Monday, December 30, 2019

Writinng the Same When You are Different

QUESTION: Why don't authors keep writing the same kind of book? Some of my favorite romance authors have switched to different genres, and I HATE it.

There isn't a simple answer. Here are a few.

* Failing markets. The writer's genre starts losing readers so publishers want fewer books, and fewer books are sold. An example is historical romances.  Its established authors branched out into contemporaries, paranormals, and suspense novels to continue making a profit at their writing. 

* Respect. Romance authors, in particular, get no respect from their non-romance peers, and this gets really old. Non-romances also have more professional cache. 

* Authorial control. Romance editors exert more control over the final product than in any other genre so the final product is often more of a collaborative effort. At a certain point in a writer's career, this can get really old, particularly when some kid in their first editorial job decides she knows better than an established writer.

* Boredom. An author spends months writing a book that takes you an evening to read, and she then starts another book. If every book is exactly like the last as some readers want, this process can become boring. The creative juices dry up. If the author doesn't change gears, the readers will be the next to be bored.

* Innovations. Genre, as a whole, doesn't stay the same. Romances have changed dramatically over the last twenty years, and woe unto the writer who doesn't change with it. 

* Bandwagon Syndrome. Some authors see a trend become popular, and they absolutely must write to this trend. 

* Changes in an author's life. Writing is an emotional process, and sometimes, things happening in an author's life make them change the direction of their writing. I have had friends going through an ugly divorce who could no longer write about everlasting love when their true love proved to be a cruel, manipulative jerk. One writer lost her young son to a sudden illness. When she started writing again, she turned to novels that expressed her faith in God. 

As much as writers want to please their readers, sometimes, they simply must change direction with their writing. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

What A Christmas Carol Can Teach a Writer

"You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."  The only character more interesting than a villain is a villain who is redeemed.

"Oh, Holy Night.”  A powerful story is often best told simply.

"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”  Sometimes, something innocent can become creepy.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  A one-sided romantic relationship is boring.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  The underdog with a reviled talent makes a great hero.  

"Frosty the Snowman.”  A great character often deserves a sequel.  ("I'll be back again, some day." ) 

"Carol of the Bells.”  Driving rhythm can pull the reader forward.  

"Do You Hear What I Hear?"  You can tell a story through dialogue.

"Silent Night.”  A few simple images can create powerful emotions.

“Let It Snow, Let It Snow.”  The quiet, homey moments are often filled with the greatest emotions and memory.

"The Christmas Song.”  ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…." )  Setting alone can show strong emotion and story.
“Last Christmas.”  A bad romance character can’t tell the difference between love and sex.  

“Blue Christmas” sung by Elvis.  Some songs are meant for only one singer, and so are some stories.  

“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”  A fantasy plot makes much more sense with lots of details.  (“There's lots of room for him in our two-car garage.  I'd feed him there and wash him there and give him his massage.”)  NOTE: Best Christmas novelty song ever!

"Good King Wenceslas.”  Sometimes, a character is remembered more for kindness than power or glory.

"I'll Be Home For Christmas.”  Home and family are two of the most powerful goals within the human heart.  

"Baby, It's Cold Outside."  "This is for your good, not mine" is a great seduction.

“Is that You, Santa Claus?”  Every good thing may disguise a bad thing.

"Jingle Bells" and "Jingle Bell Rock.”  The times and tempo may change, but the story remains the same.  

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Sometimes, the character's emotions and the message aren't the same.  

"Santa Baby.”  With the right voice, even Santa and a chimney can be made into a double entendre.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You.”  Love is the greatest gift.  

Monday, December 16, 2019

Pretend Doesn't Make It Okay

Imagine that a reader gives you a dollar’s worth of trust by reading your book. That trust means she expects you to give her certain things like a good story, interesting characters, and competent craft, among other things.

Every time your story fails in one of these elements, the reader takes away a bit of that money, and, when there is no money left, the reader tosses the book without finishing it and will no longer trust you enough to buy the next book.

The really tricky problem is you don't know what will irk each reader. Maybe it's grammatical mistakes. She may take a nickel out of that dollar, or, if she really hates grammatical errors, that error may cost you a quarter or the whole dollar.  Or it could be plot problems, bad science, or faltering viewpoint to lower that dollar to nothing.  

Do you really want to risk losing that reader by being sloppy about any part of your writing? It's just pretend is not an excuse many readers will accept.  

Monday, December 9, 2019

QUIZ: Do You Have What It Takes to be a Writer?

Do you have what it takes to be a fiction writer? Here's a true or false test to find out.

Be brutally honest. The only person you will be cheating is yourself. Choose TRUE if the statement describes you or what you believe, FALSE if it does not.

1. I don't need to know grammar and spelling. That's the job of the editor. My job is to tell the story.

2. Most authors make lots of money. That's why I want to write.

3. I want things NOW. I'm just not a patient person.

4. Friends or family want to watch a movie you really want to see, but you haven't written your quota for the day. You usually stay at the computer and write.

5. If I don't write every day, I get grumpy or edgy.

6. There's one secret to writing a publishable story, and when I learn what it is, I'll succeed.

7. Criticism really hurts me. If someone criticizes my work, I feel like a failure.

8. If someone criticizes my work, I will change it immediately.

9. I love to read a certain kind of story, and that's what I want to write.

10. It's easy to write and sell a novel. All I will have to do is sit down and write it, then I will sell it.

BONUS POINTS QUESTION: I dream of stories to tell, or characters demand their stories be told, or I envision whole scenes, and I want to find out what happens next.


1. FALSE Editors are busy people, and they don't have the time to correct simple mistakes. Simple mistakes indicate a poor writer, as well, and usually brings a fast rejection. WORTH 10 POINTS

2. FALSE Most authors are very poorly paid, expenses are high, and the time required is intense. The average writer can't support herself or her family on several books a year from a major publisher with good distribution. A few self-published writers do but most don’t.  WORTH 10 POINTS

3. FALSE Traditional publishing is an excruciatingly slow process. First you write the book, then you wait for months as you send out queries, more months for them to look at a portion of the manuscript, and even more months to look at the complete manuscript. And if they want to publish it, it will take a year or more to see print. Even self-publishing a book, if you do it correctly with an editor, etc., takes many months of work.  WORTH 10 POINTS

4. TRUE You have to create writing time and that means you have to give up other things. You have to want to write, or you'll never succeed. WORTH 10 POINTS

5. TRUE Writing is an adrenaline addiction. WORTH 10 POINTS

6. FALSE There is no one secret to creating a publishable novel. There are, however, a few things you need to do. The first is sticking your rear in a chair in front of the computer with some consistency and writing. WORTH 10 POINTS

7. FALSE A tough skin must be standard equipment if you want to be a novelist. Every step along the way will be filled with criticism and rejection. The trick is to realize that they are talking about your work, NOT you. WORTH 10 POINTS

8. FALSE Writing isn't a project by committee. You know your work best so you must decide if a suggestion has value or not. The trick is determining what changes are part of learning craft and what changes force your voice or story in the wrong direction. WORTH 10 POINTS

9. TRUE You have to enjoy, respect, and read the types of stories you write. This gives you a good basis for knowing what works and what readers want.

Nothing is more obvious to a reader or an editor than a writer who doesn't read in her field. This is especially true in romance. A reader can spot someone who is writing for the money really fast. WORTH 10 POINTS

10. FALSE Writing is a craft that must be learned. You are as likely to have the natural skills to be a publishable writer as someone who has never played basketball would have the skills to play professional NBA basketball.

The first novel rarely sells. Most published writers write several before they sell. Some can write up to a dozen novels before selling. WORTH 10 POINTS

Bonus Points Question: TRUE If this doesn't happen to you, you really aren't meant to be a fiction writer. All the other things above can be learned, but this can't. WORTH 100 POINTS


0 to 99 A writing career isn't for you. Do a happy dance because you have escaped such an evil fate and go read instead.

100-145 If you're willing to change and work hard, you can become a professional writer.

145-190 Congratulations. You are completely insane and the perfect candidate for being a professional writer.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Those of us who write fiction are strange creatures to most people.  We create people, places, plots, and even worlds filled with magic or space ships.  “Where do you get your ideas?” is a major question.  Another is “What is it like to write those stories?”
I’ve often used the first scene in the movie ROMANCING THE STONE where an historical couple ends an adventure and have a love-forever-after smooch.  A woman is narrating the action, then the words “The End” appears.  The scene dissolves away to a very happy, weeping modern woman at a computer.  She’s in a sloppy outfit, hasn’t showered in days, and she discovers she’s out of cat food.  Yes, this is what it’s like being a writer in many ways.
A few days ago, I found a better movie to explain the creative writing process and the business of being a writer.  It’s called THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, and it’s about Charles Dickens’ creation of A CHRISTMAS CAROL from the first idea to the final pages of the story.  
No, he’s not just staring at a bare page with a quill in his hand although some of that happens.  Real world things like his need for another hit and immediate cash after several flops push him to write a story fast so it can be out by Christmas.  
We follow him around London as bits and pieces of the story flow around him and wait to become part of the story. (If you’re familiar with the novel beyond just the plot, you can spot these easily.)  A waiter named “Marley,” people talking about poverty and the poor, and a happy dancing pair of shopkeepers start to fill his cast and give them future dialogue. At home, a new housemaid tells his kids ghost stories, his sister’s crippled son is shown, and his feckless parents arrive. More fodder for the story. 
Dickens spends a long time figuring out Scrooge’s name then Scrooge himself shows up to taunt and frustrate him.  (My characters also become much more real when I’m gifted their names.) And the story and the cast grow as his audience of family members, the maid, and a few friends listen and comment.  
Then writer’s block appears, and Dickens must figure out Scrooge’s emotional secret so he can finish the manuscript on time.  
I won’t say any more about the plot, but it explains the creative process in a way that makes sense to people who don’t write.  And, yes, most of us writers are that bonkers with characters following us around and harassing us, and ideas come from random places and memories.  We also isolate ourselves as the story churns within us. As with Dickens, writing is truly hard work, but the business of writing is the worst problem we deal with.
So, the next time someone asks you about the creative process of writing, suggest this movie to them.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Preparing for Writer Emergencies

I rewrite and reprint this article every few years, mainly after some event reminds me to.  Last time, my computer died taking everything with it, but all my books, etc. were saved to an external drive and my cloud account.  

My reason this time is an interview with one of the victims of the California wildfires.  A fireman had discovered her late mother’s wedding ring in the ruble and returned it to her.  She called it “her most precious item.”  Others left with only the clothes on their backs and their cars.  My mental response was that these people were idiots.  You live in a fire zone and fires have been around you for days or even weeks, and you haven’t filled your car with the important stuff?  Yes, definitely idiots.  

Don’t be that idiot about your writing.


Are you, as a writer, ready for bad weather or emergencies?

Preparing for bad weather can be as simple as having a storm alert radio that will cut on when dangerous weather approaches so you can shut down your computer before lightning fries it. The storm alert radio also doesn't interfere with writing like a regular radio for those of us who like to work in quiet. 

Are your computer and peripherals plugged into an alternate power source (APS) so it won't be damaged or your current work lost if the power goes out?   (An APS is like a power strip, but it includes a recharging battery that cuts on when the power cuts off so you have a few minutes to save documents and cut off your computer properly.)

Most alternate power source makers claim an APS with a surge protector will protect your computer and peripherals from lightning, but nothing will protect electronics from a close lightning hit. A good friend lost everything when lightning hit a transformer over a block away, and he had high-end surge protectors and an APS system. 

The safest thing to do is unplug everything, including the APS. 

Also remember to unplug your modem from the electricity and your computer. 

If you have a laptop as well as a desktop, you need to keep it charged to use during bad weather so keep it plugged in, but remember to unplug it, as well, when a storm comes. 

If you want to keep working through bad weather, remember to save a copy of your work to a flash disk, CD, or whatever to move your work to your laptop so you can continue to work. Or sync your work with WiFi.  

Weather preparation isn't just for a short summer or winter storm. It's for major disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and wild fires. So, always have a back-up copy of all your works in another location, or, better yet, several locations.

In the days before I wrote by computer, I had paper copies of my books at my home, my mom's beach house, and my brother's home near Charlotte. Despite being in different parts of the state, all three homes were damaged by Hurricane Hugo, but the manuscripts stayed safe. That experience has reaffirmed my determination to keep copies of my manuscripts and important papers elsewhere.

These days, I also keep a flash disk copy of my books and other digital documents in my safety deposit box at the bank so I can keep my updates recent. A flash disk or drive, if you're not familiar with the term, is one of those tiny storage units you plug directly into your USB or Firewire connection on your computer or iPod.  A SD card is another option. 

You can also store your works and your computer contents online at storage sites, but as recent outages and disasters have proven, online or “in the cloud” shouldn’t be your only storage solution.  You might not be in the path of a hurricane, but the servers for your cloud service may be.  

An external hard drive is also a good option.  

Some external drives come with software that will automatically update the drive’s contents with your main computer to keep it as current as you wish.  Macs come with the Time Travel app.  Other OS systems probably have a similar app, or you can find one.  

It's always a good idea to have an emergency bag or briefcase for your writing partially packed and ready to go in case you need to get out fast because of an approaching hurricane or wild fire. 

Things to keep in this bag include a power plug for your laptop and an updated flash drive. Also include copies of current book contracts as well as notes, etc., of what you are working with at the time.  A paper list of all your passwords is another must.

It would also be prudent to have a recent complete copy of your computer drive in case your home computer is destroyed.

If you use an external hard drive as a backup, you can pack this up very carefully.  (Motion can damage desktop innards.)  Some external hard drives are made specifically to move about so they are a safer alternative.

This bag is also a good place to store a copy of your house and car insurance, pictures of your valuables, etc., in case disaster strikes. Also include a CD with copies of your favorite family pictures, etc., in case the worst happens, and there's no home to return to.

If you don’t have links to your bank, insurance, and other important accounts on your phone, set that up.  Have your passwords elsewhere in case of phone hacking or loss.  

Make a list of the last minute things you will need to pack and stick that in the front of the bag. When emergencies happen, we tend to forget the most basic things so that list will be well worth the time.

Remember that the future you save may be your own.  

Monday, November 18, 2019

Reading Your Story to an Audience

My brother and future sister-in-law asked me to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "How Do I Love Thee" for their wedding ceremony a few years ago.  Afterwards, people complimented me and asked about my acting career.  None.  I’m an English teacher, former college poet, and professional writer who reads at science fiction conventions.  So, lots of practice reading in public with a teacher voice which don’t need no stinkin' microphone.  

For the wedding performance, I used a huge font and printed the poem on heavy-weight paper so I didn't need support for the paper since I didn’t have a podium, and the paper didn't make noise.  Since it wasn't my work or my natural rhythm, I also listened to professional actors perform it online, then read it to myself enough to figure out where I needed to drop a word or change the rhythm slightly to fit my voice.  

For my own work, I figure out how each character's voice sounds and remove all the dialogue tags like "said" which clunk when reading a story aloud. (If you want to see how a genius voice actor works, listen to Jim Dale's performance of the Harry Potter series.  Incredible!)    

I also pick one of my short stories of the right length rather than a book chapter or two because I'm performing, not slogging my books directly.  Funny with a small cast is better than dark and violent for most groups, plus kids may be present.  My favorite is "The Werewolf Whisperer" about a werewolf trapped in his wolf form in an animal shelter where he will be gassed or neutered.  Neither is a good outcome. I've linked below if you want to snort your coffee through your nose at the ending. (You and your keyboard have been warned!)
Also, just relax.  People come to these events to learn about you and your work, and most are friendly.  The jerks can end up as a victim in your next work.  
If you have extra time at the end, let the audience ask questions.  

Monday, November 11, 2019

Noun or Pronoun

QUESTION: When should I use the character's name and when should I use the personal pronouns "he" or "she?"

Name repetition reminds the reader that he is reading about a character, and it jerks him right out of that viewpoint character's head. For this reason, you should use the character's name once at the beginning of the scene, then you don't use it again except for clarity.

Moments when it's needed for clarity include scenes with more than one person of the same gender. 

In crowd scenes, I've always found that it's better to be a bit boring using the character's name, which the reader will skim, than to confuse the reader as to who is doing what action. This stops the reading process completely which is the one thing a writer should avoid at all costs.

As in real life, you shouldn't overuse characters' names to address each other in dialogue, either. 

Names are most often used at the beginning of a conversation as people greet each other. "Hello, Mary, how are you?" 

Or they're used to impart important or emotional information. "He's dead, Jim."

Or to direct conversation at one person in a group of people. "What's your opinion about this, Fred?"

Monday, November 4, 2019

Stop that Reader in Her Tracks!

Don't you just hate it when someone keeps reading your book?  

Me, too! 

Here are a few tips on how to stop that reader before the end of the first chapter. Heck, if you do it right, most readers won't read more than a few pages.

1.  Start your story off with

* your main character eating popcorn and watching a movie or TV show in their living room.  Give details of the movie's plot.

*your main character waking up, getting breakfast, and dressing for the day.

*your main character at her workplace or job doing something mundane that has nothing to do with the plot.  Be sure to go into great detail to insure boredom!

*your main character running into a hot former flame but immediately leaving then spending many pages remembering how screwed up their relationship was.  Whatever you do, don’t let those ex-lovers talk about those old times!

*a prologue that has little to do with the rest of the novel but gives lots of back story the reader will never really need.

*so much information about your worldbuilding and character's magical abilities that the reader is totally confused.

*introducing so many characters that the reader becomes hopelessly confused.

2.  Make sure your first chapter has the right percentage of dialogue, narrative, and introspection.  

10% or less:  Narrative which includes action (John flinched as she wagged her finger in his face.), immediate emotional comments (Mary fought her desire to strangle him with his tie.), and description (Clothes littered the room like confetti at a ticker tape parade.).

10% or less:  Dialogue, particularly dialogue that gives information ("I know that Mary murdered John!  I hope they hang her."), shows conflict between characters ("You're a liar.  Mary loved him.  She was framed."),  or moves the story forward.  ("And I'll prove she didn't do it.") 

80%  or more:  The viewpoint character's introspection about the past.  Give that reader back story, internal whining, and emotional navel gazing until she is screaming for mercy and throwing that manuscript down!

3.  Have the main character or characters wander around aimlessly with no goal or motives.

4. Have such poor grammar and spelling that no one can understand half of what you write.

5. Love your writing so much that it is impossible to cut out anything. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

Stupidity as a Plot Device

Writers often use character stupidity as a plot device.  In some cases, usually in humorous writing, the character is ditzy (charmingly stupid).  That’s fine if that’s what you are writing, but it doesn’t work in most fiction.

Even smart people do stupid things on occasion.  We run the yellow light when it’s turning red or open our mouth when we should keep it shut at work or in social situations.  Momentary stupidity is common in life, and it can be used sparingly in fiction without the reader rolling her eyes.

Stupidity where the character has a chance to think about what’s she’s doing but does the stupid thing anyway always fails as a plot device.  The heroine who has been in hiding for years won’t choose to be at a televised event where she’s likely to appear on camera.  

If she does and the mob realizes she’s alive and comes after her, that’s a plot contrivance, and the author has failed.  

If, however, she’s on the scene of a horrendous car wreck and is caught on someone’s cell phone camera pulling a child out of a burning car, and that video appears on YouTube or the local news, then the writer has created a legitimate reason for her to be found.

Writer laziness disguised as character stupidity is never acceptable.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Suddenly, a Pirate Ship Loomed Over the Horizon

QUESTION: In action scenes, I use the phrases "suddenly" or "all of a sudden" a ridiculous amount of times when describing fast-paced action scenes. What other words or phrases can I use?

If you write the scene correctly, you don't need "suddenly" or any other synonym or phrase. The reader is smart enough to know the fighters in a physical battle are moving fast so everything is "suddenly" unless we say otherwise.

The trick is to get into the head of one of the characters and stay there. Let the reader see what the character sees and feel what the character feels.

You don't say, 

Suddenly, the other fighter pulled out his knife and jabbed at him.

You say, 

Sam dodged the other man's fist. The hand that should have been blocking his next blow moved downward toward the man's knife sheath. 

A flash of steel. 

Throwing himself backward away from the other man's knife, Sam slammed into the ground on his back. 

Or, if you are describing a battle of many men, you don't say 

Suddenly, a line of cavalry surged over the top of the hill toward them.

You say, 

On the hill just above the soldiers, the drumming of many horse hooves and the Rebel yell of hundreds of men warned them.

The Yankees spun around as the Confederate cavalry charged toward them.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Creating Emotional Reactions to Action Scenes

To make an action scene work, you must not only detail what the characters are doing with their bodies and weapons, you must also include the viewpoint character's emotions and senses.

Adding emotion 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 battle isn't going on. 

Characterization isn't just introspection. It's characters interacting with each other and revealing themselves in bits and pieces. 

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 kids, 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 kiddies. 

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.

An even better way to present this information is to put it in an earlier scene that isn't action intensive so the reader will know the details and will only need a slight reminder of this character's motivation and tendency to attack without thought.

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 which is the only weapon which will kill the dragon currently ravaging his homeland, and he doesn't really care about other 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 who 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.

If you make your character emotionally invested in each action scene, and make your reader emotionally invested in your story, you’ll have a story no one will put down.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Creating the Characters' Physical Actions

When I write physical fights like a sword battle, I picture the fight like it's a movie. I see what each character is doing and what is happening around them.

I also get up from the computer and pretend I'm holding a sword, imagine the opponent's move, and block it noting my balance, what I'm leaving open, and the possible return blow. 

To vary the fighting, I use the physical location of the hero. The floor may be bloody from his first opponent so the hero or villain may slip and fail to parry a blow, etc. If more than one good guy is fighting, the fighters may affect each other as an enemy steps into the hero's range, or he falls beside him. 

I rarely write out blow for blow because I think that's boring. Instead, I'll give occasional overviews of what's happening while staying in the character's viewpoint. For example, the hero is thinking about how his body is learning the rhythm of the fight, or he's aware of other fighters around him.

I try to avoid using technical terms to describe the fight because I'm writing as much for those unfamiliar with swordplay as those who are, but I try to be accurate about how to use the weapon, and I use a sprinkling of correct terminology to make it seem more realistic. 

I've never fought with a sword, but I've held a number in my hand, and I've watched others fight with them. I try to remember the weight of the weapon, the sound a fighter makes as he swings the heavy sword, and the sheer weariness of the weight of fighting something or someone above you. 

I also include different senses in the description. What is the character hearing? Feeling? Smelling? Tasting? 

This method also works with fist fights and other man to man combat.