Thursday, August 28, 2014

Layering Backstory to Create Conflict

Last time, we discussed how to avoid backstory plot holes. This week, we offer ideas for layering backstory into your plot to create conflict.

1. You can reveal your protagonist's critical flaw by explaining something that happened in the past. The critical flaw is revealed near the beginning to explain why Dick is drawn into the story problem and trips him up along the way. The flaw, his kryptonite, can stem from a traumatic episode from the past.

2. The secret weapon is revealed early on to explain why Dick, and only Dick, can solve the overall story problem. It can be a talent, strength of character, belief, or an actual object. You can show him using his secret weapon, or refusing to use it, in the past before he is called upon to use it in the present.

3. Whatever skills or failings Dick has, don't whip them out at the last minute by saying, "Oh, yeah, back in school I used to (fill in the blank)." That is backfilling and it is a no-no.

4. Backstory can raise questions rather than answer them. You can show Dick doing or saying something in the past, but not explain why. Mystery keeps the reader invested.

5. Backstory can be revealed in layers, like peeling an onion. Each reveal adds a slightly different twist to the reader's understanding of what happened. Write the backstory then select the bits you want to reveal and order them in the most effective sequence. Slip them in when needed.

6. If Dick did something in the past, he can repeat the action or find himself in the same dilemma in the present day, only there is an obstacle this time. His old method no longer works or he knows better now and this time it's uncomfortable.

7. Backstory can create conflict for Dick by presenting him with difficult choices. In the past, the decision might have been easy. The current situation, or new knowledge, makes the same choice more difficult.

8. Backstory can reveal change. If Dick is afraid of spiders because he was bitten by one as a child, he may have to take on the giant spiders that invaded Earth at the climax. If Dick was a coward in the past, he can be brave in the present. If Dick denied his feelings in the past, he can embrace them in the present.

Stay tuned for our wrap-up on how to use backstory effectively.

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 for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Write What You Love...Or Love What You Write

Image by Helfin Owen via Flickr
We hear it all the time, and I mean ALL the time: write what you love. Just about every writing advice guide out there tells us to learn the craft, pay attention to the industry, but in the end, write what we love. Because if you try to chase trends or if you write solely for the Benjamins, your heart will not show through in your work and it will fall flat.

And I believe this. Really, I do. But I also write historical western romance. Have you ever tried to pitch historical western romance to a traditional publisher? Let me just tell you, it’s not pretty. The thing I hear over and over in the romance world—seriously, like a broken record—is that the hot genres in romance right now are contemporary and erotica (and that vampires are dead, historicals are on their way out, and westerns were DOA years ago). To a certain extent, sales reflect this, although not nearly to the extent that the industry would have us believe.

The problem remains, what I love isn’t hot. And chances are that if you’ve been in any part of this industry for the last decade or more, what you write has been not hot at some point too. The thing is, I would very much like to be able to pay my bills without having to succumb to the beige cube hive of Corporate America. So how can I follow the advice to write what I love when what I love isn’t getting any love?

Raise your hand if you’ve been there. Uh-huh. I thought so.

Recently, I’ve come to think of this whole write what you love thing in a different light. As I see it, there are degrees of love. Historical romance will always be my first and dearest love. Right there, that’s my baby. But I have a very warm spot in my heart for science fiction, and I’ve also been known to ruminate on a few contemporary ideas (although my actual efforts to write them have fallen as flat as a peanut under an elephant’s foot). Those genres are like my nieces and nephews. I’d jump under a bus for them, but I’m okay with sending them home at the end of the day.

I’m fairly certain that most writers are able to multitask to some extent. Imaginations as big as ours tend to stretch through several genres. This may be our greatest asset. And believe it or not, the world may actually be ready for us to write outside of our first love comfort zone. I’m continually surprised at how many of my indie author friends write multiple genres under multiple pen names. In fact, I suspect indie publishing may be the perfect set-up for authors to write all of the things that they love.

But I digress. The biggest change in my thinking on loving writing has to do not so much with sticking religiously to the genres that you love, but opening yourself to love the story that you’re working on as you write it. I may or may not be brave enough to try out some of my contemporary romance ideas on the world (while that’s still the hottest romance genre), but if I do, the key to that success will be in loving every word of the story I’m writing. It’s the same thing as the “write what you know” advice. I don’t technically know what it’s like to be a pioneer heading west on the Oregon Trail, but I know what it’s like to leave home and to try something new and dangerous. I do that every time I type the first words of a new book.

So if you’re bold enough, if you’re daring, and if you’re up to the challenge of tapping into today’s hottest genres in spite of the fact that they’re not what you usually write, I say go for it. Build a world that you love, even if it’s not in the time period you usually love. Find characters that you would spend an afternoon with (or not, if they’re the villain), even if they aren’t part of the crowd you would usually hang out with. If you’re up for experimentation, I believe you can still succeed in a genre that you aren’t in love with as long as you find the love for that particular story that needs to be told through you.

Merry Farmer is a history nerd, a hopeless romantic, and an award-winning author of thirteen novels. She is passionate about blogging and knitting, and lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. Connect with Merry at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Inspiration, Concentration, Dedication

PictureThis via morgueFile
As a writer, where do you get your ideas? Let’s talk about inspiration. What inspires you enough to make you concentrate on your story line and dedicate the time and energy required to write your book? We’re told stories are everywhere, but is this so? Does everyone really have a story to tell?

Yes and yes…sort of. Stories are definitely everywhere: homes, schools, the workplace, prisons, homeless shelters, nature, and the list goes on. People who have lived long enough to articulate their stories might open up and share their experiences; then again, they might not. In either case, a story unfolds—revelation or speculation.

Because I have no way of knowing what inspires you, I will tell you what inspires me. Then you can share what drives you to the keyboard or writing pad to birth your stories.

News articles and reports are great grist for my writing mill. Whether the headlines shout of wars, terrorist attacks, beheadings, shootings, natural disasters, kidnappings, young children left to die in overheated cars, abuse and killing of helpless animals, or some obscure human interest story that merits only a passing comment from the media, I find in each something about the human condition that begs for expression from my writer within.

lespowell via morgueFile

People-watching also makes my fingers itch to translate my observations and imaginings into a gripping tale. Whether or not those in my line of vision say a single word, their body language speaks volumes about who they are and what’s happening in their lives. From there it’s a short journey to my story line.

Others’ books have driven me to write. Whether it’s because the author’s story goes in a direction I don’t like or due to my presumptuous—and possibly unfounded—notion that I could write it better, I have on more than one occasion put down another writer’s novel and begun to pound out my own. I’ve also been inspired by a great book to see if I could create a story to match the quality of the one I’m reading.

earl53 via morgueFile

More inspirations include sunsets, full moon on a winter night, summer storms, a lake in the North Country, falling snow, stray dogs, troubled lovers, autumn colors, and another list takes shape. Laughing children and well-seasoned seniors challenge me to invite them onto my pages. Family problems touch the hearts of many, and I’m no exception. Nearly all my stories address some aspect of family dynamics.

So what inspires you? Does inspiration come first when you write, or do you begin with a setting and/or a cast of characters? How do you determine the most effective way to weave your inspiration into the fabric of your story?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at

Monday, August 25, 2014


Image by Tammy Strobel, via Flickr
At the end of every movie, in the endless list of credits, you’ll always see Continuity. It’s the job of the continuity people to make sure the hero’s shirt—or the shirt of an extra—doesn’t change colour in the middle of a scene.

Continuity is equally important in a novel, of course, unless you’re Douglas Adams and have just invented an Infinite Improbability Drive, or Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen.

Part of a copy-editor’s job is to spot inconsistencies and confusions. However, most authors want to present a manuscript containing as few of either as possible. At least, I don’t want to get a manuscript back with problems to be sorted out that involve rethinking and rewriting. It’s not always a simple matter like the colour of a shirt.

I’ve just finished writing a book, my 22nd Daisy Dalrymple mystery and my 57th (I think) novel. Before sending it to my editor, I always print out and do a final read-through—I find it much easier and more accurate to edit on paper than on the screen.

In the course of this “final” edit of Superfluous Women, I came upon one of my characters, Vera, wishing she’d never mentioned something she did not in fact mention. I found myself thoroughly confused by two gardeners and where they lived. And then there’s the Mystery of Two Chapter Twenty-sevens...

I’ve also been reading the proofs for the coming reissue (in trade paperback) of my very first mystery, Death at Wentwater Court.

One thing I discovered was that two recurring characters, DS Tring and DC Piper, had developed over the course of the series in a way I hadn’t allowed for in the first book, before I knew them well. Once you get the page proofs, the time for extensive changes is past, but Tom Tring made a comment that I just couldn’t let pass. Luckily I was able to change it in a way that wouldn’t mess up the pagination.

I’d made a mistake on page 3 that a reader happened to point out just at the right moment—I had Daisy travelling in a 2nd class compartment of the train. The book is set in 1923, and the railways dropped 2nd class in 1875. Come to think of it, I ought to see if I can get that corrected in the ebook.

Otherwise, the necessary changes were pretty much just typos, though I did think for a while that I had my detectives driving the wrong cars about the countryside. I had to do quite a bit of rereading to sort out that I’d got it right the first time.

Whew! They’re both out of my hands now.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Third Person Omniscient : The Joys of Multi-Vision

All Seeing Eye in the Monastery of the Holy Cross, Jerusalem
Photo by Ze'ev Barkan, via Flickr
I’ve always loved adventure fiction. As a child, I read and re-read novels like Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, the works of Raphael Sabatini, and C. S. Forrester’s Hornblower chronicles. Adventure novels like these feature (a) multiple point-of-view characters; (b) parallel events taking place in multiple locations; and (c) complex action set-pieces: hair-breadth escapes, elaborate ruses, natural disasters, and fight sequences—everything from a one-on-one street brawl to a full-scale clash between rival armies.

When I started writing (at the age of 10), I instinctively followed my favorite models, not only in terms of content and structure, but also in terms of writing technique. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I discovered I was using Third Person Omniscient narration.

The term “omniscient” comes to us from the Latin omnis (all) + scire (to know). In Third Person Omniscient narration, the “omniscient” agent is the author who has a God’s eye view of his/her sub-creation in all its aspects. From this pinnacle of knowledge, he/she selectively distributes the narrative amongst a range of different characters.

There are a number of advantages to using this technique. For one thing, it enables the author to expand the narrative framework to include a widely-diversified—sometimes far-flung—set of locations. This tactic lends scope to the story, giving the reader the sense that he/she has stepped into a larger world.

A second advantage has to do with stage-management. Shifting the angle of vision around enables the writer to juggle several parallel plot lines with relative ease. It also enables him/her to play around with competing thematics: what one character perceives as good may be anathema to another. (To cite a topical example: with the Scottish independence referendum pending, it’s a matter of perspective whether you regard Robert the Bruce as a national hero or a filthy traitor.)

A third advantage has to do with keeping a sinister and provocative distance between your principle villain and the rest of the cast. It enhances his/her mystique if readers only ever get to see him/her through the eye of his/her henchmen, lackeys, prisoners, and discarded lovers. There’s delicious scope to crank up the suspense by making information available to your reader which is not shared by your protagonists. Having watched the villain set a Cunning Trap, we’re powerless to warn the hero against blundering into it.

Best of all, using multiple point-of-view characters allows the writer to imitate aspects of cinematic technique. This is especially effective when you’re orchestrating complex action sequences. If your novel climaxes with a naval battle, using Third Person Omniscient enables the reader to follow the action from several angles at once. One minute, we’re surveying the field of combat through the eyes of the admiral in charge of the fleet. The next minute, we’re at one with a member of an individual gun crew awaiting the order to open fire on the enemy.

All of which explains why Third Person Omniscient remains my favorite narrative mode.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Narrowing the Gap

Last week, Amazon sent out a notice that now, KDP members (indie authors) would be able to make their books available for pre-order, something that had been denied them until now. Why is this significant?

In traditional publishing, rankings—making those best-seller lists—was based on sales during the first few days of a book’s release. However, publishers could take orders prior to that date, and all those sales showed up on the book’s release date, making it appear that all those books sold on that date (or week). You might still see notices from Big Name Authors with the Big Publishing Houses saying their book will debut at #X on the NYT list, even though it hasn’t been released.

Well, now, Amazon has joined Kobo and iBooks in allowing indie authors to get their books into that same kind of system. And, given that Amazon rankings seem to carry the most weight, being able to have pre-orders show up as sales on the day your book goes live can give it a boost. The better the ranking, the more likely the book will show up in searches.

For me, the timing couldn’t be better. I’ve got an almost-finished version of the new Blackthorne, Inc. book, Windswept Danger, and Amazon’s system, just like those of Kobo and iBooks, doesn’t require the book be in final form when you set it up for pre-order. Kobo will take a dummy file. Amazon requires that the book be "close" because they’re still going to run it through whatever quality control approval system they use. And, of course, you have to make sure that the final version is uploaded in enough time to get through the system to go live on the release date you choose.

One thing I have to consider is pricing. The typical price for my e-books is $3.99. Do I set that price and stick with it, or offer it at a bargain-basement price of 99 cents while it’s on pre-order? If my goal is higher rankings, then a bargain introductory price as incentive to buyers would be better. Given the royalty rates shift from 35% to 70% at the $2.99 price point, if it’s about higher royalties, then having the 'reduced' price set at $2.99 makes sense. I’m leaning toward rankings, which would mean pricing the book at 99 cents during the pre-order phase, then moving it to its ‘regular’ price of $3.99, like the other books in the series when it goes live.

How to attract readers? For big NYT Best-Selling Authors, it's easy. Tell your readers your new book is available for pre-order, and they'll grab it. But what about the rest of us? There are no free sample downloads until the book is live, so people are less likely to buy something sight unseen. For me, I'll have the first chapter on my website, just like I do for all my books.

Do you pre-order books? What criteria do you use when you choose?

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Finishing a Difficult Novel

Getting to the end of the first draft of your book is a major accomplishment for any writer. Getting to the end of the first draft of Backlash, the third book in my Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series was flat-out torture. I’d never struggled to finish a book before. As a typical pantser—one who writes by the seat of her pants—I write a chapter at a time, with only a glimpse in my brain to where I’m going with the story, possibly two or three chapters ahead at most. So why was this book giving me so much trouble?

Expectations. Both mine and my readers.

Over the past year, people wrote to ask me when the next Diana Racine novel was coming out. OMG, people were waiting for it. Those readers had obviously liked the first two well enough to look forward to the third. I published the last one, Goddess of the Moon, in October of 2012. That was almost two years ago. I published one other standalone in between.

Though the first book, Mind Games, wasn’t published until March of 2012, I wrote it way back in 2003 or 2004. My agent spent a couple of years trying to sell it to a publisher, with no success. Then I got distracted writing a few erotic romances under a pen name, published by two very good e-publishers. With no large or small press interested in Mind Games, I decided to self-publish it and the other suspense books I’d already written. At the time, I had no intention of writing a series until I had an idea for a second book, and Goddess of the Moon was born.

Both books received pretty good reviews. How could I possibly live up to them with a third book? I didn’t want to rely on the same formula—I hate that word when it applies to books—that I used in the first two books, namely, Diana in trouble to be rescued by New Orleans police lieutenant, Ernie Lucier, the love of her life. Was there enough excitement? Suspense? Even humor?

One of the main criticisms in longtime series is keeping the characters from becoming stale and repetitious, thereby relying on contrived storylines to make up for the lack of characterization. Since Mind Games was written as a stand-alone, I had to dig deep to advance my main characters in Goddess of the Moon. What was left to know about them? How could I keep them fresh in the third book without losing the traits I had worked so hard to cultivate? Does the relationship between the two protagonists evolve naturally?

You see where I’m going? I began to second-guess myself, fearing Backlash wasn’t up to the two that preceded it. I agonized, edited, rewrote, and in the process lost my objectivity.

I always knew the ending, but getting there took every bit of perseverance I could muster. I’m reading it aloud now, patching inconsistencies, and will send it to a beta reader for her opinion and to my editor for her superb editing skills. My brilliant critique partner has already given it her stamp of approval, surprised by a twist at the end. I’ve announced a September publication date because I think on the whole it’s as good as I can make it.

But what a trip.

Writing a series, though popular with readers, adds extra pressure for me as a writer. Maybe I put that pressure on myself, but I’ve read so many second and third books of a series that can’t hold a candle to the first one. Don’t ask how I feel about the tenth or fifteenth book in a series. I admire those authors who can pull off a long series without disappointing his or her readers.

Will I write a fourth? I doubt it unless I have a major brainstorm, and the story is written in my head from beginning to end. Of course if the producers of the Jason Bourne series want to try another movie franchise…

Polly Iyer is the author of six novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and two books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games and Goddess of the Moon. 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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