Blog Tour Begins

I’ve been guest posting around the cybersphere lately. Here are the sites if you want to catch up. Comments welcome!

April 21, “Do you enjoy reading books out of seasons?” The Big Thrill Roundtable,  http://www.thebigthrill.org/2014/04/24048/

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April 21, “Story Magic,” Mayhem and Magic, http://mayhemandmagic2.blogspot.com/2014/04/guest-blogger-nancy-cohen-on-story-magic.html

April 22, “Hooks in Cozy Mysteries,” Musings from the Slush Pile, http://blog.juliealindsey.com/julie-anne-lindsey-writer/musings-welcomes-author-nancy-cohen/

April 23, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” The Kill Zone, http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2014/04/where-do-you-get-your-ideas.html#.U1e4Ilesj9s

I’ll be taking a break to go to the Malice Domestic conference and the Florida Library Association Convention but then I’ll be back in May!

 

Creating Vibrant Characters

This past weekend, guest speaker Joanna Campbell Slan told us how to create vibrant characters. First she mentioned four personality styles. Dialogue should reflect if the person is a tell versus an ask kind of guy. This sounds like me and my husband. He is ALWAYS asking questions. He’ll say, “Why is that man cutting his grass so early?” I’ll say, “I wonder why he’s cutting his grass so early.” See the difference?   Joanna Slan

Which comes first, character or plot? Start by developing your characters. Give them conflicts, differing viewpoints and reactions. Problems between them will create tension. Remember that if any strength is overused, it becomes a weakness. An example is the character who will get the job done, but at any cost. Or it can be the person who follows rules no matter what happens.

Give each person a habit and a telling detail that helps identify him. Also, pair a physical description with an emotional one for each character.

Have your characters work toward a goal. The four personality types will react differently. One group may ask numerous questions and want to know the rules. Another group may spend time getting organized and elect someone to take notes. Group three might just play around and have fun. And group four will be the ones who take charge and accomplish the task.

Joanna offered a lot more tips in this valuable workshop. This only touches the tip of the iceberg on what she covered. But keeping just these few bits of advice in mind is helpful.

What If? Plotting Made Perfect

The words “What If?” are at the heart of every plot. Currently I’m in the throes of plotting my next Bad Hair Day mystery. Having already written the draft of a synopsis, I welcome the “what if’s” that are flying into my brain.

What if the rivalry between ranchers Hugh and Raymond has a personal basis involving Hugh’s dead wife? What if the murdered forest ranger’s spouse had gotten turned down for a loan to start a business? Would that have induced her to take out a life insurance policy on her husband? What if the bad guy is selling his valuable ore to terrorists who resell it in exchange for weapons? What if….?

Once the story elements are in your head, your subconscious goes to work and new ideas keep popping up. Some are viable. Others get discarded as unrealistic. It’s wonderful when you get to this stage because the connections start snapping together. Pieces of the puzzle coalesce into a whole, and your story is ready for writing. But how do you reach this pinnacle of inspiration?

You begin with a story premise. In a mystery, it might be the victim. Who’d want to kill him and why? You sketch the suspects in your mind. Friends, family, and business associates who might have something to gain go on your list. What if suspect A’s wife was having an affair with the victim? And what if the husband discovered their liaison? What if suspect C owed the victim money? Or maybe the victim was extorting money from a colleague, knowing something that would get the guy fired. You examine their motives, seeking the secrets these people would do anything to hide.

Keep in mind that plot is not story. Plot is the background, the secrets everyone is keeping, the motive for the murder, the devious scheme created by the villain. You are creating a tapestry that leads to the opening scene. That’s where the story starts and moves forward.

In a romance, you’ll want to determine the first meet between hero and heroine. They’re attracted to each other but initially sparks fly between them. What if…they had a history together? Or what if she hates him because…? What if they have to work together in order to…?

Or a thriller: What’s at stake? Who is behind the dastardly scheme for world domination this time? Who’s the hero? What resources does he possess? How is he going to hit the ground running? What if…he’s semi-retired and he first gets wind something is wrong when…? He’s recalled to duty? He meets his old girlfriend and she says….? Or what if she’s in trouble? What if he receives a cryptic note from her?

Whenever I get ideas relevant to the plot, I jot them down in a plotting file for that book title. I may use them or not, but this way I don’t lose them.

Being a plotter and not a pantser, I write a complete synopsis before I begin writing the story. This synopsis may go through numerous drafts before I get it right. I pass it through my critique partners and make more changes. I ask my husband to read it so he can evaluate the logic. He’s good at catching things that don’t make sense or need clarification. In the case of my current WIP, I’m consulting my cousin who lives in the area where the story is set. She’s been invaluable in pointing out what works and what doesn’t.

I’ve been doing research on the Internet as I go along. I have a whole page of links and topics to explore. It comes to mind that I’ve been calling the law enforcement officer in the story a sheriff. Is this appropriate to the location? What’s the difference between a sheriff and a police chief? Does a sheriff only work for the county? Does this apply to a state other than Florida? Another item to research goes on my list.

Meanwhile, what other motives might people have for doing in the victim? What hidden connections might exist between my characters? Often these secrets reveal themselves during the actual writing process. New angles spring to life, taking the story in a new direction. But before you get there, you have to lay the foundation.

These story details possess you and take over your mind. You think about them all your waking moments. The plotting threads sizzle, curl, and snap in your brain like writhing snakes until one bites you. What if…?

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Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you figure out these details as you write or before you begin the story?

Common Writing Mistakes

Recently, I’ve been judging writing contest entries. Below are some of the common problems I have discovered among these manuscripts. Out of several entries, only one passed muster. It was well written, kept my interest, had an interesting “voice” and an intriguing premise. I’d read this book if more was available.

The other submissions, however, were painful to get through. Here are some of the problems I encountered so you can avoid them in your work. I use the pronouns “he” or “she” interchangeably as this advice applies to readers and writers of both genders.

Establish the Setting Up Front

As soon as possible into the story, establish the place, season, and time of day. Remember your Who, What, Why, Where, and When. Try to work these into the opening pages unobtrusively. Example: Crickets chirped their nightly chorus, the music of summer. Or: Late afternoon sunlight glinted off an icicle hanging from the roof. Also, don’t mention a street name or landmark and assume the reader knows where this place is. Be specific and give a location.

Make Your Characters Likeable

Remember to address your character’s goals, motivation, and conflict. If you show her acting in an unfavorable manner, what made her that way? Motivate her behavior so the reader understands where she’s coming from and sees the light at the end of the tunnel with character growth by the book’s end. Give her redeemable qualities so we can like certain aspects of her. If not, the reader won’t care and that’s the death knoll to your story.

This also applies to the anti-hero. What makes him redeemable? Why should I, the reader, care about him? Also, what does your character want? If he wanders aimlessly through life with no particular goals, that makes me as a reader less interested in him. Unless, of course, you give me a reason why he behaves that way. Maybe he lacks confidence in himself because of a past event. Maybe he’s afraid of failure. Knowing this will make me more sympathetic toward him.

Watch Your Use of Bad Language

The occasional curse word may be acceptable for a romance hero who’s a hard ass or for a heroine in the urban fantasy genre or for guy fiction in general, but elsewhere it may raise a reader’s hackles. It can also turn off some readers completely, so this language should be sprinkled in judiciously, if at all. Add it only if it helps to define a character, not because it’s the way you speak or because you believe it makes your protagonist seem tough. Always ask yourself: is this necessary? If not, leave it out. Or deploy a substitute, like “frak” on Battlestar Galactica. If writing sex scenes, consider the subgenre. Certain words that may be acceptable for erotica might be too graphic or crude for readers with more delicate sensibilities, especially those who read romances more for the stories than the love scenes. Remember the old adage: Less is better, especially if you want to expand your readership.

Show, Don’t Tell

To keep the pace flowing, use mostly dialogue and action and minimal exposition. If you have long passages where nothing happens except the protagonist thinks to herself or explains to the reader what happened, the story comes to a dead halt. You want to imbue a sense of immediacy in your story, and that won’t happen unless you involve the reader. Telling me what is going on isn’t nearly as gripping as showing me. Each chapter should start and end with a hook. Again, long meandering passages of narration will not encourage the reader to turn the page and may put her to sleep instead. Also keep in mind that reader attention spans are shorter today. What worked in past prose doesn’t work in this age of technological marvels.

Save Flashbacks for Later

The first chapter is your only chance to grab the reader so she’ll continue your story. If you segue into a flashback, the forward momentum is lost. Who cares what happened in the past? Throw in a line or two in dialogue or introspection to show us and then move on. Or make it part of the story action, like in a confrontation with a friend or a hesitation on the part of the main character to perform some act. Work backstory in with minimal intrusion in your first few chapters. Flashbacks will kill pacing, so again, remove those long passages of remembrances. Only retain what is necessary to explain the current action. Later, after you’ve hooked the reader, you can work this info into the story, hopefully through dialogue.

Every Conversation Should Have a Purpose

When I say that you should use dialogue generously, I don’t mean that two friends should get together and chat meaninglessly on matters that don’t move the story forward. Dialogue should serve a purpose: reveal information, define character, move the plot ahead, offer reaction and reflection on what’s just occurred. So ask yourself as you approach a conversation, what do you want to get across in this segment? If you don’t have a point to make, delete the scene.

Proofread Your Work

Would you send an editor a manuscript that you haven’t read through to check for typos? No? Then why send one to a contest where mechanics are judged? Proofread your work for typos, dropped punctuation marks, repetitions and misspellings.

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Most of the entries I’ve read have been competently written. In some cases, the author’s voice comes through as distinctive and engaging. However, the writing itself isn’t the problem. It’s the content— in particular the pacing, structure, and/or character motivations. Does a crisis or a change happen to the character at the start so that she (or he) experiences a call to action? Does the story move forward from there? Or does it stumble while you detour into a long introspection or memory sequence? Do you involve the reader in the action or tell us what happened? Is your character passive or proactive? Have you done all you can to attract new readers and not repel them with questionable language? Reread your first three chapters. If you were an editor, would you want to read more?

The Wrap Scene

You’re approaching the end of your book. Do you finish in a spate of action, or do you have your characters meet in a quiet scene where they reflect on what’s occurred? In a romance, these last pages are where the hero proposes and the main characters profess their love for each other. In a mystery, this scene serves a different purpose. It’s where all loose ends are tied up and final explanations for the crime come to light. Use the following steps as a guideline for your own work.

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The authorities reveal information they previously couldn’t discuss.

In the course of an investigation, the police/detectives/federal agents cannot reveal all that they know. But once the killer is in custody, they can explain the rationale that led them to determining the murderer’s identity. In my Bad Hair Day mysteries, hairstylist Marla Vail is married to a homicide detective. Her husband Dalton may discuss some aspects of the crime with her earlier on, but much of what he learns cannot come out until later. Marla follows a different path to targeting the killer. This final scene may show them exchanging information on how each one arrived at the same conclusion but from a different angle.

The villain’s means, motives, and opportunity are confirmed.

What drove the villain to commit the crime? How did he do it? Very likely, in the previous chapter, the hero confronted the killer, who may have confessed. But here is where you can fill in the sordid details and psychological aspects of the crime.

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The survivors are not forgotten.

Even if you’re writing a light cozy mystery, the murder affects people. What happens to the victim’s family? How about the killer’s close relations? Two sets of tragedies occur here. What are the ramifications for these people?

What has my character learned?

This is perhaps the most important item. Your main character, the amateur sleuth, has been affected by these events in some way. What has she learned from this experience? How have the people around her changed? How does this sequence of events change her plans for the future?

Set up for the sequel.

Has a new person been introduced into your universe who may play a larger role next time? Is there an unsolved mystery that’s part of a bigger story arc? Or does your main character receive a call to action that he has to accept? Here is where you can drop a hint of what’s to come.

Revisit old friends.

This final scene might take place between your main characters alone, or among recurrent characters whom your readers have come to regard as friends. This decision will arise from your setting and from the people who’ve peppered your story. Genre expectations may play a role here, too. In a romance, usually the hero and heroine are focused on each other at the end. Anything goes in a mystery, thriller, or sci-fi/fantasy, but make sure the ending has emotional impact no matter which characters it includes.

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Frame the story.

If you began your story with a particular setting, you may want to return there for your final scene. This gives your book a sense of completeness. It also resonates with readers.

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It’s hard to remember everything that’s happened in the story when you write the first draft of this scene. No doubt you’ll add more later during self-edits. It helps to write down all the loose ends when you do a thorough read-through. Then you can check off each item as it’s answered in the story and fill in any missing information during the final chapter. Once you are satisfied that you have covered all bases, save and close the file with a smile.