Is It Enough To Simply Tell An Entertaining Story? … by Glenn Rogers, Ph.D.

Glenn RogersIs it enough for a writer to simply tell a good story? No. In the process of telling an entertaining story, a good writer, even if only implicitly, deals with important ethical, social, relational, or personal concerns. A good writer helps readers think about important things while they are being entertained.

There is a long and proud tradition in the Arts and Literature, going all the way back to ancient Greece, that utilizes stories as a way not only to entertain, but to teach and to provoke consideration of and reflection on important issues and concerns. Being born in 1951, one of the cartoons I grew up with was Rocky and Bullwinkle. One of the regular segments of Rocky and Bullwinkle was Aesop’s Fables, a collection of morality tales designed to teach important concepts. Aesop was a Greek storyteller who probably lived between 620 and 560 BCE. His stories were meant to teach lessons about good character and proper behavior. They were designed to make people think. Why did the creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle use these ancient stories in a cartoon program meant to entertain children? Could it have been that they believed that it was the responsibility of those who have the attention of people, even children (or maybe especially children), to say something meaningful, to provoke thoughtful consideration?

But even before Aesop and the ancient Greeks, tribal peoples utilized stories not only as a way to entertain but to teach. Anthropologists who work with tribal peoples know that this is still the case even today. Through storytelling, tribal peoples taught their children about their origin as a people, their religion, their culture, and wise and moral behavior. Storytelling has always been a way of teaching and provoking insightful reflection.

Good storytelling—in our Western tradition, good writing—has always involved more than just entertainment. A good story has to be entertaining. But it must also provoke insightful reflection. Consider Shakespeare’s work. He writes about moral corruption, social interaction, politics, love, and desire. He provides contrasts between virtue and appetite, sobriety and revelry, being trustworthy and untrustworthy. And in what may have been Shakespeare’s last work, The Tempest, at least one scholar believes him to have provided a theodicy, that is, a justification of God’s benevolence in a world filled with evil and suffering. Shakespeare did not simply write to entertain.

Later in the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek. One of the reasons the TV and movie franchise has remained viable may be due to the fact that Roddenberry’s approach to exciting and entertaining storytelling, an approach that has remained foundational to the franchise’s success, was the use of morality plays. Episode after episode of Star Trek, especially the original TV series, deals with important human issues or concerns.

Those who are considered great writers today have adopted that same approach. Consider a few examples:

Jane Austin, in Pride and Prejudice, deals with the status of women and the institution of marriage in eighteenth century England.

John Steinbeck, in Grapes of Wrath, addressed the economic challenges faced by the rural class during the depression.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, wrote about conspicuous consumption, the generation of wealth by questionable means, and a deplorable general lack of interest in the social concerns of his day.

Ernest Hemingway, in For Whom The Bell Tolls, wrote about the brutality of war.

Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, wrote about the dangers and health risks of the food industry of his day.

Harper Lee, in To Kill A Mockingbird, wrote about the coexistence of good and evil and the moral nature of human beings.

George Orwell, in 1984, wrote about the dangers of totalitarianism.

Rogers_THE IMMORTAL AlabasterWhat made those writers great? Was it that they got the grammar right? Probably not—though getting the grammar right is important. Was it that they knew how to construct an intriguing story? That was probably part of it. But each of those authors has a distinct writing style and their books have a different feel. So what made those books great books produced by great writers? While there was likely not one single thing that made their work great, I suspect one of the things was that they wrote not just to entertain, but to provoke thoughtful reflection. The fiction of these well-known writers (all of it, not just the stories mentioned above) helped readers think about important issues. They (and other authors like them) didn’t just write. They wrote about something, about something important.

Could it be that too many writers today have lost sight of this important component of good writing? Is it enough to simply write an entertaining story? No, it is not. The good writer finds a way to touch on some important human issue or concern. The good writer not only entertains, but also provokes thoughtful reflection.

The important human issues or concerns don’t always need to be huge issues such as the status of women, the brutality of war, social equality, or health issues. Things that might be considered lesser concerns by some can still be important. Issues such as personal integrity, self-control, loyalty, friendship, kindness, discretion, moderation, courage, trustworthiness, and the like are important concerns for human life and interaction. Think about what J.K. Rowling did in her wildly popular and influential Harry Potter books. While she entertained us with a wonderful world of magic, she wrote about the struggle between good and evil. She wrote about courage, friendship, loyalty, determination and sacrifice. And while some critics might say that Rowling is not a great writer, maybe it is possible for a good writer to write a great book … or two or seven.

Writing that focuses attention on important aspects of human existence, even if only implicitly, is, I believe, better writing than that which simply entertains without provoking any kind of thoughtful consideration.


Dr. Glenn Rogers is Professor of Philosophy and Social Sciences at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa. He is the author of twenty-six academic books on cultural studies, theology, and philosophy. Dr. Rogers is also a novelist, writing mysteries and thrillers. His fiction includes a frontier thriller trilogy: The Colemans The Reckoning, The Colemans The Journal, and The Colemans The Knife. He has a mystery series featuring a private investigator named Jake Badger: Family Secrets, Love and Lies, and Abducted; and another mystery series featuring an immortal detective named Aaron Archer: The Immortal Alabaster, The Immortal Betrayal, and The Immortal Carnage.

Glenn is a movie buff and a dog lover. His favorite author is Robert Parker. He especially enjoys Parker’s Spenser series.

Glenn’s fiction can be found on his website:

Working with an Editor … by Mathiya Adams

Mathiya AdamsI am very fortunate to have an editor with whom I have a great working relationship. I had first approached my editor when I was trying to publish a sword and sorcery fantasy book under another pen name. I had been following this editor's blog (Tara Maya's Tales on for some time and thought she would be sympathetic to my desires to get published. She read over my story, told me she liked it, agreed to publish it, but warned me that she did not expect it to sell very well. I asked her what was wrong with the book, and she said "Nothing. The problem is, it's only one book. Readers of this genre like to have a series of books."

I tried another series of books, under a different pen name. She reviewed them, politely told me they were nice stories, but had major structural defects. I thought that was kind of cruel, so I fought back, as any good writer would. "What kind of defects?" She started to list them. First, my stories did not fit any clearly defined genre. What difference did that make? A lot, she explained. Having a clearly defined genre, even a mixed or a new one, makes it possible to market the book. She asked me to search Amazon and find books similar to mine. I tried, and failed. Unfortunately, she was right, and the series has never gotten very far.

The Avid Angler by Mathiya AdamsFinally, about a year and a half ago, I sent her the first of a new series of stories, this time about an ex-cop who becomes a hot dog vendor, and then ends up solving crimes. Tara Maya said she was not familiar with the cozy mystery genre, or even the mystery genre, but she would do some research and get back to me.

Research for an editor like Tara Maya consists of reading a hundred books in the genre, making extensive notes about their structure, characters, themes, conflicts—everything that makes the genre distinctive. She finally got back to me and said my book had possibilities. Did I have more than one written?

Yes, I did, and I began to send them to her.

That's when I found out what working with an editor really means.

Over the next six months, as we went over book after book, my editor helped me refine my plot structure, introduced me to new tools to help organize my story, manage the flow of events so that the story built up to a climax and ended with a satisfactory resolution. She forced me to confront my characters, understand their motivations a lot more clearly, and make them behave in a more consistent manner. She challenged scenes I had ("Do you know how deep the South Platte River is there? Is it deep enough to break someone's fall? Most readers won't know, but what about the one or two who live within a thousand feet of that location? When you combine fiction with reality, the reality better be believable!") That meant I now had to go on auto excursions around Denver to check out the scenes in my book. "Your readers don't believe in Magic, Mattie. They believe in police procedures, wits, and courage. When you write, always think of your reader. Will they believe your story?"

There were a lot of times when I resented her criticisms. It's easy to point out problems, I thought, it's a lot more work to fix them. But that's all part of the writing process.

So, here is a summary of what I've learned about working with an editor:

1.  Communicate regularly with your editor. She is your ally, not your adversary.
2.  Listen to what she says. You may be the writer, but she often knows what's selling and what's not selling. If you want to sell books, she can help.
3.  She is not always right. If you feel what you've done is the best thing for your story, explain your logic, give her an understanding of where your story is going. If you can convince her, fine. Otherwise, review point 2.
4.  Keep your commitments. Yours is not the only book she is handling, in all probability. Editors are more likely to respond to the authors who meet their deadlines, follow-through on a timely basis, and help them get the book ready for publishing.
5.  No matter how much you think you can go it alone, don’t do it. Get an editor. An editor, plus your talent, just might make you a successful author.


Mathiya Adams grew up on the East Coast (Massachusetts and New York), moving to California in her early teens. She's always been interested in writing, first trying her hand at science fiction, then dabbling into mysteries and adventure stories. Mathiya tried to study writing in college, but became discouraged when her application to a writer's course at UCLA was turned down because "you don't show any real talent." A stint in Peace Corps over in India whetted her appetite for the strange and exotic, and once again she took up writing. This time she tried her hand at sword and sorcery, and while she had lots of ideas for subsequent books, real life—work, children, family—always seemed to provide ample excuses not to persevere.

After Mathiya's retirement, she dived into the writing life head first, coming up with dozens of story ideas she wanted to pursue. Some of them were actually good ideas and she thinks they might actually see the light of day. But one series in particular caught her interest. It was a story about a hot dog vendor, one of those people you sort of ignore except to buy a hot dog from them. What kind of life could they possibly lead? When Mathiya asked that question, the answer hit her. The hot dog vendor secretly was a phenomenal detective who only solved crimes that the police couldn't handle. That was the birth of the Hot Dog Detective series.

Now her days are filled with exploring Denver, checking out the locales frequented by Mark MacFarland and his associates; recounting the exploits of MacFarland; and occasionally attempting to write a blog to help other aspiring authors.

You can learn more about Mathiya's novel at her website. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Descriptive Power on Page One

By Karen Duvall

Description often gets overlooked for the power it can have in a story. Some dismiss it as no big deal, just use the five senses and you're good to go. Some avoid using it altogether because they think readers skip that part to get to the action. Some worry over excessive exposition that could be perceived as an info dump. And some apply it strictly as a means for building their story world, period.

The above assumptions are mostly false.

Effective description is one of the most powerful tools in a writer's toolbox. There's a skill to making it work in an active way that enhances both plot and character, and can make the difference between an okay story and a compelling one.

I could spend an entire day teaching a workshop on description, but I'll condense the basics for the purpose of this blog. In fact, I'm going to start at the beginning. Of a book. Like, page 1.

An overall issue I see with a lot of first books is an eagerness to reveal the setting in a cinematic way. A literary camera pans across a vista in the land where the story takes place. Or the camera slowly zooms in on some metaphorical image that sets the tone of the story about to unfold. Or perhaps the lens is pointed out the window as thick clouds of fog roll across the screen to create atmosphere.

The above might work great for a movie, with a voice over done by the main character. And though screenplays share a number of similarities with the novel form, they are different medias. Film engages the viewer visually and captures attention that way. Books use words, and call upon a reader's imagination to conjure the image that's intended to be seen. This takes time, and readers are less likely to have the patience to translate all those words into something visually engaging enough to compel them to turn the page. A writer needs to hook them before they decide to go watch a movie instead.

But you want to set the tone, the atmosphere, and visually engage your readers, so how else can you do this? If you want to use description to open your book, your job is to create context. Associate the description with the action and the characters. Don't separate the two. Engage your reading audience by creating a balance that ties all these elements together.

Let's use the vista as an example. As your words paint a panoramic view of the story world, they need to include an active element in the story. You'll be in a character's point of view as you do this (please avoid omniscient if possible) so his emotions are attached to this unfolding landscape. Maybe it's morning and the character is tense because of something about to happen. What he sees and feels relate to this scenery in some way. Maybe his job is to slaughter a farm animal to feed his family and he's loath to take a life. Or he has to check the zombie traps that were set the night before and he's scared of what he'll find. Consider having some conflict at play here because readers will be most engaged by tension rather than entering the land of the happy people. Even if your characters are happy, there needs to be a hint of unpleasantness just around the corner. Tension on every page.

Just remember that context is key, especially for genre fiction. And even though you think you're showing rather than telling, a description that lacks engagement with the plot and characters is like a barren island floating in a sea of nothing. Dry. Boring. Stagnant. It doesn't take the reader where he or she needs to go.

Does the first page of your manuscript open with description or action?


Karen DuvallKaren Duvall is an award-winning author with 5 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight’s Curse series in 2011 and 2012, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna’s ‘Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013.

Karen lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. Writing under the pen name Cory Dale, she released the first book in a new urban fantasy series, Demon Fare, in December 2014.


Three Traits of Truly Fascinating Villains … by Bonnie Ramthun

Bonnie Ramthun1When RMFW blog editor Pat Stoltey asked if I'd like to write a post I jumped at the chance. I enjoy these postings and learn a lot from them. Then the panic set in. What do I have to contribute? I looked at my current writing research and found an answer. I've recently been working on making my villains more villainous. I know that the hero of a story is only as brave and strong as the opponent he must vanquish, but I have a tendency to spend more time on my hero development than my anti-hero. Imagine, though, if Ian Fleming's James Bond did nothing but carry secret documents around from place to place with no one trying to stop him. How incredibly boring! Instead, Bond faces criminals like Blofeld, Goldfinger, and Oddjob, powerful and unforgettable enemies who threaten the world. The villain of my novel must be formidable and interesting so that my hero is greater for overcoming him.

As the writer of thrillers and mysteries for adults and middle-graders, I've been researching anti-heroes in this quest and I've discovered that there are some common traits that define an antagonist worthy of a hero's battle. In fact, a truly great evil character can almost steal the show from the hero. So let's look at three traits of exceptional villains and examine them in the context of some of the most complex and fascinating characters in three recent American television series.

1.) They are physically benign.

This is odd, isn't it? But it's true. The most enthralling villains are not towering mountains of muscle. They are instead unassuming, sometimes beautiful of feature, and never outwardly dominating. Operatic opponents like Darth Vader or Goldfinger are caricatures of evil. They certainly have their place in literature and film, but the most complex and horrifying villains are usually ones that aren't imposing in their physical form.

2.) Their goals are important to them.

The great villains of stories are never the bad guys to themselves. They are trying to achieve a goal or goals and this is deeply significant to them. If your antagonist doesn't have a clearly defined goal, they won't have the weight of their own desires to contrast with the hero. Your villain must care passionately about his goal and he will do anything to achieve it.

3.) They have a heartbreaking back story.

Fascinating bad characters always have heartbreak in their background. Some are abandoned as a child, others tormented by malevolent parents or stepparents. Some experience a trauma that forever changes them. A villain who just wakes up one day and becomes evil for the sake of doing evil isn't particularly captivating, is she? A heartbreaking backstory can bring the reader to feel sympathy for this character. The betrayal of this sympathy with evil acts makes the villain even more despicable and the protagonist is more heroic for overcoming her.

Now let's look at some villains in recent American television series. The episodic content of current television is terrific for revealing complex backgrounds of characters, good and bad. Each of these three characters show the common traits of truly fascinating villains.

Regina Mills, Once Upon A Time

Regina is both the iron-fisted mayor of Storybook and the mass murdering Evil Queen of the Enchanted Forest in the television series Once Upon a Time. She's also lovely and very small. (Trait 1.) As played by Lana Parilla, she's a 5'5" package of pure evil who transported the entire population of the Enchanted Forest into Maine so she could torment her nemesis, Snow White. This Evil Queen is not tall and skeletal and aging. Instead, she's vibrant and young and yet she commits horrifying acts. Her goal is revenge towards Snow White, who is responsible for the death of her lover, and anyone who cares for Snow White -- her husband, Prince Charming, her daughter, Emma, and anyone who befriends them, from Hook to Ariel the mermaid. (Trait 2.) Her backstory is tragic and heartbreaking, her mother a humiliated miller's daughter who crafts her child into a Queen. Regina is forced into marriage to an old King. (Trait 3.) She's a tragic figure but so sympathetic that by the fourth year of the series this mass-murdering evil Queen is turning into a hero. That's quite the journey.

Gaius Baltar, Battlestar Galactica

Dr. Baltar is a famed scientist, a kind of science rock star, in the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica series. He's so famous that a fleet officer gives up his seat to him on the last escape ship during a genocidal attack on the planet of Caprica. He's also a weak, narcissistic, self-serving coward. Slight of stature and with fine, almost delicate features, James Callis as Gaius Baltar doesn't appear to be capable of being a villain. (Trait 1.) Yet his manipulations and cowardice lead to the near destruction of the human race. His overriding goal is to save his own cowardly skin and he goes to great lengths to stay alive at all costs. (Trait 2.) Finally, his background is revealed as a Caprica pretender, a common street boy with smarts who clawed his way to the top echelons of power. He started out with nothing but his intellect and his ambition and his survival against all odds is admirable. (Trait 3.) Well, if you don't count his participation in the near destruction of the human race, that is.

Gustavo Fring, Breaking Bad

One of the most memorable villains of Breaking Bad -- and if you've seen the series, that's saying something -- is Giancarlo Esposito's portrayal of Gustavo Fring. Gus is owner of the restaurant chain Los Pollos Hermanos and also a major drug kingpin. He's a ruthless, vicious killer. But he doesn't dress in black robes and stride around with a booming voice. He's slight of stature, unassuming, bespectacled. He doesn't look like he could cut a man's throat with the speed of a striking snake, but he can. And he does. (Trait 1.) Gus has a passionate goal to destroy every member of the Salamanca family drug cartel, a carefully plotted plan that has taken twenty years to achieve. (Trait 2.) His backstory is heartbreaking. He was in a committed relationship with his partner, Max, and created a restaurant with him called Los Pollos Hermanos. An attempt to get funding from the Salamanca family went terribly wrong and Max was murdered in front of Gus. (Trait 3.) He is alone, lonely, dedicated, and quiet. He's also one of the most chilling villains to stride across the screen.

Billowing robes, giant stature, big voices and operatic evil have their place. But the fascinating villain I'm attempting to create in my latest novel will be quiet, unassuming, complex, and deadly. I hope this examination of villains helps you in your craft. Happy writing!


Bonnie Ramthun is a Colorado mom, wife, and mystery author. Her Eileen Reed mystery novels include GROUND ZERO, EARTHQUAKE GAMES and THE THIRTEENTH SKULL. Her middle grade novel, THE WHITE GATES, was a Junior Library Guild premiere selection and a finalist for the Missouri Truman award. The sequel, ROSCOE, is available now. She’s a former chapter president of Mystery Writers of America and served as the published author liaison for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter where her motto is: Every day is a gift.

Whack the Cliché

By Mark Stevens

Is it possible to write a 100,000-word novel that is devoid of clichés?

Completely scrubbed free of all tired descriptions, predictable scenes, over-used descriptions, seen-them-all-before characters?

A panel* on clichés at Left Coast Crime last month in Portland sparked my thinking.

First, check this out:

The word cliché is drawn from the French. (My source is Wikipedia; there are several versions of this.)

In printing, "cliché" was the sound made by a printing plate—one cast from movable type—when it was used. This printing plate is called a … wait for it

A stereotype.

When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly, as a single slug of metal. Thus, “cliché” came to mean such a ready-made phrase.

Cliché—ready-made. Too easy. Banal, commonplace, shop-worn, old-hat, hackneyed.

Sound like a novel you want to read?

A side note, also from Wikipedia: Most phrases now considered cliché originally were regarded as striking, but have lost their force and impact through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”

OK, imbeciles, join me over here in the land of predictability and tell me: how do you avoid them? How do you avoid the ready-made crap?

These were a few cited by the Left Coast Crime panel:

The sassy Latina detective, say. Or staging a high-speed chase in the city (and no cops follow or give chase as well). The “slight” gunshot wound in the shoulder, yet our hero carries on. Isn’t a ticking clock, the device itself, a cliché?

Here’s one I can’t stand: the bad guy manages to bring a knife a few millimeters from our hero’s eyeballs, yet the hero’s resistance is j-u-s-t enough to hold it off. Ack!

There are cliché scenes, cliché gestures, cliché sayings, cliché lines of dialogue, too.  "Cover me, I'm going in!" "Is this some kind of sick joke?"

How do you keep the writing fresh, original?

Fill in the blank. As tough as _____.  As cool as a _____.


I mean, 100,000 words—all those characters, all those scenes and all that prose: how do you make sure it’s all original? Fresh?

And, should it be?

Wouldn’t that be exhausting? Can an entire cast of characters in a well-populated novel, every bit of description and every line of dialogue … be original?

Martin Amis thinks so: “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”

So there’s a standard for you.

Worth shooting for?


* The LCC panel was The Taste of Copper and the Smell of Cordite: Clichés in Crime Fiction. Panelists included David Corbett, Lisa Alber, Blake Crouch, Bill Fitzhugh and James Ziskin.

Writing Undercover … by Tina Ann Forkner

Recently I was cleaning out some electronic files and noticed an old draft of a novel I’d abandoned in favor of another manuscript. My hand hovered over the delete key. I was about to send it to the trash bin when I decided to give it a quick read. I’m glad I did. The draft was pretty long and was I surprised to find myself newly intrigued with the story. It was a good idea! I decided not to delete the draft, but instead to resurrect the story and work on it on the side.

Do you have a story idea, or a secret manuscript that you go to when you are stuck on your current Work in Progress? If not, then you might consider creating a file that you can go to when nothing else is working. Let it be a story that would surprise the socks off your friends. Let it be so “you” that at first, you would never dream of showing it to anyone. Let it be a place for your writing soul to escape.

In the past I had a private manuscript that nobody else knew about. It was just for fun and I wrote on it when I had so-called writer’s block or when I was bored with my current project. Even when I was writing under contract, I worked on that story. In most ways, the manuscript I escaped to was a lot different than what I was writing under contract for Random House. It had a completely different setting, a bigger cast of characters, and the best part was that I didn’t feel a need to censor myself in any way. Nobody was ever going to see it, right? In the end, I wrote a novel called Waking Up Joy that ultimately put me back in the driver’s seat of my writing career, but more importantly than that, writing it undercover gave me my mojo back.

Sometimes, when we are going through the publishing phase, or when we are busily writing and pitching proposals at writing conferences hoping to get published, we unwittingly start cheating ourselves by letting the business of writing pull us away from the writing zone. You know what I mean by ‘the writing zone’, right? It’s what happens when the world around you falls away and the writing flow pulls you down the river of inspiration. It’s hard to find the writing zone when you are trying to plan your story around current publishing trends or with the expectations of editors and agents judging it. So, my advice? Write something that nobody can touch. Write undercover. You might be surprised at how doing so frees the storyteller locked within.

The beauty of writing Waking Up Joy undercover was that 1) I remembered how to be true to myself no matter what I write, and 2) I gained the confidence to take greater chances in my manuscripts.

Additionally, the idea that I wasn’t going to pitch the novel to anyone, but was writing it for myself, allowed me to find the writing zone. At first I fully expected that I would never pitch the novel, and in all honesty that would have been okay. The whole point of writing undercover was to explore the craft and see what else I was capable of writing, but when I realized that my practice manuscript was a story I wanted to bring to my readers, I started showing the first fifty pages to agents and editors.

Now, even though I’m writing under contract for my new publisher, I know it’s time to go undercover again. I don’ t know if this secret manuscript will turn out to be something worth shopping, or if it will only be a manuscript that teaches me more about myself and writing, but I again feel a longing to go back to that secret place in my soul where I don’t write for anyone except Tina Ann Forkner.

If you find that like me, you sometimes freeze at the idea of writing something to show an editor or agent, let alone the world, start a secret manuscript and write something you’ve never written before. Write a story that flows out of your soul without the intention of ever showing it to anyone else, write a memoir, or write a story that might seem out of character to your friends, but that you know is all you. Whatever you do, start with the intention of writing it undercover.

It might end up that your secret manuscript is something you want to share, but don’t write it for that reason. Most likely your manuscript will be a learning tool that will give you a release from your regular writing projects, like going to the playground when you should be at work. Perhaps in the process you will reconnect with your muse and in the end become a better writer. This what I’m hoping will happen to me again as I dig back into that lost manuscript I unearthed when I was cleaning out my files. I’m going undercover. Ready?
Let’s go…


Tina Ann ForknerTina Ann Forkner writes Women’s Fiction and is the author of Waking Up Joy, Rose House, and Ruby Among Us. A southern girl at heart, she writes in Cheyenne, Wyoming where she lives with her husband and their three teens.

Learn more at

Dancing About Architecture


By Colleen Oakes

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

Having the right music while I'm writing is of the utmost importance.  In so many ways, it elevates the craft of writing, and it stimulates my brain in a way that nothing else can. Except for maybe, you know, writing.

When I wrote Elly in Bloom, the music I listened to had a lot of influence on the mood in my scenes.  For the happy, wedding-filled chapters, I listened to buzzy pop music, or bouncy-women-driven songs (Ingrid Michaelson,  Sia, Sara Evans, Carrie Underwood, Brooke Fraser).  When I had to take Elly down into her betrayal and the anger, it was all about Kelly Clarkson's "My December", a melodramatic and angry album that captured the depths of betrayal and the rage of a woman betrayed.

That album had everything I needed, and if I were to name "an album for Elly", that would be it. Towards the end of the book, I listened to Lifehouse's "Breathing" on repeat. There was just something sweet and lovely and old school about it, and I wanted to capture this new blossoming that was happening in Elly's life, and the hope that I wanted to carry into the sequel.

For Queen of Hearts, it was a totally different story. I could not write - well, anyway - to music with words. I needed grand and epic music, music that stimulated my imagination in the most direct way.  I didn't need Clarkson. I needed Zimmer and Williams and Elfman.

I needed movie soundtracks, and lots of them. I needed dramatic music to inspire scenes that were so big that I could only write them in a deconstructing way and then put them back together.  I needed music that made me feel angry, deceitful, rushed, panicked, terrified, betrayed, elated and devastated - all at once.

I needed music to burn a city down and to lift up a field of magical flowers.

For two years, this is what Queen of Hearts looked like: me, hunched over my little netbook at a Starbucks wishing I was at a Caribou, typing and frowning, typing and frowning, checking Pinterest, typing and frowning.  All during that time, I was graced with GIANT headphones that my husband bought me.  This let me get lost in the music, which enabled me to get lost in the book. I can truly say that without the music, Queen of Hearts would not have happened.

I would start out every writing session with the same song, something I highly recommend. Take a few hours and find that perfect piece of music, and let it lead you where you want to go. Let it be a marker that you are departing from your present reality.  My song was  A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics by James Horner: There is no other song I know that really gets my brain focused and working like this one. The quick pace of the song, and the way it climbs the scales, through quick, intense almost frantic piano notes...I can't perfectly explain it without seeming a bit unhinged, but when I close my eyes and listened to this song before I started writing Queen each time, it was like I was seeing a thousand doors unlock, one after another.  Then I saw a tree unfurling its branches and the branches became a forest, the forest a world.  My world. There is something about this song that prepares and bares my mind to consuming imagination. All the pressures of daily life fell at my feet. Yeah, it's that good.

When I begin writing a novel, I usually find a piece of music to power the climax of the novel as well. When I was writing, I would listen to the song at the end of every writing session, a bookmark, and something to look forward to. I would think "Soon, I'll get to write this amazing scene, this amazing ending."  My musical bookends. Everyone writes different, but for me, it's very important that when I write the first chapter that the last chapter is completely in my mind.  The song for the end of Queen was "Now we are Free" by Lisa Gerrad.   I knew exactly what I wanted to happen in that scene, and it sounded like this song; free, uplifting and dramatic. I listened to it leading up to the epilogue, letting it guide my writing to that spot.  It has a finality and resolution to it that resonated just right with that scene. It's so beautiful, it makes me so weepy and when i finished Queen of Hearts, I did indeed weep.

Did I ever listen to music with words?  Occasionally.  It just didn't suit this book. There is something about picking the right kind of music that rearranges the brain in a way that it's ready to write. It's ready to get lost in something, to dip its toes into the creative side of your life, your education and your passion.

My advice? It's worth the time to find the right soundtrack to your book.

I'm happy to report that even though my writing looks the same - Hunched over, typing, frowning, typing - but in my ears the cheerful beats of a new book are sounding.

A story of new beginnings and fresh words.

Hook me, baby.

By Robin D. Owens

Hook me, baby

Occasionally I pick up one of the unread books I've purchased and say, "hook me, baby." Most of the time I realize why I didn't read the book right away, and often I just go to something else. The amount of time I can spend reading is extremely limited, and if there isn't a good hook, I'm gone.

My bias: I am a firm believer in getting the hook in the first line, and if not the first line, then the first paragraph. I think the longer you take to set the hook, the more likely it is that the reader will skip to the next book in the pile (or on their device). I believe that no matter your status as a writer – unpublished or New York Times #1 Best Seller, you should attempt to hook the reader as soon as humanly possible. Don't expect the reader to have read any other books of yours, especially if you write series. Work your hook, always.

Like I said, this is my bias and this is the point of view I'm coming from in this article. And as a reader, I want to be drawn into a story quickly. (I once had an agent turn Heart Thief down because she "liked to sink into a story.")

The following are some openings that DON'T work for ME. These are true examples, pretty much as I flicked through my electronic library, but the authors will remain anonymous.

1) Starting with the weather. I don't care if it's hot and sultry, or if a thunderstorm is raging. Why, if your hero is making a pact with the devil at the end of the paragraph, don't you put that in the first line? Or if your heroine senses danger outside in that storm, you wait until the end of the second paragraph before telling me? Use it up front to get me interested in your story.

2) Five people named in the first two pages. What? Who? Why? What is going on that there are so many people? Who are they, and who of these five are important? Where are they? You have to keep track of them all, what they look like, their ages, and who moves where. This was especially necessary in the mystery I'd started. This becomes less of entertainment and enjoyment and more work for me, the reader.

3) Ten pages of standing and looking out the window and thinking about backstory, or driving somewhere and thinking of the past. When will the action/story actually start?

4) The hero or heroine embarrassing himself/herself or acting stupid in the first scene. If I'm putting myself in that person's skin, I don't want to feel embarrassed or stupid, I can do that just fine on my own in my own life, thank you, I expect more of my protagonists. At this point, unless I know and trust the author, I don't know if the character will really improve or not.

5) Point of view of a wonderful person, an obvious victim who will die before the end of the first scene. I especially don't like to be tortured to death. You had better have a very good story reason for this, and you had better not have been manipulating my emotions gratuitously. This is a cheap-shot to try and get me involved without giving me information on your main protagonist.
Note: I finished this book, but am still irate that the New York Times best-selling author didn't find a better way to give us information that the main characters didn't know. S/he should have mastered a better technique to do so, and if s/he doesn't know a better technique his/her editor should have. I reread the books I buy often. I have never reread this scene.

Other ways of opening that may or may not work, depending upon the reader and/or the technique of the writer. These you should consider.

Starting with a dream. Conventional wisdom states this is a no-no. I can't say "never," since in my twenty-four published books, two have started with a dream, including the latest, Heart Fire, which begins with a nightmare of a past event. Two pieces of advice: Make sure readers know up front it's a dream, and keep it as short as possible.

Single character on stage. I've also used single character on stage; again, keep the backstory to a minimum, keep the time the person is solo as short as possible, and make sure the character's voice is engaging, or the events s/he's immersed in are active -- fast action and/or a dangerous situation.

Tense and/or Point of View, for instance:

First person present tense. I, personally, have a problem with reading this. It makes my head ache. If there isn't something especially wonderful about the book, I close it. Be aware of tense and point of view with regard to the genre you're writing in and your audience.

With regard to point of view, I like deep third person past tense. I don't particularly care for omniscient point of view as it seems distancing to me as a reader and the less engaged I am in the story, the more likely I am to put the book down. Again, some genres and readers accept this better.

And that's my two-bits on hooks and hooking me to read your work. Other people might have other sensitivities, but I will say that I try my best to stay away from what bothers me as a reader as I craft my own work as a writer.

Be aware what hooks YOU and keeps you reading, study the books and the openings that particularly worked for you as a reader and figure out if you can use the same technique.

May all your writing dreams come true,

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:

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!


spyBy Kevin Paul Tracy

This month's post builds on the ideas in February's post with thoughts on infusing fictional politics into your fiction. In that post I refer to the root of all politics, economics, and how ultimately it is commodities in high demand - oil, gold, the spice Melange - and the need to share them that lead to politics, both good and bad. In any society, or world, no commodity is in higher demand, especially for governments, than information. No government can operate long where it cannot gain access to information - information about everything from how their own commonwealth are doing to how other, outside commonwealths are faring. Not to put too fine a point on it, a government is always starved for information, and no matter how much information there is to be had, it is never enough for any government.

And so we enter the world of political intrigue, where those seeking to hold on to their power, or to gain more, seek to control the flow of information. They want it, and they want to control who else has it. To do so they often indulge in some rather unsavory practices, such as spying and theft to gain information, lying to mislead others about information (often called euphemistically "misinformation") and even assassination to prevent information from being passed on to another. Information gained is then used in various ways to gain political advantage, from sabotage, to blackmail, to arms races, ad infinitum. We are entering a time in our own world where, due to social media and the Internet, information has suddenly become quite vulnerable to theft and exposure. There are those who believe if all information is available to everyone, even state secrets, then no one can hold power, and that is what they dearly long for - anarchy.

In your world-building, erecting a political infrastructure can give your stories pillars around which your plot can grow and intertwine. Deciding what information is critical to power in your world, and how that information is controlled and brokered, can be complex, but in the long-run very rewarding, enriching your fiction in ways you might never have imagined in the beginning.

One thing that pleases readers is to have information that the characters don't. Having your characters act on incorrect information is a great way to build suspense. For example, the information that King Mark has is that the neighboring kingdom of Latland has rich deposits of sulfur and nitrates needed to make powder for cannons, but peaceful King Fred of Latland denies this. So King Mark allies with the openly ambitious King Barney of Simlor, his neighbor on the other side: he will cede a hundred square miles of his southernmost lands to King Barney in exchange for his help in invading Latland and taking the mines. The information that King Mark doesn't have is that King Fred is not lying, Latland has minimal deposits of either commodity, if that. Unknown to King Mark is that the richest deposits of sulfur and nitrates are, in fact, in the very southernmost regions of his own lands that he is ceding to King Barney. So who do you suppose disseminated the misinformation that misled King Mark? Well, who has the most to gain from the situation? King, Barney, of course, right?

The key is that your story cannot be only about these political intrigues. If it is, it will ultimately lose the reader's interest. Your stories must be about characters, people. These worlds we build are only a backdrop to the real stories, about how the characters interact and affect each other. For example, the above story isn't really about King Marks being led into attacking his friend, King Fred, by the unscrupulous and greedy King Barney. It is about a young man, Mark, whom no one ever believed in, who inherited his kingdom by marriage and the untimely death of his father-in-law, and who is desperate to show his wife and everyone that he is fit to be king, that he can be a worthy husband, man, and leader after all.

As always, like character back-story, much of what you build may never actually reach the page, but it informs your story in subtle ways the readers can detect. The feeling that there is a living, breathing culture with a pulse behind and underneath everything that happens in your books is what can leave your readers feeling fulfilled and eager for the next volume, whether a series or stand-alone.

Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda, a startling and engrossing gothic thriller Bloodflow, and don’t miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

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