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!

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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.

“Murph” On Writing

By Mark Stevens

I’m turning this month’s blog over to Murph, The Asphalt Warrior.

Denver cab-driver and wanna-be-a-famous-writer Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. "Murph," has collected some of his favorite commentary on being an unpublished novelist. (What is below is just the tip of the iceberg of insights.)

I thought you could—relate. And maybe grab a laugh.

These quotes are from the first six novels by the late Gary Reilly that have been published to date – The Asphalt Warrior, Ticket to Hollywood, The Heart of Darkness Club, Home for the Holidays, Doctor Lovebeads and Dark Night of the Soul.

Pick Up at Union Station - Final JPGMurph #7, Pick Up At Union Station, launches Friday, June 19 at The Tattered Cover (2526 E. Colfax Ave.) at 7 PM.

(You are all invited.)

--

“I’m an unpublished novelist, but it’s been a long time since I haven’t published anything. I keep promising myself that I’ll sit down and start another unpublished novel one of these days, but if you know anything about unpublished writers then you probably know that the worst thing that can happen to one is to run headlong into a wall of free time. That’s when his bluff is called. That’s when he knows he has to get creative—and he does. You’ve never seen a writer get more creative than when he starts thinking up alibis for not writing. I’m as prolific as James Michener when it comes to excuses.”

“My brain is like the print-spooler on my word processor, which holds a failed novel long enough to print it out before it is deleted from the RAM and replaced by a rejection slip.”

"A writer can become obsessed with the peripheral rituals of writing—such as sharpening pencils or visiting the Grand Canyon—when he should be focused on the most important part of writing, which is leafing through Writers Market and making lists of agents who don’t charge reading fees.”

“I started thinking about writing a book called Face the Music, Chump. It would be a gut-wrenching tale of rejection slips. I wondered if there was a place where a guy like me could get rid of the craving to scribble. Some kind of Writers Anonymous, although most writers are anonymous. A place where human wreckage with Smith-Coronas could gather to cure themselves of hanging around office supply stores while their kids starved. I needed a 12-step program and I needed it bad. Step #1: admit you have a plotting problem.”

With a novel, you have to do an outline first and then write the book, but with a screenplay you just knock out the outline and sell it. I don’t know why the publishers in New York don’t take a tip from Hollywood and just publish the outlines of novels rather than the completed books. Let the audience use their imaginations, as my Maw always says about radio. I would much prefer to read an outline of War and Peace than slog through eight hundred thousand words. Why do I need Tolstoy to describe snow? I can imagine snow, whether Russian snow or just regular snow. But book publishers seem to think that the authors should do all the work, and the readers should be waited on hand-and-foot like a buncha goddamn prima donnas.”

“I have some bookshelves in my apartment that are built out of old novel manuscripts. The rest are brick and plank, the way hippies and broke people do it. I’ve written a lot of novels since I was in college, but I use only manuscripts that have absolutely no hope of ever being published to build the bookshelves. I use them in place of the bricks. Admittedly bookshelves made out of paper are not the most structurally sound things on earth, but neither are my novels.”

“The desire to write is one of the few desires I possess that doesn’t overwhelm me in the way that the desire to drink beer or smoke cigars does. Or watch TV. Or date. Or sleep till noon. I’m not that good at resisting desires, but for some reason I’m able to fend off my desire to write. Sounds inconsistent if not completely illogical I know, but there you have it.”

“A lot of artists start out as failed poets, then move on to being failed short-story writers before they finally break through to the big time and become failed novelists. If they’re like me, they branch out to become failed screenwriters. A few take the high road and become failed playwrights, but most just stick with being failed novelists because the potential to not make lots of money is greater.”

“I was afraid that if I went ahead and wrote a Western, I would be dipping into the realm of what my creative writing teachers called ‘formula fiction.’ I hated the idea of becoming a formula fiction writer. What if I got the formula wrong? Think of how embarrassing it would be if I tried to become a formula fiction writer and found out I didn’t have the talent to sink that low?”

More: www.theasphaltwarrior.com

All Six Covers NPR Huge Fun

How To Handle a Bad Critique – Aaron Michael Ritchey Style

BY Aaron Michael Ritchey

So I’ve been in critique groups for nine years now. That’s a whole lot of words being read by other people. You want the math? Oh yes, I know you do.

So ten pages a week, times fifty-two ‘cause there are fifty-two weeks in a year, so that’s 520 pages a year for nine years. For a grand total of 4680 pages. If a book is around three hundred pages, that’s 15.6 books. Roughly. Break that into words, about three thousand words every week, times fifty-two, times nine, and that’s 1,404,000 words critiqued.

I won’t do hours.

So yeah. I’ve been around the block and back. Most of the time the critiques are good, sometimes they are fun, and sometimes, sometimes, the critiques have claws that rip my poor wittle heart to shreds.

A bad critique attacks the very heart of my writing, and I’m not sure how productive that is. But it happens. It’s part of the deal. A good critique seeks to improve or offers a different perspective. A bad critique is destructive. And to make myself perfectly clear, sometimes the bad critique comes from someone who innocently is just offering their opinion. A bad critique can fall out of the sky like hail. Hail doesn’t hate you. It just falls. Sabes?

How do I handle things when good critiques go bad?

I hate.

I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. I sharpen knives and listen to Cannibal Corpse. I plot murder, rebellion, revolution, anarchy in the U.K. I draft long emails defending my work, defending the vicious act of writing words and its difficulty, defending the very purpose of my soul on earth. I print out the emails and eat them, tearing one page off at a time and swallowing them down with cold, cold black coffee from last Thursday.

Or I write letters (not emails) with blood-filled pens on sheets of paper made from human skin. I attack the critique, wanting them to know just how much I DON’T CARE ABOUT THEIR USELESS, STUPID, PEDANTIC OPINIONS. Who are they to question me and my work? What do they know? If they’re so smart how come they’re not New York Times bestsellers? I eat those letters as well, but I use gutter water to wash them down.

I rant. I shake my fists at heaven (literally). I weep.

Alone. So alone.

So that’s what I do. I don’t recommend it, but you can do all those things, just don’t carry out your wicked plans of murder, rebellion, revolution, and the U.K. doesn’t need your anarchy, thank you very much.

So I do that for awhile. I used to do it for weeks on end. Or months. Okay, 2009 was really bad. But I learn. It’s a slow process, me learning, but I learn.

Last time I got a bad critique I spent a bad night not sleeping and doing all the things I said. The next day, I journaled about the experience and got a good understanding of my part.

Because yes, when I’m upset, when my heart is shredded, I have a part. The experienced triggered something in me, and it might have much to do with what actually happened. If I didn’t care about the bad critique, I wouldn’t care. Why do I care? That’s what I have to find out.

Through the inventory process, I find out where I was selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and afraid. Generally it’s all four. And yeah, when I’m hurt, it’s all about me and my ego.

After getting a good understanding of why I’m weeping, I then find people to talk to about the experience. Sometimes it’s just one person, but if it’s bad, I find two: one normal person and a writer (who is not normal).

We talk it through because you know what? Humans heal through their mouths. We talk to each other and magic happens.

So I figure out why the bad critique hurt me, I share the secret, and I get free.

And I keep writing, I keep submitting, and I keep editing. Because bad critiques, bad reviews, bad deals, are part of the writing experience. You want the whole buffet, yeah?

Well, there’s always gonna be crap sandwiches in the buffet, but don’t load up your plate with ‘em. Because like I said at the start, most of the time the critique experience makes me excited to revise! That’s what you want. That’s the idea.

And if your critique group is mostly serving you crap sandwiches, week after week, it’s time to find another critique group.

Beta Readers

By Robin D. Owens

Beta Readers are those people who will read your manuscript after you're done, but before you submit it to your publisher.

I have a mentor (Kay Bergstrom) who always reads my work, and I have Beta Readers. Though I try and keep track of people who have read my manuscripts and help me, I tend to cycle through readers (fans) on my blog and facebook, looking for good beta readers.

But I have one guy named Joe (no, that's not his real name, but equally common). Joe started with my futuristic/fantasy romance series and has followed me through my fantasy and my paranormal romance. Joe is good. Since he's been reading my manuscripts, he's gotten better. I don't know whether that's because we've worked together or not. But I can trust Joe.

This morning, before I sent my two month and one week late book due (that's already scheduled for November and being pre-ordered), I wrote a new opening that Kay advised. I worked about three hours on this opening scene so it had enough set up but not too much info dump. Who did I send it to that I knew would get back to me quickly with an honest read? Joe.

Much as I love compliments – and we all need compliments – what we need most is an honest read if we want our manuscripts to be the best. We can get this from critique buddies, we will definitely get it from professional editors (whether we pay them or the publisher pays them), and we should try to find beta readers who do this.

During my recent quest for beta readers, I sent out five rough draft manuscripts to people I thought might be able to help me. Some were familiar with the series, some stated editorial or literary background. All of them said they read fast (because I tend to need a fast turn-around).

One of those never got back to me. This always happens. Often some get back to me too late.

I always ask for OVERALL comments on the story, places of confusion, slow pace, characters not acting reasonably or being stupid or jerks, plot holes, other problems.

I don't care about grammar and punctuation. My publisher's copy editor will take care of that, and I have a good friend I pay to copy edit, too. At this particular point, the rough draft, I need input on the story.

This time I got: Wonderful book, rest assured your fans will love it. Great, that felt great, but was of little help with the story.

I got punctuation, grammar and typo stuff. This also always happens.

Mostly I got continuity errors, which are important and I fix before I turn it in, but I didn't get any comments on characters or plot except from Kay and Joe. So this round wasn't as helpful as I'd hoped.

Especially since I lay in bed last night knowing something was definitely wrong with my secondary black moment, when the relationship breaks. Joe hadn't said anything about it, so it didn't bother him as a reader (like the lack of stated motivation for the villain had). Kay had a problem with it, and I cut pursuant to her suggestions, but it didn't still didn't work. So I had to go back and forth and around and around (like my ceiling fan), until I came up with the solution. I pretty much returned to the basics of character, craft, and the romance genre rules and figured it out. When I did, I knew it was right.

So, some points of this blog.
1) Beta readers can be extremely helpful.
2) You will have to look to find good ones, if you do, keep them. Be gracious to those who give you what you don't need.
3) The bottom line is that you must also trust yourself.

Pearls of Wisdom … by Guest Rhonda Blackhurst

Rhonda_Genrefest 2015Last month I attended Genre Fest 2015, an event organized by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and The Colorado Authors’ League. The speaker for the morning was David Morrell, creator of Rambo–-as well as numerous novels (both fiction and nonfiction) and short fiction-–and to say I was impressed is a serious understatement. While I expected great pearls of wisdom coming from such a successful author–-and he certainly delivered--what I didn’t expect was his level of humility. What an incredible man. Would I go see him again if he’s in the area? In a heartbeat! I realize I just used the dreaded exclamation point, but that’s how strongly I feel about it. I would recommend anyone who has the opportunity to grab that sucker. You won’t be disappointed.

While I couldn’t possibly mention all of the golden nuggets of advice, some of the ones that I’ll always remember are:

His five rules for writing mystery/thrillers (and could fit with any genre) are:

1.)  Know why you're writing what you are. If you’re writing what you are simply because it’s popular at the moment, you may want to re-evaluate writing that genre. What you’re writing should be personally meaningful; because you can’t imagine not writing it; because it should be worth spending a year (or more) of your time on.

2.)  Know the history of the genre you’re writing. He states, “we can’t recognize when a plot is hackneyed if we don’t educate ourselves about the best that has been done in the genre.” He suggested that if you’re writing a specific genre, you should know enough about the history that you could give a lecture on it.

3.)  Do your research. Your research can come from interviewing experts, reading non-fiction books on the subject, physically visiting the place you’re writing about as well as doing the activities you’re writing about. This last one, in particular, opens all five senses to the experience. The Internet is another deep well to gain knowledge. What not to do is to get your research from TV or movies. The details are not reliable. (Think courtroom and police dramas.) My husband and I both work in the law enforcement arena, and trust me when I say real life is nothing like it shows on Law and Order, CSI, The Good Wife, etc.

4.)  Be yourself. His exact words are worth repeating over and over and over. And over again. “Be a first-rate version of yourself rather than a second-rate version of another author. Innovate rather than imitate.” Wow! (Yup, another exclamation point.)

5.)  Avoid the genre trap. What we write should be the most exciting and moving novel that we can write. Our job is to write a genre novel that doesn’t come off as a genre book.

Other notable mentions:

  •  There are no “odds” on whether you will succeed, get published, etc. What happens to you happens 100%.
  • One thing all of us writers are prone to is daydreaming. In fact we can’t shut it off. Children are often told to “stop wasting your time daydreaming” as if it’s a negative thing. In reality, daydreaming is not a waste of time at all. It’s where ideas come from. The key is to be aware of your daydreams. Too often they’re mini narratives that we dismiss.
  •  Don’t write what you’re supposed to. Write what you’re meant to.
  •  Don’t chase the market because you’ll always be looking at the back side.

I had David Morrell’s writing book, The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing, on my bookshelf at home waiting to be read. I bumped it ahead of all the others I want to read and I’m not regretting it.

This post was originally published by Rhonda Blackhurst at her blog, Novel Journey, on April 12, 2015.

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Rhonda was born and raised in northern Minnesota and now resides in Colorado. She is a paralegal, restitution advocate for a District Attorney's Office, avid reader, writer, and lover of words. Her greatest joy is her family, which includes her husband, two sons, a stepdaughter, one granddaughter and five step-grandchildren. Her love of writing blossomed at the tender age of four when she began writing with crayons on the knotty pine walls of her family home. Her first published novel, The Inheritance, was born from NaNoWriMo in 2012. She is in the process of writing the first two books in the Melanie Hogan mystery series, Shear Madness and Shear Deception.

Her blog, A Novel Journey, can be found at www.rhondablackhurst.com. She can also be found on twitter at @rjblackhurst and her author Facebook page at www.facebook.com/rjblackhurst.

THOSE WHO CAN’T TEACH, DO.

By Kevin Paul Tracy

This is not going to be a popular opinion with a lot of people out there, including many aspiring writers.

In answer to the question, "Can you teach someone to write?" my answer is yes...and no.

I firmly believe you can teach someone to write, but you cannot teach anyone to be a writer.

I've said for many years, everyone has at least one story to tell, and I mean it - absolutely everyone has at least one story to tell. Telling that story is one thing. Telling it well - in the sense that the words are spelled correctly; the grammar is structured according to current norms; the characters are built according to the latest personality tropes and types; the plot follows standard forms and formulas; the narrative utilizes the prescribed forms of metaphor, simile, and exposition; and the arc of conflict builds, climaxes and resolves as it should - can be taught to someone willing to learn. These are all critical building blocks to fiction we all need to learn, but if this is all you have, I've read these stories, and all I can say is, "Yawn!"

Learning to weave a tale like a fine but tattered fabric is nothing that can be taught, it can only be felt. Writing is passion, writing is pain, writing is one of the most intimate acts of self-exploration, and in some cases self-destruction, there is. But more than anything else, writing is love. Writers love stories, love the written word, love to read as much as write. Until you've tried to continue typing through the fog of your own tears, you've never written anything. Until you've read and re-read a passage, unable to believe that you wrote something so beautiful, you've never written. Until you've chewed your nails until they bled while waiting for your favorite reader to finish your latest chapter and tell you what they think, you haven't written.

Ouroboros WormWriters love the story. They embrace it, swaddle it in a way only a parent who holds their own newborn child could possibly understand. Their own favorite writers, novels, characters, and stories are as known to them as boon companions, loved by them like family, cherished by them like the unrealized dreams of childhood. Writers keep a copy of an obscure book or an otherwise critically panned movie for the one line of dialog or piece of narrative that speaks to us. I, myself, keep a copy of the flawed and largely disregarded "The Worm Ouroboros" by E.R. Eddison because the over-the-top scene setting and narrative descriptions tickle my sense of author self-indulgence and narrative excess.

Finally, writers will understand what I'm trying quite poorly to say in this article. Anyone can teach you to write, but no one can teach you to be a writer. That is something you must discover within yourself entirely on your own, if it is there to be found.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
Kevin's Amazon Kevin's Blog

Your Book… Or the Editor’s?

By Mary Gillgannon

A writer recently posted a question on the RMFW site about working with an editor and whether you have to make all the changes an editor suggests. I faced a similar situation a couple of years ago. Here are some ideas on how to deal with difficult editing situations:

Do you have an agent? If you do, then having them serve as the go-between sometimes helps. It’s an agent’s job to fight for you and your book. They can contact the editor and find out how strongly he or she feels about the changes. And if there are some changes you really don’t want to make, then the agent can help you negotiate a compromise.

Did the editor acquire the book, or get assigned to it? An editor who has no personal stake in your book may be more critical, or even want to put their stamp on the book by making changes that fit their vision. In general, if the editor acquired the book, then he or she really likes your story and the changes they’re suggesting are truly geared towards improving it. Having a sense of the editor’s motivations can help.

What do your critique group and/or beta readers think? They are familiar with your story, but still have some objectivity because it isn’t their book. Having their input can help you decide if the suggested changes really have merit.

Search your heart. Has the editor pointed out things that deep down you know are a problem for you? Sometimes we know there are issues but we fight fixing them. Revising is hard work and not very much fun. But sometimes it needs to be done. It’s an editor’s job to make us face flaws and help us fix them.

Talk to the editor. Find out if he/she has specific suggestions on what you need to do. Be certain that you know what they really want. Ask questions. Suggest some solutions and see what they say.

Search your heart, this time for your real motivations. Is your ego is bruised by the editor’s implied criticism of your abilities? Or do the changes truly affect the story in a way you’re not comfortable with?

Pick your battles. Decide what changes you’re willing to make and what changes you want to fight. Then negotiate. Be positive. Thank the editor for helping you improve the book. Tell them about the issues you agree with and how you plan to fix them. Then tell them the things you don’t want to change and explain why, focusing on the book and your vision of the story. Be firm but polite and reasonable.

If they insist on all the changes, you’ll have to decide how important this contract is. I’ve known authors who refused to do the changes, gave back their advance and walked away. That takes a lot of courage, and may not help your career much, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do for your own peace of mind. Even if you don’t walk away, if the editing experience with that publisher has left you demoralized, you need to move on to another publisher. Life is too short to stay in a business relationship that makes you unhappy.

In my own situation, after conferring with author friends who had read the book, I agreed to make about two thirds of the changes and fought the rest. It wasn’t pleasant and I had to go over the editor’s head to the senior editor who had acquired the book, but in the end, I won. But it left me depressed and discouraged and somehow “tainted” the book in my mind. That’s why I decided to look for another publisher. I finally found one and have been much happier with my editing experiences with them.

The GREAT Idea From Two Different Points of View

By Robin D. Owens

"I'm getting into the writing business," my ex said as we walked through the spring sunshine last month to the ice cream shop. What my ex knows about writing can fit on the point of a pin. "I have this GREAT idea. You can do the legwork." And now you know why he's my ex.

"No," I said.

"It will make us lots of money," he said.

I saw a penny on the sidewalk, reached down and handed it to him. "That's how much your idea is worth." (No, that didn't happen, it's just for the story). "Ideas are nothing without hard work."

He ignored me and kept enthusing about his great idea that has only been done a zillion times because, you know, he doesn't actually READ books like the one he wants me to write so he doesn't know the market. I don't think he reads fiction at all.

Nor has he done any basic research on the market, because that's the legwork I am supposed to do.

But, you know, I should be thrilled to write a coming of age story (which I loathe) about a new girl in a Catholic high school with a lot of sex. Sexy enough that both men and women will LOVE to read this book. Then I will write the screenplay and it will become a lucrative film.

I wish the above was false, but no. Thankfully he had another appointment to meet someone about another GREAT business idea SHE would implement and we only had about a half hour together, but I can tell you, I didn't enjoy my Irish Cream ice cream as much as I'd anticipated.

If you are a writer, this will happen to you. Words like the above will come to you from the least likely person in the universe. They will come from strangers after you've just met the person.
Everyone believes writing a book is easy.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again, 1,000,000 words. Or 10,000 hours, and you will master the craft of writing. The same amount of work it will take to master any other profession.

And great (or not so great) ideas are a dime a dozen.

Here's another true story about another great idea from a different slant.

I had a friend in the business but a new writer say last time we met "Don't tell anyone this idea I had." She made a face because she knows that's a standard worry of amateur writers, but she meant it, too.

It was a lovely idea, and I don't know how long it would take her to write it, but I could write it faster. If I wanted it. I don't. As I've also said before, one basic idea (or pic) could be given to a roomful of writers and everyone would write a different story. The theme of this particular story that my friend has is not one that I agree with, so I won't do it. I would never use this idea of hers in a million years because I'm not interested in writing that particular plot, either. OTOH, if she gets it done, it's sufficiently interesting that I'd read it -- after she's put in all the research.

I have a lot of ideas of my own...some proposals that weren't picked up and I may never get back to or will be changed for something new. A SERIES that was dropped that I still have the outline for 3-4 books. Ideas that are my own that I can get excited about.

And, really, most story ideas have been done and we're just looking at permutations.

So, as for ideas...I've been reading a lot of different contests' entries (unpublished and published) and there are some that are interesting, but...they aren't mine, I might enjoy reading them, but never writing them.

Again, those people who think a published author (or other writer) would steal their idea mark themselves as amateurs. We have our own ideas that we love.

May you enjoy your imagination today,
Robin

Writing the Gender-Flipped Character

By Susan Spann

Good fiction requires both male and female characters, and every author needs to learn to write both types convincingly in order to put a compelling cast on the page.

Few authors have experience living as both a male and a female. Most of us are only dealt one hand of gender-cards. The trick, as an author, is learning to how to peek at what the other side is holding (pun intended). Successful authors, like successful gamblers, often cheat.

My shinobi mysteries features dual protagonists, neither of whom is female. However, I was born with "indoor plumbing" -- facts which, taken together, create a conundrum:

How can a woman write a book from a man's perspective? And, for other authors...How can a man see life through a woman’s eyes?

Pervasive gender stereotypes and snide remarks aside, it’s not only possible to write from the other gender’s perspective … authors can do it very well, with a little time and practice.

Here are some tips for writing from the “other plumbing’s POV":

1.  Character first, gender second. Trying to write “like a man" or to "sound like a woman” will get you in hot water, no matter which direction the gender flip is rolling. Instead, consider your characters as if they were real people. Learn as much about them as you can—personality, backstory (most which doesn’t make it into the novel), likes/dislikes, phobias--everything a "real" person needs to become a unique individual. The more well-rounded your characters become, the more convincing they’ll be—regardless of gender.

2. "The Ability to Speak Does Not Make You Intelligent.” (Bonus points for those who can identify the quote.) Dialogue is key to gender differentiation. Men and women speak differently. Many of those differences relate more to personality than to gender, though gender also plays a role. Men and women both speak referentially, but references differ according to gender, personality, personal preferences, and experience. An athlete doesn't sound like a stripper, and neither of them will sound like a ballet dancer, male OR female.

Statistically speaking, more men than women will recognize the quote that leads this paragraph* because the “sci-fi/gamer” contingency contains more men than women. That said, many of my female friends would know the quote immediately. That's the circle in which I run...and it points out another important facet of gender-swap in writing: don't let your preconceptions about gender control your writing. Investigate how the other half really lives. 

3. Tell Me About Your Feelings. Men and women often express emotion differently. My ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, considers his feelings only rarely, and almost never discusses them. By contrast, many of my female characters express emotion with less reserve. (Ironically, the era in which I write--medieval Japan--results in far less emotional display by both genders than you might see in a modern novel--once again, research trumps preconception.) Beware of stereotypes, and individuals do differ, but as a rule men spend less time discussing emotions, especially when talking with other men. Women (again...as a rule) relate better to emotional topics and tend to discuss them in more detail.

4. Observe. Listen. Take Notes. And Share it on Social Media. OK, maybe not the last bit, but the rest of this is important. Listen to conversations in public places. Watch how people interact. Pay special attention to the "other gender," especially when the people in question are similar to the characters you're writing. Watch the way they stand, the way they gesture, the way they move. Pay attention to word choice and rhythm when they speak. People act most naturally when they don’t think anyone is watching, so try to observe without being noticed...or arrested. Note: STALKING IS BAD, MMMKAY? Police mug shots look really bad on the inside cover of novels.

5. Cheat. Find a beta reader and a critique partner of the opposite gender. (Note: that's two different people, not just one.) The beta reader should simply read, without editing the manuscript, and tell you whether the characters of his or her gender sound like "real" people. Critique partners should read and also offer edits or suggestions. Both are important, because they will notice different things. Tell them you want to know if anything sounds wrong or out of place … and then pay attention to what they tell you.

My now-adult son acts as my alpha reader for every novel, and I also have a male critique partner. Trust me when I tell you that nothing—NOTHING—critiques your work as bluntly as a college-age male. (My critique partner is far more polite about telling me something's amiss.) However, I can rely on them both, and if Hiro or Father Mateo says or does something "wrong" I can count on one or both of them telling me: “No guy in his position would say that. EVER.”

Note taken. Revision made.

One of the most difficult parts of writing gender-flipped characters is avoiding stereotyping (it’s hard to do, even--or maybe especially--in posts like this). Knowing what men like, and how they act, helps woman write the male POV, and the opposite is true for males writing inside a female mind. (To whom I say...God help you all.)

What helps you write from the other gender's perspective?

Susan SpannSusan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, will release in July 2015. When not writing or practicing law, Susan raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

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 _____.

Go.

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.