Holiday Food for Thought on Character Conflicts

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased from iStock for Jordan Dane’s use

This is my last post for 2018, but I got my inspiration from Jim’s post “What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing” on Nov 25th. As always, the discussion comments were very interesting. Two comments stood out in my mind and I wanted to explore them. I thought they could combine into this post on character and conflict.

Marilynn Byerly said: “…Conflict should exist on many levels. In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.”

Marilynn is so right. Great summary. There can be the external conflict of a global disaster or a killer on the loose, but if you add complications within the main character (a flaw or handicap that forces them out of their comfort zone to deal with the external conflict after facing their own demons), that’s good stuff.

AZAli said: “When I was starting out, I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t write a scene about characters enjoying themselves.”

I could relate to AZAli’s comment here when I first started out. I didn’t want to waste a scene on the seemingly real life of the character, but in moderation, this can be insightful, especially if the internal demons of the character are at odds with what the plot will bring. In Michael Connelly books, The ups and downs of Bosch’s personal life are an intricate thread woven into the fabric of his stories, so tightly written and paced, that Bosch becomes real in the reader’s mind. It’s like you KNOW him over the series of books you’re reading. His failed relationships, the love he has for his daughter and complicated ex-wife, and his troubles on the job that arise because of his very uncompromising nature.

Be judicious, not to overdo diversions, but I would suggest that if you want to add depth to your character, give him or her a backstory that is integral to his/her internal conflicts and force your character to deal with those too, along with the plot. No scene is wasted if the reader is enthralled. It’s a balance, but one worth pursuing. (I love getting emails or social media comments from readers who ask about the personal life of my characters. They share their hopes for what might come next or ask about the service dog I have my Vigilante Justice series, Karl. You never know what will resonate with readers.)

I thought of a writing resource book by Deb Dixon called “Goals, Motivation & Conflict.” This little book (affectionately called the GMC book) has a lot of fans. It helped me add complications to my characters when I first started writing. It’s a good resource for new writers. I also attended one of Deb Dixon’s workshops and got a lot out of it. (Workshops are wonderful to learn new things and to network. I would encourage any author to attend a workshop, no matter what skill level you are. There’s bound to be something that will stick with you.)

I’m resorting to my memory on the matrix concept of the GMC book and the general idea that has stuck with me after reading it. My resources books are buried in my BOX ROOM after my last move. The idea of t he GMC book is to give your characters INTERNAL CONFLICTS and EXTERNAL CONFLICTS and maybe dare to have them conflict with each other.

What does your character want and why can’t they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. I can’t emphasize this enough. If there is a common mistake many aspiring authors make, it’s not having enough conflict to keep a story flowing through to the end that will drive the characters and keep their story interesting.

Your EXTERNAL CONFLICT might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (INTERNAL CONFLICTS) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery. If you have a hero who is in conflict with a villain, while he’s battling his own demons, then think about creating a heroine who has opposing conflicts where one of them must lose in order to be together. Conflicts are best when layered and made more complicated.

Find your characters’ greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—and demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension. It’s all about drama!

Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey
• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

Summary: With a little forethought and patience, you can craft a better book if you plan your characters’ conflicts and create a tough journey of discovery for them. And remember that one book could turn into a series if you create a large enough world with characters that can be sustained through a series. I even like to plant seeds of mystery for future books within the pages of a standalone. You never know what good fortune might happen.

Happy Holidays! Wishing you the best and have a great 2019, TKZers!

DISCUSSION:

For Writers: Tell us about the internal and external conflicts of the main character(s) in your current WIP, TKZers. How have you made your characters at odds with each other?

For Readers: Share novels that had a good balance of the internal and external conflicts of the main character. What did you like most about the journey of the book?

 

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Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

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Book Expo America 2018

MONTANA AUTHOR TAKES A SMALL BITE OUT OF THE BIG APPLE

The population of my Montana home town is around 25,000—about the same number of people I encountered during six days at Book Expo America (BEA) and BookCon in New York City.

BEA is the biggest annual convention of book publishers, booksellers, distributors, librarians, and authors in North America. With 840,000 square feet of exhibit space at the Javits Center and nearly 500 exhibitors, the show is so big that Publishers Weekly covers it with daily tabloid reports of 70-100 pages each.

The event is open to industry professionals, not the public. I was fortunate to be invited to check out the inner workings of the business. What a learning experience it was!

Big names draw big crowds. Celebrities launching new books stayed busy autographing advance reading copies (ARCs). Some wait lines rivaled Splash Mountain at Disney World. This year’s stars included a couple of guys named Patterson and Clinton who co-wrote a thriller, along with Nicholas Sparks, Sally Field, Barbara Kingsolver, Trevor Noah, and more.

Debbie Burke and Hank Phillippi Ryan

 

I was delighted to meet the charming Hank Phillippi Ryan at the signing of her new book Trust Me. A few weeks before, I’d watched Hank teach a great online class sponsored by International Thriller Writers (TKZ’s own James Scott Bell also taught a segment of the webinar).

One Librarian’s Bounty

 

 

Librarians from all over the country flock to BEA to pick up bagfuls of free ARCs to help them decide what to order for the coming year. Their biggest expense must be the charge for overweight checked baggage!

Important lesson to authors: librarians are your best friends. If librarians get behind your book, their efficient network can put millions of eyes on your work.

 

 

Not surprisingly, Amazon isn’t exactly the most popular kid on the BEA playground. The headline of one daily report read: “Amazon’s Actions Remain a Problem,” a quote by the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. The article talked about the impact of “lost jobs, stores, and uncollected taxes” due to the online giant.

The Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) had large showy booths on main aisles. In contrast, Amazon’s booth was in a distant corner, far from the entrance.

Since Amazon’s Kindle Press had published my thriller Instrument of the Devil, I trekked all the way to the rear of the exhibit hall to visit them. But when I got there…..

Black curtains surrounded all four sides of the booth. Through the gauzy fabric, I could see people moving inside. But there was no entrance.

Hmmm.

Upon further investigation, I was told Amazon specifically requests a private booth for book publicists to meet with major media to pitch upcoming titles.

Oh.

In addition to the Big Five, scores of indie publishers had booths, representing niche markets for religious, ethnic, political and social issues, health and fitness, food and cooking, short fiction collections. No matter what off-the-wall subject you imagine, chances are someone has published a book about it that shows up at BEA.

Children’s and YA book publishers were out in force, introducing thousands of new products: print books, graphic novels, puzzles, interactive 3D devices, plus tie-in merchandising like costumes, cuddly stuffed characters, sports equipment, etc. There were even quaint retro items like pens and stationary. Could writing actual letters be making a comeback?

Waiting for autographs from their favorite authors

 

BEA runs from Wednesday through Friday for industry pros. BookCon follows on the weekend and is open to the public. Thousands of readers crowded the Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday. They pored over new releases, waited in line for autographs from favorite authors…

BookCon 2018

 

…and posed for photos dressed up as popular book characters.

Older folks (like myself) often complain about young people zombie-walking through life with bent necks, mesmerized by their smartphones. Yet at BookCon, I didn’t notice a single example of that disconnection. Kids engaged with each other and were excited about new adventures in reading. Witnessing that gave me hope.

 

 

Audio book sales continue to grow by double digits, 30+% increase in the last year alone.

A major BEA sponsor for 2018 was Blackstone Publishing. In 1987, the family-owned independent audio publisher started producing cassettes in a garage in Ashland, Oregon. They tapped into the town’s renowned Shakespeare Festival for narrating talent.

Three decades later, Blackstone has expanded into a full-service publisher of print and e-books in addition to audio, employing more than 200 people. Still headquartered in Ashland, they’ve increased their presence in NYC with acquisitions editors, audio narrators, and a sound studio that’s second to none.

Blackstone also showed me firsthand what a debut author’s dream launch should look like.

Excited debut author Susan Purvis with the banner of her new book

Last April, I wrote about cadaver dogs and mentioned Susan Purvis’s upcoming memoir, Go Find, which Blackstone is publishing. At BEA, they rolled out the red carpet for Susan, including a 10-foot-tall banner at the entrance of the Javits Center.

At their booth, lighted signs showcased new releases. Book covers were displayed on video screens. During signings, representatives guided people through the waiting line, graciously giving out swag including postcards, book bags, and ARCs.

This contrasted sharply with some author signings sponsored by bigger houses where I wondered if cattle prods might be in use!

 

Blackstone’s good treatment of authors has resulted in them picking up bestsellers like Orson Scott Card, cozy queen M.C. Beaton, and mother-daughter fantasy writers P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

Despite BEA’s gargantuan scope, it offered opportunities to make personal contacts.

A couple of hours into the first morning, I sank down at a vacant table, already exhausted, eyes glazing over. A woman with a similar dazed expression sat across from me and we commiserated about feeling overwhelmed. Her name was Bee Kapitan, a designer from Vancouver. She had just received an Independent Publisher Award for her interactive e-book How To Say Cheese. I showed her the proposed cover for my new book, Stalking Midas, and she graciously made suggestions. She introduced me to the burgeoning world of interactive book design. We’ll be keeping in touch.

I’m learning from Umair Kazi (l) and Francesco Grisanzio (r)

Another valuable connection occurred with the Authors Guild. I knew of their excellent advocacy for writers but hadn’t gotten around to joining. At their booth, I talked with staff attorney Umair Kazi and digital services coordinator Francesco Grisanzio about rights reversion. Their guidance helped me make a career decision I’d been putting off. Needless to say, after their assistance, I signed up to become a member.

Another service they offer to authors is contract review. Before you sign a publishing contract, AG attorneys will review it and clarify the Byzantine maze of legalese. That alone is worth the $125 annual dues.

Authors Guild has also forged a communication channel into Amazon to register author complaints. Hopefully AG’s advocacy will temper Amazon’s review policies that, to authors, often appear capricious and arbitrary.

BEA gave me amazing insight into the publishing business. If I included all the adventures and interesting people I met in the Big Apple, this post would run into next week!

I’ll stop now and turn it over to TKZers for questions and comments.

A final post script: on the trip home I was privileged to meet a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. That story is too long to add here but it can be found on my blog.

6+

First Page Critique – Cherry Bomb

Writers are advised to start their story with a bang. The Anonymous Brave Author of today’s first page took that advice to heart…literally! My comments appear at the end.

Cherry Bomb

             Vivienne Rook threw a cherry bomb off the backyard deck, aiming at her deceased husband. “Take that to the moon and back!”

A boom ricocheted off the dense wood that lined her sister’s house as the effigy’s crisp white shirt flailed. “Tsk, just got the arm,” Vivienne sniffled. She’d built “Win” out of a cotton mop and broomsticks, garbing him in his favorite outfit: khaki pants and a white dress shirt with a sports jacket. A charming dickhead in casual business attire.

She turned at the scrambling sound behind her. Clawing a quick getaway from the noise, Spot and Kitty, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat, had wedged themselves together in the pet door, their tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance.

“Meow!”

“Woof!”

“Chickens.” Vivienne bent over and pushed the pug’s tan rear through the opening, allowing both animals to escape. She heard a bump and then a chair fall as they fled.

Back to work, Vivienne twisted together the fuses of two cherry bombs and set the pair on the railing, her therapeutic arsenal strung along like little missiles of pain.

“Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” her sister, Mirielin, called through the kitchen window. She was flanked by both animals who were standing on the kitchen counter scowling at Vivienne.

“I’ve got you covered,” Vivienne said. “Tell those animals to be less judgy.”

A few minutes later, the screen door creaked as Mirielin stepped onto the deck with a bottle of white wine and two glasses. “Scared us silly, Vivi. Did you break into the twin’s stash of homemade explosives?” Mirielin’s reading glasses were tucked into her updo, next to the chopstick that kept her red-gold hair in a messy bun.

“You betcha. Done at the shelter so soon?”

Mirielin’s sharp blue eyes took in the scene. “I just came home to feed the animals.”

Vivienne tried to sound tough, but her voice caught. “Look, I’ve got Win trapped in the lawn.”

Her sister’s mouth pursed into a sad knot that Vivienne had named the Woe-a-Widow look. It came over people’s faces when they struggled to comfort her over the unexpected death of her husband, and the revelations that followed.

***

In the first sentence, Anon follows Jim Bell’s excellent dictum: Act first, explain later.” And Vivienne definitely grabbed my attention. Why does a new widow want to blow up her husband’s effigy? Her unexpected reaction to tragedy makes her an interesting character.

Plus you inject a touch of ironic humor. That signals the genre may be a cozy with attitude. Readers admire gutsy characters who maintain a sense of humor in the face of adversity. I’m already on her side, rooting for her, even though I don’t yet know what the conflict is. You avoided the trap of a backstory information dump. Well done.

I didn’t spot any typos or grammar goofs in your submission. Congratulations on a good job of proofreading, the mark of a professional.

However, a few speed bumps stopped me.

The first question arose about the phrase: the dense wood that lined her sister’s house. Initially I wondered if “wood” should have read “woods.” Then the word “lined” confused me. Are you saying the house is in a wooded setting? Or are you trying to describe wood siding over the surface of the sister’s house? Clarify this small detail so it doesn’t sidetrack the reader with questions that are irrelevant to the story.

Because the rest of the page is error-free, I’m guessing “wood” wasn’t a typo, but rather an unclear sentence. Perhaps a better way to express it would be: A boom ricocheted off the dense woods that surrounded her sister’s house as the effigy’s crisp white shirt flailed.

“Garbing” was a distraction because it’s a peculiar verb. Suggest you simplify: She’d built “Win” out of a cotton mop and broomsticks, dressing him in his favorite outfit: khaki pants and a white dress shirt with a sports jacket. That’s a smoother way to say the same thing without using a word that could unnecessarily jar the reader out of the story.

A charming dickhead in casual business attire is a great line that reveals Vivienne’s humor, as well as her disappointment with her husband. Again, you’re pulling the reader into the story with more questions. Why is he a dickhead? What did he do to her?

The next bump that stopped me was:

Clawing a quick getaway from the noise, Spot and Kitty, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat, had wedged themselves together in the pet door, their tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance.

            “Meow!”

            “Woof!”

            “Chickens.”

This is a funny visual but when using comedy, timing is everything, and this timing is off. Make this paragraph snappier by removing extraneous words that lessen the impact of the humor.

For instance, readers don’t need to know the pets’ names yet. Delay that information for a moment, as shown in the rewrite below. The sounds of meow and woof aren’t dialogue and don’t need to be enclosed in quotes. Otherwise the reader might think the story is about talking animals.

“Chickens” is meant to be an insult to the pets, but instead made me wonder if there were additional critters, like fowl, in the scene. These small stumbling blocks distracted me for a second.

An alternative rewrite:

Clawing a quick getaway from the explosion, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat had wedged themselves together in the pet door, tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance. Mirielin would be pissed that Vivienne had upset Spot and Kitty. Vivienne bent to push the pug’s rear end through the pet door, breaking the furry logjam. From inside the house, she heard more scuffling, then the bang of a kitchen chair hitting the tile floor. “Cowards,” she muttered.

Another great line is: Her therapeutic arsenal strung along like little missiles of pain. It offers insight into Vivienne, showing her conflicted feelings about Win’s death. You found a fresh way to describe grief, expressing a lot of meaning with only a few well-chosen words.

Next distracting bump:

“Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” her sister, Mirielin, called through the kitchen window. She was flanked by both animals who were standing on the kitchen counter scowling at Vivienne.

Not bad, but could be smoother. How about:

Her sister’s voice came through the open window. “Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” Mirielin stood at the kitchen counter, flanked by Spot and Kitty who were scowling at Vivienne.

One key to great description is to choose specific details. You’ve done an excellent job showing Mirielin: Mirielin’s reading glasses were tucked into her updo, next to the chopstick that kept her red-gold hair in a messy bun. The reader not only sees her, but gets a glimpse of her personality. You neatly slip in the information about her family (twins) and that she volunteers at a shelter, all without slowing the action. Mirielin’s dialogue appears lighthearted on the surface but hints at her underlying concern with her sister’s odd behavior. Even the use of the nickname “Vivi” tells the reader about their relationship.

You wrap up the first page with a brilliant paragraph:

Her sister’s mouth pursed into a sad knot that Vivienne had named the Woe-a-Widow look. It came over people’s faces when they struggled to comfort her over about the unexpected death of her husband, and the revelations that followed.

You’ve gracefully shown the reader a lot of relevant story information. We know about Vivienne’s inner conflict, as well as what she must deal with in her outside world. At this point, I’m intrigued enough with the characters and actions that I would definitely turn the page to find out why Win’s death was unexpected and what revelations she’s referring to, as well as how Vivienne handles her challenge.

You start with action, give brief but effective snapshots of characters, and hint at a conflict that promises to grow. Just a little polishing will turn this into a terrific first page. Well done, Brave Author!

 

TKZers, any thoughts or suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil recently became an Amazon Bestseller in Women’s Adventure. 

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5 Key Ways to Balance Internal Monologue with Pitfalls to Avoid

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Attribution – Niki K (Wikimedia Commons)

John Gilstrap had an excellent post yesterday on Internal Monologue that resonated with me. He gave great examples of what works and what may not, with explanations on his sage reasoning. He certainly gave me things to think about in my own writing.

I tend to write in deep POV and very tight, with sparse narratives. This is especially true when I write my novella length stories for Kindle World, which is a great exercise in writing a tight plot and keeping the pace up.

In my full novels, I reign in my internal monologue and make it focused, with the character having a journey from beginning to end of the book, as well as a journey even within each scene, so I don’t repeat the deep POV thoughts.

On the FOR WRITERS resource on my website, I have a post titled – START WITH A BANG. If you scroll down to the “Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out?” sub-heading, you’ll find a section on how I let dialogue be the starting framework and how I layer in elements to fill out a scene. Internal monologue is vital to establishing my character’s journey and emotional growth and it’s something I focus on a great deal – even when I do my final draft read – but it’s the last thing I add to any scene, because I want to control it and isolate the journey to avoid pitfalls.

Despite my own methods, I greatly admire writers like Michael Connelly (particularly his Bosch series) where his mastery of his character’s internal views feel so authentic of an experienced war weary cop. He effortlessly brings in Bosch’s personal relationships and his workload to give a 360 view of this man’s life. That’s not an easy thing to do. It requires an intense knowledge of his character Bosch.

No matter how a writer learns how to craft internal monologue, it is easily one of the areas an author can veer off course and overuse…or under use, for that matter. Have you ever read a book that is all action, devoid of emotion or insight into the character’s internal battle and conflict? This is definitely a balancing game to get internal monologue to enhance your writing and make your stories memorable for readers.

Key Points to Finding the Right Balance for Internal Monologue:

1.) DIALOGUE – If you see your narrative paragraphs stretching out onto the page in weighty clumps, look for ways to make your internal monologue lean and mean by use of dialogue. This is something I have to pay attention to, even with my sparse style. Clever dialogue is a challenge, but it can be so much fun to write.

Plus, effective dialogue can help you pace your novel and tease the reader with red herrings or mystery elements, and not a plot dump of internal thoughts.

2.) LESS IS MORE – It’s easy to get carried away with every aspect of a character’s POV. The reader doesn’t need to know every logical argument for their action or inaction. People don’t think like this, especially in the heat of the moment in an action scene.

Have patience to let the story unfold. Too much internal thought can dry up pace and bore readers. The reader doesn’t need to know everything, especially all at once in a dump.

Also be careful NOT to repeat the same thought over and over. Repeating internal strife does not constitute a journey. It only reminds the reader that the author is searching for different ways to describe the same thing. Oy.

3.) TIMING – pick your spots when internal monologue makes the most sense. James Scott Bell wrote a great post on What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction where he talks about starting a novel with a character in thought, no action or disturbance. Resist the urge to bury your reader in internal monologue right out of the gate.

In addition, if your character is in the middle of a shoot out, that would not be the most opportune time to share his feelings on getting dumped by his girlfriend, not even if she is the one shooting at him. (Although I would love to read a scene like that.) To make the danger seem real, stick with the action and minimize the internal strife until it’s logical for the character to ponder what happened after.

Plus, if you spill the exposition too early, the reader won’t retain it as well as if you had waited for the right timing, when the reveal would be most effective.

4.) SHOW DON’T TELL – Once you get into the quagmire of telling a character’s POV, it’s too easy to get carried away with the rest of your book. If you can SHOW what a character is feeling, and let the reader take what they will from the scene, you will leave an image nugget that will stick with them. TELLING doesn’t have the same impact.

5.) ACTION & DIALOGUE DEFINE CHARACTER – These are the two areas where readers will most remember a book. Unless you’re into author craft and can appreciate the internal monologue finesse of John Gilstrap and Michael Connelly and many other author favorites, you probably may not remember how effectively the author used internal monologue. It’s like the color black. It goes with everything in such a subtle way that you may not notice it.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What tips do you have to share on how you handle internal monologue in your own writing?

2.) With the key points I listed above, do any of them pose a particular challenge for you?

3.) Name a recent book you read where you noticed the author’s deft handling of internal monologue. (I would love to expand my TBR pile.)

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First Page Critique: CROSSROADS

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome, to our Saturday morning installment of FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE! We have here the beginning of a work titled CROSSROADS, so let’s cue up either the Sailcat album, Neil Young’s Comes a Time LP, or Cream’s Wheels of Fire to provide some background music and proceed:

 

Crossroads

Kelli Wade speeds along the 405 at night, wears her chopped jeans, favorite silk T, coffee-with-cream Chanel jacket, and cowboy boots.  She threads her way between a bus and rusty Toyota, leaning on her Harley.  Blonde hair streams straight out behind her; her helmet strapped to the side of the seat, unused.  Tears streak the sides of her face, momentarily blurring her vision of the dark traffic.

He was sleeping with that waitress-whore!  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?

She has keyed his car, front, back and both sides, before riding away from her ruined relationship.  And this, after getting word that Jackie, her college roommate, has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

“Up yours!”  The rage in her voice blends with the deep-throated growl of the cycle’s engine.  Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.  Did he think I was stupid, or didn’t he give a shit about my feelings?

She sits down hard behind her desk, alone, surrounded by darkness.  To keep her mind off murder, she begins to sort through stacks of paper, invoices, and case reports.  The normal day-to-day function of her job.

She takes a deep breath.  Is there’s any wine left in the fridge?

Dawn leaks in through the window blinds, sending streaks across the polished floor.  Other operatives of the agency begin to arrive to work, including her mother.

 

I’m predisposed to like CROSSROADS, Anon, because from the jump I liked Kelli Wade and how you are developing her from the jump. You get several things right. Naming your protagonist right out of the gate is a great move. You also put the reader in the moment from the first sentence by using the third person present narrative style. I especially like how you show your readers without telling them that Kelli is in Los Angeles: Taft Building + Route 405 + rusty Toyota (that sounds like award-winning author James Scott Bell’s hooptie to me!) = Los Angeles. Additionally, you show that Kelli does not take betrayal lightly. Revenge may be dish better eaten cold, but it’s pretty tasty in the heat of the moment, too. You paint a very clear picture of your character’s appearance and personality within just a few paragraphs, yet we don’t feel bombarded with information. That’s part of good pacing. The additional element of Kelli working with her mother is a nice touch as well.  More on that in a second.

Those are the positive elements. CROSSROADS needs to be cleaned up just a bit in a few places.

FIRST PARAGRAPH:

— First sentence: Kelli hits a tiny speed bump. She should be “wearing her jeans,” rather than “wears.” The third person present narrative is a good choice, but it has its pitfalls. I think you want a gerund there as opposed to a verb given that she already “speeds” along. Oh, and while you are at it: tell us the model of the Harley Kelli is riding. Enthusiasts love that information.

—  Third sentence: Let’s change that “her: her” to something else. I like to avoid using the same word twice in a row. And let’s get rid of that semi-colon. Here’s one way: Blonde hair streams straight out behind her. She has a helmet, but it’s strapped to the side of her seat, out of the way.

THIRD PARAGRAPH:

— First sentence: “She has keyed his car” …let’s change that to “She had keyed his car” since it takes place in the past, even if it’s just a few minutes ago.

— Second sentence: While we’re at it, let’s do the same thing and change “has been diagnosed” to “had been diagnosed” for the same reason.

FIFTH PARAGRAPH:

— First and second sentences: These aren’t really incorrect but I’d like to see them a little shorter and tighter. Let’s use all verbs and make a couple of other changes. As things stand right now,

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.”  

Let’s change that to

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp. She pulls up behind the Taft Building and chains her bike to a fat drain pipe. A service elevator takes her to the sixth floor, where she swallows her pain and shoves open the double doors to Sunset Investigations.”

SIXTH PARAGRAPH:

— The next issue is a question to which I honestly don’t know the answer. It seems as though most businesses store their files and send their bills electronically.  Would a contemporary private investigation agency use stacks of paper or would Kelli be poring over files on her computer? I’ve converted almost entirely to e-billing, electronic documents, etc. That brought me up short, if only momentarily. Of course, if the book’s “present” is before 2007 she is almost certainly pouring over paper. It’s a minor quibble.

SEVENTH PARAGRAPH:

— “Is there’s any wine” should be “Is there any wine”…but I suspect that you know that, Anon. Otherwise, good proofing all the way through.

EIGHTH PARAGRAPH:

—Dawn leaks in…so…we’ve already been told that Kelli arrived at night, but was it really night or really, really early in the morning? I would like some sort of sense of how long Kelli has been sitting in her office before morning comes. This can be handled in a few words earlier in the text to give us some idea of what time of night Kelli arrived at the office.

— I like the surprise of Kelli working with her mom, but it’s a reveal that you might leave for just a little later. Or not. Also…as CROSSROADS is presently written… how does Kelli know that her mom has arrived? Is Kelli’s office door open and she sees her? Or is the door closed and she hears her? There are all sorts of ways that you can address this and you can do it by showing, not telling. As is in:

Three knocks rattle Kelli’s office door. Only one person in the office knocks like that. “Come in, Mom,” Kelli sighs.

These suggestions are made in the spirit of making a good first page better, Anon. I like the setup and I like your character. Please keep going with both.

I will now strive mightily to be uncharacteristically quiet while our friends at TKZ today offer their own observations and comments. Thank you so much, Anon, for submitting CROSSROADS to First Page Critique! And please don’t forget to circle back and let us know when we can see the rest of CROSSROADS!

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Over the End of the World

One of my twins loves reading pre and post apocalyptic YA novels, but even he has reached saturation point. There’s really only so many stories you can digest involving the horror, chaos and disintegration of society that comes from either impending doom or the aftermath of an end of the world scenario. In many ways, our mutual ‘apocalyptic’ fatigue (after all, I’ve read almost all the same books) is indicative of market saturation as well as stagnation. It also raises issues, to follow on from Jim’s post yesterday, about how writers nurture their ideas to execution.

I think it’s safe to say the market has pretty much covered these scenarios:

  • contagion/epidemic
  • alien invasion
  • ecological disaster
  • Impending meteor/asteroid strike
  • vampires/werewolves/demons/zombies/robots/monsters/mutations etc. taking over the world
  • government conspiracy/police state/total control/thought control/emotional control
  • evil schemes that generally involve youths in competition to kill or hunt each other down and/or destroy society

Note: Feel free to add to this list by the way…

But the key element I think (at least on the fatigue front) is that many novels now feel merely derivative of stories that have come before and which deal with the same or similar ‘apocalypse’ event. It’s hard, given what has already been written, to come up with a new idea or new way of executing that idea that doesn’t feel tired or hackneyed. It is, in some respects representative of the classic dilemma facing all writers – namely, how do you put a new/fresh/unique spin on an idea/mystery/predicament that has already been done to death? This is where I think it is critical for writers to take a step back when considering their idea for a novel (before what Jim calls the ‘green light’ stage) and evaluate the key elements of concept and premise (that my fellow blog mate Larry Brooks is so good at describing).

I jot all my ideas down in a notebook – most of which will never develop into a completed novel – either because the idea itself is to thin, or the execution/story that surrounds the idea doesn’t turn out to be novel enough, or complex enough to sustain itself. When considering any new WIP, I take my idea, produce a detailed proposal and then (because I’m an outliner) map out the plot for the story. As part of this process, it soon becomes apparent if the idea cannot sustain a novel, especially if I couldn’t answer these critical questions:

  • Why should readers care about my story/idea?
  • If it deals with well worn tropes, what makes my idea or POV unique or significantly different (I don’t count trivial distinctions)?
  • How would this story stand out from all the other novels out there?
  • Even if I think the idea is sufficiently novel to warrant a story, do I really know what the concept/premise behind this is in sufficient detail (anyone who’s read Larry Brooks knows that many stories collapse because a failure at the concept or premise stage).

At the moment (thankfully) I’m not considering any a pre or post apocalyptic story ideas. Although my son and I have reached the tipping point we could still be brought back with a unique twist/edge or story about the end of the world. The key issue I think is that, when considering a new idea, read extensively before committing to the story. In a crowded market, you have to stand out (even when you’re writing about chaos and the end of the world…)

So, are there any types of stories you are totally ‘over’? How do you approach developing your ideas when facing a a crowded/saturated corner of the market?

 

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TKZ – a Guide for the Writer’s Journey

by Tom Combs, physician-author, www.tom-combs.com tom_tkz-safety-chain-on-tricky-climb

In 2007, after twenty-five years as an emergency medicine specialist working in the ERs of busy inner-city level-one trauma centers, a personal health event ended my medical career. I’d worked briefly as a technical writer prior to medical school, but for the last eight years have been able to focus full-time on the study and creation of fiction.

The Kill Zone and its contributors have been a daily part of my writing life for years. I contacted Kathryn Lilley a few weeks back to share news of the release of the second book in my medical suspense-thriller series and mentioned my long-term involvement with TKZ. She suggested I guest blog and share how TKZ has influenced my writer’s journey. Specifically she mentioned that she believed my experience “would be inspiring to others, and spread cheer to my fellow bloggers!” I hope so.

Here are some ways TKZ has helped me on my journey from aspiring fiction writer to indie publisher of two well-received thrillers:

Instruction on craft

TKZ provides ongoing instruction on the craft of writing fiction that engages and sells.

James Scott Bell, Jodie Renner, PJ Parrish (Kris), Jordan Dane, Larry Brooks, and all the TKZ contributors regularly share the essence of their experience and hard-gained knowledge. I realize I’m preaching to the choir when I identify that the writing instruction presented on TKZ is ninja-level. The TKZ bloggers are the faculty of an online academy. Note: many of most useful posts are organized by topic in the TKZ Library (click HERE or on “TKZ Library” in the banner above).

Philosophy, support, and guidance

All readers here know the writer’s life can be tough at times. Self-doubt, frustration, discouragement, and disappointment are all part of the journey. I’m certain the honesty, humor, and sage counsel of TKZ’s “usual suspects” has assisted many a writer get over the rough spots. It has definitely helped me.

First page submission

By 2012, I’d been a TKZ follower for years and felt as if I knew the faculty and their personalities. I’d missed the submission deadline for the initial and subsequent “First Page” critiques and regretted having lost out on the great opportunity.

In 2012, I submitted on time. My mouth went dry on April 12, when I saw that TKZ emeritus John Ramsey Miller had rendered the critique of my work. JRM was a particular favorite of mine and, among his traits is a no-BS, flame-throwing honesty. I approached his critique with fear and trepidation. His favorable response to my submission gave me a lift unlike any I’d experienced in writing to that point. It is a treasured memory in my TKZ history.

The comments beneath the critique provided education on the varied and subjective nature of opinion/review – “dang excellent,” “this is brilliant,” “it’s not without problems,” “I’m hooked,” “wouldn’t have hooked me in any way,” etc. This provided additional education on the realities of writing.

Top-shelf editor

Years back, a TKZ guest blogger presented an article on craft that blew me away with its content and clarity. I learned that the writer, Jodie Renner, had edited two of Joe Moore’s novels. Jodie became a TKZ regular for a few years, and followers benefitted from her many outstanding articles on craft as well as her three writing guides. I did even better – after her guest piece, I was able to convince Jodie to work with me, and we have collaborated on both of the books in my series. She is amazing as both an editor and a friend – another major personal and professional benefit of my involvement with TKZ.

James Scott Bell and the TKZ faculty

I can’t recall if I discovered James Scott Bell first and it led to TKZ or the reverse. The discovery of both was definitely a boon to my writing development and career. JSB’s savvy, humor, enthusiasm, and guidance on both craft and the writer’s life is special and representative of the warmth, wisdom, and generosity of the TKZ faculty, both current and past. I attended Jim’s outstanding “Story Masters” seminar with his teaching partners, Donald Maass, and Chris Vogler, where I learned a great deal while laughing often (JSB could do stand-up comedy).

James Scott Bell’s enthusiasm, professionalism, and support of other writers is characteristic of my experience with TKZ.

I’m not certain I can inspire TKZ followers, but I can unequivocally recommend ongoing participation. The return on investment is astronomical – how can you beat free writing wisdom? TKZ is a writing travel guide that is updated daily for those who seek excellence.

I share Kathryn’s hope that her fellow bloggers/faculty will feel cheered. These people deserve to feel good about themselves. The hours, effort, and imagination invested in creating the daily posts are considerable. Despite receiving little in return, they share their knowledge and support every day.

Thank you to TKZ faculty, current and past, for your continuous commitment to helping writers. Your efforts are, and have been, a special part of my writer’s journey. I’m certain there are many among the TKZ faithful who have benefitted as I have.

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share my appreciation today.

tom-c_nerve_damage_kindle_bestDo you have examples of how TKZ has helped you on your writer’s journey? Please share in the comments below.

Nerve Damage, the first book in my medical suspense-thriller series, was released in 2014. The response has been excellent, with more than 200 five-star Amazon reviews, wonderful personal comments from discriminating readers, and glowing independent book reviews.

Hard to Breathe, the second installment in the Drake Cody suspense-thriller series, is now available.

ER doctor and medical researcher Drake Cody has a past no physician is allowed to have. When an injured woman presents to the ER with a report of a fall, Drake reportstom-c_hard-to-breathe_best to police his suspicion that her powerful businessman husband is guilty of domestic violence. Within hours, Drake’s medical license and the rights to his breakthrough experimental drug are threatened.

Murder, billion-dollar intrigue, and corruption involving the most powerful elements in healthcare threaten Drake’s career, those he loves, and his life. Can the law deliver justice, or will it abandon him?

“Intense and highly entertaining. Combs’ writing grips you from the first chapter and never lets go. Very cinematic and intense. Speeds the reader from chapter to chapter at a breakneck pace. Hard to Breathe is a terrific book.” – Laura Childs, New York Times best-selling author

Nerve Damage and Hard to Breathe provide an insider’s exposure to the blast-furnace emotions of critical care medicine and the high-stakes “business” of healthcare and its mega-dollar temptations.

Both books are fast-paced, intense, twisting thrill rides involving individuals you care about and medical realities that affect us all.

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Embrace Growth – Guest USA Today Bestseller Colleen Coble

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

twilight-cover

I’m delighted to have USA Today bestseller Colleen Coble as my guest on TKZ. Colleen is an award-winning author with over 2 million books in print and she writes heartfelt and suspenseful romantic mysteries. I’m enjoying her latest Twilight at Blueberry Barrens and I’m a big fan. NYT bestseller Brenda Novak has given it high praise and Publishers Weekly gave Colleen a prized starred reviewPlease help me welcome her to TKZ.

***

You know the best thing about writing? You never arrive. There is always something you can improve on. Writing isn’t static, and it’s thrilling to know a better, bigger book can be yours to create. So how do we embrace the process of change in our books? Here’s what works for me.

1. Determine what drives your writing:
I think we all figure out fairly soon where we belong in the landscape of the writing world, and what type of story grabs us and doesn’t let go. Part of the evolution of my brand of romantic mystery involved embracing who I was as a writer and letting that strengthen each new book. Readers often tell me I’m way too friendly and outgoing to write about murder. I think they believe only brooding, unsmiling people can write about something so dark. They miss what drives me to write what I write—justice. I look around the world and see no justice, but I can make sure justice prevails in my novels.

Why do you write? The biggest, strongest stories involve something very personal to you. Depending on your personality, it can be cathartic or daunting to let your characters deal with an issue that’s been challenging to you, but it’s always worth it. Put down your guard and let the reader in. Writing should never just be your job. That’s a trap that career novelists can fall into, but the next novel should always be because you have something to say not because you have a deadline!

2. Figure out your strengths:
Don’t assume your strengths are as strong as they can get. An expert at pacing? Flex your fingers and keep the reader up all night. Good at integrating setting into the plot? You can immerse the reader even better with the next book. Great at characterization? You can build an even more compelling character in the next book. The status quo is never enough for the next book. Strive for something bigger and more compelling.

3. Pinpoint your weaknesses:
We all have areas where we are weak. My timelines can get fuzzy, and because I’m a seat of the pants writer, the train can get derailed. But even a pantser like me can get better at thinking through key turning points that lead to a stronger book. There are great writing resources out there to help you with your weaknesses.

This blog and others like it are great resources. There are tons of helpful writing books out there to help shore up where you’re weak. Jim Bell is a long time friend, and his book, Write Your Novel From the Middle, literally transformed my writing even though I’d written well over 50 novels by the time I read it. Never stop learning how to write better. Study up on how other authors do it well. When I wanted to write more suspenseful books, I read excellent suspense like my friend, Jordan Dane’s. I literally devour every book by an author I think I can learn from.

4. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
I remember when chick lit was all the rage. My buddy, Kristen Billerbeck, wrote a chapter to show a friend what it looked like. When I read that first chapter, I knew she’d found her real voice in first person/present tense, even though she’d written over 20 novels by that time. Let your voice evolve and strengthen as you gain more confidence in your ability.

I decided to do more points of view in Twilight at Blueberry Barrens, and I think it worked to build the suspense. After trying something, you can always go back to the way it was if it didn’t work for you.

Discussion:
How has your writing evolved from book to book?

colleen-2012-black

Best-selling author Colleen Coble’s novels have won or finaled in awards ranging from the Best Books of Indiana, the ACFW Carol Award, the Romance Writers of America RITA, the Holt Medallion, the Daphne du Maurier, National Readers’ Choice, and the Booksellers Best. She has over 2 million books in print and writes romantic mysteries because she loves to see justice prevail. Colleen is CEO of American Christian Fiction Writers. She lives with her husband Dave in Indiana.

http://colleencoble.com
https://www.facebook.com/colleencoblebooks/
https://twitter.com/colleencoble

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Is Our Writing Culture In Mortal Danger? Part III

benjamin-franklin-62846_640I’m going to try to wrap up my thoughts on the mischievous missive delivered by Mr. Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed. The first part of my response is here. The second part is here.

There are three issues outstanding:

Issue 3 – Is the Party Over?

Issue 4 – What Counts as Writing Success?

Issue 5 – Can Fiction Writing Be Taught?

Last week I upheld the view that this is the best time on Earth to be a writer. Lest you think I only mean because writers can now self-publish and make real dough, here’s some news that rippled outward from the traditional side of things: Sci-Fi writer John Scalzi inked a $3.4 million deal with Tor Books. That’s for thirteen books over a ten-year period. I’d say that counts as good times. Mr. Scalzi explains his thought process here.

Ah, but is the party over? Or about to be? Has there been a “tonal shift” in what Porter calls the “palaver” from the indie writer sector of the publishing world?

I do sense a shift, but not a negative one. It is, rather, the natural maturation of a revolution. During the Early Konrathian period of indie publishing, the talk was all about waking people up and stirring them to action (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”). There was an exuberance. There were fight songs around the campfire. Free beer.

It was Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry time. Yes, there was plenty of vitriol, too, which is always part of an uprising. What the American colonists said about the tea tax was not intended for polite society. Nor were the words of indies when reacting to representatives of the Authors Guild.

Now, it seems, the tone has changed from revolution to constitution. From muskets to quills. Giddiness has been replaced by plans and purpose and increasing success.

But just what is success? This is Issue #4.

One type is, certainly, traditional, bestselling, A-list status. Another type is having the freedom to publish what you want, when you want, and making steadily growing income. When you read surveys of traditional authors and how frustrated they can be with their publishers, this type of success might even be all the more attractive.

For some writers the “validation” of traditional success is the most important thing. Others find more satisfaction going directly to readers…and to the bank.

We are all free to define success for ourselves, and should. What does it mean specifically to you? Talk about it in the comments.

Finally, Issue #5. The title of Porter’s post was The Dreaded Training Debate: What If It Can’t Be Taught?

The question implies that a negative answer might be possible. Or, worse, that there is a possibility the whole enterprise of teaching fiction is little more than a racket. That’s what brought me and a couple of my teaching colleagues—Donald Maass and David Corbett—into the comments with some admonishments.

Porter, I’m happy to say, qualified this impression, kindly mentioning my name and my two fellows (and others) as exceptions. But he added this in a comment:

It’s been interesting to see some of these folks I’ve mentioned struggle with this piece. On the surface, of course, that looks natural in that no one wants to be painted with too broad a brush. But you note that I mentioned none of them, nor would I — they’re not the kind of problematic how-to players I’m talking about. And yet, to some degree, they seem unsettled by even the discussion of the problem.

This makes me think (I’m speculating here, they have not told me this) that the problem of “the toadstools” — who are NOT these writer/teachers — is much on their minds.

I can’t answer for my colleagues, but I’m happy to clear up any confusion on my part. No, “the toadstools” were not on my mind at all. What set me off was even entertaining the notion that writing can’t be taught. In point of fact, virtually all writers have been taught how to write in some form or fashion. It’s just that not many talk about it. As good old Ernest Hemingway once said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Writing is taught in many ways.

It is taught by editors who know what they’re doing.

It is taught by teachers who know what they’re doing.

It is taught by books by people who know what they’re doing and how to teach others to do the same.

It is taught by critique partners and beta readers.

It can be self-taught by reading novels and analyzing what other authors do. That’s fine. What I do when I teach, however, is save writers years of trial and error by showing them right away what successful authors do, and how they can do it themselves.

The proof of all this, I add as a former trial lawyer, is in the testimony of credible witnesses. The successful writers who themselves give credit to writing instruction.  

Let me offer just one example. This from critically acclaimed author Sarah Pekkanen, who gave an interview to NPR about getting published:

I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.

So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer [Stephen King]; one, by a top New York agent [Donald Maass]; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us [some joker named Bell]. 

The full interview is here. That was six years ago. It’s nice to see how Sarah’s career has prospered since. I’d say she’s offered credible testimony that writing fiction can indeed be taught.

Whew! That’s three full posts all sparked by the incendiary flying fingers of one Porter Anderson, provocateur and good sport. If you bump into him at a conference, don’t dislodge his keyboard…buy him a Campari instead.

Now I’m done. Next week we return to our regularly scheduled program!

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