Monday, March 31, 2008

Making a Fight Scene Seem Real

QUESTION: I'm writing a fight scene, and I'm having a horrible time making it real. I've never hit anyone or been hit. How do I make it real?

That's a good question. If the scene and actions don't seem real to you, you can't make it real to the reader.

One way to make a fight real for you is to choreograph it by yourself or with the help of a friend or family member.

You play the hero and have the other person be his opponent. Don't just figure out the blows and what the other person will be doing.

Imagine yourself hitting that person. What are you feeling? Where would your hand hit? How would that feel to you?

If your hero is a trained fighter, how would his feelings differ?

Imagine how it would sound. To do this, hit your fist hard against your other hand and listen.

Also ask friends if they have ever hit someone and how did it feel?

The research lists I mentioned in a recent blog are good resources for asking questions about fights because many of its members are police and military who have experienced it first hand.

You may never have been hit, but you have been hurt. Remember how it felt when you were hit in the face while you trying to diaper a rowdy toddler who clobbered you with his foot. Or that baseball that hit you in the face or chest. Increase the sensation, and you've got some idea of what it feels like to be hit in a fight.

SCHEDULE NOTE: Blogs for the next few days may be delayed or not posted because of a family health problem.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Genre trends, MARKET

"Writer's Digest" has its popular fiction report available online.

It looks at recent trends in romance, mystery, thrillers/suspense, horror, science fiction and fantasy. Well-known agents, editors, and authors also guess at the direction the market trends will take.

Be sure to click the link directly below the title that offers a further breakdown of types of books. It has an excellent list of the types of romance, mystery, etc. Some are less than accurate, however.

Link to the article:

THIS BLOG AVAILABLE THROUGH EMAIL. If you'd like to receive this blog through email, send a blank email to . This is an announcement only list which means you will only receive the blog, not emails from members.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Research Groups for Writers

For the last few weeks, I've been visiting various writing and research groups at Yahoogroups. Most of these lists allow you to ask research questions for your works, and experts or group members will answer them.

Crimescenewriter: Crime Scene Questions for Writers

A large membership with lots of experts and questions. Very mystery oriented. It tends to stay on subject with little chatter.


Most questions seem to be fantasy and historical based. Some mystery questions. Fairly small membership so messages aren't as frequent. Most, if not all, members are writers, not experts. Not much chatter.

Weapons_Info : Weapons Info and Survival

Medium-sized group with lots of experts on mayhem of all sorts. Covers contemporary and historical weapons, etc. Very little chatter off topic. My personal favorite resource group.


Large group specializing in mystery questions. Includes readers as well as writers. I've seen no nonwriter expert replies. Lots of chatter, bickering, sniping, and off-subject discussions as well as discussions on publishing. A heavy traffic list.


Small group that bills itself as a bulletin board for writing-related information. Not much email generated. The same people do most of the posting.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE GROUP? Please let me know.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

CRITIQUING: Craft and Worldbuilding Questions

Continuing my list of questions to ask about a manuscript to be critiqued, here are the craft and worldbuilding questions.


Point of view: Is the proper point of view maintained in each scene? Would a scene work better from another character's viewpoint? Is there only one viewpoint character in each scene?

Interior monologues/introspection: Does this interior monologue slow the scene too much? Could this information or emotion be expressed in dialogue or action? Is the writer telling too much?

Sentence structure: Do the sentences vary in length? Does the language fit the actions? Are there long sentences for leisurely, more introspective moments, and short, terse sentences and words for action scenes?

Language: Does the author intrude, or is she invisible so the story can tell itself? Does cause and effect happen correctly? Is she showing rather than telling?

Is the worldbuilding well thought out?

Is it logical?

Does the writer break her own rules?

If a myth or fantasy element is changed from common knowledge, is it a logical or understandable change? Is it explained? (a vampire who can survive full sunlight, for example)

SUMMATION: These are just some of the questions you can ask as you critique. As you gain experience and learn the other writer's strengths and weaknesses, you'll be able to refine your questions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

CRITIQUING: Questions to Use

The critique questions below are only some of the questions you'll ask yourself as you critique another person's work. Add to this list as you need to.



The first critique should be an overview of plot and character. Questions you should ask include--

Does this chapter advance the story?

Tell more about the characters?

Give plot information?

Does it work with the chapter before it?

Specific elements to examine in a general critique are


Do the characters and plot work well together, or is the plot just pasted on?

Does it make sense?

Does one thing lead to another?

Has the story started at the right place?

Does the action escalate?

Are more plot questions asked before a plot question is resolved?

Does the plot fit genre boundaries?


Does each character sound different?

Are the characters doing what they, as characters and personalities, should be doing, or are they being moved around for the convenience of the author?

Do we understand why they are doing certain things?

Does each major character have a strength and a weakness which will be affected by the plot?

In the romantic relationship, is their emotional conflict strong enough for the length of the work?

Will it take more than one long talk to resolve their conflict?

Does their romantic relationship work with the action plot?

In the action plot, is the conflict between the hero and his opponent strong enough?

Is the opponent strong enough to really push the hero to his limits?


Later critiques should also examine the nuts and bolts of grammar, spelling, language, dialogue, point of view, correct historical and scientific information, etc.

TOMORROW'S TOPIC: Craft Questions and Worldbuilding

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Ethics of Critiquing

Continuing my blogs on critiquing, I've listed some of the rules you and your critique partners should use.

Never talk about what you critique to others

Never show someone else's work to others

Never "borrow" a critique partner's ideas or characters

Respect others' time. Critique in a timely manner, and don't send your life's work at once.

Agree upon an amount of work (a chapter or more) and stick to it unless the other person agrees to see more.

Agree on what each of you wants from a critique and give it. Some of the choices are a general overview, copyediting only, or a check on accuracy from an expert.

Be specific. Be fair. Be kind. Don't say, "I hate this." Say, "Your hero is unpleasant because...," or, "He may be rude to the heroine here, but show he is a nice person to others so the reader can like him and see him as a worthy hero."

ALSO mention what works. "The heroine is really charming. I loved the way she...," or "Your descriptions are excellent. I could see the waves around the pirate ship and smell the ocean."

Don't be too kind. If you see a problem, mention it so it can be fixed. It's kinder in the long term for her to know this problem now rather than in the rejection letter from an editor.

Ask questions if you don't understand a comment, but don't defend your work. It's a waste of time for both of you.

Anger is a waste of time, as well. It's no fun to be told that your writing isn't perfect, but you'll have to learn to deal with it. Even the best writers in the world have editors who change things so learn to deal with criticism or forget about a writing career.

Respect each other's voice and individuality. Don't suggest rewrites as you would do it, but rewrites to improve the author's vision.

Respect your own voice and vision. The critiquer can only give SUGGESTIONS. Only you can decide whether to change your work. Only you know what you are trying to achieve with the entire book.

Thank your critiquer because she gave up writing time to help you.

TOMORROW: Critique Questions

Friday, March 21, 2008

CRITIQUING: How to Find a Group or Partner

Some places you can find a critique partner are local writer's groups (only if there are others who write in your genre or subgenre), RWA chapters, or other writers' groups

If you write romance and don't have a local chapter, RWA Outreach and some specialty chapters offer excellent critique programs via email.

Some writing sites offer critique groups as does some writing ezines and listservs. Ask around.


Read the chapter starting on page 45 on critique groups in Holly Lisle's MUGGING THE MUSE. The whole book is free and well worth the download.

MONDAY'S TOPIC: The Ethics of Critiquing

Thursday, March 20, 2008

CRITIQUING: Why You Need a Critique

Today, I'm starting a series of blogs on critiquing. First off is

"Why do you need a critique?"

Another pair of eyes to spot problems

Grammar and spelling problems

Clarity problems -- Does something (a phrase or an event) not make sense to another person?

Someone else can see the diseased tree when you only see the forest.

If you want only praise, let your mother or your best friend read your book. If you want honesty, get a good critique partner.

Critiquing someone else's work is good for your writing because by learning to spot others' weaknesses, you can more easily spot your own.

Explaining writing problems helps you understand them


Tomorrow, we discuss finding a good critique partner or group.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Character Motivation, CRAFT

In one of my first stories, I had the main character in a surly mood in the opening scene without telling the reader why he was acting the way he was. A friend who critiqued the story wrote in the margin, "Who pissed in his oatmeal this morning?" It's a comment I hear in my head every time I discover I need to rewrite an under-motivated character.

Characters should have very good reasons to act as they do. We must give them motivations that the reader can understand. The most common mistake most new writers make is having a character act in a certain way because the writer needs her to act in a certain way.

This is as true for the villain as it is for the main viewpoint character. If your bad guy doesn't act without proper motivation, the whole story falls apart.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Emotional Element in Action Scenes

Adding emotion to action scenes isn't an either/or situation. It's just as vital to add emotional layers to the physical action as it is to have brief moments of introspection when the fight isn't going on.

Your band of adventurers may not sit around "sharing their feelings" in touchie-feelie moments like a Dr. Phil show, but they've been around each other enough to know that one hates the bad guys because they murdered his wife and children, and he's liable to attack without thought and ruin their surprise attack.

He may be clutching the sword at his side, his other hand opening and closing in nervous energy, and another adventurer may warn him to relax and may mention the wife and kids.

The image of his wife's raped and brutalized body could flash through his mind, and he fights his raw anger and lust to kill. That won't slow the action down like having a long interior flashback of him finding his family's bodies, and his vow of revenge. Instead, it adds to the excitement of the coming action because the reader now questions whether this guy will lose his cool and get everyone killed.

After some rewriting, if you still aren't happy with the emotional content of your story, you may want to look at the central story idea. Do your characters have a real emotional reason to be doing what they are doing?

Their hunt for the lost treasure should be as much about their emotional reason for needing the treasure as it is about simple greed. That emotional reason should be important enough to make the reader want them to succeed as much as they do.

Maybe the main character is after a magical sword in the treasure which is the only weapon able to kill the dragon currently ravaging his homeland, and he doesn't really care about the treasure and the life of drunken decadence and dancing girls it promises the other characters.

Maybe the other characters have laughed at him, but they've admired him and gradually they have been drawn into his quest for the sword, and in the end, they'll choose to get the sword with him and lose the other treasure.

Maybe the one that laughed the hardest and made the main character's life hell along the journey will be the one to sacrifice himself so that the hero can rescue a homeland the scoffer has never had, but now wishes to have with his whole heart.

I always use the Ben Bova character/plot questions when I'm creating a plot so that the emotional investment of my characters is always present in the action. I discuss this method in my article on using index cards to plot a novel if you'd like to learn more. You'll find it at my website,

Monday, March 17, 2008

Can You Say that in Elf?

QUESTION: I have several scenes where a man is around elves. I don't want to invent my own language, and I'm afraid to use Tolkien's elf language. What can I do?

You're right to avoid using Tolkien's language. I doubt Tolkien's estate would be too pleased about that.

The simplest way to write the scene without inserting the language is to use the viewpoint of someone who doesn't know the language. You can then write something like--

Adam listened to the two elves talking to each other. Their language sounded like the wind in dry oak leaves mixed with babbling creek water.

Finally the elf who could speak English said, "Our king says we will not help you."

Or you can have the scene from the viewpoint of the elf who speaks English.

The king said in their own language, "I do not trust these humans. Tell them that I will not help them find passage through our mountains."

Mossbark nodded and said in English to the humans, "Our king will not help you."

This tips works with any language.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Fanfic and Copyright

Fanfic or fan fic or fan fiction -- stories written by fans using someone else's world. For example, lots of kids write their own Harry Potter fanfic stories.

Readers and writers of fanfic often ask about the legality of writing stories using media or book characters.

IN A LEGAL SENSE, fanfic is a copyright violation, but the owner of the copyright can choose to ignore it or prosecute it at their discretion.

The essential rules of writing fanfic are--
• If the owners of characters in any media are fanfic friendly, it's okay to write and share it as long as it's not for profit.
• If the owners of the characters, etc., in any media aren't fanfic friendly, don't share your fanfic in that universe if you don't want to be chased by lawyers disguised as pit bulls.
• If the owners of the characters, etc., are friendly to fanfic but ask that you not write slash (heterosexual characters taking a partner of the same sex) or erotic stories, don't write it. Appreciate the creator's generosity in allowing you to use their universe and respect their wishes about their characters.

Lots of fans like to thumb their noses at the copyright and trademark laws for various reasons, but it boils down to a matter of respect and thanks. If you enjoy someone's work, don't screw them financially or trash their characters.

How does this relate to those of us who write original fiction?

According to most publishers, we should ask readers not to write fanfic using our characters because it endangers our copyright.

Copyright violation is much more severe if the violation is in the same media. In other words, fanfic is more dangerous to the fiction writer's copyright ownership than it is to a movie's copyright.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Two Kinds of Romance

By current market standards, there are two different definitions of the romance. One is defined by mass-market paperback houses like Harlequin and Leisure, and this definition is what most romance readers expect when they read a book called a romance. For the sake of clarity, I will call this a "standard romance."

The standard romance should include a happily ever-after ending (HEA). At the end of the book, the one man and one woman relationship ends with the promise of monogamy if not marriage. The hero and heroine should be deserving of those titles by their actions and behavior.

The emotional plot turning point, the crucible in which their relationship is tested, is the center of the story. The reader sees that if this one problem is solved before the HEA, there will, indeed, be a happily ever after. Problems can be things such as trust or commitment, and self-worth issues. Before the hero and heroine can have a HEA, they have to face this problem, grow, and change for the better to earn that happily ever after.

These elements must be at the core of the novel to be a romance.

The second definition of romance is the mainstream romance. Another good name for these romances would be tearjerker romances. Most of these books are written by men. Think BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and all books by Nicholas Sparks.

The unhappy ending is as expected here as the HEA is expected in the other kind of romance. The plot rarely follows linear time, and the ending is known before the beginning usually in a frame story.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Long and Short of the Submissions Process, MARKETS

Two respected agents blogged recently on the time it takes for a book to go from submission to acceptance.

Jessica Faust of Bookends talks about it in her March 11th blog.

Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown talks about it in his March 6th blog.

Please note that both talk about books submitted by literary agencies. A book submitted by the author could take much, much longer.

NOTE: I'll be a guest at Stellarcon/Deep South Con (High Point, NC) this weekend. If you're there, come and say "hey." I'll be the matronly hobbit with the guest badge.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"Ing" the Merciless, BASIC CRAFT

QUESTION: On another list someone said that "-ing" words are weak, and should be avoided. It is a list of mostly published authors. I had to submit material to be included on the list, and now I'm reluctant to tell them I've never heard of this rule. Is this common knowledge among writers? Have I missed something somewhere?

Pick up the average book on writing style or editing, and you'll see that "-ing" phrases have a bad reputation.

As part of an introductory phrase, it's overused and prone to misuse.

Misuse -- Picking up the gun, she walked across the room and shot him.

The introductory phrase happens at the same time as the verbs in the sentence do so the sentence above is impossible.

Proper use -- Grasping his shoulder, he fell.

The verb and the introductory phrase can be done at the same time so it's correct.

Overuse -- Too much of them weaken the writing as any overuse weakens writing.

I'm prone to using them to avoid having too many sentences beginning with "he" or "she." That's where rewriting the rewriting comes in.

The other common overuse is attaching the "-ing" phrase to a dialogue tag. "I don't like it, " she said, shaking her red correction pencil in my face.

In my first few years of serious writing, I kept a large index card by my typewriter then computer. On it, I kept a list of my most common writing weaknesses, and I used it as a rewriting checklist.

Back then, my favorite book on editing was GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT: HOW TO REWRITE, EDIT, AND REVISE by Theodore A. Rees Cheney. It's been reprinted a number of times with different names. Use the author's name to find the book at Amazon or at your local library.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Prologues, CRAFT

Used correctly, a prologue can add to a novel. The problem is that most prologues are nothing but back story or an info dump which adds nothing but a boring beginning.

Most inexperienced writers believe that the reader has to be told everything up front, or she won't understand.

Readers understand, though, and they are often bored to death, as well, by an unnecessary prologue.

You have just a few pages to grab the reader or that editor so you have to get their attention immediately and hold them through the whole novel.

If the prologue does that and the first chapter can't, then the prologue works. If it doesn't, cut it out and sprinkle the information as needed.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Is Epublishing Authors' Salvation

In 1995, I believed that electronic publishing and the Internet were salvation for authors, and they would finally break the stranglehold on authors and books held by the conglomerate publishers, the book distributors, and the book chains.

I took a brave or foolhardy leap into the market with one of the first epublishers. Since then, I've watched the market's changes, and I've talked to hundreds of authors, small publishers, and readers. Here's what I've learned.

Readers are creatures of habit. If it's a choice between a known factor like a bookstore/a paper book/a name author and an online source/ebook/unknown author, most readers will choose the known.

If they can't find what they want to read in paper, they may seek it in an ebook, but they will return to paper books if given the same selections. This is currently happening in the erotica market as the large publishers have entered the market. The readers are returning to the bookstore to buy many of the same authors they bought in ebooks.

At the same time, readers aren't willing to go directly to the source of the ebooks. They rarely buy from author sites or from publisher sites. Instead, they prefer the one-stop shopping of electronic distributors like Fictionwise. Most authors I know have, at the least, one hundred sales at places like Fictionwise to one publisher-site sale.

Most of these distribution sites only work with publishers, not individuals, so the major markets are closed to the self-published author.

The original works available at electronic distributors are being drowned under wave after wave of conglomerate publisher backlist.

Meanwhile, various conglomerates and companies like Amazon are fighting to control the distribution of ebooks through software formats, distributor sites, and devices like the Kindle.

Publishing has much smaller financial numbers and much fewer sales in the digital format than the music industry so neither the author nor the small publisher are seeing much profit or success, and the small publishers are a dying breed.

Without a platform or a reputation from conglomerate publishing, most authors struggle for profit.

Those authors who succeed strictly in epublishing do so by writing a large number of first-rate, consistent books in the same genre.

So, essentially, the great digital freedom for writers from conglomerate publishers, the book distributors, and the book chains that I envisioned hasn't happened in the last dozen years and probably will never happen because of reader habits and the current direction in the markets.

REQUEST: If you enjoy this blog, please share it with your friends and online writer groups.

I enjoy writing it, but I can't justify the time if I'm talking to a small group.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Listservs for Writers

I've mentioned online listservs where writers' hang out so I thought I'd be a little more specific for those unfamiliar with this.

Many writer groups can be found at listservs like Yahoogroups. Some are genre specific.

To find good groups, ask around. You can also search places like Yahoogroups for writer and genre specific groups.

My favorites for writers are

Paranormal Mystery:

PNWriters (Paranormal romance and urban fantasy):

Worlds of Fantasy

In a later blog, I'll talk about groups which are excellent research resources.

If you have a favorite group for writers, let us know.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Back Plot, CRAFT

Tell me the plot of "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

Easy enough, you say. A country doctor comes to Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The local lord has died of heart failure. But there were a giant hound's tracks near his body, and there's this family legend about....

But is that the only plot?

Not really. Long before old Sir Charles is frightened to death by a hound, there is a man in South America, a distant relative of Sir Charles, who decides he will be the new lord of Baskerville Hall so he changes his name, makes his wife pretend to be his sister, and....

Some mystery writers call this second storyline the back plot. It is the story behind the story. The detective's plot is the discovery of the back plot. Holmes must reconstruct the murderer's back plot through the clues left behind. He must understand what happened before.

This twining together of two plots is the glory of the mystery and the agony of the mystery writer for she must not only have one plot which is logical and interesting. She must also create a second which intersects it backwards in time.

No, that's not crazy. Think about it. A murder occurs, and the detective investigates. He finds clues, and these clues point toward the past of the victim and the murderer. The detective must decipher these clues to discover the who, what, when, where, and why of the murder. He must travel back in time to the murderer and his motives.

Holmes studies the crime scene, the stories of the butterfly collector, the sounds of the moor, and the ancestor's portrait, as well as other clues, to find that distant Baskerville relative who has designs on the family fortune.

How does a writer create these two plot lines? The answer to that is as diverse as the authors questioned. Some create the back story, pick the relevant clues to pepper the novel with then set their detective to work.

Other writers are as surprised as their detective at the murder scene and never guess the killer until the last chapter. Somehow the clues, through the miracle of the writer's subconscious and a little judicious rewriting, have pointed to the murderer all along.

Still other writers mix a little of both methods. Cold calculations about clues and the killer's identity are leavened by the spontaneous generosity of the writer's muse. The writer is as surprised as the reader to discover why the killer hums but never sings and how that fits so perfectly into the puzzle.

No one can tell you what method to use to create a perfect blend of detective's plot and back plot. Each writer must discover what works best for her. But the wise writer takes the time after the book is written and before the rewriting to ask herself, "What is the plot? Does it make sense? Is it complete?"

Then the even wiser writer asks the same questions about the back plot. The wisest writer also remembers that in the back plot the killer is the major protagonist, and it here where the true heart of the novel lies.

Now tell me the plot of "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Picking An Epublisher, Part 2 of 2, MARKETS

Another way to check out epublishers is to see if the publisher's books are available in a wide range of formats and at other sites besides their website. Without exception, my ebooks sell worst at the publisher's site than anywhere else because readers prefer the one-stop shopping of places like Fictionwise and eReader.

Go to the main venues like Fictionwise and eReader and see who is selling the most books in your genre. (The lists can be arranged in best-selling order.)

Go to publisher sites and read their guidelines and their posted contract. Compare the contract to EPIC's model contract. ( Also, look at EPIC's "Red Flags" article. Links to both can be found under "Helpful Items" on the left side of the site.

Read a number of the publisher's books, or at least, the posted promotional chapters. Are there grammatical and spelling errors? Are the books bad? If so, find another publisher.

Also, look at their covers. Would you want a cover like that? Do the covers fit the genre of the book?

Once you get a few possibilities, ask about them on listservs where authors congregate. Most of us will warn you away from the crooked and inept publishers. Also, check them out at Preditors and Editors.

You'll soon discover that the biggest epublishers with the best reputations are closed to submissions most all the time. Their stable of writers can produce more than enough books for them without dealing with the slush pile.

But there are new publishers who are more than eager for good material. Unfortunately, they usually don't have a track record so you really don't know what you're getting in to.

All this research won't guarantee a safe passage through the stormy waters of publishing, I've had a few disastrous publishers who have lost distribution after I've signed with them or who have proven to be inept, but publishing is like life. Sh*t can happen despite whatever we do.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Picking An Epublisher, Part 1 of 2, MARKETS

If you've read my two blogs on the pros and cons of different types of publishers, ("To Market, To Market," January 25 and 26, 2008), and you've decided on marketing your book to epublishers, here's how you find likely candidates.

Picking an epublisher is a bit trickier than picking a traditional New York publisher because there are so many and their methods are so different.

To start your search, first check out review sites and look for reviews of novels similar to yours and see which ones get the praise. If you can't tell an ebook publisher from one of the traditional publishers, use Google to check out the publisher. Soon, you'll recognize publisher names.

You can also ask about in various online writing groups and sites where writers hang out. Some clueless types hype their very poor publishers so don't take everything you hear as correct.

When you find likely publishers, check out their site. Look at the kinds of books they sell.

If your book is straight fantasy, you may regret a publisher which emphasizes romance on its home page or has a very small amount of fantasy because you'll have difficulty selling to the fantasy crowd even if your book is a perfect example of a great fantasy. The SF/fantasy crowd tend to be snobs and run in the opposite direction if they associate your publisher with romance.

NOTE: In my blog on February 21st about when to put up your website, I said that I've never heard of an agent or editor looking for a website during the submission process of a first novel.

Well, as timing would have it, one agent has said she does look for a website or some form of web presence at this stage of submission.

Here she is: Rachel Vader You'll find the comment in her February 26th blog entry.