Friday, March 27, 2015

The 3 Cs of Successful Authors

There are thousands of people the world over eager to write stories, some because they want a creative form of expression or to communicate a message, others because they think it is a lottery ticket to fame and fortune.

There are three main traits I believe a writer must possess to have a glimmer of a chance of winning that elusive ticket.

1. Creativity

You must possess an original mind to come up with new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no storyteller has ever gone before. A good writer has a unique way of expressing himself with words and a facility for language. You can lack this trait and still write a pedestrian story, rarely will it be a memorable one.

2. Curiosity

I’ve met people who seem to completely lack curiosity about other people and the world around them. Their world must be very … beige.

Sadly, I’ve read a few manuscripts by these people. It wasn't  pleasant.

Being a writer is about asking questions, getting underneath the skin of other people, and examining what makes them tick. It is about posing and answering provocative questions.

It is about looking at the world (and fictional worlds) with a critical eye, taking in the colors and textures, the absurdities and the pathos and being able to illustrate them with your word brush.

You can write a book without it, but it will read like an instruction manual.

3. Commitment

Writing, revising, editing, proofreading, publishing or self-publishing, and promoting are excruciating and tedious. So many people start a book then stall or quit when they realize how much of their time and soul they must invest.

Being an author requires you to do things that may not be in your nature to do, such as self-promotion and donning a public persona. You have to become a business person and build “a brand.” You have to glad-hand and network. It would be nice if it was just about the work and if that work translated into instant money and fame. It would be lovely if an agent just happend to discover you sitting on a bench in Central park, drawn to your inherent wit without having read a word of your masterpiece. Call me when that happens. I will alert the media!

A writer can spend years on a story that ultimately ends up in the trash bin. It takes a lot of courage and dedication to finish a project when there is no guarantee it will sell or sell well.

You have to believe the time was worth it and find the exercise enriching regardless of the outcome. You need to believe that it was time well spent: time you could have been with your friends and family, participating in hobbies, traveling the world, or binge-watching favorite television shows.

It is my belief that only when these three traits come together that a dabbler becomes a serious contender.

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.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

It's About Conflict

From the New Yorker
I saw this cartoon from the New Yorker and it reminded me of an underlying theme in so many of the panels I attended at the recent Left Coast Crime conference. LCC is more reader-oriented rather than craft-oriented, but even in the panels targeting readers, there were writing tips hidden amongst the panelists’ responses. One repeating theme was conflict. Without conflict, there’s no story, so creating conflict is obviously any author’s challenge.

For example, the first panel I attended was called Couples Solving Crimes, and the second was Guns and Roses: Romantic Elements in Crime Fiction. In the first panel, the couples involved weren’t necessarily working as partners, which one might have expected in a mystery crime panel. Instead, they were often partners off the job, or had jobs that brought them together. But each panelist did mention that having dual protagonists, or a protagonist and a sidekick, was a way to increase the conflicts in the books. You can have conflicts between partners, conflicts of personalities, and conflicts about their jobs.

The second panel was made up of authors whose characters in the books were in romantic relationships, but again, each panelist stressed that having a relationship could add conflict to the stories.

In a third panel, Do the Twist: Keep the Audience Guessing, the topic of conflict again was a major focus. Readers like plot twists. The best endings are completely unexpected but inevitable. A “Why didn’t I see that?” is what an author loves to hear. Twists are obstacles, and obstacles are conflict.

I remember one of my first critique group leaders who, when I’d been writing and submitting chapters of my first book, Finding Sarah, said, “Oh, don’t let anything bad happen to Sarah. I like her.” Needless to say, I left that group in a hurry.

Tension and conflict keep the reader turning pages, and that’s what it’s all about. Character A wants X. What happens if he can’t get it? What happens if he can? There are three routes you can take. One, he gets what he wants, which pretty much ends the conflict. Two, he can’t get what he wants, which will send him in another direction. But the best source of conflict is for the answer to be, "yes, but."  Give the character a choice, and have one be, “It sucks,” and the other, “It’s suckier.” He wants a raise to pay for his mother’s medical expenses. Okay, give it to him. But in order to get the raise, he has to work on weekends, which are the only days he can see his children. What does he choose?

What kinds of conflicts will keep you turning pages? What books have you read (or television shows have you watched) that are more like the cartoon in this post?

And, since I have a new release, there's a giveaway over at my blog good from today until April 1st (no joke), along with a chance for you to do something for a good cause. Hope you'll check it out.

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, March 25, 2015

Can We All Just Behave?

Last month here at The Blood-Red Pencil I wrote about moral and ethical lines that we writers need to consider before we cross them just to make a buck. We had a great discussion about what we are comfortable writing, as well as our responsibility to consider what we're contributing to society with our work.

One of our regular BRP contributors, Diana Hurwitz, had this to say on the topic:
Stories have the power to shape the collective consciousness. You can write with brutal honesty about what has happened and what could happen without suggesting that it should happen. Your work has a slant - perhaps a subliminal one. As a writer, you should at least be aware of the message you send and make sure it is the one you intended.
How we use our words is indeed important, and it is also important to consider how we act as professional writers. Addressing that need to always put a professional foot forward, was an interesting article on Writer Unboxed, written by Katharine Grubb. She asked some ethical questions that focus  on how writers present themselves and handle business dealings, such as:
  • Are we honest in all our financial business dealings?
  • Do we refrain from slamming another author's work?
  • Do we publicly bemoan every negative review?
  • Do we love our readers?
On that last point, Katharine said:
When we slip into anything less than love for our reader we turn the beautiful into the ugly.
I liked that reminder that we need to have that kind of respect for the people who read our books.

In the blog piece, Katharine linked to the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) - a professional association for authors who self-publish, and the organization fosters ethics and excellence in self-publishing. One of their campaigns is encouraging ethical behaviors, and authors can  make a pledge to keep those high standards. There's even a neat badge you can put on your website.

To join the campaign, a writer agrees to the following code of behavior:
When I market my books, I put my readers first. This means that I don’t engage in any practices that have the effect of misleading the readers/buyers of my books. I behave professionally online and offline when it comes to the following practices in my writing life:
The campaign has a list of eight ways to adhere to this code covering courtesy, respect, and honesty.

I'll have to admit that I found it a bit disheartening that writers need to be reminded of these things, but then I remembered that there have always been some writers who just don't seem to get it when it comes to professionalism. Most notable are the authors who have used interviews and social media to rant about a negative review or make themselves appear more important than they really are. On the ListVerse website is a list of ten writers who took themselves too seriously. Among them are Nicholas Sparks, Anne Rice, and Jacqueline Howett.

Earlier on there was Gore Vidal, who publicly shared his hatred of so many people including Joyce Carol Oates, journalists in general, Henry Miller and Walt Whitman. He was notoriously outspoken in interviews and once told William F. Buckley, junior to shut up. L. Ron Hubbard was noted for fabricating his past, and Norman Mailer was no saint. He stabbed his wife, then allegedly told a friend, "Let the bitch die."

Imagine how those bad boys could have burned up the Twitter feed.

In this age of instant everything, it is too easy to dash off some Tweet or comment on Facebook that may come back to bite us in the butt. What do you do to resist that impulse? Have you ever not resisted the impulse? What is your response to a negative comment or review of your work?
Posted by Maryann Miller - novelist, screenwriter, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent mystery, Doubletake, was chosen as the Best Mystery for 2015 by the Texas Association of Authors. She also writes the critically acclaimed Seasons Mystery Series. All of her books are available as e-books and as paperbacks, and a complete listing can be found on the books page of her website. For information about her editing services, visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Using the Calendar for Inspiration

Dave from MorgueFile
With the Ides of March nine days past and spring having arrived on the twentieth, we find a wealth of grist for our writing mills. Did you know the assassination of Julius Caesar isn’t the only marker that establishes March 15 as a date in infamy? “Beware the Ides of March,” according to the Smithsonian, extends well beyond Caesar’s murder to our present day. Their list of same-date tragedies includes some surprising entries.

French raided southern England in 1360.

A Samoan cyclone in 1889 smashed three U.S. and three German warships in the harbor at Apia. Over 200 soldiers died.

In 1917 Russia’s Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne, making way for Bolshevik rule and setting the stage for the execution of his family.

In 1939 the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia, effectively eliminating it as a country.

A disastrous blizzard in 1941 killed 60 people in North Dakota and Minnesota and another six in Canada.

In 1952 a deluge pounded the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean and set a world record of 73.62 inches of rain in 24 hours.

In 1988, a NASA report indicated the Northern Hemisphere’s ozone layer was disappearing at three times the expected rate.

The World Health Organization in 2003 issued a global health alert over the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak that struck more than 8000 people and killed 774.

These catastrophes may seem more than enough to suggest skipping March 15 altogether, but they also till fertile soil for the creation of countless stories. From historical fiction (or fact) to modern thrillers, powerful and poignant characters could come to life amidst these tragedies.

Badeenjuh from MorgueFile
So we move into spring. This season of renewal stands out as the one most often anticipated with nostalgic longing and welcomed with hopeful hearts. While its official date is March 20, it can seem to come later for some of us above the equator. Have you heard of springtime in the Rockies? Beautiful as it can be, it often brings the heaviest snows of the year.

Do you feel the beginnings of a story here? What would prevent spring’s fulfilling its promise of hope and renewal? Could our protagonist from the sunny South get lost in one of those snows? Might the season mark the death or departure of a loved one? What if a farmer on land homesteaded by his family a century ago faces foreclosure instead of planting season because of the ongoing drought?

Do you use dates, observances, or other familiar points of reference to ground your stories and draw your readers in? Can you extend these to your marketing plan and bring in a new audience?  

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, March 23, 2015

The Maguffin Plot Device

So, what is a Maguffin, you might ask, as I did when I first heard the word. Is it some kind of puffin  or penguin-like animal? Or maybe a “Big Mac” sized muffin?

The term appears to have originated in 20th-century filmmaking, and was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s who described a Maguffin as that object of desire everyone in the story wants, but whose only purpose is to bring the protagonists and antagonists together.

A Maguffin (often spelled "MacGuffin" or "McGuffin") is a plot device, something in the plot that someone (or everyone) is after, making it a focal point of the story. It may be a secret that motivates the villains. A common Maguffin story setup can be summarized as "Quick! We must find X before they do!"

The most common type of Maguffin is an object, place or person. However, a Maguffin can sometimes take a more abstract form, such as money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or even something that is entirely unexplained, as long as it strongly motivates key characters within the structure of the plot. The Maguffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers.

The Maltese Falcon is such a device, as is the stone in Romancing the Stone, The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the One Ring in Tolkien's trilogy.

Here are some examples of others:
  • The crystal egg in Risky Business. It has little or nothing to do with the story, but it is always prominent in Tom Cruise's character's mind because any damage to the egg will tip off his parents as to his antics and adventures while they are out of town, so he gets into a lot of other trouble trying to keep the egg safe and in his possession. 
  •  The "Unknown" grave filled with gold in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  Most Maguffins are moveable objects (ala the Maltese Falcon), but there are plenty of breathing and unmovable Maguffins as well (gold mines, people and the like). 
  •  R2-D2 in Star Wars is the main driving force of the movie, the object of everyone’s search.
  • The meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane
The term has also lent itself to a number of "in" jokes. In Mel Brooks's High Anxiety, which parodies many Hitchcock films, a minor plot point is advanced by a mysterious phone call from a "Mr. MacGuffin". In one episode of Due South, the MacGuffin is a matchbook that makes its way around the episode, going from character to character. The hotel maid in this episode is named Mrs. McGuffin, and earlier in the episode, a mall security guard's name is Niffug, C.M. (McGuffin, spelled backwards). Also, the basement janitor in the hotel in part 1 is named Mac Guff.

What is the Maguffin in your story?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, have just been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Grappling with the Facts

Photo by Reck via Flickr
Even experienced authors struggle with exposition from time to time. To begin with, there are issues having to do with ratio and proportion.

Provide too little expository information, and your story will lack texture. Provide too much (or provide the wrong kind), and you risk weighing down the narrative with excess baggage.1 Writers get migraines trying to decide which facts are vital to story development, and which facts can be left on the cutting room floor.

Next there’s the issue of expository technique. The most straightforward tactic is reportage. With this method, the writer uses authorial overvoice to provide the reader with compact parcels, as needed to move the narrative along A typical example of reportage-in-action would read something like this:
Meg and Walter Clancy had three children. Laurel and Lucy were normal healthy kids, but Jeb, the youngest, was diabetic. He had to have a special diet and needed two insulin injections a day just to stay alive. It annoyed Walter that Jeb was too small and weak to play football. It also annoyed him that Meg was always worrying about the boy. He didn’t think Jeb would ever be good for anything.
This paragraph gives us plenty of story-relevant information. Unfortunately, it’s also visible from space as an “info-dump”. Ideally, you don’t want your readers to notice what you’re up to. So let’s explore some alternative approaches.

One alternative option is to use targeted scripting. In the version given below, the writer employs dialogue as a strategic device for layering in information.
“Walter, where’s Jeb?” called Meg.

Eyes on the TV, her husband grunted, “Most likely plastering around on his computer.”

“Will you call him down? Dinner’s almost ready, and he needs his insulin before I serve up.”

“What, right now? The Cowboys are on the goal line.”

Their older daughter Laurel called through from the study, “It’s ok, Mom. I’ll do it.”

Ten minutes later, the Clancy family was gathered round the table. Walter stared at his plate. “What the hell is this?”

Their younger daughter Lucy piped up. “Butternut squash risotto.”

“It’s one of Jeb’s favorites,” Meg explained.

“Well, it’s not one of mine,” growled Walter. “I’m off to get myself a Big Mac and a chocolate milkshake. Anybody else want to come? No? Fine, I’ll see you later.”
Another option is to use set design. Here, the writer surrounds a point-of-view character with scenery and props that will nudge that character’s thoughts in the right direction to “drip-feed” expository information:
Meg Clancy was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when she heard her husband’s old Plymouth pull into the driveway. A moment later, the door from the carport flew open, and the twins bounced in, still in their cheerleading outfits. “How was the game?” asked Meg.

“We lost,” began Lucy.

“But Jay and Fraser played great,” finished Laurel cheerfully.

Walt Clancy appeared behind them. “The team needs a new coach,” he grumbled.

Jeb trailed in after his dad. He looked pale and droopy. Meg stiffened involuntarily. “Are you feeling low?” she asked.

“I’m ok.”

“Do a blood test. The kit’s beside the fruit bowl.”

Jeb wordlessly retrieved the black leather case that held the necessary apparatus Meg watched out of the corner of her eye as he pricked the tip of one finger, squeezed a bead of blood onto a testing strip, and inserted it into the small glucose monitor. “Six point three,” he reported.

That wasn’t too bad. No need to worry – for the time being, anyway... Meg heaved an inward sigh, remembering how easy life used to be before the diabetes kicked in - back when Jeb could eat ice cream and chocolate bars just like anybody else, and didn’t have to take insulin shots twice a day.

Being a diabetic was a rotten way to live. But the only alternative was being dead.
Of the three methods of exposition illustrated above, reportage is certainly the most efficient. The two alternative methods, however, yield much more engaging results.


1If you’ve done a lot of research, you may be tempted to demonstrate the fact by packing the text with incidental information. If this happens, remind yourself that exposition should serve the story, not the other way around.

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Make Me Laugh

Photo from the archive of American Television
According to the calendar I was given, today is "Let's Laugh Day." I guess that means I'm supposed to either write something funny or talk about writing funny. The former would be a post that sucks more than a vacuum cleaner. I'm not sure I can do the latter a whole lot of justice, either, but I'm game.

While I do have a sense of humor, I don't/can't write comedy. Sure, my characters joke around a bit, and I hope my readers get a smile or two, but to bill my books as humorous fiction would end up in more 1 star reviews than [insert metaphor here.]

Writing humor is one of the places where using metaphors, clichés, and the like becomes an asset rather than a liability. Comparisons can work to your advantage. I saw this quote the other day: "Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter. There are 140 characters and terrible things are always happening." Even though I've never watched Game of Thrones (and, as an aside, at this point I wish I did get HBO, because my daughter was an extra in one of the episodes this season), I 'get' the humor.

Insider jokes can work to a degree. Movie examples: The scene in the Indiana Jones movie where Indy reaches for his whip, but it’s not there, so he just shoots the guy. If you hadn’t seen the setup in the other movie, it wouldn’t have been funny. Or in Mr. Baseball, where Tom Selleck is confronted with a platter of sushi and decides that the little mound of green stuff is the safest way to begin. Sushi wasn’t so popular when that movie first came out, and you could tell who in the audience was ‘in’ on the setup by the pre-reaction gasps.

But writing humor is hard. When we watch a comedian, we have the voice inflection, body language, facial expressions, and timing to help sell the schtick. When the robber says to Jack Benny, "Your money or your life" and he tilts his head, lifts his hands, and waits for several long seconds before saying, "I'm thinking," the humor is front and center. Writing denies us that luxury.

Janet Evanovich, well-known for her humorous Stephanie Plum series, said, “I refuse to be politically correct.” … "We can use humor to say things that may be too painful to say any other way.” And, speaking of Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum series: I handed my husband one of her books and said, "You might like this." Which led to us having to invoke the "No reading Janet Evanovich in bed" rule, because bursting out laughing kept waking the other of us.

And, although my husband and I both found Evanovich funny, our basic ideas of humor are quite different. He orders slapstick comedies from Netflix, watches reruns of the Three Stooges, and doesn't see anything funny in a romantic comedy. I'll try to explain why I've laughed so hard I'm crying at something I've watched on television, and he looks at me in total confusion. And, frankly, I doubt he'd have though it was funny even if he'd seen it himself.

Comedy uses surprise. Who didn't laugh when Grandma Mazur shot the chicken on the dining room table? Or when the character in the beauty salon says, "I have a gun," and six old ladies under hair driers pull weapons from their purses?

But no matter what, whether your humor works or it doesn't, the story has to work.

What books have you read that you've found funny? Which ones were billed as funny, but you didn't see the humor?

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.


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