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.


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 She can also be found on twitter at @rjblackhurst and her author Facebook page at


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,

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 ( 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 (, 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 _____.


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

And, should it be?

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

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

So there’s a standard for you.

Worth shooting for?


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

Writing Undercover … by Tina Ann Forkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Learn more at

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Eight–Suspense

By Jeanne C. Stein

How do you keep a reader engaged? Creating and Maintaining Suspense

Our goal as a writer is to entertain, and make the reader care about your story.

How do you do this? By creating and maintaining an emotional bond with the reader, by manipulating their emotions, by creating and maintaining suspense.

We’ve already decided that we want our books to be as thrilling as possible. That each chapter should end with a hook designed to grab our readers and not let ago until they’ve reached the last page.

Let’s look at some of the most popular ways authors accomplish that same idea throughout their books.

1. The ticking clock. The ticking bomb. This is probably the most often used. Our protag is up against a deadline. If she misses it, the world as she knows it will be changed forever.

2. The “fifth” character. Also called the “disposable” character. A character the reader has come to know and love. Our protag’s friend, sometimes, our protag’s mentor. As readers, we are invested in that character. We love him or her. Then in a startling development, that character is killed off. It ups the stakes for the protag and ratchets up the emotional impact for the reader.

3. Personal agendas. Giving our secondary characters motives unknown to our protag that make it more difficult for her to achieve her goal. This sets up anticipation in the reader who realizes a verbal or physical clash is bound to occur.

4. Red herrings. Should be used sparingly. It’s okay to create a couple of false leads, but peppering the book with a different one every chapter will frustrate the reader. The opposite of this, of course, is one we mentioned earlier: cheating. Don’t wait until the very last chapter and spring an antagonist on us we’ve never met before.

5. Greatest fear. Make our protag face what she fears most. Can be a physical or psychological or moral challenge. The important thing is that the result of failing that challenge means utter disaster.

Those are a few of the more common ways to create suspense. Now how we write it.

We mentioned Dwight Swain in the last lesson. In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, he shares the secret. They are called Motivation/Reaction Units. Or stimulus/response units. Here’s how they work.

The motivation is something our characters see, hear, feel, smell or taste. It’s a stimulus that results in a reaction or response. Motivation is external and objective—something happens. The reaction is internal and subjective—our character’s response.

Jack Bickham in his book The 38 Most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to How to Avoid Them) puts it like this:

The law of stimulus and response works at the nitty- gritty level of fiction, line to line, and it also works in melding larger parts of the story. For every cause, an effect. For every effect, a cause. A domino does not fall for no immediate reason; it has to be nudged by the domino next to it.

Taking this one step further—the reaction/response must always occur in this order: feelings, reflex action, rational action. For example, our protag is attacked unexpectedly. First, she’s surprised (feeling), then she falls back (reflex action) next she gathers herself and responds to protect herself (rational action.)

Why do I say reaction MUST occur in this order? Because it’s logical. When the telephone rings, we answer it. Not the other way around. Sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? It’s such a small thing, why should we pay much attention? Because a sentence constructed this way: I walked to the door when the bell rang, marks us as amateurs. Remember when I said editors and agents are looking for reasons to stop reading our submissions? This is a big one. Along with typos, improper manuscript presentation and improper grammar. We’ll hit more ways to shoot ourselves in the foot in Lesson Ten.

But back to writing the page-turner. What else do we need to make our books come alive? Action verbs. Sophie plunged head first into the water. She didn’t throw herself quickly or drop precipitously into the water. Use action verbs. Omit adverbs and adjectives. Keeps the writing fresh and taut.

Use all the senses. Use sensory details and internalizations to:

Make the reader buy into our world (by suspending disbelief).
Create empathy with our characters.
Modulate pacing and tension to keep the reader hooked.
Keep the reader oriented in the story.
Key the reader to the important plot points.

Sensory details place the reader in the story through:

Touch (sensations)

Here’s an example:

Sophie smelled brine and seaweed before the cold enveloped her. Salt water burned her throat as the darkness rushed up to meet her. There was no sound. Just immense silence followed by…nothing.

Of course, you’re not always going to use ALL five senses. But use more than one. Brings the action to life.

Don’t interrupt action with back-story. There’s nothing worse than being pulled from the NOW for a trip down memory lane. If your protag is fighting for her life, there’s a good chance she’s not going to be thinking about how she came to be in this predicament. She’s going to be concentrating on overcoming her opponent. It’s all the reader should be concerned with, too. Our aim is to create a powerful emotional experience.

Let’s review, then, how we construct a good novel. We use:

Scenes containing Goals, Conflicts, Disasters

Sometimes followed by Sequels: Reaction to the disaster presenting a Dilemma, which leads to a Decision (used sparingly)

And we write these scenes and sequels as a series of Motivation/Reaction Units

In every paragraph, motivation/reaction units should propel the action. Every paragraph. It won’t be easy at first. In fact, what I want you to do now is to look at a scene you’ve already written. Make it the best scene in your entire book.

Now rewrite it as a series of motivation/reaction units. Get rid of everything else. Make sure the sequence of your M/R units is correct: feelings, reflex action, rational action (including dialogue, by the way.)

Done right, you should have an action packed scene that leaves the reader breathless.

Here are some examples of the Good, Bad and Ugly of what we discussed:
The Good: Warren Hammond’s EX-COP:

She ran her hand across the rack’s surface and began fiddling with the shackle again. I found my eyes moving from one rack to another. She caught me in the act, and smiled naughtily, fully back into her kinky librarian persona. I felt a good kind of stirring in my stomach that made its way down into my pants. For the first time in forever, I felt intoxicated on something other than booze.

The Bad:

She left the bar, drink in hand, and headed back to her table. Oh no! Somebody bumped into her, knocking the drink out of her hand.

The Ugly:

Bryce turned to see Jackson, who had just tapped his shoulder. He shoved Jackson with two hands, the memory of what Jackson had done to him making it impossible to control his emotions. Bryce’s cheeks burned red with a rush of blood.

The Ugly Revised:

Bryce felt a touch on his shoulder and turned to see Jackson. The memory overwhelmed. Blood rushed into his heating cheeks, anger surging beyond his control. He shoved Jackson with two hands.

Remember, too, every stimulus deserves a proportional response.

Try these simple exercises:

Stimulus: The waitress whizzed by, dropping the bill on the table, a waft of perfume hitting my nose a moment later. I eyed the bill, the seven-digit number making me think those were some damn expensive eggs, until I realized I was looking at a hand-written phone number.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The growl echoed in the dog’s chest, ears pressed against her head, and she pulled her lips back. Incisors. Canines. Molars.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The guy came out of nowhere, shoved me back against the car. “Give me your wallet.”

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: I looked at the wad of cash in my hand. The bank teller had given me too much. “I think there’s been a mistake, “ I began. She looked me right in the eye, “I never make a mistake,” she said.

What would be an appropriate response?

Next we have some fun: SEX—Do we need it (in our books, I mean ☺ )? How much do we need? How do we write it?

Remember, until next time: BICHOK—Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard!! See you in May!

The Curse of the First Pancake … by Shannon Baker

Shannon Baker 2015There’s a piece of writing wisdom that says to hone your craft, you must first write one million words. Back in my early years, I’d read somewhere that it takes, on average, twelve years from beginning writer to published author. If you’re writing every day, those might amount to roughly the same. If that’s the case, I’m a below average writer. I don’t remember when I became serious about writing but I started slowly, articles, essays, short stories, before I launched into novels.

I took a few years off here and there for life crises, and eventually published my first novel in 2010. Although I loved that book—as it lives in my head—I’m afraid it’s a First Pancake affair.

You know about the first pancake. For some reason, it never turns out right. Parts of it burn and others are doughy. That’s the one the dog gets. But after that, they rise up to a golden brown, all fluffy and perfect. I’ve learned not to get impatient and gobble that first one. I’m better off to save belly space for the really good pancakes that follow.

I didn’t apply the same wisdom to my First Pancake book. I worked on that poor story for far too long. I knew the characters from their DNA out, why they acted as they did, nearly every day of their childhood. I understood the issues at stake, the technology, the history. I researched and read, dreamed and created. Tore down, rewrote, revised, regurgitated.

My critique groups saw so many versions they grew to hate it. Oh, they never said so, but I knew their inner groaning when I’d cheerfully announce, “I fixed it!” and handed out pages. I queried agents in the hundreds. And in between rejections, I’d rewrite according to the last skill I learned or the latest critique.

Baker_Tattered Legacy (1)I buried myself in that book, refusing to give it up. By the time I finally got a nano-press to accept it, I couldn’t tell you what I’d translated onto the page and what only survived in my head. It was a goulash of partially rewritten scenes, action changed to meet so many others’ ideas, styles and timelines. When I started writing the book, data was stored on CDs and used in desktop computers. When I published it, thumb drives and cell phones were common.

I probably shouldn’t have turned it out for public consumption but publishing seemed the only way for me to let it go and move on.

I can’t say the next book was perfect, but it did rise and cook evenly all the way through. And to follow this analogy to the ridiculous, every book since then has been full of better quality ingredients that just weren’t available for that first pancake. And now I’m thinking of clever ways to incorporate butter and syrup metaphors, layering pancake on pancake to create a towering stack of literature, but I’ll go ahead and give you all a break.

I’ve got my rights back to that book. And I still believe in the story, even after the disaster execution. Every now and then, I get the notion I should pull it out and with my new skills, rework it. Again. The premise is great. The concept is still valid.

So far, my wiser side has prevailed. (That and my friends and family get a rabid gleam in their eyes when I mention it.) I’ll let the dog enjoy that First Pancake book and happily introduce the third book in the stack called the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, Tattered Legacy.

It’s set in the iconic red rocks of Moab, UT. Working to solve the murder of her best friend, Nora uncovers an unlikely intersection of ancient Hopi legends, a secret polygamist sect and one of the world’s richest men. Will Nora put all the pieces together in time to prevent disaster?

I have a friend who declares his oldest step-child is a Pancake Child. What is a Pancake in your life?


Shannon Baker is the author of the Nora Abbott mystery series from Midnight Ink. A fast-paced mix of Hopi Indian mysticism, environmental issues, and murder. Shannon is an itinerant writer, which is a nice way of saying she’s confused. She never knows what time zone she’s in, Timbuck-Three, Nebraska, or Denver, or Tucson. Nora Abbott has picked up that location schizophrenia and travels from Flagstaff in Tainted Mountain, to Boulder in Broken Trust and then to Moab in Tattered Legacy. Shannon is proud to have been chosen Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2014 Writer of the Year. Visit Shannon at her website.

While Tattered Legacy is available from your favorite online or bookstore, if you’d like to support indie bookstores, you’re welcome to contact Who Else Books at Broadway Book Mall.  Ron and Nina are the best! And they might have a signed copy to send.