Tag Archives: writing

Series or Standalone or The Problems of Estimating When You Don’t Outline

By Carol Berg

Carol Berg PhotoIn my published writing career, I’ve started six projects. Three of them, I intended to be standalone novels. Only one of those three stayed that way. One project I sold as a three book series and it turned out to be four. Clearly I’m not great at estimating.

My problem is that I am an organic story developer. I hate the word pantser, because to me that implies the writer doesn’t know where he or she is going. I always know where I need to start, and I always know where I’m going. My problem is, I don’t always know how many events or scenes or words it’s going to take me to get there. Nope, I don’t outline individual books or a series as a whole. I generate events and scenes as I write, because, for me, story ideas blossom as I get to know my characters and see what kind of challenges and personal interactions will drive them toward the climactic events that I want to happen.

Berg_ThreeCoversOne example: My novel Transformation was intended and sold as a standalone. I brought it to a very satisfactory ending. A true completion of the story is very important to me. Only, just about the time I sent the book off to my editor, I realized something critical about my demonic villains. The story I had told was only a piece of a much larger story arc that dealt with the identity of those demons and how that related to the identity of my hero’s people, their religion, and their single-minded pursuit of a war that took place in the physical landscape of human souls. That realization delighted me, but it also generated two additional novels that became the Books of the Rai-kirah. The single fantasy story became epic.

Three of my five “not-standalone” projects are this same kind of series. In these three series, the individual novels are separated by as little as a single day, or as many as four years. Each volume is a complete story in itself, but also a piece of a larger, continuing (epic!) story arc involving the same core of characters. Sometimes the books will have the same point of view character (like the Rai-kirah books) sometimes different ones (like the novels of the Collegia Magica).

I envisioned my Bridge of D’Arnath series as three books – and proposed and sold them on a three-page synopsis. The story centered around a disgraced noblewoman, a sorcerer/warrior who happened to have a displaced soul in his body, and the search for a kidnapped child – a child who had been brought up to believe he was evil. The third book ended when the boy was sixteen. But once I got there, the ending wasn’t right. Having sons myself, I knew that no kid, especially one who had undergone the traumatic childhood of this one, was “finished” at age sixteen. That’s where book four came from – Daughter of Ancients (NAL/Roc 2005) my first Colorado Book Award finalist. Oops!

Another project I mis-estimated was the novel Flesh and Spirit. I sold it as a standalone. But I also sold it on the basis of a single paragraph . When I was about halfway through writing it, I realized that there was no way this story would fit inside one book. I had to go back to my publisher and say, “You know this book I’m writing? It’s really two.” That is not a happy thing to say to a publisher. Fortunately, they liked it well enough to buy the second book! This became the Lighthouse Duet, a slightly different kind of epic series because it is really one big story split into two volumes. The resolution at the end of the first volume is really more of a turning point. Hey, I’m in good company. Lord of the Rings is really one big story split into three volumes, right?

Berg_DustandLightMy new series, the Sanctuary Duet is a parallel series to the Lighthouse books. I had the idea for Dust and Light (released just this month from NAL/ROC Books!) and wrote it up. Uh-oh, a paragraph! But I also wrote the first six chapters before I sent off the proposal. And this time, I told them it was going to be two books, even though I wasn’t sure the story was big enough. . . Indeed, when I reached the resolution mark of Dust and Light, there was an overarching mystery that had not yet been solved, and so I clobbered poor Lucian de Remini on the head and sailed into Book 2, Ash and Silver (NAL/Roc, August 2015). But I haven’t finished Ash and Silver yet, and there sure are lots of threads to resolve. Stay tuned…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Carol Berg never expected to become an award-winning author. She chose to major in math at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado so she wouldn’t have to write papers, and ended up in a software engineering career. Now her fourteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. A starred review from Publishers Weekly uses words like captivating, impressive, and perceptive about her newest novel, Dust and Light. Learn more at http://www.carolberg.com

Oh, That Nasty Practice

As I pondered topics for today’s blog, my mind skipped past several ideas and latched on to a practice that seems to come very naturally to me: procrastination.

Ah, I see some nods of agreement out there. We all know this skill is one many writers have honed well. Deep down, we know there are a host of reasons for letting other tasks run roughshod over our writing.

Writing is difficult. When the Muse is with us, we can spend hours at the keyboard without being aware of the passage of time. But, much more often, we write and rewrite and rewrite again in futile attempts to keep the flow going and get the words just right. The funny thing is, the more we procrastinate, the harder it is. The routine of writing everyday actually makes the words flow easier. Once we get out of the habit, we defeat ourselves.

Many of us have sub-conscious fears. Fear of failure and fear of success seem to haunt a large percentage of writers. We are afraid what we write won’t be good enough, won’t satisfy our readers, won’t be accepted by our publishers. And if it is good enough, how will we maintain that level? We will have new expectations to meet, additional tasks, marketing.

Excuses abound. Family members need attention. The house needs cleaning. Other commitments can’t be ignored. We need to exercise. Groceries haven’t been purchased for a week. Noise is bothersome. The dog needs to be walked. A jigsaw puzzles calls for our focus. Email and social media and computer games clamor for priority. Our favorite TV program beckons. Our day jobs tire us out.

I think I have personally used every one of those excuses.

Now, I’m not saying we can’t prioritize and I refuse to say that “if you truly want to be a writer, you must make writing a priority.” I think those are personal decisions based on our personal situations. There was a time in my life when my family HAD to be my priority and the day job had to be built into the schedule. That didn’t lessen my desire to be a writer–it simply meant that I needed to adjust my goals and my routine to fit my life.

What I am saying is that “if you want to be a writer, you must learn to avoid procrastination like the plague.”

Wow.

I have the time, I have the space, I have a supportive man who takes routine tasks off of my shoulders. So why am I not writing every single day?

My personal excuse is “other commitments.” I find it difficult to say no and tend to over-extend myself in volunteering for committees and boards. It isn’t that I’m looking for other things to do. I care about the organizations I belong to and want to contribute my skills. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that I have taken on so much that I had to shift those tasks into my writing time in order to honor them and now I’m in a negative habit of NOT writing.

I knew saying yes to those tasks would rob me of writing time but I still did so and I recognize it was in direct response to being asked to alter my story visions in order to satisfy mass market publishers who were nibbling at my manuscript as well as an attempt to rush an unfinished manuscript that just wasn’t flowing right. Once I realized that, I adjusted my publication goals and now have a new offer from Five Star Fiction. Two manuscripts await attention.

But I still have those multiple lingering volunteer jobs to finish up. Thankfully, many of them now almost completed—enough so that this morning, I made a commitment.

I will return to a DAILY writing ritual. Because I have upcoming travel that will disrupt routine, I will start this in September. I will use the upcoming RMFW Colorado Gold Conference to re-energize me and jumpstart this practice. I will not volunteer in multiple roles for multiple organizations and those volunteer tasks that I have yet to finish or agree to take on in the future will be regimented to a specified time slot each day—after my writing.

Anyone want to join me?

Ooooh, shiny! The Next Project Syndrome

By Robin D. Owens

There you are, drudging through your current project, convinced it is cat crap and an idea wiggles in. A beautiful, sparkling, WONDERFUL idea. Something so alluring, that will be so much more fun to write than the current story (especially if the current story has been bought and you’ve taken money for it and it is now late).

Oooh. Yes. There’s the hero, you get HIM. Different characteristics than the guy giving you fits right now.

There’s the hint of the plot, SO much more exciting than the murder you’ve gotten bogged down in, or the details you need to research of the cathedral you’re building, or the heroine who needs to be trained in knife fighting…

SO much easier to write on a story that shines with promise rather than dig into the guts of the work you have now, the one that was once shiny but currently is hard to write, a job, work.

Because all ideas become hard to write. Nothing stays shiny. But that initial POP of an idea, the brainstorming of some bits of the people or the plot, wow, that’s FUN.

Before I was published, I could be lured away. I must have six or seven manuscripts started that never made it more than 100 pages or so before something else caught my attention.

Now, with the selling of my stories, my work, I have to be more disciplined. Yes, the ideas come…it’s particularly bad if they come in a series I think I can sell….whispering their sweetness. But, for me, I must resist.

So this is what I do. I live only with cats which means I can wake up in the middle of the night and dictate wonderful (or stupid) ideas, so I keep my itouch handy. The voice memo button is on the toolbar so it stays available whether I was playing spider solitaire or looking at Word of the Day when I turned off my device. I can find the memo app with my thumb in the dark, if necessary. I can burble about the new and shiny idea. Then I can save it for a more appropriate time (i.e. when the present manuscript is finished).

If the story continues to hang around while I’m studying knife fighting or building a cathedral, or figuring out when my hero is going to say “I love you,” I might hit the computer and write down additional notes or prompts for it. The heroine is an adventuress. The hero is a gentle giant. He is an introvert [long notes about the story formerly here CUT].

When the previous manuscript is finished and I have a little time, I can rub my hands and delve into the New! Fun! Improved-Technique-Trust-Me-Baby! Shiny idea. And it stays fun for a while, depending on the publishing schedule, real life, and before I take the first chapter to critique group. :) Maybe even after that. Until I hit a snag, or need to deepen the character or realize that the plot does not work.

Then the mind wanders and . . . You understand? Sure, you know this cycle as well as I do.

Well, that’s what I do when the next sparkling concept hits my brain. I’m not sure what you might do, but this works for me so it might help you.

What is lovely is that it’s good to realize that you aren’t alone in this fascinating endeavor. That there are other people on this journey whose eyes WON’T glaze over when you talk to them about writing.

On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/robin.d.owens.73?ref=tn_tnmn
Website: http://www.robindowens.com
Blog: On Writing & Publishing http://robindowens.blogspot.com
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobinDOwens

Adventures in genre writing…Lesson One

By Jeanne Stein

Welcome, everyone. Let’s have some fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what she had to say:

1. You are often included in lists of Urban Fantasy Authors. How do you feel about the tag and do you like it? Why or why not?

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

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

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

3. Did you set out to write UF?

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

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

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

_________

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

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

How Exhaustion Helps Writing

By Trai Cartwright

How does exhaustion help writing?

It doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t.

Writing through mental and physical exhaustion has always been a struggle of mine, and it seems in the past year or two, I’ve heard much the same from many of my writer friends. Whether it’s acute over-programming or serious health ailments, managing their lives drains away their precious creative time and energy.

It’s gotten to the degree that they don’t get any writing done.

Does being a writer attract a heightened level of affliction? Is that how we know we’re writers—not because we’re sicker than everyone else but because we feel the terrible intensity of our failings all the more for their negative impact on our art?

Are we as a tribe, too tired to do our jobs? Did the writers who came before us suffer these same maladies to the same extent, and if so, how did they manage to get their work done?

How do we, as an afflicted body of scribes, manage to get it done regardless? Or do we?

I read “Z” not too long ago, a book from Zelda Fitzgerald’s point of view (genius, by the way), and not only was her own mental health eroding, but she had to rely on a husband who’s proximity to drink determined his own daily output.

Scott wrote dozens of short stories because it was all he could manage around his alcoholism.

Stephen King, on the other hand, used his prolific drug habit as a production tool for his writing. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can tell when King’s addiction began impacting his writing negatively—there are a couple dozen books that, well, suck. But his habit never impeded his output.

The tales of mental illness among writers and artists in general is prodigious. Their careers seem to go in two directions: one, they waited for bouts of sanity to work; or two, their affliction seemed to drive them to produce.

Myself, I was a chronic insomniac. The longer a person goes without the required sleep (seven hours uninterrupted), the worse their brain, organ, and nervous system function. A fugue state takes over and soon cognizant thinking becomes impossible, much less creative thinking. There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is a torture technique.

We all have our afflictions, don’t we?

But does the human condition make writing impossible? And what a terrible joke that would be, with so many of us with something to say.

And now that our lives are so overly complex with 24/7 jobs, family schedules that require herculean efforts to maintain, and increasing health issues across all ages, is there any way our artistic pursuits won’t suffer?

How do we compensate?

Or do we give in?

A friend of mine, Amy Kathleen Ryan, had triplets a few years ago. She still wrote two books around their tyrannical infant demands. You might have read them.

Another friend of mine has been diagnosed with MS, making it impossible to type some days. Many days. He still finished his most recent mystery novel.

Another woman I know has worked full time, pursued two advanced degrees, and raised her kid for the past five years, and is inches from finishing an epic fantasy we all know will publish the second she finishes.

Another has taken over the care of both her invalid parents while raising her own family. She’s learned to write in doctor’s offices.

A man who attends most of my library creative writing classes tells me he’s on the road three out of four weeks a month, but he’s taught himself to write on airplanes and in hotels.

A woman in my MFA program walks with two canes and is in constant, chronic pain from a back injury. She still got her degree and recently published her first short story.

There are lots of examples of life becoming what really ought to be written off as unmanageable, crushing our creative selves, making writing laughably impossible. But even these people find ways to write.

They all tell me the same thing: writing is their life’s blood. They’ve learned to stop making attachments to the outcomes and just be glad for the days they get some words on the page.

Is that enough?

As more and more novels are written under the pressures of our modern, debilitating lives, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Exhaustion may not help our writing, but it doesn’t have to stop it entirely.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

The Effects of the Relativity of Time on Writing

By Kevin Paul Tracy

I just finished writing a particularly irksome passage in my latest project, Bloodtrail, the sequel to Bloodflow. Irksome in that the choreography and the chronology, like a pair of cranky siblings, were fighting each other and would not agree. I was having difficulty getting characters to where I needed them to be when I needed them to be there in a logical progression, without drawing the question from readers, “Wait, how did she get over there so quickly when she was all the way over here a second ago?”

TIME RELATIVITY

I was working so hard on this section for days, that when it was done, I had this distorted sense of the scene’s place in the book. Having worked on it for so long, I had this sense that the scene, which was an important one but not particularly pivotal, had become too large in the narrative, took too many pages, and was longer than other scenes in the book which were in many ways more pivotal.

So I went back and I reread the entire passage, paying close attention to page-count and the pacing of the scene in relation to other passages. I came to the realization that my concerns were unfounded. The scene was well placed within the narrative, paced on par with other scenes, and took up just as many pages as were needed, to convey the import, no more, no less.

I realized that my sense of this passage and it’s place in my story had become distorted by the amount of time and concentration I had exerted on it. Upon realizing this, it occurred to me that there have also been times when I feared I’d given a scene short shrift, and felt that I needed to flesh it out more to give it the weight and gravitas in relation to the rest of the narrative I felt it needed. Those times, when I went back, I again realized I’d been mistaken, that the scene was exactly how I had intended it to be. Once again my sense of the scene had been affected by the time it took to write it, in this case by coming together so smoothly and effortlessly that it seemed to take no time at all to write it.

And then, of course, are the bad times, when you think everything is fine, but a read through, often in critique group, brings out the glaring problem of pacing, timing, and impact in transitions from one scene to the next.

This distortion of perception is an effect of time relativity on writing. As writers, we sometimes lose perspective on the project we’re currently developing. Especially if we walk away from it for a day or more and come back. We lose the sense of continuity in the narrative because to use it isn’t a smooth, single-strand, linear process. If you have experienced this time-stretch, time-shrinkage in your own writing, you are not alone. We all encounter it.

For me, every time I sit down to write I go back and reread the prior scene. This has the effect of centering me on the pacing of what I’m doing, and of getting me back into the mood, the atmosphere, if you will, of the current project on which I’m working. I write two series: the Laine Parker Adventures (Rogue Agenda, The Lucifer Strain (pending)) are a collection of light thrillers with similar pacing and flavor to the TV show Castle or the Stephanie Plum books; while the Kathryn Desmarias Gothic Mysteries (Bloodflow, Bloodtrail (pending)) are dark, baroque, chilling tales of romantic horror on the order of Wuthering Heights and Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. These two genre’s have wildly differing pacing, atmospheres, and plot progressions. I sometimes will work on them interchangeably. The only way I can do so is to reread the prior passage, to put myself into the world I’m going to be writing about, before adding additional scenes.

In short, when first-draft writing, don’t fret about time relativity and the sense that you are writing unevenly paced or balanced chapters or scenes. The important thing is to get something on the page. There will be plenty of time to even things out in rewrites, and you just might find it isn’t as uneven as you think it is.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Library by Guest Author Travis Heermann

Research and Cultural Connections in Fictional Worlds

by Travis Heermann

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation about surgical masks. A member of my family recently was forced to wear a surgical mask for a time to reduce risk of infection due to a compromised immune system. When I was living in Japan a few years ago, I often saw people wearing such masks in public, and during this conversation someone assumed the motivation behind masks in public was fear of infection.

“That’s not why they wear the masks,” I said. “They wear the masks because they’re sick themselves and don’t want to infect other people. They’re protecting the community.” This cultural practice was explained to me while I lived there, probably because I once made a similar assumption.

This is a striking example of behaviors that are similar on the surface, but for which the underlying values are drastically different. In the West, and in the U.S. in particular, the Individual has been elevated to greatest importance, with Community relegated to secondary status to a degree that puzzles natives of the Far East. In the Far East, that dynamic is profoundly reversed, such that Family and Community come first to a degree that mystifies Westerners.

When writing fiction not set in one’s own neighborhood, writers need to realize that we swim through our native culture like fish through water, largely unaware of its effects on our values, on our underlying assumptions about life, on our daily behaviors, on our perceptions of Others, the Outsiders who are intrinsically Scary and Not To Be Trusted. An individual from another culture, whether from a tribe in New Guinea or from Planet 10 Across the Eighth Dimension, may exhibit similar behaviors to someone from middle-class America, but the underlying value system and cultural reasons for those behaviors may be poles apart.

So for writers, the key to getting it right is research. The key to good research is to access the most direct sources you can. By direct sources, I mean museum exhibits of real medieval weapons, letters and documents from the time period, scholarly work, textbooks, etc. I do recommend you don’t use derivative works; for instance, using medieval fantasy novels, or even historical fiction, to learn about medieval culture is a bad idea.

If you find a good resource, search out the research sources that author used. Better still—and I realize this is not always feasible—travel to the locale yourself. If you’re wearing your Writer Eyes and Ears as you should be, you will pick up untold little details in the area, its people, its customs. In a country as big as the U.S., with so many different ethnic groups, even an area across the state—or across town!—can exhibit striking differences culture, dialect and attitudes. Barring the possibility of travel, Google Earth can be an astonishing resource for getting a look at the area, in conjunction with a library card and the will to use it.

The good thing about research it can be recycled over and over. If you’re writing science fiction, paranormal, urban fantasy, anything that requires creation of a non-mundane world, all kinds of research, academic and experiential, is melted into the bottomless, cast-iron cauldron of your subconscious and can be used to season alien worlds with enough verisimilitude that your readers will devour it with relish.

One of the cool things about being a writer is that we have a wide range of disparate knowledge, some of it as thorough and detailed as any academic’s. Fun on the page, fun at parties.

 

Author Bio: Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Shivers VII.

http://travisheermann.com/

http://travisheermann.com/blog/

https://www.facebook.com/travis.heermann

https://twitter.com/TravisHeermann

Here Comes the Judge

By Mark Stevens

Who am I to judge? No, really?

I’ve judged the Colorado Gold contest for many years. I take on five or six entries each time around. That’s not many pieces to rate. Some judges handle dozens—and more.

Five or six entries take time—twenty pages of each novel and a three or four-page synopsis to go with it. First, I read each entry straight through and then I embed comments on the second pass.

Then, the real work: filling out the score sheet.

Is the “emotional content” a five or six?

Is the “scene craft” a four or a five?

The totals add up. The contest is designed to find unpublished writers who are worthy of the spotlight. (And, yes, years ago I entered the contest a few times. I was crushed when my scores didn’t add up.)

This year, alas, I struggled to connect. With anything. I shipped back a whole lot of misery for contestants to absorb. (I am very glad each entry receives scoring from at least two judges; I am not alone.)

So I’m here with a few humble suggestions.

  •  Keep it simple.
  •  Give me one character with a strong point of view.
  •  Show me that character’s attitude about one thing.
  •  Don’t give me blah.
  •  Or ordinary.
  •  Give me edge; risk.
  •  Convince me that the story starts on this day.
  •  Rivet me with a colorful detail. Or two.
  •  Decide why I want to spend a few hundred pages with your main character and give me one reason to engage in the first few pages.
  •  Help me see, taste, smell, touch. Make it sensory.
  •  Avoid using dialogue that is only designed to fill readers in on the background lives of the characters. (Just don’t!) This is dialogue as “info dump.” It’s deadly.
  •  But, mostly, keep it simple.
  •  Really simple.
  •  No, really.

www.writermarkstevens.com
https://www.facebook.com/AllisonCoil
@writerstevens
https://www.facebook.com/theasphaltwarrior

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Honoring Your Contract

By Katriena Knights

One of the most important things you can do is a writer is honor your contracts. I’m not talking about your contracts with your publishers. I’m talking about your contracts with your readers.

Wait, what? Authors don’t sign contracts with readers, do they? So what am I yapping on about this time?

Readers have expectations. These expectations vary depending upon what kind of book you’re writing. Or, in some cases, the kind of book you claim to be writing. Violating these expectations can lose you your readers—sometimes permanently.

Of course this is more true with genre writing than literary. Most mainstream books have some built-in expectations, as well, but they’re a bit more fluid. Still, when you move from writing for yourself to writing to an audience, it’s a good idea to keep those audience expectations in mind. Most of these expectations have to do with the book’s ending.

For example, in a romance, your reader expects a happily-ever-after ending—an HEA—or at least a happy-for-now—HFN. If your romantic couple decides to go there separate ways, or if one dies horribly, your book isn’t a romance. If you market it as a romance and it lacks the HEA or HFN, your readers will discover you’ve violated that contract and probably won’t come back.

Mystery readers expect the crime to be solved, whether it’s a murder or petty theft. The solving of the crime should drive the plot, and the solution should drive the climax. Loose ends might be left here and there, but the main crime should be wrapped up. If you decide to be extra “edgy” and “realistic” and leave the crime unsolved, you’ve violated your contract. (There are mystery writers who’ve successfully published books that don’t wrap everything up, but they were long-time, established authors with a fan base willing to go along for the ride.)

With any book, of any genre, readers expect a conclusion of some sort. If too much is left hanging, plot points are tied up, or characters are left without resolution, you’ll lose some readers. This is why my copy of Trumpet of the Swan fell apart after about ten readings, but I only read Stuart Little a couple of times. Louis got a nicely constructed happily-ever-after, but poor Stuart didn’t get a nicely tied-up ending. I suppose maybe it was appropriate for his story, but I’m still bitter about it.

However, that’s an example where the genre didn’t dictate the ending. It wasn’t a violation of a genre contract, but it didn’t live up to my personal expectations. As a writer, there’s nothing you can do about that, so there’s no point trying. But do keep in mind the expectations of your genre and of your average reader when you’re stitching that plot together.

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.