."

And - harsh reality time – maybe these things are not priorities for you. Maybe your priorities right now are raising kids, building a career, and binge watching The Walking Dead. No problem. If those are the priorities, then do those things.

Or, maybe, The Walking Dead can wait, and writing could fill that time slot.

It's all about awareness and choices. You can find writing time and reading time, you can find time to play with your kids. You can find time to clean your house from top to bottom and do Pinterest crafts and bake chocolate chip cookies. But you might not be able to choose all of those things, all at the same time.

CHALLENGE

Take a few minutes, five at the most, to jot down a list of priorities, things like career and family and writing. Don't get deep into the weeds on this – just jot them down as they come to you, in no particular order.

Got your list?

Great. Now pick the top five. This part is harder. Be honest and ignore the niggling guilt if your true priorities aren't what you think they should be. Also be aware that priorities shift. Maybe family was the top priority when your kids were little, but now they're in college and you're focused on another goal. It doesn't mean you don't love your family if another priority rises to the top. It just means you are choosing to focus your energy elsewhere. Arrange your top five in order of current importance, with number one being the thing you would keep if you were forced to relinquish the others, and so on. Hold onto your finished list. Pin it on your bulletin board, or stash it wherever you keep such things. Whatever works for you.

Now, for the next week, observe how you spend your time. How many hours spent sleeping? How many hours on the internet? How many hours with the family? Watching TV? Writing? Reading? At the day job? Cleaning house? Jot down notes at the end of every day and make sure you account for all 24 hours.

At the end of your week of time observation, sit down with your priority list and your observation notes and compare them. How much time are you spending on your priorities? How much time are you spending on things that didn't even make the priority cut? If your priorities and how you spend your time match up, chances are you're feeling reasonably good about what you accomplish in your life. If they don't, my guess is that you're feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.

The next step is to figure out how to focus your energy on the things that matter most to you. This comes at a cost, by the way. We don't get anything for free, and no matter what we'd like to believe, we can't have it all.

I'll be talking more about this next month.

 

Should We Write About What We Know?: Experience versus Research … by Mariko Tatsumoto Layton

How often have you heard that you should write about what you know? At the same time, you might hear that we can write about anything we want, we just need to research the subject matter. This debate of personal experience versus research is like nature versus nurture.

I write middle-grade multicultural novels with Japanese protagonists. I was born in Japan and immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight years old. Even after our move, our home was very Japanese. I know a lot about being Japanese, what it feels like, how others treat us, the misconceptions, etc. So, I’m qualified to write about a Japanese protagonist. Even then, my character might be training to become a sumo wrestler, or is a violin prodigy, or is a samurai boy, something or someone I’ve never been or experienced. In those cases, I read books on sumo training or history books on samurais. I imagine what a boy might feel or think and write about it. But am I portraying those characters correctly? Am I doing them justice?

Have you read books with a subject you know well and seen errors? Does that aggravate you? An acquaintance of mine read Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral. Early in the book, the funeral group travels to Santa Fe. My acquaintance used to live in Santa Fe and noted that the description of the area was not accurate. This infuriated her. Despite my argument that it was fiction, she disliked the novel intensely because of that error.

2016_Mariko Layton_Ayumi's Violin cover KindleEven though I am Japanese and I research every point in my books as thoroughly as possible, my Japanese sister-in-law, who moved to the U.S. at the age of thirty, nitpicks everything in my books. She might say that at a certain kind of a party, this kind of food would be served, not the food mentioned in my book. She might point out that the card game a child is playing is too old for her. She might be right, even though I recall playing that game at that age.

So, I often wonder if having had certain experiences is enough to precisely portray a character, a subject, or a place. Sometimes I want to shout, “It’s Fiction!” I know that even in fiction, we should be truthful and correct as to certain things. I sometimes envy authors who write science fiction or fantasy. They can create any kind of a world or character.

When you’re writing your first or second novel, the maxim of writing what you know might be good to follow because there’s so much to know about novel writing. The subject matter is one less thing about which to learn. What if the protagonist is a quadriplegic? What if you’re male and want to make your protagonist female? What if you’re Caucasian and you want to write about someone who lives in Fiji? How much research is enough? We can’t change the color of our skin. We can’t recreate our childhood. Is researching and doing your best enough?

I believe accuracy is a matter of degrees. I can’t know everything about which I write. I make a diligent effort to learn as much as possible about what I write. If I can’t learn enough to be fair to the subject matter, I won’t write about it. I don’t want to insult anyone who knows more than me. But humans all have emotion. We may not all feel the same emotion about something, but I can imagine how someone might feel.

Emotion is one thing I’m confident about. I might be criticized for the way a certain character feels, but there is no right or wrong with emotion. Therefore, I let my characters feel the highest of joys and the lowest of sadness.

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When Mariko Tatsumoto Layton arrived from Japan at the age of eight, she could only count to ten and say thank you in English. But as soon as she learned to read English, she fell in love with books and wanted to become a writer. She first became the first Asian woman attorney in Colorado before finding her way to become a children’s book author.

Learn more about Mariko at her website. She can also be found on Facebook.

Tips and Tricks to Surprise and Delight … by Suzanne Young

2016_Suzanne YoungDo you ever sit down to a blank page and hope an idea will flow from your brain to your fingertips like magic? Then do you simply stare at all that white space as your mind shuts down? I am currently working on the sixth book of my Edna Davies mystery series (Murder by Decay) and I have yet to run out of ideas, not because I’m a natural storyteller, but because I’ve learned a few tricks over years of taking classes and reading how-to books.

Why don’t I dread that blank page? Perhaps it’s because I don’t force myself to write every day—at least, I don’t always work on my story. I let a scene or chapter roll through my mind like a movie or a play, making my characters leave the stage and reenter, if I don’t like the way they’ve performed. When I’m satisfied with what they’ve done enough to capture the performance, I write it down. My rendition usually doesn’t do justice to their acting, but it often suffices for a first draft.

When I reach one of the many “What should happen next?” points in my story, one exercise I use to answer this question comes from a course I was taking while working on my first novel-length manuscript (Murder by Yew). Put your protagonist into ten good situations and turn them bad. Then put your protagonist into ten bad situations and turn them good.

2016_Suzanne Young_Arrangement cover sMerging these two tasks made more sense to me than dealing with them separately. So, I had Edna take a walk along the streets of Providence on a bright, sunny April morning. As she passed the house of a long-time friend, she spotted something shining in newly turned soil on the other side of a tall, wrought-iron fence (good). Wishing to get a closer view of what appeared to be a piece of jewelry, she removed her hat and stuck her head through the bars of the fence (uh oh). Once she verified that it was indeed a valuable pin, she tried to remove her head and found she was stuck (bad). Her friend happened along and, with the help of a gardener, freed Edna (good). When Edna pointed out the brooch, her friend identified it as one believed stolen years ago that had caused the ruin of a poor woman’s reputation (bad). This assignment actually sparked a story idea that developed into my third murder mystery (Murder by Mishap). I’m sure if you take this exercise far enough, you could end up with the outline for a story of your own.

Another reason I practice this particular exercise religiously is to pace my stories. When the tension begins to build (bad situation), I pull back and allow my readers to breathe a bit (good situation) before dunking the characters back into hot water (bad situation). If you’ve ever read an author who kept piling wood on the fire without allowing you to step away from the heat, you know the importance of pacing your story. The good-to-bad-to-good scenario is also useful when I need to develop enough action to fill up the vast desert (known as “the middle”) between “the beginning” and “the end” of my book.

If you want to kick start your imagination, you might try the “Rule of 20.” Applied to writing (as opposed to stock prices or bridge bidding), this is a mental workout that will help you deliver the unexpected to your readers. The “Rule” goes like this: Given a situation in your story, make a list of 20 things that could happen next. Let’s take Edna on that walk again and imagine 20 things that might occur (good or bad, whatever fits the plot at that particular juncture). I’ll suggest just a few, so you get the idea … Maybe the weather changes suddenly and she’s forced to take shelter on a nearby porch (Does she then overhear something to please or horrify her?). Perhaps a car comes careening down the street, jumps the curb and crashes into the wrought-iron fence directly in front of her (Who’s at the wheel? Dead or alive? Sick or injured?). Maybe she’s mugged by a couple of kids (One of whom she recognizes before she loses consciousness?).

Whatever the stage in your plot, list as many possibilities as you can. Stretch your imagination and try for 20, at least. When you’ve completed the list, toss out the first six items. These are the ideas that came most readily to your mind, so they’re probably what your readers might expect. Choose one of the remaining scenarios. If you wish to surprise and delight your fans, write something extraordinary.

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Suzanne Young is the best-selling author of the Edna Davies mystery series which put her on Amazon’s list of “top 100 authors of mystery” for five consecutive months. She is a member of RMFW’s PAL and iPAL groups as well as a graduate of the Arvada Citizens Police Academy. After earning a degree in English and U.S. History from the University of Rhode Island, Suzanne moved to Colorado and worked as a computer programmer and business analyst for most of her career. She retired in 2010 to write fiction full-time.

Learn more about Suzanne and her mystery series at her website. She can also be found on Facebook.