Tag Archives: writing

Collecting People

By Liesa Malik

How many books have you read recently on building characters? Not building character—as in developing your own moral compass—but building characters that you can write about in your next novel? A quick search on Amazon recently pulled up over 100,000 titles when I searched for “books, characters in fiction.” Whew!

As commercial fiction writers we know that good characters are some of the most important ingredients to any story. Where would we be if Scrooge weren’t such a delightfully well-rounded reluctant hero?

We’ve often been instructed on how to build characters, but today I want to talk about collecting them through real life adventures. Characters are in the people all around us. If we learn to use our powers of observation, and note people continuously, our stories will have a real boost up when seeking publication.

Here are some ideas for your “collecting” process:

  • Have a place to keep your collection. This could be a spiral notebook, a file on your computer, or a binder with tabs for collecting and sorting your observations. Thing is, try to keep this collection in one place. Mobility simply gives you opportunity for losing precious work (I still have a poetry book out in Atlanta, Georgia somewhere. Grr!)
  • When you’re in a restaurant, look around. Find the most interesting or the most boring, cutest or ugliest person in the room and jot down a quick biography of him or her. So what that you don’t know them? You’re working on fiction. Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes and note things like the way they use their flatware, whether they’re glued to their phone or are looking about, how they sit, how they chew, how they interact with the room around them. Give them a name that truly suits them. Bingo! You’ve just “collected” your first person. Here’s an extra tip. If you go to a bagel or coffee shop each morning, as I do, you’ll see the same people over and over. In the course of a week, you could build quite a lot of notes and history about your character. Pop them into your collection file. When you need that character, he or she will be ready to polish and run with.
  • Make a list of lists. Sitting around for fifteen minutes? You could play a game of Sudoku, or you could make a list of lists. Pull out your trusty notebook and jot down lists of people to remember. Start with the phrase “My favorite ___ is . . .” The favorites is a list of occupations or roles of people in your life: teachers, neighbors, relatives, movie stars and so on. At a later time you can choose one of these favorite roles and list actual people, or choose one favorite person and write about them.
  • Drive around and snap a photo of a house you’ve never been in. Okay. Got this idea from the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest, but I just love it. They didn’t say to take a photo, but what the heck? Live dangerously. You could only be accused of stalking, prowling, or “casing the joint.” Once you have the photo or a clear image of the house, write down the story behind it and the people who live there. Bonus! You’re learning to describe setting as well as build characters.
  • Be a busy body. Whenever I go to get a haircut or chat with someone on my street, inevitably people tell me stories from their lives about relatives I’ll never meet, or bosses who only get worse with each retelling. When I get home I try to jot down at least part of my friends’ story. It’s good for building a character. One word of caution. When it comes time to retell any true tale, try to change something significant about the person gossiped over. I mark these notes with a phrase like “true recollection” and the name of who told me this, so that I know how much needs to be changed around.

This is such a fun topic that I could brainstorm all day with you. Bet you have some great ideas too. Why not comment here and let everyone know your best character-collecting tip?

Or join me this Saturday at the Lakewood Art Council’s Art Gallery, 85 S. Union Street (behind the Wendy’s) from 1:00 to 2:30. I’ll be talking about repurposing books into arts and crafts and signing my book, Faith on the Rocks. Bet the place will be full of characters.

New Book? Don’t Poop on The Party!

By Aaron Ritchey

So I have a friend who didn’t do an initial book signing for his first book.  He didn’t do any sort of book launch party, nothing like that.  He just threw his book up on Amazon, did some online stuff, but didn’t really celebrate the fact that he had done something that very few people will ever do.

Very few people will ever write a book.

Very few people will ever spend the time to edit that book.

Very few people will ever publish that spit-polished book.

Just the facts of life.  So if you get nothing else from this little blog post, take away the idea that we have to celebrate every little victory, every little hurray, and what better way to celebrate the hurray than to have a party?

Yes, this is a party in your honor, about your book, and yes, it’s all going to be about you.  For many people, this can be hard.  Even though I’m an attention whore, I found it difficult.  Before my first book launch, I drove around and around the restaurant, afraid to park, afraid of the potential criticism, frustration, and disappointment.

What if no one comes?  What if they do come, but are resentful at me for putting on the party in the first place?  What if no one actually buys the book?  What if no one likes me or the book?

All of those thoughts are in the end selfish and self-centered.  I’m afraid that people aren’t going to like me or people will think I’m trying to guilt them into buying a book.  And the mother of all fears, what if I alienate all my friends?

On the one hand, book launch parties are all about the author and their book, but how about we look at this another way?  Book launch parties are a way to celebrate an accomplishment and bring together the people who love you and want to support you.  Yes, some people do NOT want you to succeed and will feel threatened by your success.  Sad but true.  I’ve lost friends since I’ve become published.  However, most of the people in my life are thrilled that I’m pursuing this dream,  that I’m writing books, and they WANT to be a part of it.  They WANT to support me.  If I don’t include them, I’m being selfish.

A book launch party is a way to include everyone in the victory.  It’s like the final scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, without the medals and droids.  I’ve done them across the country and yes, at first, it was hard for all the reasons I’ve listed.  But at some stage of the game, I realized I liked doing them, not so I could sell books, but so I could see people and talk to people and include them in the grand drama of the publishing game.

Where did I have my parties?  Book stores can be hard to get into, especially if you aren’t running with the big dogs, but I’ve used restaurants, coffee shops, and even an art gallery in Santa Clara, California.  Best venue ever.

I bring a box of books, I bring cash for change, and I have a Square account so I can accept credit cards using my smart phone.

The Facebook Event function and eVite.com are great tools to invite everyone you know .  And I encourage my friends and family to invite everyone they know.  I do so fearlessly because again, if I focus on the self-centered fear, I’ll worry that people will think I’m trying to dupe them into buying a book.  But if I focus on the love and support I feel from those people who want to celebrate with me, I get excited and this all becomes easier.

How long should the book launch party be?  Two hours is the perfect amount of time.  People arrive and I greet them.  Forty-five minutes into it, I give a little talk, read a few pages, and chat and sign books.  Thank God for Costco ‘cause they have catered most of my book parties.  What’s a party without a little food?

Yes, people are expected to buy books—some will, some won’t.  That doesn’t matter.  What matters is that rather than hiding my books and myself away in a basement, I am opening myself up to the world and I am saying, “My books are good, I believe in them, and I want you to be a part of this adventure with me.”

So plan book parties, celebrate your books and your career, and be sure to invite me.  I love me a good party.

How Being an Aspiring Writer is Like Looking for A Media Job

by Trai Cartwright

What could being a filmmaker have in common with being a novelist? Lots! I’ve got a foot in both worlds, so I’m always seeing where they cross streams—including some great advice about how to frame your writing as a job.

With all the news about how Colorado Film is growing, it feels almost the inverse of the publishing world. Whenever I get discouraged about the State of the Novel, I jump across the medium-verse. What I learn there invariably informs how I look at working in fiction.

Take, for example, a recent event I attended from the Colorado Film Commission. The Production heads of the most successful media companies in Denver came to speak about their hiring practices.

My first thought was that the things they had to say was exactly the sort of information aspiring writers needed to hear, too.

Here’s the advice these media pros gave:

1. Everyone wants to live in Colorado. The competition for work is only getting stiffer.

Translation for writers: Doesn’t it seem like everyone you know is writing a book, or just published one? Doesn’t it sometimes feel like the competition has tripled in the past ten years? Where will we all fit? Are there enough readers? What if even 10% of those new writers are better than me? What are my chances?

Whenever I hear an agent or editor asked, “What do you look for in a property?” they all say this: “Something awesome.”

So make it your business to be awesome and you will have no competition. How to be awesome? Read on.

2. Plan on coming in as an intern and if you impress them, they will cultivate and promote.

Translation for writers: Getting one book published is just the beginning, and by no means are you on the road to riches and Amazon #1’s. Many writers never get their second book picked up, and while the reasons for that are myriad, it often comes down to not being up to the effort.

Here are some ways to impress and be cultivated:

Seek out every marketing, book touring, vlogging, residency, interview, and guest blog opportunity. The more you hustle, the more three things happen:

1. Your publishing house will appreciate you and will be all the more willing to find ways to work with you in the future. They know a pro when they see one.
2. The more your fans and soon-to-be-fans can find you, bond with you, and promote you to their friends. (Oh, and sell books!)
3. The more you will feel like a writer. Now all this becomes more than just “making copies and getting coffee” – this is your Job, and as you’ll see in #3, your job is your life.

3. If you aren’t passionate (like, 16 hours a day passionate), you are in the wrong business.

Translation for writers: If this isn’t The Dream, The Thing You Wake Up For, then are you sure this is the right road? It’s a damn hard road, and there are thousands of people for whom this is The Dream, and they are all packed on the road with you.

Every successful writer I know or have read about has the same habits:

1. They treat their writing as a top priority. Which means even those with day jobs write every day. Even on holiday. As one writer said, “If I don’t write every day, I feel like I’m stealing oxygen.”
2. They read. A lot.
3. They attend classes or teach them (both are great ways to learn more about writing).
4. They support other writers because they know that when it’s their turn, their community will support them.
5. Oh, and all that marketing stuff in #2.

4. Consider TV news and corporate videos, as that’s the big game in Denver, and it is absolutely storytelling.

Translation for writers: There’s lots and lots of ways to be a writer besides scoring the big contract with Random House. The concept of the hybrid writer has finally broken through: be every writer you want to be. Short stories, non-fiction, blogs, books in seven different genres, fan fic, poetry, all of it. Do whatever speaks to you, because it is absolutely storytelling, and you are a writer.

5. Once you get a job, don’t plan on ever leaving it cuz media work in Denver is hard to find.

Translation for writers: Hey, how much hard work have you already put in? Hasn’t this always been your dream? Then there is no Plan B. You are in this for the long haul, with all the highs and lows. Hunker down, and get back to work.

Speaking of, off I go. My 2,000 words are calling…

Trai’s teaching a FREE writing class at the Poudre River Library in Fort Collins on August 3rd. Register and come play. Click on “Straight Talk About Dialogue” and sign up.

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Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

Adventures in Genre Writing- Part I

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

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

. I’ve organized the topics as follows:

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

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

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

4. Character development

5. Story Structure – Plotting, Inciting Incident

6. Dialogue – Putting words in Your Characters’ Mouths

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

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

9. How much Sex? How much romance?

10. Common Mistakes

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

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

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

It’s also the best job I’ve ever had.

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

See you in August and we’ll get started!

Everything I Learned About Writing I learned From Johnny Cash

By Aaron Ritchey

I just finished a biography on Johnny Cash, and love is a burning a thing.  Also, the book business has a lot of similarities to the music industry.

This is what I learned:

1)      Success can be a whole lotta luck — For example, Johnny Cash moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1955.  Summer of 1955.  Do you know what else happened the summer of 1955?  Sam Phillips, the guru behind Sun Records, discovered Elvis.  A few months later, Johnny Cash walked into Sam Phillips’ studio.  Stupid, stupid luck.  What if Johnny Cash hadn’t been in Memphis in 1955?

2)      You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing – So Johnny Cash would get together with this buddies Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, and they would play music together.  They were a garage band in the south in the 50’s.  They weren’t all that good, but since they weren’t very good, they had to kind of fake it, which resulted in was called their “boom chicka boom” sound.  It wasn’t that they were cutting edge musicians, no, they were struggling to just get notes out there.  The result?  Folsom Prison Blues.

3)      You don’t have to be completely original to succeed –  So Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two (Grant and Perkins) had a distinctive sound.  However, Folsom Prison Blues was based on another song, Crescent City Blues.  Johnny Cash made it his own, granted, but in the end, he had to pay out a settlement because the two songs were so similar.  In a way, Johnny Cash’s entire career was based on Folsom Prison Blues and I Walk the Line.  One was an original work; the other wasn’t.  Shakespeare did this same thing.  I’m not saying steal and plagiarize, but for myself, I’ve thrown away perfectly good ideas because I thought they’d been done before.  It’s ALL BEEN DONE BEFORE!  Take your passion, make it happen, and write books in such a way that no one, and I mean no one, would ever think you plagiarized a thing.  I’d still clear of sparkly vampires, though.  Just sayin’.

4)      Writing for the market is iffy.  Writing from your heart makes all the difference – Johnny Cash would write what he thought of as “Johnny Cash” songs, like Ballad of Teenage Queen.  But then he would write his “JR Cash” songs like I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues and Ring of Fire. Those are JR songs (growing up, his family called him JR).  How many people adore and go crazy over Ballad of Teenage Queen?  It was written for the market.   Yeah, I know.  Don’t even bother YouTubeing it.  It’s a silly song.  Those other songs?  Genius!

5)      Artists need outside help and editors are necessary –  By the early 1990’s, it was clear that Johnny Cash’s best years lay behind him.  I mean, he was playing to like a dozen people in Branson, Missouri matinees.  And the people were wanting their money back.  Cash hadn’t really had a stand-out solo song for decades. Then along comes Rick Rubin,  a hotshot hip-hop producer. Why would he want to work with Johnny Cash?  He was a has-been.  Why would Johnny Cash want to work with Rick Rubin?  He was a weird hippie commie liberal sinner.  Well, the hippie part is probably true, the rest I made up.  Anyway, Rick Rubin wanted to see what he could do with a legend like Johnny Cash, someone past their prime.  Or was he?  Johnny Cash suffered from producers who failed to push him to do great things.  Sam Phillips made Johnny Cash a star because Sam Phillips had vision.  So did Rick Rubin.  If you have not heard any of the Johnny Cash American Recordings songs, well, shame on you.  Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash, working together, made in my opinion the best music of Johnny Cash’s career.  Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails says that he now covers “Hurt” because it’s now a Johnny Cash song. The cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” is inspired. What if Johnny Cash had had someone like Rick Rubin in the 70’s and 80’s?  What kind of masterpieces would he have recorded?

6)      You can’t write books if you are dead –  Phillip Seymore Hoffman will never act again because he overdosed on drugs.  We’ve had Colorado authors who will never write again because they committed suicide.  Johnny Cash most likely should’ve died numerous times.  If he had ridden that addiction train to nowhere, we would’ve been ROBBED of his art.  So take care of yourself.  If you drink too much, stop drinking.  If you take drugs, think about it.  If you don’t exercise and eat junk food, think about it.  You can’t write if you’re dead.  So take care of yourself.

Johnny Cash made the world a better place because wrote songs and played music.  We who write books and publish them also add something vital to this mean old world.

So keep walking that line and write.

How to Make Your Editor Happy

By Katriena Knights

Nobody wants one, but everybody needs one. Maybe it sounds like a riddle Bilbo Baggins should have tossed Gollum’s way, but it’s really just a fact of the publishing business. Everybody needs an editor. Even the editors.

I’ve worked as an editor for almost ten years, in addition to writing my own books. There’s a certain satisfaction in figuring out what an author is trying to say, that maybe they didn’t even know they were saying, and helping them tease that out of their manuscript. There’s a bit less satisfaction in finding all the typos and grammatical errors an author may have committed, but it’s part of the job, too.

But this post isn’t about working as an editor. It’s about how to interact with your editor in a way that’ll keep your relationship positive and productive. The more positive your relationship is, the more likely you’ll be able to work together to produce a piece of work you’re both happy with. And if you and your editor are happy with it, your readers are that much more likely to be happy with it, too.

So, with that in mind, here are some guidelines for communicating with your editor.

  1. Your editor is always right. Well, okay, maybe not always dead right on every issue, but if your editor flags something because it made her cringe or roll her eyes or just get confused or made her go back to read a sentence more than once, it’s worth your time to take a look at the suggestions. And it would probably behoove you to make a change, even if it’s different from what the editor suggests. After all, your editor is your first reader, and if something doesn’t make sense to her, it’s probably not going to make sense to somebody else.
  2. Don’t tell the editor flat-out no. As an editor, I don’t have a problem with an author not wanting to make a change. But I do like to at least hear why they don’t want to make that change. Sometimes, by explaining what they meant to say or get across, the author can give me insight into how a phrase or a plot point isn’t doing what the author intended. When this happens, we rework it together until the author’s intent is crystal clear. At other times, it becomes clear that we’re not on the same page, and that’s fine. The author should win in these cases, unless it involves a conflict with a publisher’s guidelines. And even then, if you’ve explained something to me and I understand you feel strongly about it, I’ll go to bat for you with the bosspeople and do what I can to keep your vision intact.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Fighting about punctuation is a waste of time, unless somebody’s moved a comma and completely changed the meaning of a sentence. In most cases, minor grammatical tweaks like this are a matter of house style, and even if the editor changes them, a line editor will change them back. If it’s really important to the story, then yes, talk to the editor about arranging exceptions. But if it’s just a style issue, it’s better to let it go. (This is an advantage of self-publishing, by the way—you get to make your own style guide. My personal style guide REQUIRES the Oxford comma…)
  4. Save your energy for the big stuff. If it’s worth throwing down over, throw down. There are occasions when an editor or publisher’s demands for your story are so counter to what you wanted to get across with that work that you just have to draw that line in the sand. And there are things worth throwing down over. You’ll know what they are, because the thought of changing them makes you nauseated. Focus on those things. Hopefully, you’ll never run across an editor who works at this kind of cross-purposes with you.
  5. Send chocolate. Chocolate is always a good idea.

MOMENT OF BLATANT SELF-PROMOTION: My new book, Blood on the Ice, arrives tomorrow at Samhain publishing. I hope you’ll take a gander!

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

August RMFW Workshop Announcement: Homicide 101 (For Writers, Not Criminals)

August RMFW Workshop
Homicide 101 (For Writers, Not Criminals)
Saturday, Aug. 23
1 to 3 PM
Sam Gary Branch Library
2961 Roslyn St., Denver (Stapleton neighborhood)

Presented by: Tracy Brisendine

One of the most fascinating and feared crimes is murder—it can completely immobilize a community and tear a family apart. It can also make for some really great writing.

The life and death of your story can depend on the authenticity of your detail, so step beyond the crime scene tape and get it right! Learn basic homicide investigative techniques, motives that induce a person to kill, commonly used cover-up methods, and the importance of physical evidence at a death scene.

Do you know the fundamental characteristics of gunshot wounds, stabbings, and blunt force trauma? What about the tell-tale signs of an asphyxiation death? You will after this class.

So if you plan on offing someone, fictionally of course, don’t miss this free program.

About Tracy:

Tracy Brisendine’s invisible pet dinosaur landed her in the principal’s office in second grade, and it was downhill from there. In order to protect her mental health, she allows some of her ideas to bleed out onto the page. When she is not battling demons of deviance, she serves as RMFW’s Publicity Chair.

Tracy lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and snaggle-tooth dog named Max. She worked in law enforcement for seven years and has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, with a concentration in Criminal Justice, from Colorado State University. Currently, Tracy works as a locate investigator for the City of Denver, and writes urban fantasy as TJ Valour.

Follow Tracy on Twitter: @WolvesCanEatMe
On Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorTJValour

The Top 5 Best Pieces of Writing Advice I Ever Got … by Trai Cartwright

1.   If you’re holding something back for later, drop it in now.

Last Thursday, a friend and I both had one of those explosive days you live for as a writer: the day when your story just electrifies you, delights you, reveals itself to you. She told me she had just written the scene that told her it was just another 25 pages until the supernatural elements of her book could be introduced. I’d just written a scene that was wholly unexpected: a dude who wasn’t supposed to reveal his true nature for many (many) pages to come suddenly whipped off his mask.

This reveal not only changed my whole book but radically improved it in an instant.

This trick comes from a writing teacher I reviled except for this gem. Don’t hold on to the secrets. Don’t write an entire book knowing that in the last 30 pages, all will be revealed. It drains your writing of life-giving creative energy. By “giving away the store”, I was seemingly left with nowhere to go. In fact, I was forced to imagine greater. My story expanded in the most delicious ways because I didn’t hold back.

So my advice to my friend who’s waiting 25 pages to unleash her tasty goodness: just do it now.

2.   Write something beautiful, something grotesque, and something odd on every page.

This one came from a poet who’d just published her first novel, and it’s what her editor said transfixed her. The poet had always used these tricks in her poetry, and had unconsciously carried it over to her fiction. The effect: pages and pages of surprises in the sentences, creating a unique texture that illuminated her world in unexpected ways.

3.   Don’t let the reader catch you writing.

This is from Elmore Leonard and a habit I had to break in my early years. If you’re overly-enamored with your own scintillating, bombastic, lyrical writing style, chances are your readers know it all too well. My voice often over-took my story, and instead of carrying my readers away on a fantastic journey, I was demanding they stand in awe of my cleverness. The point is this: you’re a storyteller first. The voice has to be in service to the story, not your ego.

4.   Don’t confuse, don’t bore.

This from my MFA director Tod Goldberg. Written in big letters on the board, first day of class. If your readers are busy trying to sort out why someone said such-and-such, how they got from the parking lot to Rockefeller Center, who it is they are talking to, when their mother became reanimated because you could swear she died in the first ten pages, they are being carried way on a fantastic journey. They are confused. Confusion equals disengagement as we readers try to conjure the answers that are not on the page.

And boredom, well that’s easy too. If you’re bored writing your story, your readers will have already put your book down. The fix? See #1.

5.   Stop with the semi-colon. And the em-dashes. And the parenthesis.

This is from my god-like genre teacher, Stephen Graham Jones. We all do this. We all suddenly fall in love with some punctuation device that to our minds displays brilliance, adds essential information, and in the case of parenthesis, delivers a dollop of writerly humor.

Readers get exhausted by these devices. Semi-colons create complex sentences that can feel like a challenge to some. Most of those sentences can live independently of one another, so drop in a period instead.

Em-dashes—which, to our mind, can create urgency, provide delightful intrusion, or give crucial tangential information—work maybe every five or six pages, but more than that, it’s a red flag to readers. We start tracking your over-use of the device rather than read your story. It’s like using a word like “stupendous” on every page—we will notice. And it will annoy us.

And as for parenthesis (those semi-smiles of bardic narrator grandstanding), they often break the fourth wall just so you can impart your own sense of humor rather than the character’s. Or worse, it’s a piece of exposition that the writer couldn’t figure out how to include any other way and shoe-horn it in awkwardly. The answer is simply to not employ them. We probably didn’t need that info to follow the scene anyway. And we certainly didn’t need the distraction of your joke.

So that’s it: my top 5 best pieces of writing advice.

What are yours?

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Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing (Part Three)

By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Kym and Mark ToddThis is the third in a three-part installment on strategies we’ve found successful as collaborative writers. In the first part, we discussed things to look for in a compatible partner as well as examples of how that plays out in practice. In the second, we started to explore how plots and characters develop from a weird shared writing space. This time, we’re going to talk about how stories – and especially characters – turn into something we never expected and lead to some unexpected collaborators.

And we like it.

Characters that authors like can turn a good story into one that’s great – especially for readers. But that doesn’t mean those characters have to be nice “people.”

Grady O’Grady from our Silverville Saga series is a character we especially like. There’s a little bit of all the ranchers we’ve ever known in him. Not too surprising since we’ve both lived in rural America most of our lives (Kym in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana, Mark in New Mexico and Texas, and both of us for the past twenty-plus years in western Colorado). So Grady’s take on things was easy to capture. Right before the first Little Greed Men hit local bookstores, we worried about how our neighbors would react to the way we portrayed the ranching lifestyle. But our daughter laughed at us, saying something like, “If a book doesn’t have pictures, they’re not going to read it!” She was joking, of course, but we bravely laughed along with her and waited for the novel to circulate. Several of our neighbors did read the book, and whew! they liked the way we’d described Grady. Kym had a real knack for capturing his style of speech, but she’s always had a penchant for old ranchers. So Kym took the last word, literally, on what he said – and what he didn’t.

Grady also rides a horse we know very well, ‘Ole Moss. We modeled the mare after one we used to own named Belle. She was a bitch from the day she was born in our barn. At three weeks, she almost broke a neighbor’s knee with a well-aimed kick, and when we turned her over to a professional trainer at age two, she charged her new teacher with bared teeth and flattened ears. We include in the story one of Belle’s real antics when ‘Ole Moss strikes out repeatedly at a hot wire fence once it shocks her. Belle would have been the perfect fit for Grady and she made it into our cast.

In the sequel, All Plucked Up, Mark took a shine to a character named Maurice LeVieux, a by-product who emerged from Mark’s pretentious professor side, and Kym let him run with it. Maurice is the octogenarian arch nemesis of that story’s protagonist, Pleasance. He’s stuffy, pompous, and fastidious:

Maurice surveyed the row of tidily arranged ascots that filled the upper compartment of his suitcase. He selected one with just a blush of apricot to match his socks. He chuckled at his propitious talent to once again outmaneuver Pleasance. How careless of her to repeat Grady’s name over the phone that fateful day he overheard her conversation. Poor child. Had she learned nothing from his example? By the time he had arranged to travel to Silverville, he already had Mr. O’Grady’s phone number and address in his pocket.

He adjusted the ascot, tucking it neatly inside his collar and around his papery throat. He sat on the bed and reached over to snap the garters to his socks.

From the very beginning, we knew Maurice was going to be a fun character to work with. But you’ll have to read the story to find out that he’s not a typical anal-retentive guy. We hope he has quirks that catch readers off guard.

Even though characters help authors turn good stories into great ones, some characters have their own ideas about what’s going to happen next – regardless of what the authors’ story outline says.

Case in point: April Schaures, a personality in the third novel of the Silverville Saga series, The Magicke Outhouse. Created as an afterthought to complement the story’s protagonist, April pushed her way into the plot as one of the most colorful characters who’s ever visited Silverville. It was creepy, like she was waiting in the wings for a casting call. Creepy because she “possessed” us both at the same time, with surprising flair that seemed to come from nowhere. April really challenges our notion of where we thought characters originate. Even stranger, neither of us has ever known a character like April. But there she was on the page. In the passage below, she’s shining her new supervisor:

April climbed the stairs and opened the heavy door of the Silverville Public Library.

An older woman standing behind the circulation desk looked up. Had to be Miss Brumbelow, head librarian. The woman smiled and said, “Can I help you with anything?”

April marched to the desk and thrust out her hand. “I’m April.”

The smile melted into a frown. “Your internship started yesterday.”

“Didn’t you get my message?” The one I never sent.

“No, I don’t recall any messages from you.”

April forced a cough and drew a tissue from her pocket. “Really? You didn’t get my note about my recent relapse?”

Miss B appeared to wait for more of an explanation, which April was happy to provide.

“The Uruguayan Flying Worm Syndrome. It flared up again.”

“Excuse me? Uruguay? I understood you were from Placer City.”

“That’s where I grew up, after a traveling circus brought me into the United States and my parents adopted me.” April blew her nose long and hard into the tissue. “I caught the worm before that, when I was only six. Most people die from it. I was lucky.”

The librarian’s eyes narrowed. “Is it contagious?”

“Not once the worms work their way out of your system. Mine have.” April offered a long-suffering shrug. “But once you get it, it stays with you the rest of your life.”

“Is that why your pupils are so … so pink?”

April bent her head and plucked a small disk from one eye and held it up on her finger for the woman to inspect. “Colored contacts.”

While April replaced the theatrical lens, Miss B heaved a disappointed sigh and retrieved a sheet of paper from under the desk. “Here are the responsibilities I’ve typed up for you.” She handed it to her new intern and motioned her to follow.

We didn’t write April’s dialog; she did. In fact, she just sort of grabbed the reins and ran. We often find that a particular character will determine the direction of a plot. Characters tell us what they need, what they have to say, and where they will and will not go. Unlike April, most of our characters need fleshing out, but once we get to know them, we trust them to guide us to the end of the story. All three novels in the Silverville Saga have taken various twists and turns we hadn’t anticipated as the characters took on lives of their own. We almost felt like spectators rather than writers, our job merely to record what was going on in their universe.

Sometimes characters tell us what their names are. More often than not, surnames pop out about the same time a character shows up in a story. Last names occasionally stem from ones we’ve heard in our past or they’ll relate to the personality – or the just the opposite. In Little Greed Men, Howard Beacon isn’t exactly a bright light, Billy Noble is anything but, whereas money preoccupies Buford Price. Same thing in All Plucked Up: Madame Pompeii is as disastrous as her namesake, Maurice LeVieux plays an old geezer (“LeVieux” is French for that), and the “three fools” are our hat tip to Moe, Larry, and Curly. Whether or not readers catch our wordplay, the name puns are amusing to us. In The Magicke Outhouse, we named our protagonist Micah Musil because it sounds funny, its accentual syllabics imitate the corresponding anti-diuretic we’re punning, and it fits a person who encounters visceral turbulence – in a black-comedy sort of way.

In the long run we discovered that, for us, collaborative writing is about the give and take of authors in synch enough to be willing to trade off on who takes the lead. But a lot of the collaboration comes from the page itself — allowing our characters to contribute an active voice to the writing conversation. And that’s a kind of collaboration any author can have, regardless of how many actual eyes are looking at the screen.

At the beginning of this three-part series, we asserted that collaborative writing is like good sex. Do any of our projects lead to hot rendezvous in bed? Ha! We’ll never tell. Like we said before, we can’t write love scenes, which might seem a bit ironic. Let’s just say our passion is private except when it comes to crafting good tales together.

* * *

KYM
We’re still a sentence or two away from finishing this article.

They stare at the screen, rereading the last paragraph, looking for any momentum they can use.

MARK
(sighing)
Boy, I sure can’t think of anything else to say. Can you?

KYM
Nope.

FADE OUT

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Co-authors Kym O’Connell-Todd & Mark Todd are co-authors of the Silverville Saga Series, paranormal adventure comedies that take place in an “ordinary” community sitting on intersecting ley lines – punching holes in everyday reality, causing extraordinary coincidences and the random UFO, an occasional curse, a ghost or two, and even a bit of time-travel now and then.

You can learn more about Kym and Mark and their books at the website and blog. They can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

The Nature vs. Nurture Clash (aka Plotters vs. Pantsers) … by Jim Heskett

JimHeskettAll across the internets, published and unpublished writers blog about how to write, edit, and market material. I find many commonalities and universal truths… show don’t tell, don’t be afraid to be bad in first draft, don’t join a critique group that meets on Wednesdays, etc. I might have misheard that last one, but I think you get my point.

If you spend enough time researching writing advice, one Nature vs. Nurture clash always recurs: Plotters vs. Pantsers.

The Plotters spend time before starting Chapter 1 (or the Prologue, if they’re about to sit down to a 300,000-word epic fantasy) writing about what they’re going to write. Outline, character interview, story arc, plot twists… most or all is designed before the first line of the story lands on paper (or keyboard. Or tablet. Or papyrus)

The Pansters skip all that careful planning and launch into it. They’ll have an idea, or two intersecting ideas, and then let the story create itself on the page. The author has only some, little, or no idea where it will go once she begins.

As for me, I’m both. Boom. I just blew your mind.

I plot my story. But I pants my characters. (gross). What I mean is: I sit down beforehand to decide the sequence of events in the story, which somehow involves a character seeking a goal with obstacles in the path of that goal. Then I think up one or two details about each of the characters, give them desires, and determine arcs for them. Then I lock myself in my basement with plenty of bottled water and caffeine pills and just go.

I don’t know my characters until after my first draft, or at least partway through.

My first draft goal is to get the story on the page as quickly as possible, so I can read it afterwards and see it as one whole work… find the plot holes, things that aren’t foreshadowed properly, and the common themes. What I often discover is that the characters reveal themselves to me through the story. They create themselves. I’ll find myself reading over a scene and think “oh, she wouldn’t do that,” because my original plotting conflicts with the character who grew into being during the process. So I adjust my outline.

So, you might ask, why bother plotting at all if I’m destined to make major changes to the story?

First of all, I write plot-twisty fiction. Planning where those beats are going to occur alleviates a lot of the pressure by reducing the scope of rewrites in subsequent drafts. Second, my protagonist’s arc and the events in the story are linked, so I have to think them through simultaneously.

So, I’ll know in scene #463 that male antagonist Dastardly Devin is going to try to convince female protagonist Innocent Imogen to give up the location of the launch codes. And I know whether or not Devin will succeed. But when I’m outlining, I don’t know what method he’ll use to persuade her, or how Imogen will resist or succumb. That’s the joy of Pantsing my characters… there can still be discovery and surprises for me as I go along.

Do you Pants or Plot, and how has it worked for you?

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Jim Heskett is a writer of short and long fiction, currently slaving away at a laptop in an undisclosed location in Broomfield. His next project is a novel about a woman who hikes into Rocky Mountain National Park to spread her father’s ashes, but she discovers something inside the urn that could put her life in danger.

For more information about Jim and his writing, visit his website.  His movie and book reviews blog is hidden away here. He can also be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.