Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Whopper of a Change

New year. New beginnings. And a whole new lifestyle for me. I am moving from the place where I have lived for the past 16 years. The last home I shared with my husband. The little plot of land fondly called Grandma's Ranch where I happily played farmer for those past 16 years. Many wonderful friends. And my beloved Winnsboro Center for the Arts where I found new expressions of art on stage and with a paintbrush.

Many things have prompted this drastic change in my life, the major one being chronic health issues that demand specialists that are 100 miles away. The drive for appointments is, well, always a challenge.

Then there's the fact that I live alone, except for my dog and my four cats, but they are not much help in an emergency.

I have amazing friends and neighbors, who have been so helpful and supportive for the past few years, but last August I realized that it was not fair to keep relying on them when an animal got sick or a tree came down on a fence. It was clear that I could no longer take care of the property, so I made the tough decision to sell and move closer to my kids. They have made it abundantly clear that I can rely on them all the time.

So, why am I posting this here on The Blood Red Pencil? What does my little saga have to do with writing?

Change, big or small, can be fodder for a new story, or something you assign to a character in an existing story, and see how the change affects him or her.

Or you can reflect on all the ramifications of that change and examine the emotions that are created, and those emotions can also be assigned to a character.

How would your character feel when walking away from the home she shared with her husband? A home where they were so happy?

How different would it be if they did not have a happy relationship?

How would your character feel leaving a community where she was well-known and much loved to go to a place where she did not know anybody? What kind of character is this? One who is strong and resilient, or one who is scared and uncertain? Would she boldly go forward, or leave heel marks between her old home and the new one?

Now switch gender and look at a major change from a male perspective. Would he spend time considering all the emotional ramifications of the change? Would he be the first one to suggest "goodbye" rituals to mark this significant time? Or would he simply be more focused on the logistics? Would he be more pragmatic about it all?

For the most part, women enter into openly acknowledging and discussing the emotional effects of a significant change more easily and more quickly than men, so we have to be aware of those differences when trying to write cross gender. It will be the subtle things that make it real, which is what I used to tell my Young Players at the art center who were playing cross gender. So we owe it to our readers to make sure we are making it real.

How do you deal with change? Is it easy for you? I have a friend who said she would cheerfully sell her place and her horses and move on to something new and exciting with her husband. She does not put down deep roots. I do. Mine go very deep, which is maybe why I have such an affinity with trees.

If you would care to read a little more of my personal reflection on this move, I wrote about it HERE on my blog. And the next time I post a story here on the blog, it will be from my new home.
Maryann Miller is a novelist, editor, and sometimes an actress. She has written a number of mysteries, including the critically-acclaimed Season Mystery Series that debuted with Open Season. Information about her books and her editing rates is available on her website.  

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Literary Journeys from Humble Beginnings

Writing projects often follow similar journeys. They begin with a concept and travel through studies and/or interviews, news reports, outlines, character sketches, multiple drafts, self-edits, rewrites, more self-edits, professional edits, more rewrites, intense proofreadings, corrections, interior layout, cover design, and the list goes on. After publication the work continues—it's called marketing. Even big publishing houses may require authors to do a portion of if not all their own sales work.

Let's explore those "humble beginnings." How does humility play into writing a book? All sorts of people from myriad backgrounds want to become authors. They have a story to tell, whether it be fiction, non-fiction, perhaps even poetry—and all must start in the same humble place, pen and paper in hand, at the keyboard, dictating to a secretary or recording device, or employing a ghost writer.

It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Similarly, it takes a team to write and publish a good book. This is not a solo trip. "Humble beginnings" acknowledges our need to rely on a variety of professionals and resources: historical material, research done by others, editors, interior and cover designers, printers and/or publishers, and marketers. Networking with a variety of writers and industry professionals also helps us understand we are not a self-supporting island. Valuable lessons can be gleaned from those who've been there, done that; so it makes good business sense to listen and learn. We can always modify those lessons to fit our circumstances, but no need to think we must re-create the wheel.

Another aspect of humility travels throughout our careers. For example, stories abound regarding celebrities who come across onscreen (or on television) as friendly, down-to-earth people, yet in person they are jerks to the fans who made them popular and contributed significantly to their enormous paychecks. What's the lesson here?

Writers, too, have fans—our readers. We connect with them through our characters and our stories. Walk in the shoes of a reader for a moment. How often have you been touched by a character or a situation in a book? Suppose you wrote the book. How would you respond to those who may approach you via your website or at a book signing? 

Many authors are introverts who thrive in the solitude of their writing spaces. Yet readers may have questions or comments they want to share. We need those readers to buy our books and recommend them to friends, especially if we hope to make writing our career. How can we accomplish this within reasonable proximity to our comfort zones?

Other ways to begin a connection with readers include personal letters to them at the beginning (or end) of your story and questions for book clubs. Even if your reader doesn't belong to a book club, thought provoking questions help cement the story and characters in the mind and heart and may even inspire a second read or a recommendation of the book to a another reader.

Blogs such as Blood Red Pencil are great ways to create two-way conversations. In fact, writers often include blogs on their websites. The beauty of a blog is that it's in written form—the form most comfortable for many writers—and it doesn't require face-to-face encounters. Blogs also allow us to reach out to others who want to begin their own writing journeys. We can encourage them, share pointers, and suggest resources, all the while maintaining a degree of the privacy in which we function best.

How do you feel about your fan base? Have you ever been contacted by a reader? Do you interact with those who read your books? What has been your literary journey from humble beginnings?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing. She also helps new and not-so-new authors improve their literary skills through posts on Blood Red Pencil and private mentoring. You can contact her through her website, LSLaneBooks.com

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Keeping a Series Fresh

For everyone on the planet, 2018 marks a new year, a new beginning. For writers, it marks another year to produce a book for publication. I haven’t published a new novel since September of 2015. I reached 35,000 words on one, decided I didn’t believe the premise, and gave up, though I think it has future possibilities with a little more thought. I did write The Last Heist, a novella for the anthology, Lowcountry Crime, but that was it.

Today, January 9th, I'm publishing The Scent of Murder, the fourth book in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, my ninth suspense novel, and my twelfth book overall, including erotic romance books written under a pseudonym. 

When I published Backlash, the third book in the series, I thought it was the most difficult book I’d written, not because it was a hard book to write, but because I didn’t want the series to diminish in quality.

We’ve all read reviews of books deep into a series that suggest the author should move on, that s/he had written the best of the books and now the characters, story, and suspense have become tired and repetitive. A few writers have been able to pull off  a long series and keep readers engaged, but it's not easy to keep the plots and characters fresh? I thought about how to make the fourth book as good or better than the third book. Here are the answers that work for me.


How many times have you read that the characters in a book were unlikeable? It takes an amazing plot to overcome that. I’ve stopped reading books because I didn’t care what happened to the main character. DIDN’T CARE! I want my characters to be likeable. Damaged, maybe, but I want the reader to care about them enough to follow them into subsequent books.

Developing relationships in a series is essential. My lead series characters meet in the first book, Mind Games. I personally don’t like cat and mouse games for too long in a romantic relationship. A little tension in the beginning is fine, but their constant back and forth irritability is annoying, and if a writer keeps that going in subsequent books, especially stand-alones, readers know what to expect, and the books become formulaic. Characters grow to like each other; get on with the story and quit messing around with their hot and cold emotions, especially in a suspense/thriller.

I had posed a question to writer friends if a series character always needs to be in danger at the end of every suspense/thriller. The answer was a resounding YES! How many times can a writer make that fresh? Different dangers, different rescues, different, different, different. It’s a terrific challenge to keep the reader alert and engaged. Of course, he or she is rescued unless you want to end the series, but how it’s pulled off is crucial.

Secondary characters in a series—the ones in every book—should be as developed as you can make them short of having them take over the story. As the series develops, so should they. Readers get to know them, like them, see their different personalities. In some cases, a secondary character can be the story, and that’s okay. Think John Sandford’s character Virgil Flowers in the Prey series becoming his own series. Why? Because he was interesting and well developed.

In The Scent of Murder, I introduce a ten-year-old boy and thought long and hard about whether to keep him as an ongoing character in the series. I didn't decide until the end of the book.

Then, of course, there's the plot, or in the case of this book, two plots that have nothing to do with each other. Could I switch from one plot to the other without jarring the reader? That was the question I asked beta readers. One plot also takes Diana, a retired psychic entertainer, into another realm of her otherworldly gift. It was tricky and risky. I’m sure my readers will let me know if I succeeded or if I opted for sensationalism and failed.

Because I have two plots, I have multiple villains. Remember characters, characters, characters? Even though villains appear in only one book (unless s/he is a recurring villain - think Professor Moriarty), they should be as well developed as the main characters. Writers can make them nasty, irredeemable, or sympathetic. I’ve written them all, but they must be memorable.

To celebrate the publication of The Scent of Murder, I’m giving away the ebook of Mind Games, the first book in the series, January 11~14 on Amazon, and I’ll be interviewed on the Writers Who Kill blog on January 13th. www.writerswhokill.blogspot.com

Happy writing. Oh, and happy reading too.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Every Month Can be a New Beginning

Image by Andre Chinn
We tend to make yearly resolutions or goals, setting our desires down in a tidy list that acts like a straight jacket, holding us to the promises of January 1st no matter what happens in February or July or November. Failure to meet one or more of those goals in a timely manner leads to discouragement and perhaps giving up on the resolution for the rest of the year.

That’s the part that doesn’t make sense: for the rest of the year. If we break our lists down into monthly achievable segments which can be revisited and revised as we go, we have a better chance of success.

It often takes only a month to feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks we’ve put on our To Do lists, the word count goals we didn’t achieve even in month one, or the weight we swore we’d lose but did not even come close.

That’s when it’s time to begin again.

If we mess up in January, we can do better in February. Rewrite the goals or resolutions. Aim for achievable and specific. Learn how to prioritize by day, week, month, and year.

There are resources and tools to help. One of the books I found to be most instructive and insightful is Colleen M. Story’s Overwhelmed Writer Rescue: Boost Productivity, Improve Time Management, and Replenish the Creator Within, available in ebook and trade paperback.

Here are some of the comments about this book I posted on my own blog in September:

Overwhelmed Writer Rescue is for those of us who have problems related to procrastination, balancing writing time with work and family, or prioritizing projects. We need to learn why we’re struggling and what we can do about it. In chapters on increasing productivity, outwitting productivity saboteurs, and motivation, Story provides exercises and quizzes to help the writer identify roadblocks and develop new methods to manage time and get organized.

The author also tells us a little flexibility and a lot of grit are the writer’s best tools for pulling us out of the quicksand and getting our feet on solid writing ground.

By reading Overwhelmed Writer Rescue and answering the questions, I’ve recognized (1) how much time I waste and how I waste it, (2) how perfectionism is holding me back, and (3) how a To Do List can be tamed with proper organization and careful prioritization.

This book is highly recommended for anyone who’s having difficulty finding time to write or suffering from severe attacks of procrastination even when the time is available and waiting.

If that’s not enough to get you going, here’s another new tool available, this one especially for those who self-publish or plan to self-publish in 2018. Corinne O’Flynn developed the 2018 Publishing Planner to keep her on track with her aggressive writing and publishing schedule. The first part is a Monthly Activity Planner & Tracker with each month on two facing pages, useful for any writer to track everything that needs to be done and when to do it. Part two of the planner is for Launch Planning and Tracking, laying out the specific requirements and timeline hints for the publish-it-yourself writer. You can see small versions of the pages at AuthorProductivity (tools for organizing your writing life). The planner is available through Lulu.com.

One more helpful tool if you’re interested in word count goals and tracking is an Excel spreadsheet developed by Svenja Gosen. Svenja takes donations for the spreadsheet, but writers may download it first at no cost to see if it will be useful.

We’ve set those goals or made our list of resolutions and faced January with courage and determination. Some of us will succeed brilliantly and need no adjustments when February shows up. Others will find the plan didn’t go so well.

Take a look at Overwhelmed Writer Rescue. Refuse to be discouraged. Don't give up. Tweak the goals, trim the resolutions, and find a new diet plan. Every month can be a new beginning.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Where to begin?

I belong to multiple writing groups on Facebook. The most common statement from new writers is, "I have an idea, but I don't know where to start."

Inspiration comes from many places. Keep a notebook around so you can jot down the ideas as they come to you.

I have a computer file labeled "Widows and Orphans." It is full of articles, dreams, notes about stories that fascinate me. I have collected stories about gods and goddesses, the Orkney isles in Scotland, standing stones, abandoned locations across the globe, remote viewing, fascinating bits of history, oddities that can't be explained. Myths and legends intrigue me most. Even though Mystery is my favorite genre to read followed by Young Adult Fantasy and lately some science fiction, I haven't been able to choose my next project. I have a draft of a story about lucid dreaming, then I saw several books about that topic and one even stole my title. So it is gathering dust. Then I had an idea for a Mystery series, but that is still percolating too. I have devoted most of my time to nonfiction, but I still get the urge to write fiction again. It is much harder since I moved to Florida without my beloved critique group.

All of my widows and orphans have the potential to become a full-fledged story. They may remain lost in that file, but the characters still nag at me to be brought to life.

So the first task to ask yourself is: "What is the idea: A person, place, thing, situation, or location?

Start with the seed in your mind. Write down notes as you ponder it. Don't worry about outlining or writing anything yet. Daydream. What speaks to you about the idea? Can you research it, gather articles or information?

Has an interesting character come to you? Who are they? What do you imagine them doing? Did they live in a specific time and place? Where can you see them? What is the problem they need to solve? Usually a personal problem occurs to you first. Then you have to decide what kind of plot the personal problem will play a part in. Let this character speak to you. They often tell you what they want to do.

Do you have an idea you dreamed or read about or a story you were inspired by? Jot down the details. What intrigued you about it? What tangents can you explore from it? Is there an aspect that hasn't been written yet?

Do you have a genre that you love that you wish to participate in? Do you want mainstream success? Do you want that golden publishing ticket? Do you want your work to be widely read? If so, look at what is selling and choose an option that speaks to you.

Romance and Mystery are by far the highest continual sellers. Young adult literature has been selling very well for decades. Learn the genres by reading examples of what has sold. Write down what you liked, what you hated, and what you think you can do better.

Dissect books chapter by chapter or movies scene by scene. What elements make you reach for a pencil or keyboard?

Do you have a story that defies definition? Start it. Play with it. Maybe it will fit into a category half-way through or at the end.

Turn the puzzle pieces around until they fit. Do they work for a mystery, a suspense tale, a thriller? Is it a human transformation story? Is it about a relationship? A lover? A friend? An enemy?

There is nothing wrong with daydreaining, doodling, pondering, and considering your story idea from multiple viewpoints.

Dreaming about the story is the fun part. Eventually you have to start the hard work of making it a reality. Once you have  person,  plot, genre, or setting, you can begin to make decisions and choose a skeleton that appeals to you.

In my Story Building Block series, I walk writers through multiple options. A story seed can be bent and twisted and plugged into any genre by making a series of decisions. Once you have the seed, you can easily put it through the paces and find a home for it.

Then it is pen to paper or fingers on keyboard and the blood, sweat, and tears begin.

More articles to help you get started:

The Central Question

Layering Conflict

Stretching the Story Seed

Is it a Romance?

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Push Your Characters Hard—Please!

This post was first published here on April 16, 2010.

Photo by Reba Bear, via Flickr
Whether intuitively or formally, creative writers learn early on that conflict drives story.

Ignore this at your peril.

I once edited a political thriller whose central character was homosexual and autistic (I’ve changed a few details here). While our country has made strides as concerns tolerance, even today the notion of living openly gay is rife with conflict.

But the author chose not to explore it; to him the topic felt clichéd.

And I’m thinking, huh.

But he still has that autism angle, right? Again, societal acceptance has grown as we learn more about this condition, but still—to actively participate in the plot, this character will be fighting an uphill battle that most would consider heroic. The stuff of great story!

But this author swung wide—he decided he wants the autism to be completely accepted in the world of his story.

And I’m thinking, huh.

And I'm concluding: Where’s the story?

Authors love their characters, I know. “Going too easy” on them is a problem developmental editors comment upon all the time. But I don’t usually have to apply that comment until the middle of the book, where instead of rising action, I find the protagonist meeting the same type of challenge over and over to similar results. Or until the climax, where the author stops just short of exerting the kind of pressure on his character that might create believable, permanent change in her life.

But this author refused to allow enough conflict to get his story underway. His reasoning: he wanted to write a happy story.

Well, he had “happy. He just didn’t have “story.”

James N. Frey, author of How to Write Damn Good Novel, says that the best plots force our characters to act at “maximum capacity.” We get to know these characters by how they act when pushed into a corner. In a recent two-day workshop, Frey plotted an entire book-length thriller by entertaining suggestions from the group of fifty workshop participants. In many cases he rejected one plot point after the other (role modeling perfectly what we as authors must do), admonishing participants not to lay down too many clues.

“You want to make it too easy on the hero,” Frey kept saying. His implication was two-fold: How can the hero be heroic if his task is too simple? And if the obstacle surmounted is like hopping over a toothpick, how can the author expect readers to care?

Instead, Frey urged us to think of how this character would solve the puzzle at hand if he could not find an obvious clue. This step often forced the hero into relationship with others in the story—not all of whom he desired relationship with—and to dig into his past to unearth long forgotten or undervalued skills. Pushing the character to the wall renewed creative effort on the part of the plotters by provoking our “inner reader”: “No clues? Oh no! What will our character do?

I’m all for writing happy stories. Life offers up enough chaotic tragedy. But we’ll only remember your book as a “happy story” if your protagonist faces an extreme challenge--and then surmounts it. Even children delight in conflict—as soon as that Cat in the Hat appears in Dr. Seuss, they know he’s going to be trouble!

To earn their keep, all of your main characters should act at maximum capacity. If the villain in the political thriller I mentioned worked at maximum capacity, he would embrace his knowledge of the character’s vulnerabilities—including homosexuality and autism—to thwart him. You know he would. Otherwise, what kind of lame antagonist would he be?

I give this author high marks for giving his character conflict-laden traits, but there's no point in doing so if he won't make use of them. He worries too much about cliché. If you have created in your character a fully dimensional individual whose goals are pitted against the goals of an antagonist—whether that be a person, society, inner demons, or Mother Nature herself—your story will not be clichéd.

It will be interesting.

Once that conflict is set up, apply enough pressure to your protagonist so that she acts at maximum capacity—please! Your readers will love it. And should she triumph over the obstacles set before her, I guarantee your readers remember your book as the happy story you set out to write.

Former BRP contributor Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her series of posts here at BRP "Countdown to a Book," details the traditional publication of her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks, available from Amazon.com. Her series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Distractions vs. Discipline

This post was first published here on March 19, 2014

One of the most important elements for a writer to learn is discipline or structure or whatever else you want to call it. Discipline is different from perseverance. A writer has a story. The story isn’t working out; she perseveres until she finishes it. But what happens when she gets up in the morning to work.

I can tell you what happens to me, and I hate to admit it. I have my coffee and raisin toast at the computer. My home page is Yahoo. I know, I’d have fewer distractions if I had Google or some other blank home page. I just looked at Yahoo and saw that Savannah Guthrie got married, and she’s four months pregnant. Then I got hooked on an article about Nicole Kidman’s relationship with her children with Tom Cruise, and then flipped through all the photos of the eclectic Malibu house Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell sold for 9 million, then… you see where I’m going.

These were distractions while I was trying to write this blog post. Never mind the mornings after an awards show when I spend too long looking at the gowns on the red carpet, and don’t get me started on political stuff. I get hooked reading that too.

I hate myself, I really do.

In all fairness, I don’t read People magazine or watch reality TV. I watch very little television, period. Justified and Homeland are my never-miss shows, even if I watch them marathon-style. So Internet gossip is my guilty pleasure. Oh, and I may play a game or two of Spider Solitaire or do an online Sudoku puzzle when my brain freezes, but these are all distractions that cut into my writing time, no matter how I try to justify them.

Then it’s business. I open the first of my two email accounts. I belong to a few writers’ loops, so I scan those, check the other emails, delete the ones I don’t want to read or think I’ll read later and never do. My second account has all my professional and Twitter business. I tweet, but I’m not crazy about doing it. Tweeting has worked to boost book sales of a few of my friends. I really can’t tell if I’ve had the same results. I don’t think so, but I still do it. I try to limit my time to an hour, sometimes less, but I check throughout the day to keep me updated and try to convince myself I like Twitter.

On to Facebook. This is the worst because I like it best. I’ve made friends there, post two to three times a day, read other posts, and hope I don’t get hooked on something, which I always seem to do. When I finish all that, it’s lunchtime. I eat early because I’m hungry early.

If I can resist all the other distractions, I get to work. But first I have to listen to the audio chapters to approve for the audio book of Mind Games.

Now, work—after I take the dogs for a walk.

By the way, my house is a wreck. Maybe a few minutes for dusting and laundry.

Now it’s late afternoon, and I should start thinking about something for dinner.

I really must be more disciplined. I will be. I promise.

Tomorrow I’m shutting off the Internet and getting down to work. Really.

Polly Iyer is the author of eight novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


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