Thursday, December 29, 2011


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This is a post from December of last year, but I thought it appropriate to repost:

This week I want to talk about the resolution in our writing. As in, how the heck do I tie everything up with a pretty bow and still leave myself open for the the other five books I hope I get signed for?

Rule number one: Write a book that stands alone

Yep you heard me. I don't care if you've spent years partitioning out a seven book series that's hundreds of thousands of words long. I (and agents and editors) don't want to know about it. Sure you can say there's series potential when querying. You may even have an outline ready. But the single most important thing is to have a solid, well-written manuscript to hand over that stands on its own two legs.

Rule number two: Dynamic Characters

Now that we've established that your problem must be resolved (at least to some satisfactory level) you have to round off that character arc too. The plot and character arcs don't necessarily have to line up exactly, but the person (or demon, or vampire, or ghost, or whatever) we meet in the beginning of the story should not be the same person we end up with. Whatever you've done, whatever he or she has gone through, we want to see that it's changed him or her. Give your character time to come to grips with whatever earth shattering thing has happened at the end. If I'm invested, I want to see what happens.

Rule number three: Don't meander

Just like sometimes we have trouble knowing when the story really starts, so do we have trouble knowing where it ends. I just said above that we need to see the characters come to grips with whatever the big changes were. But we don't need to see them continue on in their day to day lives for another full week just so that we know they can handle it. Let's look at Harry Potter as an example (since I hate ruining endings for you if you haven't read another book I might use). At the end of Sorcerers Stone (and most subsequent books) we see the school year come to an end at Hogwarts. We finish the big fight with Voldemort. But we also decompress by having the big heart to heart with Dumbledore, see that the school remains intact, wrap up subplots like Gryffindor winning the house cup, and resolve ourselves to the idea that Harry must go back to the Dursley's but with the hope that it will work out when he returns next year. Nice and neat. And still room for a sequel. We don't have to see him actually get back to the Dursley's house because it does nothing for the book as a whole.

Rule number four: Don't rush it

Sometimes we've gone so far with this thing that's taken on a life of its own that when we finally see the finish line looming ahead, we take off at a run. Slow it down. Keep the pacing right for the moment. I (the reader) have waited the whole darn book for this. I've ridden the roller coaster with the characters, invested my time, and now I want something that satisfies me. Which brings us to-

Rule number five: Don't pull it out of your you-know-what

I'm a pantser folks. I hardly ever plan my manuscripts out from the get go. I take notes. But I don't outline. I like to be surprised (yeah go figure that one out). But I know that in order to wrap it up in the hero's favor, I need to give both he and the reader the tools to be able to do that along the way. Clues and information he can use. His friends can help, but he needs to have to make a choice that results in the outcome, whether good or bad. And that's all on him. So if suddenly the magic fairy shows up and sprinkles fairy dust on the villain, the reader's going to be pissed and rightfully so. Just like Harry had to face down Voldemort himself.

What rules do you have to add?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Why Returns are a Bad Idea

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Today is the day after Christmas. The day when hoards of people flock to the mall to return and exchange those fuzzy green sweaters with the giant initial on the front. Or other things they didn't like. But when it comes to writing, no matter how you feel about what spewed out, don't try to take it back!

We can learn from and use whatever we put down, no matter how bad it seems. Here are a few things we can do with those unused pages:

  1. Pluck the golden tidbit and insert it in your current work.
  2. Look back to see how far you've come!
  3. Have a laugh. 
  4. Maybe just maybe look at it with fresh eyes and see that it isn't so bad after all and that a little revision might work wonders.
So no returns! Every word written is a step closer to your goal. Now go enjoy those sales!!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Writer's Holiday

I thought we'd pause in the midst of all these awesome questions you guys had and breathe for a minute. No matter what you celebrate, I hope you take the time to truly enjoy this holiday season. Hug the people you love, eat something yummy, and live for the moment. 

I'll keep posting until the New Year - I haven't taken a break yet!!! BUT I'll keep it light and hopefully fun. I will return to answering your questions in 2012.

This is a video from last year, I believe. But it's a classic (just my style) so ENJOY!! 

A Very Zombie Holiday!

Monday, December 19, 2011

How NOT to Bore the Reader

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Bethany asked: Descriptions, characterization, dialogue... how do you know when you're boring the reader?
Good question! We certainly don't want to bore our readers. The last thing we want - dare I say our nightmare - is to have the reader put the book down, unread. *shudders*

Here are some tips we can use to keep the momentum going, and the reader hooked!
  • Change it up! Take a step back and look at your pages. Are they filled with words, with hardly any white space? That's a clue that you might have overdone the description. We want the white space varied on any given page. We want a mixture of dialogue, description, and action. Does every paragraph start with "I"? Vary paragraph length, sentence structure, and content. It's a juggling act, and you have to keep the balls in the air. The good news? That's what revision's for!
  • Make the reader react as strongly as the MC. If you can make the reader empathize with your character? You've done your job. The reader has to be invested. Give them something to feel connected to. Do they recognize a quality in your character that reminds them of themselves? Do they understand WHY the character acts the way they do? Internal dialogue helps here, and we'll go into that more on another post (we have a question about that!) Then when something stressful happens, and we get that reaction from the character, the reader will feel it too. 
  • Keep up the tension. This does NOT mean dangle the MC by his toes over a vat of piranhas in every scene. It means, present a goal (big or small), put an obstacle in the MC's path or reaching it and or another conflicting goal, and voila! Recipe for tension. Which brings us to my favorite thing: TORTURE YOUR CHARACTERS. I always say if mine came to life I'd be in BIG trouble. But that's what makes for an exciting read!
  • Avoid the info dump. We hear it all the time. But we sometimes make excuses like, but I have to tell them this or they won't get it! You're a writer. Be creative! If your MC lives in this world, he's used to it. We don't discuss with each other what coffee cups are do we? No. We don't call someone and say: "Hey! I'm five foot four with red hair!" Um, I hope not. You get the idea. Make it natural and don't overwhelm. A little at a time is all the reader can digest. Don't introduce too many things/characters/plot points at once. Take your time, if you keep that tension going, you can drip the rest in.
Hope that helps! That's my recipe for making sure the reader isn't bored. Can you think of anything I missed? I'm sure I did!! Let's discuss.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Laying Clues and Adding Twists to Our Story—guest post by Elizabeth S. Craig

I went to the source for the following questions: 
Susan Quinn asked: How do you reveal a key clue to the mystery in your story, without letting the reader know it's a clue until later, when everything finally clicks into place?

AND Cynthia Chapman Willis asked: What is the best way to set up a twist at the end of a novel that readers do not see coming, yet makes perfect sense once they read it. You know, that slap the forehead "but of course" sense that we get when we've read a really great twist.  
Both of these questions relate well to mysteries. And there's no better blogging mystery expert than Elizabeth Craig! SO here's her response:

Thanks so much to Lisa for inviting me here today to talk about a couple of important mystery elements. Since she’s recently gotten questions in her comments about laying clues and including twists in our stories, those are the two topics that I’ll cover today.

One of the most important rules of mystery writing is that the reader must be kept in the loop.  We can’t write mysteries where the sleuth is privy to information that we don’t provide the readers.  Reading a mystery is almost an interactive experience—we’re solving the crime alongside the sleuth.
So how do we supply enough clues to point to the murderer without actually giving away the killer until the end of the book?

The best way I’ve found to lay clues is a technique I think most mystery writers employ: distractionHere are some ways to do it:
Include the clue in a list of other, less-crucial observations. There’s a smudge of white paint on a suspect who is also unshaven, unkempt, smells like oranges, and has a runny nose.
Lay the clue but immediately introduce a red herring (false clue) that seems much more important. The suspect mentions going out for breakfast at a time he previously stated he was sleeping at home.  This information is immediately followed by Penelope’s revelation that Cindy, the victim’s secretary, will unexpectedly receive a large sum of money from the victim’s estate.
Drop the clue and immediately distract attention away from it by an interruption. Carter has just revealed information that seems contradictory to something the sleuth believes to be true. Suddenly, they hear shouting outside and two suspects are engaged in what looks like a life and death struggle after one accuses the other of being the murderer. 
Use a minor distraction. The interruption doesn’t have to be violent—it could be something as quiet as another character arriving at the scene and cutting off the sleuth’s ability to analyze or process important information she’s been given.

Plot Twists
Twists are fun to write for any genre.  The trick is to make sure the readers don’t feel like they’ve been tricked or cheated (the “it was all a dream” scenario where we find out the events in a book, television series, or movie didn’t actually even occur.)
I’d use some examples here, but we run into the problem of spoilers. So I’ll keep it vague and if you’ve seen or read this technique in action, you’ll be able to think of your own examples.

Unreliable narrator: This can be tricky, but is really effective if done well.  The idea is to make the reader believe that the person telling the story is a reliable and trustworthy observer…then show them in the plot twist that the narrator is anything but. I’ve seen this done where the narrator is actually the killer in the mystery, where they’re mentally unstable or incompetent, or where we learn the first person narrator is a young child or even an animal.

Chekov’s gun: This is a technique where you take a common object that seems unimportant and imbue it with some form of usefulness, symbolism, or importance later in the story.

Unlikely perp: Someone your protagonist and readers trust and believe in turns out to be the perpetrator or villain.  You’ve got to make sure you’ve laid clues to point to this person…the reader will likely discount those clues since they’ve written that person off as a suspect or bad guy.

Surprise identity of a main character: In this twist, we receive a surprising revelation about a main character. We learn the protagonist is a double agent, for example. Or we discover (maybe the protagonist makes a simultaneous discovery) that either the protagonist or other important character has a shocking relationship or link to another—he is the child or parent or sibling, etc., of another.

A surprising twist in something we’d assumed to be true: The story isn’t set in modern times, it’s set 200 years in the future.  The story isn’t populated by humans at all but by aliens. Something that appears to be true is completely false. We think that all of the characters are reliable and trustworthy and reasonable, then we learn that the story is set in an asylum or prison. I think these types of twists would likely only be considered fair in short stories or similar forms.
In mysteries, using an unreliable witness can also be effective in helping to provide a twist. You’ve written in a character who is known by all to be highly unreliable—a habitual liar, someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, maybe even a young child—and then this person provides information that points to the killer. Real and useful information that shouldn’t be discounted, but is because of the way the writer has set-up the situation for the reader.
Can you think of any other ways to lay clues or provide plot twists?  Which are some of your favorite techniques?  Have you used these in your writing?

Elizabeth’s latest book Hickory Smoked Homicide released November 1.  Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently.  She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.
Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers
Twitter: @elizabethscraig

Monday, December 12, 2011

Julie Musil on Unlikeable Characters

I've asked my good friend and fabulous writer, Julie Musil here today to answer one of your excellent questions! If you haven't visited Julie yet - WHAT IS GOING ON WITH YOU???? Um, I mean, you should. 

In the comments of Lisa's "How?" post, Meredith asked, "How do you skate that fine line between having a strong character with many, many flaws and having a character who's unlikeable?"
When Lisa asked me to tackle this subject, I wrote, "LOL! I'm the last person who should write this post, since I've done it all wrong!" But Lisa knew I'd struggled with this, and when we struggle, we're forced to study and learn. So I'll happily share my observations using some of my favorite examples.
Katniss Everdeen from "The Hunger Games"
(stubborn, rebellious, manipulative)
Katniss wasn't a whiner, even though her circumstances were dire. Early on we were shown her struggle to survive, and the importance of the people she loved. The scene where she volunteered to take her sister's place in the Games endeared readers to Katniss. We rooted for her as her life became a complicated, dangerous mess. When she used her supposed negative qualities against evil, they became her saving grace.
Mr. Darcy from "Pride and Prejudice"
(prideful, arrogant, selfish)
In this post, I broke down why Mr. Darcy was the ultimate likable unlikable character. He was misunderstood, and Austen did a wonderful job of showing this throughout the story. In the opening, he was horrible to Elizabeth Bennet. As the story unfolded, we witnessed kindness and vulnerability behind the veneer, and we loved him even more. Austen accomplished this through subtle "Save the Cat" moments.
Nick Levil from "Hate List"
(lonely, angry, bitter)
In this post I shared how impressed I was by how the author created a sympathetic villain in Nick. He killed fellow students. He was a monster. He should be hated. But the author dropped in snippets of backstory that allowed us to peek inside Nick's life, and experience how tortured he was. Readers understood Nick, even though he'd done a horrible thing.
Here's one of the main lessons I learned when studying negative traits and unlikable characters--readers need to know why the character is the way he is. Bullies don't just become bullies out of thin air. Something in their past took them down that road. Probably something painful, even humiliating. Once the reader understands this, there's a better chance they'll root for our characters, even if they're less than perfect.
We've all learned that protagonists can't be all good, and antagonists can't be all bad. Doing character worksheets, such as this one on Jody Hedlund's blog, can go a long way toward creating real people, warts and all.
Do you have tips to share about creating a flawed but likable character? Please share!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Emo MCs

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Laura Pauling asked...
How do you find that balance between emotional motivation/inner conflict for your main character and not going too emo? I know it has to do with story tone and genre too but do you have any tips?

Wow, Laura you did set the bar high on this one. What a great question! Yes, it does have to do with genre. For example, if you write YA, like I do, well, teens tend to get a little emo on occasion. More so than say a fifty-year-old lawyer. Yes, tone is important too. But that often depends on genre as well. 

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Let's dig a little deeper. You can't argue Twilight's success, but I've heard the complaint that Bella is a whiner, over and over again. When do you cross the line between whining/self-absorption and communicating true inner conflict? 

I admit that was a major complaint from one of my trusted beta readers on my last manuscript. That my character was in danger of crossing that line the wrong way. SO I had to tone it down. That's tip number one and two.
  • USE BETA READERS. They can spot this sort of thing when you might be too close.
  • Weed through the manuscript and see how often you repeat yourself. Sometimes we're so wrapped up, we want to get the point across. But let's not beat the reader over the head. If your character expresses her fear of losing her boyfriend, let's not say it every other paragraph, fifteen different ways. Let's make sure we pick the BEST ways to say it and do so at carefully spaced intervals throughout.
Back to tone for a moment. It may very well be that the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance of your MC's choice. Dramatic indeed. But we want the tension to build throughout. If your MC is all "woe is me" from page one, there isn't a lot of room to work with. SO...
  • Make sure the inner reaction is appropriate for the character. And you should know your character well enough to know the answer to this. If not, you have some character building to do!
  • Make sure the inner reaction is appropriate for the situation. You may have a Bella for an MC, but if she doesn't eat meat and all they serve for lunch is hamburger it's just not the same as her boyfriend committing suicide. 
And remember, sometimes it DOES come down to taste. Hamlet and Bella were full of inner angst, but they sure did make it big! The reader who likes that sort of character may not be drawn to another kind of book. Sometimes if you've done all you can, it comes down to subjectivity. Again, that's a positive aspect of writing because for every type of book, there is a reader. Well, hopefully more than one! But you know what I mean. Hope that helps!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Who Had the Best Question?

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WOW. You guys floored me. I mean the questions EACH one of you came up with are incredible. So incredible that if I knew all the answers I'd be set in this business! LOL. Seriously though, you really gave me some great stuff to chew on. So here's the deal: I (or a guest author) am going to answer all your questions to the best of my ability. I can't, unfortunately both answer these questions and give all of you critiques though. So as I said, I had to pick the top three. It was incredibly hard to do, and I'm still wishing I could award more, so maybe I'll have to do another contest too! We'll see...

The questions themselves? I will either devote an entire post or answer several at a time. But I expect this will take a while to get through. That means you'll just have to keep checking in to find the answers! 

Oh yes. The winners of a first chapter critique are: Laura Pauling     Bethany Yeager  and Melinda Collins! If you'd prefer to give away the critique on your blog, you may do so. 

I will post each person's link and question when I answer them. Check in on Thursday to see me tackle Laura's question. Until then I'll leave you with some great writing quotes so you can remember these three important points: 1. Butt in chair. 2. Imagination is key and 3. Challenge yourself.

If you haven't got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you'll only have to throw away the first three pages.
William Campbell Gault

When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge. 
Albert Einstein

An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.
Oscar Wilde

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What's Your Path?

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Yes, there are certain rules and widely held beliefs that we try to use as a guide. But each person - each manuscript is different. We already know that both plotters and pantsers are equally successful. We know that the parts that come easy for one are difficult for another and vice versa. I thought about this as I completed Nano, with the messiest rough draft EVER. So I decided to take a look at what are some pretty solid truths (although I bet you anything you all can, will, and should argue this in the comments) and things that vary. 

Things we find on all paths to publication:

  • The one thing I will never waiver on is behavior on the internet. If you want to succeed, you conduct yourself with manners and you don't lose your cool.
  • You have to keep up on craft. No one knows everything. Everyone can improve. Keep reading posts, books, articles, and attending classes, workshops, and conferences. Whatever works for you. 
  • WRITE. You can't be a writer if you never get around to actually writing.
  • READ. You can't really write in the genre you choose if you haven't read widely. Writers are readers. 
  • Time. Each road is different, it's true. Some have to work at it for a decade and beyond before something happens, some are fortunate to have the right timing and all the stars align. Either way, the thing successful writers have in common is perseverance. If you don't keep trying, you can't succeed.

Things that vary on our own paths:

  • Environment. Do you write in the morning? At night?  Do you work full time? Do you have twelve kids running around? Do you need music? Absolute quiet? A change in scenery? The same spot every time? You get my point. 
  • POV and tense. Some people swear by first person. Some people can only write past tense. Some people can't stand alternating points of view. What do I think? I think it depends on the manuscript and what's important for that one. Also, what your strengths are as a writer. 
  • Background. Our own stories are as varied as the ones we put to paper. And that's something to celebrate because there are so many different readers out there waiting for great books. 
  • Social Media. *gasp* it isn't for everyone. Not everyone enjoys it or feels comfortable with it. And which format you use varies also. I have a fondness for blogging and Twitter for example. 
  • Process. I already mentioned plotters and pantsers. But there are also those whose first drafts are more of a skeleton that needs to be filled in, and those that have to cut down their 140,000 word masterpieces. There are those of us that are great with character, but have to work on world, or the other way around. Each person is different and so is each book.
What are some other variables that change depending on the writer or the book?