Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Smart Talk

“Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.” John Wayne

I love writing dialogue. It’s my way of delivering those zingers I can’t come up with quick enough in real life or don’t dare utter even if I do. You know the lines I mean. The great lines that come to you when you’re in deep point of view, the ones that have your fist pumping in the air because you’ve nailed it. You’ve written it exactly the way the character would have thought it.

“I’m not your white picket fence type of guy and I have no plans to stay. But I’m walking a fine line here, Lily. Between doing what I know is right and taking what I want. So give the femme fatale act a rest.”

The above is one of my fist pumping lines. It pretty much sums up my hero, Chase Porter, from my work-in-progress, Common Ground. Torn between honor and instinct.

One of the purposes of dialogue is to move the story forward. It can also give the reader a hint about the character’s attitudes, their beliefs and values, their slant on the situation. Each character in a conversation will have a purpose for being there and will have something specific they want to accomplish within the conversation.

Aside from your ‘voice’ as a writer, each character needs to have their own distinct ‘voice’, their own style of speech, with their own rhythm. My hero in Common Ground is a potty mouth. The heroine, on the other hand, never swears, not even under extreme circumstances. In my other work-in-progress, Complicated, the hero is young, cocky, and a charmer. Too bad for him the heroine’s heard it all before, more than once. And she’s not shy about letting him know it. She could ice over Niagara Falls with her putdowns.

Great dialogue contains great tension.

“You tell ‘em I’m coming and Hell’s coming with me, you hear.” Wyatt Earp played by Kurt Russell in the movie Tombstone.

And with that line we all know what’s coming is gonna be bad, by anyone’s standards.

In most instances, fictional dialogue does not require mundane, polite, everyday discussions about the weather or banal dinner conversation involving the request of the saltshaker. Unless the requesting of the saltshaker means something else entirely. Lots of times it’s all about what’s happening below the surface. It’s about how it’s said versus what is being said.

“I’m here, and you guys need to get busy tracking Jason and the Brotherhood. I’ll make sure she gets home safe.”

But Chase isn’t saying it to be friendly or helpful. What he feels and what he means is: “You’re taking Lily home over my dead or dying body.” And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say a lot of the dialogue revolves around what’s not being said. Great dialogue allows the reader to read between the lines.

Dialogue is also an excellent way to drop bits of backstory.

“Don’t take my word for it. Ask around. Ask the old timers. I bet they remember my dad, and what a mean drunk he could be.”

I don’t need to go into graphic detail about Chase’s past but I do need the reader to be aware of it, so I drop a few hints throughout and let the reader draw their own conclusion.

For inspiration on creating great lines, I keep a notebook and pen handy when I’m watching TV. I try and remember to jot down my favorite lines. I also write them down on post it notes and stick them to my character board, or tuck them into the relevant work-in-progress binder. Anytime I think of something any character might say I write it down. My NaNoWriMo project reads like a bunch of talking heads.

Here are a few examples from my ‘television’ notebook:

From The Closer: “Let me rephrase that rhetorical question.” I love Kyra Sedgwick’s character, Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson, and I thought this line was hysterical.

From NCIS LA: “Sam sees the glass as half full; I see it as half empty; Kenzie drinks straight out of the bottle; Nate needs to know why it needs to be glass; and Eric breaks the glass when he puts his feet up on the table.” I loved this line and I loved how it summed up everyone on the team.

And just because I love the Duke.

“Sorry don’t get it done, Dude. That’s the second time you hit me. Don’t ever do it again.” John T. Chance played by John Wayne in Rio Bravo.

Do you love writing dialogue? Do you have a favorite movie line? Some dialogue from a work-in-progress you want to share? An author you believe writes riveting dialogue?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

World-Building 101

We've tackled magic systems. Now on to world-building 101: every story has a world.

World-building goes beyond the setting of a story, what a place looks like and where it's located. It's all the decisions an author makes that build upon and create the mood of the story. It's what we show and what we omit, and how believably our characters exist in their worlds.

In fantasy, this means developing geography, borders, cultures, customs, trade, clothing, architecture, gender roles. The list goes on. Not every author needs to do everything, though. It depends on the focus of the story. If your whole cast is poor, they may not notice clothing at all. Or they may have formed an intricate system of distinction based on beads, trinkets, broken glass, and crude sewing. Both have an impact on your story. Neither is wrong. It all depends what you choose.

This week I'll touch on the largest scale of world-building -- the actual world your characters exist in.

In this case, world doesn't mean the whole darn earth if your heroine lives in a rural prairie town, but the places she goes in your story create the world within the book. We want to feel the world of the story is real, believe what happens within it, and sense that it extends beyond what's on the page in front of us.

Tone
Even if you've set your story in a place everyone knows or could go see, you have to build it for us, the unique mood that makes it feel alive on the page. They're just words on the page after all, no matter how real it is, we can't see it.

Take New York as an example. Off the top of your head, how many movies can you list set in New York? And how many of those movies feel like the same place? If your list is anything like mine, very few. Similar landmarks, similar climate, but the mood changes completely. Even in similar movies (say, romantic comedies set in New York), no two really show the same place. One movie may make the city feel melancholy, another inspiring, another dangerous, another eclectic (la vie boheme!). They're all accurate, in that they're a part of the place, but none are alike. And none are the whole.

No matter how small a setting, you can't show all of a place. Part of world-building comes in building the mood of the world to reinforce the tone of the story. There may be dark, ugly, dangerous parts of your setting, but if it's a romantic comedy, those probably aren't the parts you'll choose to show. We can't possibly show it all, so we need to be selective and think about what we want to convey. Choice of details, language, execution, can alter how the same scene comes across. A back alley may be filthy, soaked, and piled with trash, or it may be cool, secluded, and brimming with history. It's all in how you swing it, what world you want to build. What matters is consistency. A unified tone holds your story together like a unified conflict. If one minute it's gritty and the next it's irreverent, it's as problematic as one minute struggling for independence and the next yearning to belong.

Details
Does it rain often? Magpies or crows? Do they put ketchup on the tables at the fish and chips place, or vinegar? It's the tiny details that make a place ring true. You don't necessarily need to know them for fact, but call the shots and build up your setting's believability. Restaurants often offer a rice option out here, but I never found that growing up in Victoria, nor so many variations on potatoes. Tiny details, but they add depth. It doesn't need to be accurate (unless people will cry foul) especially in fictional towns or periods, but it will stand out as similar or different from the reader's own experiences, and draw them in for it.

Likewise, which really shouldn't need saying, if you're working in any climate, make sure you get your weather and plant life right. Again, giving the details makes the setting feel real (are there roses in your heroine's garden, or rhododendrons?) but more so, getting those details wrong is a huge no-no. Build your world, but build it smart. It only takes a moment to check whether something should or shouldn't be there.

A note
In the next few weeks, I'll touch on other key elements of world-building, including culture, customs, and creating utterly fictional worlds for you adventurous types. I'll also talk about one of the strongest abilities born of world-building -- elimination of the dreaded infodump. In the mean time, think about this comment Janet left on The Rules of Magic: A world, whether fantastical or historical, needs to be authentic and sincere. Readers aren't going to tag along if the world changes every other chapter - or a historical element is fudged in order for a plot thread to work.

Every world needs to ring true and fulfill its contribution to the story. Fantastic, historic, and yes, modern settings all need to maintain their authenticity and sincerity. That's where the world-building comes in, to build tone, mood, facts, and details that combine into a whole, thriving setting that feels alive even when the reader closes the book -- all the more reason to keep that book open. Who knows what might happen while they're gone!

What settings or worlds have you found most captivating to read or write about? Why? Do you bring that feeling into your own writing?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Great Endings

Last time I talked about Great Beginnings for our books. I’ve also blogged about Middles, Part 1 and Part 2.

Now we’ve come to The End.

No two words are sweeter for the writer to type. The End means you’ve finished your novel. But is the ending as satisfying as it can be?

I’ve recently read some books whose endings let me down. The opening held much promise, the middle was exciting, but the end left me unsatisfied. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem so I thought I’d do a little investigation.

At the beginning, a story makes a promise. In a romance that promise is to show two people overcoming obstacles to get to their happily ever after. The middle develops those characters and the conflicts they face, showing them coming closer and closer to collision. The ending must use those same characters and conflicts/problems/tensions to show us this collision at the climax.

In “Beginnings, Middles & Ends” from Writers’ Digest Books, Nancy Kress warns that the writer deviates from this pattern at her peril: “If the ending tries to use different characters (such as the cavalry riding over the hill at the last minute), the story will fail. If the ending tries to switch to some other last-minute conflict, the story will fail. If the ending tries to evade the promised collision (by, for instance, a peaceful compromise in which no one loses anything), your story will fail. You cannot, in other words, promise apples and deliver oranges.”

In other words the ending must be true to the beginning and the middle of your book. How you accomplish this is by controlling the two parts of the ending: the climax and the denouement.

The climax. The climax is whatever big event the forces in your story have been building toward. If a character is going to change, some experience at the climax will show that change. If a problem needs to be solved, this is where the protagonist solves it. This is where the villain makes his last stand, the lovers are united, family troubles blow up, the quest reaches its goal.
To succeed a climax must do four things:

The climax must satisfy the view of life implied in your story. In a romance the lovers overcome the conflicts standing between them. In a mystery justice is served. Whatever is promised by your genre and your book must be satisfied here.

A climax must deliver emotion. A climax without emotion will feel flat to readers, a letdown. The reader must feel whatever the characters are feeling, and if the characters aren’t feeling anything, this is not the climax.

The climax must deliver an appropriate level of emotion. The level of drama in the story must match the level of drama in the climax. For instance, if I’m writing a romantic comedy, I’m not going to going to end with a climax in which there is a big emotional upset, such as a death or a betrayal. However, if I’m writing a romantic suspense containing war, murder and all manner of angst, a big emotional, dramatic climax is called for.

The climax must be logical to your plot and your story. The climatic scene must grow naturally out the actions that preceded it, which in turn must have grown naturally out of the characters’ personalities. The climax cannot depend on some outside force like a random accident, instant enlightenment, or the cavalry riding over the hill. Don’t rely on a coincidence. The climax must be plausible for the story and must feel inevitable.

The climax must be in proportion to the length of your story. In novels, climaxes are usually a chapter, but sometimes several chapters. In any event, the climax should not be rushed. If you have many pages setting up a tense situation, the resolution should not speed by in a couple of paragraphs. It won’t feel important enough.

The Denouement. Everything after the climax is the denouement, whose function is to wrap up the story. It shows us 2 things: the consequences of the plot and the fate of any characters not accounted for in the climax. A successful denouement has three characteristics: closure, brevity and dramatization.

Closure means you give your readers enough information about the fate of your characters for them to feel that the book is really over. I often end my novels showing my characters together and happy, and looking forward to the future. In my WIP “Welcome to Paradise” the denouement shows Jack and Bridget celebrating Jack’s daughter’s birthday and their wedding with all their friends in Paradise. I wanted to show them committed and happy and part of the community. Don’t leave readers hanging, wondering what happened to characters they’ve come to care for.

Brevity is important to a denouement because if goes on too long, it will leach all emotion from the climax. A too-long denouement will also feel anticlimactic.

Dramatization ensures that your denouement feels like part of the story, not a chunk of exposition tacked on the end. For example, in the above denouement from “Welcome to Paradise” I show the birthday party/wedding as it happens. If I had told this bit of news in the internal monologue in Bridget’s head, I think it would be less satisfying for the reader and would feel pasted on.

There's no doubt that a sparkling opening is necessary to interest readers/agents/editors. A fast-paced middle where characters and conflicts are explored and developed keeps them reading. But a well-written ending that has the proper level of emotion and drama and length will satisfy readers and make them look for your next book. Next time I’ll look at some common problems of endings and how they can be fixed.

Have you been let down by the ending of a promising book? Do you spend as much time on your endings as you do on your beginnings?

Diane Burke's Winner

Love Inspired Suspense author Diane Burke has picked a winner from her Friday's post.

And the winner is...

DebH

Deb, check Diane's post for instructions on claiming your book.

Thank you  Honorary Prairie Chick Diane for sharing the day with us and donating a signed copy of Midnight Caller.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Welcome Sara Taney Humphreys

Musical Marketing Muse

Soundtracks for movies and television shows are standard. In fact, a really great movie or show is often instantly associated with kick ass music. Well thanks to my old college buddy and DJ John Campbell...I found the soundtrack for Book 2 in my shifter series.

Actually, I had been in a major writing rut. Completely blocked. Book 2, Amoveo Heart was not coming to me as easily as the first book did. At any rate, John wanted to interview me on his weekly radio show and had gotten some musicians who were willing to let me use their music as an intro for the interview. He sent me the links and the second song I listened to stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn't believe it. It was as though this song was written just for the heroine in Book 2. Amazing! The combination of the lyrics and her hauntingly beautiful voice were absolute perfection. I immediately contacted the artist and asked if I could use her song for Amoveo Heart's book trailer. Gratefully both she and her record label said yes!

Then I had an idea to take it a step further. Luckily, she is located not far from me and as a new musician is looking for new opportunities for exposure. Why not have her play at my book launch/signing? Gratefully she agreed. Amy played at a couple of my book signing events and it really brought a great bit of texture to the signings.

The song that sparked my creative juices and woke up my muse is called "Honey on the Skin". You can find Amy Petty and her spectacular music on her website http://www.amypetty.com/

John connected me with another awesome musical muse. The Strike Nineteens. TSN are a band of adorable guys from Scotland. Ladies...think William Wallace/Braveheart accent....yummy. Their music is gritty and intense. These darlings actually wrote me two songs! One of which will be on their new album "Screams for Denver" which will be released this Spring. I look forward to checking them out LIVE when they come to the USA later this year.

You can check out their music at http://www.myspace.com/thestrikenineteens

Cross marketing with music is fun and a little outside the box...just the way I like it.

Sara Taney Humphreys
http://sarataneyhumphreys.com/
Sara's novel, The Amoveo Legacy is available now. Watch for the second and third book in The Amoveo Series coming soon. Be sure to check out Sara's website for detailed information.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Welcome Diane Burke

Today I have the special pleasure of introducing Love Inspired Suspense debut author, Diane Burke. Diane's book is the first one I've ever held in print after seeing the actual manuscript! I didn't critique it, but I was privileged to read the first couple chapters of Diane's manuscript Whispers in the Dark before Diane won the Daphne and I'm absolutely thrilled with her success.

Diane, your debut book is a March release called Midnight Caller which won the 2008 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense in the Inspirational category with the working title of Whispers in the Dark. How many manuscripts had you completed before winning this prestigious award?

This is my first manuscript BUT it has been revised a million times over a six-year period of time and had multiple working titles.


Are you mostly interested in writing Suspense?

Yes, I love the suspense genre. I started out with Nancy Drew mysteries, got hooked and have never looked back.


What are your favorite TV shows? Why?

That’s a tough one. It would probably be easier to ask what I don’t like. (haha) I am a tv addict and don’t miss much. I love Desperate Housewives, Brothers and Sisters and Grey’s Anatomy because I like the play on the relationships between the people. I love all the true crime shows. And I rarely miss a movie---Hallmark movies leading the top of the list.


You’ve used the antagonist’s POV effectively in Midnight Caller. Do you foresee doing this in other books?

I loved writing from the villian’s viewpoint. One of the things I think many of us ask ourselves are what these people are thinking and why are they doing what they do.

So, yes, I will probably do it again. However, my next two manuscripts don’t have a villian’s pov.


We’ve been discussing characters here at Prairie Chicks. Tell us one unique quality for each of your main characters.

I think the one unique quality that drew me to Tony was his compassion. It’s pretty hard not to fall in love with someone so kind and giving.

I suppose Erin’s most admirable quality would be her love for her aunt, her son, and her friend Carol. They are the most important people in her life and she’d do anything for them.


While researching for this interview, I could only find information on you at the eHarlequin website. Are you working on a personal blog or website?

I’m not doing a website at this time. They’re expensive and time consuming and I don’t think enough people know me yet to justify the time and money. BUT that’s only a temporary situation and I hope to invest in a website in the not too distant future.

As for blogging, I have found that group blogging is the way I’d like to go. It gives you a wider audience and frees more of your time to devote to your writing. At the moment, I am actively looking for like-minded people to start a blog with.

However, I do have a FaceBook page and would welcome people to visit me there.


Have you considered branding and taglines? Any ideas you’d like to run past us?

I’m not good at branding but realize the importance of it. The only thing I can say is that I try to write about everyday people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances. My characters in Midnight Caller always believed that bad things happen to everybody---but evil is supposed to happen to somebody else. In my books, evil comes calling to the common, ordinary person. I try to write an edge-of-the-seat story without the gore, high on relationships, family, and firmly based in faith. Any suggestions your readers might have for a tag line would be greatly appreciated.


What’s your next project?

I just got the call that my second manuscript, Double Identity, has been purchased and will be published by Steeple Hill next year, March 2011.

Currently, I’m working on my third manuscript. The working title is The Bounty Hunter.


Anything you want to add?

Only that I’m grateful for the opportunity to visit with you and your readers and let them know a little bit about myself and my writing.

Diane's Question for You: Are there any subjects in romantic suspense that you feel have been overdone? Any subject that you might like to see explored more? And do you think a romantic suspense can be interesting, compelling read without excessive gore or explicit sex?


Diane would love to offer a signed copy of her debut book, Midnight Caller, to one person who comments before 6 p.m. Sunday night. The winner will be announced Monday and contacted for both the name they want the book signed to and their snail mail address so Diane can mail the book. If you want your name in the draw, please remember to leave your email address with (dot) and (at) so the web monkeys don't get you. :)

Midnight Caller:


Three deaths, one connection—the anonymous calls all three women reported in the weeks before they died. Detective Tony Marino wants to close this case before another woman disappears. Especially when he meets a fatherless little boy whose mother is being stalked. Single mom Erin O'Malley tells Tony about her anonymous caller's heavy breathing and unnerving silences. And the feeling of being watched—constantly. Now, after years of thinking he had nothing to offer a wife and child, Tony will do anything to protect the family that feels like his own. Because Erin is next on the killer's list.
Read an excerpt

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Diane lives in Florida, nestled between the excitement of the Daytona Speedway and the quiet, historical St. Augustine. When not writing, she enjoys spending her time with her family and friends, reading, sitting by the ocean and playing with her dogs, Thea and Cocoa. Diane is very excited about her debut novel and would love to hear from her readers. She can be reached at diane@dianeburkeauthor.com .

Diane is very excited about her debut novel and would love to hear from her readers. She can be reached at diane@dianeburkeauthor.com.

You can also find her at eHarlequin  and Facebook.

Thanks for being with us today, Diane.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Prairie Chicks Welcome Sara Taney Humphreys

Join us this Saturday when author Sara Taney Humphreys will be our guest blogger. Sara writes paranormal romance, shapeshifters to be exact. Her first book, The Amoveo Legacy, will soon be followed up by two others in The Amoveo Series. Here's a snippet of her from her bio page on her website, Novel Romance.

Since her adolescence, Sara was drawn to the fantasies of science fiction, paranormal universe and romance (these worlds collided with her crush on Captain Kirk). From there she remained completely enthralled with the process of self discovery—and the possibility of actually finding that one true partner in life.

Bound by reality, Sara lives in New York with her husband, who is very considerate of her double life, four amazing boys, two dopey dogs and an extremely loud bird. Life is always busy, but never dull.

Between now and Saturday, check out Sara's website for information on The Amoveo Series. You'll find excerpts, reviews, the book trailer, and Sara's full biography. Sara also writes a blog at amoveoromanceseries.blogspot.com. Don't forget to come back Saturday for Sara's guest post - should be fun.

How High is Your Sky?

The horse was enormous from my point of view, with my eyes at her knee level.I looked up - way up. She was golden tan with a shaggy cream- coloured mane but she was dusty. I giggled thinking about getting grandma's dust rag to make Queenie all shiny. My mother lifted me up so I could scramble onto Queenie's back. She felt all rough and hairy like a paintbrush, on my legs. They stuck out because Queenie really was very big and very broad and I was only four. I bumped up and down trying to make her go but she didn't want to go. She wanted to stay in the shade of the chesnut tree with the breeze lazily lifting bits of her mane and ruffling the overlong yellow lawn grass. The late afternoon sun poured beams of light through spaces among the chesnut leaves. Queenie's tail made swishing sounds as it swung back and forth batting at flies. Riding the biggest horse in the whole world was boring.

Not much of a story, but it follows Jack Bickham's advice about writing settings.

Generally speaking - which you should never do when describing the setting - your description should follow the pattern we all tend to follow when we look at any scene ourselves.

The first thing we all notice is the size of the setting. Is it the broad prairie meeting the endless sky, or a hall so narrow the only way to use it is to walk sideways?

The next part of the scene we notice is colour: the blue sky, the brown prairie, the white and red polk a dot dress, the yellow scarf slumped in the watery black mud. But the sky is not simply blue. It stretches through shades of blue and maybe mauve or white as well. The prairie is not all brown. There is always a plethora of shades of brown, yellow on brown, black or red skeletons of bushes, patches of green weeds, black-brown bull rushes on faded yellow stalks, black and silver still water in a slough. Where is the light coming from - a bright sun or sun through a dull cloudy sky, moonlight or the faint beam of a flashlight?

What does a horse smell like? Or a slough? Is the polka dot dress silky? Is the scarf sheer or heavy wool?

Taste is not often used when describing a scene, but boy tramping through a field is almost bound to pick a stalk of grass to chew on so what does that taste like? If he is pushed down and gets a mouth full of mud, how would you describe it?

My scene has indicated first size, then colour, texture, movement and sound. Having never eaten a horse, describing the taste was beyond me but little details are essential and they must be accurate. The tree is a chesnut tree and the lawn grass is yellow, suggesting late summer. Therefore, there would not be any blossoms on the tree.

Interpretation by the onlooker can be important. Is that crashing through the bush your dog or a bear?

Did I need both the words lawn and grass? Is 'whole' repetitive in writing about the world?

This scene did not call for much sound, but if it did, the sounds need to be specific: loud or soft hum of insects, the startling or soothing chirp of a cricket, the low clicking sound or the low hum of a grasshopper leaping to a different stalk of grass, loud music or sound barely able to be heard issuing from a radio in the house, the silence of grandparents dozing on the porch or the squeak of the porch swing. Music swept upward in a crescendo before the conducter cut it off abruptly with a downward sweep of his baton.

Setting is a character. It has appearance, voice, touch and colour which need to be slipped among the action words of the plot.

Sometimes it is quite correct to have an omniscient voice describe the setting. This can happen only at the beginning of a chapter or section though and it is used because the onlooker is unable to describe a vast or a hidden scene from their point of view. The squall sweeps over the vast area of the sea. There is a strange white glow on the horizon, seen through the fitful breaks in the sheets of rain. The sailor sees huge wave, driven by the screaming wind, about to crash onto the deck. Once the overall scene is described by the omniscient voice, all the rest of the scenes must be described from the point of view of the onlooker.

Imagine yourself standing on a bridge. Do you need an omniscient voice to describe the parts of the valley out of sight e.g. the valley slopes down to the sea or the river becomes a cataract just around the bend.Or is it unnecessary to see the vast view? What is important to see from your point of view? Does size or colour or lack of colour matter? Is there the fragrance of blossoms or the dank odour of a cold wet place? Is it hot or cold? Do you need to say it is hot or cold or can you do so by showing someone lifting up the collar of their coat and hugging the coat closer or taking off a jacket and slinging it over their shoulder?

Maybe one way of being sure you have given the reader enough description to put them in the picture - which is exactly where the reader wants to be - is to think of written scene as video. Is there a clear picture in the background or bits and pieces on a mostly blank screen?

Wildcard Friday: Diane Burke Debuts

Love Inspired Suspense author Diane Burke will be here for an interview on Friday and I am so excited! This will be the first time I've ever held a book in print after seeing the actual manuscript! I didn't critique it, but I had a chance to read the first couple chapters of Whispers in the Dark before Diane won the Daphne and I'm absolutely thrilled with her success.

Diane Burke’s debut novel, Midnight Caller, won several awards before publication, including first place in the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense under the working title Whispers in the Dark.

Midnight Caller:

Three deaths, one connection—the anonymous calls all three women reported in the weeks before they died. Detective Tony Marino wants to close this case before another woman disappears. Especially when he meets a fatherless little boy whose mother is being stalked. Single mom Erin O'Malley tells Tony about her anonymous caller's heavy breathing and unnerving silences. And the feeling of being watched—constantly. Now, after years of thinking he had nothing to offer a wife and child, Tony will do anything to protect the family that feels like his own. Because Erin is next on the killer's list.
Read an excerpt 

Diane lives in Florida, nestled between the excitement of the Daytona Speedway and the quiet, historical St. Augustine. When not writing, she enjoys spending her time with her family and friends, reading, sitting by the ocean and playing with her dogs, Thea and Cocoa.

Diane would love to offer a signed copy of her debut book, Midnight Caller, to one person who comments before 6 p.m. Sunday night. The winner will be announced Monday and contacted for both the name they want the book signed to and their snail mail address so Diane can mail the book. If you want your name in the draw, please remember to leave your email address with (dot) and (at) so the web monkeys don't get you. :)

Diane is very excited about her debut novel and would love to hear from her readers. She can be reached at diane@dianeburkeauthor.com.

You can also find her at eHarlequin and Facebook.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The "What If?” Game


How long have you been staring at the blank screen? How long have you been ‘editing’ your story but haven’t actually made any progress? Have you been avoiding your laptop in favour of new recipes, spring cleaning, and updating the photo album? Maybe you even tackled that closet at the end of the hall…you know, the one you try not to open because it is just too hard to get shut again. (No? Is it just me then…?)

Some people might call this writer’s block. I just say that I am stuck, because that’s exactly what I am. Like a toddler in his first mud puddle, I’m not moving anywhere. In fact, I think I might be sinking a little. The water is at the top of my boots and I’m going to have wet socks any minute.

I’m not sure what wet socks equate to in writing…maybe I’ve taken the metaphor too far. The point is--I’m stuck.

I’ve started writing new stories; I’ve returned to old ones. I’ve taken a break. I’ve picked up a new book, watched a few movies—Oscar winning ones, I set my expectations high. It doesn’t matter, I’m not moving anywhere. So what now? Obviously I keep writing. That’s what we do. If we aren’t writing…well, we aren’t writing and that is just frustrating.


Probably one of the best suggestions I’ve heard is what I call the “What If?” game. The premise is simple. At any point in the story, I ask: What if… and see where it takes me. Here, I’ll demonstrate.


Kara is the VP of a very profitable hotel chain. Her cousins would say that her life is work, but Kara takes great pride in the company her grandfather built from the ground up and doesn’t mind the long hours. She loves the company and is being groomed to take it over. The hotel is more than just her job. She grew up there so it is her home and the employees are her family.


WHAT IF she takes over the company tomorrow?


Kara would be ecstatic. Her dream has come true. Or has it?


WHAT IF she is reluctant to take over the company because it means her grandfather is too ill to do the work himself?


Kara has a strong personality so she will overcome this obstacle in order to achieve her goal. She will make sure the company thrives because her grandfather is ill.


“What if” statements are one of the easiest ways to draw conflict into your story. If Kara is happy and everything turns out the way she planned, it becomes a very predictable and very short story. The goal is to push our characters to the limit so let’s up the stakes in this scenario. This is one time it pays off to be negative and think worst case.


WHAT IF the company and job she loves are threatened?


Kara will fight for the company. If not for herself and her goal of one day taking it over, then she’d do it for her grandfather who is ailing and the employees who are like family to her.


WHAT IF the threat to the company is the HERO?


Once Kara knows who the threat is, she will face him head on. May the best man or woman win.


WHAT IF Kara doesn’t know who is trying to take over her company?


She’s going to do whatever it takes to talk to this person. I mean, who do they think they are?


WHAT IF Kara can’t confront the threat?


He is out of town and is not returning her phone calls. His staff are polite and absolutely no help. She’ll have to wait for his return, they tell her. Not being able to tackle this problem head on, having to wait??? It is going to drive her crazy…


WHAT IF Kara goes a little crazy?


If things don’t go her way, she will be forced to step out of her comfort zone. Watching Kara step out of her comfort zone could be interesting. Who knows what will happen.


Well, I think I just wrote myself out of my block. Hope it works as well for you!

Monday, March 22, 2010

One Year, and Counting ...

It was almost three months ago that we celebrated the first anniversary of Prairie Chicks Write Romance. A few days ago I passed the one-year mark since my first post as a Chick. (I came on board, with two others, after the original five writers had launched this blog. Now there are nine of us posting our thoughts on writing, usually specific to romance writing but often applicable to writing in general.)

I looked through the posts I have written over the past year, and have chosen a topic that might be worth a second look ... especially in light of the contribution from our most recent guest blogger, Barbara Edwards, who provided an excellent outline on rewriting, particularly as an exercise in self-editing. Most of the comments from readers indicated intentions to save, copy, print out, or otherwise make use of her list of essential steps to follow in that all-important stage of finishing a manuscript.

Something that I consider important in the rewriting process is what I originally called Reading Aloud in a Small Room Behind Closed Doors. And why would I want to do that? Not just for peace and quiet, with fewer interruptions, although that is part of it. A small room provides potential for echo and resonance, where I can read what I have written and really hear how it sounds. Reading aloud is often listed as one of the steps in the self-editing process. Or call it revision, rewriting, just plain editing and fixing. However you refer to the process, reading your work aloud can help you reach your goal of a finished manuscript.

In addition to the practical aspects of hearing the written words, the connection between a work of fiction and the art of storytelling is closer than we might think. In most cultures, stories were handed down from one generation to the next without ever being written down. Oral traditions captivated the interest of groups of people sitting around campfires. In more recent centuries, families and friends gathered in formal drawing rooms to listen to readings from written texts. In both instances, the stories had to speak to the emotions through lively action, fascinating characters, dilemmas of plot, and a flow of narrative that was at the same time natural and dramatic.

We can test whether these conditions exist in our stories by reading them aloud, or alternatively, asking a friend with a good reading voice to read our work to us. Then we can hear how the words flow, or trip up the tongue. If a sentence is difficult to read aloud, then it will surely be an impediment to the silent reader as well. Awkwardness of expression, so jarring to the ear when stumbled over in its oral presentation, will also be troubling to the reader’s eye.

Reading aloud can reveal repetition of words and phrases more quickly than reading with the eye alone. Unintentional changes in point of view or tenses become obvious when spoken. Actually speaking the words of dialogue that we have put into the mouths of our characters can be mortifying when we realise that nobody uses that many words to communicate thoughts and feelings. When members of writing groups share their work by reading aloud, those following the text on the written page notice that sometimes the words that are being spoken are not identical to what was written. Of course not! Because often what was written did not flow naturally, or was not dynamic enough, or was too convoluted and should be cut short. Reading aloud will reveal whatever needs to be fixed.

Another benefit of reading your own work aloud is to hear the voice as it resonates against the walls. The small room with the door closed is not just to shut out the external world, but to keep the sound of your voice contained in a limited space. This goes beyond the normal concept of “voice” in writing to include the actual sound of the narrative, the dramatic tensions, and the emotions of both dialogue and interior monologues.

Finally, imagine how useful all those reading aloud sessions in your bathroom will be in the future. You will have developed a confident reading voice for all those invitations you will receive to give readings. Practice makes perfect!

You might also be interested in advice from Lisa Rector on how to make sure your manuscript is ready for submission. "The 11th Hour Checklist" which was also the title of a session I attended at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference last fall can be found on her website,The Third Draft.

Do you read your own work aloud? To yourself for self-editing, or do you belong to a writers’ group that uses this method for critiquing each other’s work? At what stage of the revision process do you find reading aloud the most helpful? Have you discovered other useful techniques for rewriting that you would like to share?

[I should tell you that I made some changes to what I wrote last August – shortened it, tried to make it flow better – in other words, did some rewriting!]

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Prairie Chicks Welcome Guest Blogger Barbara Edwards


Please join me in greeting today's guest blogger, Barbara Edwards, who is blogging on a topic near and dear to all writers.

Re-writes Suck

With four published books under my belt, I should know everything. I was going to write a book in a month, get published and reap my laurels within a year. That was my first belief. I quickly learned that writing becomes more difficult as you learn. The excitement I found as a beginning writer faded quickly when The Great American Novel failed to appear.

It took a year to finish that first book. Then I realized it wasn’t perfect.

The second, third, fourth, fifth rewrite sapped my imagination and interest turned to boredom, frustration and discouragement.

Yep, it sucks.

That was balanced by the beautiful moment when my editor called. She did email and say she was interested, but the follow-up call had me dancing. She said my paranormal romance had her so scared she couldn’t read it at night. What praise! Then we did edits.

Re-writes take up to eighty percent of writing time. They are hard work. As you rewrite you become more critical of the work.

My first piece of advice: Don’t show your book to everyone. Your mother and sister will love it, your best friend will hesitate before she says she likes it, another writer might think it needs her style of writing. If you can find a dependable critique group, fine. Even so the final edit is in your hands.

I’m a hard-case about self-editing. A successful writer needs a basic grasp of the English language. I’ve judged in too many contests where the entry was so badly written it was embarrassing to read. Be honest if you want to be published. This short column is not the place to explain the difference between a noun, verb, pronoun or adverb.

I’m assuming you’re reading this because you have a finished draft. Maybe you’ve done the first couple rewrites. Or not.

With all the advice available it can be difficult to find the gold nuggets among the piles of sand.

When I’m rewriting I concentrate on one item at a time. You can start with whatever item you think needs the most work. I’ve found it’s important to have a checklist. Mine is by no means a definitive list, but it is a place to start.

1. First proof-read for grammar, spelling, punctuation or typographical errors. Spell-check doesn’t catch everything and can change the right word. E.g. There or their.

2. Replace passive verbs with action. Eliminate use of was, had, been.

3. Delete unnecessary words. E.g. I overuse ‘that’ and ‘just’. Use search to find each and delete or rewrite.

4. Vary the length and structure of sentences.
This is tricky. I tend to start sentences with a clause and need to rewrite them. Read aloud to find the rhythm. If it hums rather than sings, it’s boring to read.

5. Use all five senses to include the reader.

6. Emotion drives a romance: Use powerful words to describe hatred, passion, obsession, or love.

7. Make sure your character behaves consistently with his/her motivation. For example, the virginal girl won’t know how to seduce an experienced man. Oops, an error I made in my first book.

8. Do I show or tell?
If you don’t know, take advantage of classes or lectures provided by writing groups.

9. Use dialogue to convey information instead of inner thought or paragraphs of description.
This improves the pacing of your work.

10. Make your own checklist.

Despite writing for years, I learn more every day. I make a note and add it to my scan.

At this point take a deep breath. Rewrites use different skills. Writing is creating; editing is methodical, logical. They occur on opposite sides of the brain. I’ve found it impossible to do both in the same day. My brain doesn’t switch that quickly.

If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.

And here's the result of Barbara's rewrites:

In Ancient Awakening, Police Officer ‘Mel’ Petersen investigates a death only she believes is murder. By disobeying direct orders from the Rhodes End Chief, she risks her career to follow clues that twist in circles to her backyard and lead the killer to her.

Her neighbor Stephen Zoriak is a prime suspect. Steve worked for a major pharmaceutical company where he discovered a weapon so dangerous he destroys the research. He is exposed to the dangerous organism. He suspects he is the killer and agrees to help her find the truth.
In the course of their investigation Mel and Steve find the real killer and a love that defies death.

Excerpt:

“Don’t touch me, Mel, not unless you’re willing to do a lot more,” he warned as her hazel eyes flared golden.

“Don’t threaten me, Steve. You’re…”

He pulled her into his arms despite the alarm bells clanging in his head.

Danger! Danger! Danger!

Her widened eyes met his. Mel’s hands were trapped against his chest, but she didn’t push him away. Instead, her fingers curled into his shirt.

Her mistake. His mistake was to crush her mouth under his.

Mel’s soft lips parted. Need exploded. The taste of black coffee didn’t hide her sweet flavor. As her tongue tangled with his, her arms slid around his neck and her fingers burrowed through his hair.

Steve hungered to peel the starched shirt off her soft shoulders, lay her on the thick turf and ease his desire. He tasted her brows, her cheek, along her throat, seeking the source of her call. Her pulse whipped under his mouth, awakening another need.

His teeth gently closed on the vulnerable vein.

He wanted, wanted, wanted…

Cold alarm chilled his pounding blood.

Steve gasped for air. He’d forgotten his own ironclad rule. Mel’s eyelids flittered open to reveal the molten glow of desire but he forced himself free.

He had no right to touch any woman. Not until he knew he hadn’t become what he had set out to destroy.
You can reach Barbara at the following locations:





Ancient Awakenings is available from http://www.thewildrosepress.com/

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Recipe for Writing...

I am a Foodie! I love to eat, but more than that, I love to cook. My collection of cookbooks fills an entire bookcase. And my obsession with cooking magazines rival that of Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection (reported to be over 3000 pairs). I have had to put myself on a cook book/magazine diet in order to save the bank account and the space needed for my other books.

At present, I am revisiting a manuscript that needs a major overhaul. I have compared my earlier attempts with cooking soup – same ingredients, same measurements, just stirring the pot in a different direction. I’m hoping, with some major work and a murder or two (of scenes, nothing criminal), I’ll be able to concoct a different soup. Almost the exact same ingredients, but different quantities and maybe a pinch of that or a cup of this added to the mix.

So that got me thinking about recipes. And the recipe for writing. This concoction will be very much a chef’s decision – not all of us need the same things to be a writer. A lot depends on our comfort/taste – where we are on our writing journey. And our writing process itself dictates in what order the ingredients are used. Some would simmer for longer than others, some less. Depending on the writer, the actual amount of the ingredient would differ – some need more of one item and less of another, some need a heap of this, but only a pinch of that.

Writing can not be boiled down to a specific recipe, but it does have ingredients; so here’s my Recipe for Writing:

Determination and Persistence: Large Quantities. The base for your writing career. Do not skimp on these ingredients or you will end up finished before you’ve even begun. These two ingredients will be the foundation for every article, poem, short story, nouvella, or novel that you write.

Ideas: The meat of your writing. Add to the above base and let simmer for as long or as short a period of time as you feel necessary. But don’t skimp on this ingredient or your writing will suffer, resulting in a thin, tasteless product most will consider unfinished.

Characters/Plot/Setting: Now, this is where variety changes the flavor. A disillusioned cop turned bodyguard, a headstrong prima ballerina, a crazed psychotic fan; a letter offering love or death; the long awaited national tour of Swan Lake – romantic suspense. A female private detective; a background check on a potential employee; a seedy underground network of child abduction – mystery. You; writer’s block; your office – a poem. Every ingredient takes on a new taste when mixed in varying degrees with other ingredients. The choices are endless. Again, mix and match, simmer and stir.

Secondary Characters/Sub Plots: In small doses these two ingredients will round out your writing, give depth to the flavor. These will be added to the mix here and there, but don’t let them overpower your work. A reader may likely forget the best friend, or the quest for better coffee, but those ingredients will bolster your main plot, lend authenticity to your main characters and leave the reader fully satisfied.

The Spices: Doubt, Jealousy, Frustration, Fear. Unfortunately, these spices are forever sitting on the counter. Present in the kitchen even if we make a valiant effort not to give them a shake. How you deal with them is your business – confront them head on, stick them in a drawer and try to forget about them, add them sparingly, but deny they’re a part of your career. My best advice for these pungent seasonings – overpower them with a heaping pile of:

Passion! Without passion, your soup is just soup.

If there is no passion in your life, then have you really lived? Find your passion, whatever it may be. Become it, and let it become you and you will find great things happen FOR you, TO you and BECAUSE of you. ~ T. Alan Armstrong

So, People of Blogland, did I forget an ingredient? Is there something you would add to your ‘soup’? How’s your cooking going?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Prairie Chicks Welcome Guest Blogger Barbara Edwards



One of my fellow Wild Rose Press authors, Barbara Edwards, will be our guest on Saturday, March 20. Here's Barbara's bio:

Barbara Edwards is a native New Englander. She is a “Jill of All Trades”, working at everything from crossing guard to sales manager before graduating from the University of Hartford with a Master’s degree in Public Administration. She writes poetry for herself and novels when she needs to tell a longer tale. Barbara is fascinated by the past so naturally turned to writing historical romance. The dark stories evolve from nightmares. The romance comes from her belief in people’s basic goodness and longing for love.

Barbara lived in Florida for several years and is past president of the Central Florida Romance Writers. She is a member of Romance Writers of America.When she returned to Connecticut, she founded the Charter Oak Romance Writers, a Chapter of Romance Writers of America, along with several close friends.
She is married to a retired Police Sergeant. An avid Civil War re-enactor, Barbara travels the eastern states to participate in events. She loves visiting museums, galleries and battle sites, gathering information for her stories.

You can reach Barbara at these locations:

http://www.barbaraedwards.net/
http://barbaraedwards.net/blog/blog.asp for Barb'Ed Comments
http://twitter.com/barb_ed

Her book Ancient Awakenings is available from http://www.thewildrosepress.com/



Can You Delete That?

That is such a simple word that it’s redundant sometimes. Do you agree with that sentence? Can you tighten that sentence?

How often has a critique partner (CP) told you ‘that’ is redundant?

I’ve heard it so often that when I read a book, I tsk at the author for using it. You did notice that I used ‘that’ in that sentence, right? So let's take 'that' out and see what happens:
I’ve heard it so often when I read a book, I tsk at the author for using it.

See, I took ‘that’ out and it didn’t make a smidgeon of difference. Or did it?

Here's the 2nd sentence from above:
You did notice that I used ‘that’ in that sentence, right?
You did notice I used 'that' in sentence, right?
We don’t need the first 'that', but we do the second time or the sentence doesn’t make sense. (Yes, I know that there are 3 'that's but the 'that' that's in quotes doesn't count.)

So the question becomes, when is the right time to delete the word, ‘that’?

At the University of Kansas website (KU), I found Professor Malcolm Gibson’s Wonderful World of Editing. According to Professor Gibson, you can delete the word, ‘that’ after any verb of attribution such as said, stated, cried, announced, etc. Here's an example:
She said that her book is done.
Since ‘that’ follows a verb of attribution, we can take it out so it reads like this:
She said her book is done.
Everything is there, but it’s tighter.

Now look at this sentence from the KU website:
The mayor announced June 1 the fund would be exhausted.
At first glance, it looks okay but if you really dissect it, you wonder if the mayor made the announcement on June 1st or if the fund was exhausted on that date. Like this:
The mayor announced that June 1 the fund would be exhausted.
The mayor announced June 1 that the fund would be exhausted.
So, there are instances where you need to use ‘that’ to diffuse confusion.

Now wait a minute… I need to re-visit that first example where I took 'that' out.
I’ve heard it so often when I read a book, I tsk at the author for using it.
If I take ‘that’ out, it sounds like I’ve heard it often while reading a book. But what I meant was that I heard it often before even reading it. So in this case, I should have left ‘that’ in the sentence.

Sometimes a writer will use ‘that’ instead of another word. For example:
He thought of the girl that sat at the front.
In this case, ‘that’ refers to the girl so the correct word should be ‘who’. Like this:
He thought of the girl who sat at the front.
If it were an object sitting there, it could be referred to as ‘which’.
He thought of the book which sat at the front.
But is that right? Or should it be:
He thought of the book that sat at the front.

And that opens another discussion: Should the word be 'that' or 'which'? Instead of trying to explain this one, I refer you back to KU where, not only does it show examples, it also presents a fun animated That/Which Challenge. No, I won’t challenge you to take it, although I did.

Now look at these sentences and pick the right one:
1. It’s the cat that no one liked.
2. It’s the cat which no one liked.
3. It’s the cat who no one liked.
4. It’s the cat no one liked.

(Insert Jeopardy theme here)


Answer:
- I’m not sure about #1 and #2. (I said I took the That/Which Challenge – I didn’t say I passed with flying colors.)
- #3 is correct to those people who think their pets have human qualities.
- #4 is the one I’d use if I were tightening my work.

In conclusion, Professor Gibson at KU puts it this way:
"The decision to use or omit “that” is not always a simple one. Sometimes it's a judgment call. But don't let your desire to lop off unnecessary words lead you into bad judgment. As a rule of thumb in questionable cases, remember: Using “that” is never really wrong, though it may be unnecessary; omitting “that” in some cases indeed may be wrong."

For a simple word, ‘that’ is very complex. Yes, I’ll still try to delete it wherever I can, but I won’t be so quick to judge others who use it.

Have you tried the That/Which Challenge yet? What did you think about that?


Musical Notes provided by:
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

No Thanks, I'm Trying to Quit

To write or even speak English is not a science but an art. Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective, against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up.” — George Orwell

I was critiquing a great story for a writing friend over the weekend and she mentioned something in her forwarding email about drawing attention to repetitious words. I didn’t notice any in her work, but it got me thinking about my own stories and my two favorite words ‘want’ and ‘took’. Oops, I forgot the word ‘turned’. I’m going to have to go back and check for ‘turned’ because it’s my third favorite word. These three words make a regular appearance in my first drafts and they sneak past my revising eye, too.

I also have a bunch of words listed on a sheet of paper hanging on the wall by my computer. It’s a list of overused words and ones to use sparingly. I hang it next to me in the hopes I’ll pay attention to the list and avoid the words on it or, at the very least, think about them while I revise.

My list includes the words: about, actually, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, kind of, nearly, practically, really, seems, simply, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, truly, utterly, were. I’m sure there are others but you’ve got to start somewhere.

I decided to check my manuscript for the above-mentioned words. I used the “find and replace” options and did a search. It turns out besides the words ‘want’, ‘took’ and ‘turned’, I’m also partial to the words: just, really, kind of, almost, about, and even. The good news is I spent a scant half an hour searching for and eliminating most of those tired and weak words. In many instances I eliminated them from the sentence without any tweaking or substitutions. In end I was able to see how words like ‘just’ or ‘about’ weakened the sentence and were unnecessary and ineffective, if not downright annoying and boring.

I spent a little longer rewriting the sentences containing ‘want’ and ‘took’. I didn’t eliminate these words altogether but I put a serious dent in their usage.

Then there are those other words. Those words you hear every day and are so sick of hearing you wish you’d never have to hear them again. For example: if you’ve been ‘tweeting’ while ‘chillaxin’ consider your words ‘unfriended’ by Lake Superior State University. They’ve unfriended” 15 words and phrases and declared them “shovel-ready” for inclusion on the university’s 35th annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.

I’m would like to construct my own List of Words to be Banished. They are as follows: whatever; seriously (in question form); totally, awesome, or the combined totally awesome; because and huh. May they never again be used as one-word statements or answers by anyone. Ever. Again. But maybe that’s the result of being a parent to teenagers.

How about you? Do you have a particular word you never want to hear again? Do you have a favorite word you love and use repeatedly? Do you have lists of words stuck to your wall?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Rules of Magic

While it may come as a great surprise to many people, magic in fiction isn't an 'anything goes' territory. It's not a subject where logic gets left at the door, whimsy reigns supreme, and a writer can just do whatever she pleases if it's convenient for the plot at the time. No no, there are rules to these things. It takes great study, intuition, and instinct to learn such things. That's what Hogwarts is for, after all.

But wait, what on earth does this have to do with romance? Well, technically nothing. The better question is what does this have to do with fiction, because elements of magic, like romantic themes, don't stick to one specific genre. Does your paranormal romance have unique powers? Do you need to figure out the healing factor for your vampires? Does your story, like Therese Walsh's The Last Will of Moira Leahy, weave a thread of magic realism into a women's fiction story via a unique object that may or may not be somehow influencing the protagonist? Or maybe you're just throwing your protagonist through some standing stones and into 18th century Scotland.

Either way, you'd better know what the heck you're doing with your magic, because you just can't go throwing this stuff around like finger paints. It just makes a mess, and no one wants to read a mess.

Rule of Limits: Magic can't just do anything it pleases. If you're going to develop a system of magic, you need to know how it works. Do your characters work with psionics? What about channeling water, or blood magic? How do your vampires heal so quickly? It could take time, or food, or concentration for your undead protagonist to recover from his injuries, but whatever you choose, you have to stick with it. There will be times when there's no access to fresh blood, or things are too chaotic to concentrate, and then your protag will just have to deal. Likewise there may be things simply beyond that character's skill or ability. Either way, the presence of magic can't become a limitless deus ex machina, or you'll suck all the tension right out of your story.

Rule of Costs: Hand in hand with limitations, magic needs costs, which I already touched on above. An action may sap strength, or even memories, and potentially leave the character prone. Each use may bring the character closer and closer to a premature death. You could look at this as basic science, not creating something from nothing. Sure, the express purpose of some magics is to create something from nothing, but if magic isn't your focus (we're a romance blog, after all) that's probably not the route you're going to take. Magic needs limits, and it needs repercussions, reasons not to go using it as a quick fix for every situation. When you're making it all up yourself, you've got to make sure you build in all facets, not just the good ones.

Other costs can emerge in terms of character, such as being reviled by other characters, emotional trepidation to use an ability, or moral debate over whether your magical object's influence is benevolent or malevolent.

Rule of Tone: Less quantifiable but equally important is the tone of your magical element. This is kissing cousin to the voice of your book and the atmosphere of your story. Are you writing a dark, intense paranormal? You probably won't want bright, sparkly magic. Are you writing something light and realistic, save for your spirit-summoning protag? You'll want light, realistic elements of magic rather than blood-filled consequences or divine manifestations in the final act. It's all part of creating the tone of a book, equivalent to the mise en scene of cinema. It all combines together to create a specific mood, and if something jars with that mood, it won't feel believable.

Tone also creates another aspect of limitation. In JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, for example, magic can do well nigh anything a wizard pleases, but the magic matches the voice of the series. Aside from a several key scenes of gripping flash and dazzle, the majority of magic is just as often hazardous as convenient, and quite often is more banal than efficient. Clean dishes? Sure. Remove pimples? Or possibly your whole face.

Rule of Character: By now you may have noticed a parallel among these points. They all apply to characters. In the end, that's what magic boils down to -- another character to explore and develop, to show strengths and flaws for, and to enrich the story. If a character is all strengths and no flaws, they're less believable. So too for magic. A character's actions need to match the tone of the book, they need to have limits in knowledge, compassion, ability, and they need flaws and consequences. You wouldn't give your protagonist an easy fix for a dire situation, so why assume magic can do the same? Treat the magic elements of your story the same as you treat your characters and they will serve you well. Treat them poorly, and they will drag your story down as fast as any poor character.

Likewise, don't forget your characters. They're the ones who have to deal with the presence of magic in your story, and it's through them that we will learn of it. If magic is a known element, and they believe it, we will believe it too (barring anything that jars us out of the world you've created). If magic is unknown, your character's process of discovery and dealing with this new knowledge will help the reader toward the same. Think things through, underpin them with believable limits and consequences, and the rest comes naturally. We're imagining the private thoughts and heartaches of words on a page, after all. We're already in a willing state to suspend disbelief. If the little details ring true, the big things don't matter.

A few final notes on magic in fiction. Once you know the costs, use them. If you have the possibility for your protagonist to be drained, unable to draw more energy -- use it! If your magic object could make the heroine lose her mind, make her doubt everything! Don't let the prospect of peril be enough, when you can make the low moments that much worse by bringing your magic to its cost and limits as well. It's far more fun that way.

Likewise please, for the love of pete, don't break your rules once you build them. Great stories and series have been ruined when a once-hard Fact was suddenly changed to accommodate a new plot development. If your summoner needs water to focus her abilities, she can't suddenly use sand instead. Not unless you've been hinting at it all along and always knew you were going to do that.

Magic in fiction is no different than the magic of writing fiction in the first place. Ostensibly it seems a person can do anything, say anything, and get away with anything. In time, though, we learn what works and doesn't work, what makes the craft stronger and more effective, and what is just going to get our work thrown against a wall in frustration. Like every other aspect of fiction, magic needs your unique flare for execution and storytelling.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Great Beginnings

We’re often told our stories need to open with a bang. If our editors/agents/readers aren’t hooked by the first page, even the first sentence, we’re doomed. They’ll yawn, close the book, and find something else that tickles their fancy.

So what makes a great opening? Here are a few ingredients for a great beginning:

1. The Characters. We immediately need one or more characters to focus on. We want them to be interesting and unique. Right from the start we want to get to know them, and get to know what’s motivating them. We want to cheer for them and to like them.

Here’s an example from Jo Beverley’s “Deirdre and Don Juan”. Lord Everdon, or Don Juan, receives a disturbing letter. Here’s the opening line:

“The news of his wife’s death caught the Earl of Everdon in his mistress’s bed.”

Well, that made me sit up and pay attention! But why should I like an adulterer? Because in the page and a half of this first scene, Ms. Beverley skillfully turns around that first sentence and makes Everdon a sympathetic character, one we immediately begin to care about. It turns out his wife abandoned him ten years ago, shortly after their marriage, and he knows that he will now have to marry and produce an heir. We can sense his terror at being abandoned again by a second wife: “Then Mark Juan Carlos Renfrew, Earl of Everdon and lord of a score of minor properties, walked through the streets of Mayfair feeling vulnerable for the first time in his adult life.” When I read that, my heart went out to the dashing Earl.

2. The Conflict. The reader has to get a hint from the very beginning what the conflict is going to be. Something is not going the way the character had expected. In the above story the conflict hinted at is Everdon’s search for bride number two when he’s still scarred from his marriage to bride number one. Here’s another example of a hint of conflict in the first line:

“The first item Dax found was a red bikini top”-- The Drop-In Bride by Margaret St. George, Harlequin American Romance.

I’m intrigued immediately by the first line. When we read on we find that Dax is a famous author trying to write his next best seller on a private island in the Caribbean, but the writing is not going well. And then he finds a beautiful woman washed up on his beach. So we know from the start that the conflict is going to involve Dax’s writer’s block and this mysterious woman.

Nancy Kress, in “Beginnnings, Middles and Ends” by Writer’s Digest Books, says that the problem or conflict is related to change. Something changes from the beginning of the scene to the end. Here are some possibilities from Ms. Kress:

- A character discovers that the task he is starting is more complicated than he’d hoped.
- A character learns a disturbing piece of information.
- A character arrives someplace new.
- A character meets someone who will significantly alter his life; even in the first scene this new person has begun to change the characters immediate goals or ideas.
- An event occurs – a murder, an alien landing, a letter arriving – that will lead to significant change. This change is hinted at in the first scene.

3. The Tone. The opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. If the book is to be a thriller, it wouldn’t open with slapstick humor. The writer makes a promise at the beginning that the story will continue in the same way for the rest of the book. Here’s the opening from Jennifer Crusie’s book, “Fast Women”:

“The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway. Meeting Gabriel McKenna just meant she’d arrived.”

With this opening Ms. Crusie promises that the tone of the book will be humorous. She delivers in the rest of the scene. Nell is newly divorced, and unemployed, having just been dumped by her husband who was also her boss. She is desperate for a job. She’s also so nervous that she manages to make a hole in the carpet, destroy a window blind, and break both a window and chair before she leaves. The book promises to be a hoot.

4. The Setup. The beginning also sets up the rest of the book and gets the plot in motion. It immediately orients us in the time and place of the story, and presents us with the problem our character is facing. The decision the character makes at the beginning of the story affects the rest of the book.

5. The Details. Nancy Kress says that to be noticed by agents and editors your work has to stand out. The beginning needs specific details. The example she uses is this: “Don’t say Mary was an animal lover. Say that every evening Mary fed her 80 pound Labrador Retriever the best part of what should have been John’s steak.” These details tell us so much more about Mary and her attitude not only to the dog, but to John. Details will also help convince an editor you know what you’re talking about.

6. The Backstory. I know it’s tempting, but don’t load your beginning with tons of backstory. You may know that when your character was twelve his father ran away, leaving the hero with abandonment issues, but please don’t give us all this detail in the beginning. Keep us guessing, keep us asking questions. Just give enough information to let us keep on reading.

Do you like to write beginnings? What is the hardest part of a beginning for you? Do you have any favorite opening lines that you’d like to share, either from your own work or from a favorite author?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Victoria Bylin Picks a Winner

Honorary Chick Victoria Bylin has picked a name from all those people commenting on her interview here yesterday.

In a comment this morning, Vicki wrote:

Thank you all for the comments and questions. I enjoyed being here.

As promised, I drew a name out of my cowgirl hat. The winner of the autographed copy of Kansas Courtship is . . .


HELENA


Congrats, Helena. Check Vicki's comment for instructions on contacting her.

Prairie Chicks would like to thank Victoria for sharing her story, wisdom and day with us.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Victoria Bylin Interview & Book Giveaway


Hey Honorary Chick Vicki, welcome back to Prairie Chicks.
You are the perfect example of someone  ‘discovered’  through the slush pile and with 10 books now published since 2003, you are a worthy role model for the rest of us struggling writers. So I made a list of questions so we can find out how you did it...

Hello everyone! Thanks for having me today!

Have you always wanted to write historical romance?     
Oddly enough, historical romance isn’t my first love. The first book I tried to write was a contemporary romance set in California. It was a complex story with several characters and storylines. I realized early on that I didn’t have the skill to successfully tell this story, so I decided to practice on a western. Little did I know I’d eventually sell that manuscript, while the contemporary is now that proverbial book under the bed, never to see the light of day.

The last time you were here you mentioned your first manuscript, The Safest Place. Your website states you received ‘good rejections’ for that first ms and it encouraged you to keep writing. If that ms was good, why did you set it aside and start something new?
I define a “good rejection” as one that isn’t just a form letter. With The Safest Place I received personal notes from editors saying my writing had potential, but they also mentioned specific problems, i.e., “lacks romantic tension.” By the time I started receiving those rejections, I was well into my second book, which turned into my first sale. I knew that manuscript was much better, so I kept going on it. The Safest Place eventually turned into my second published book (West of Heaven), but that was after a monster revision. I kept the characters and the set-up but trashed everything else.

Are you happy writing category books or do you see yourself expanding into full length novels in the future? I’m very happy writing for LIH.
Having to meet the 75,000 word count has been great discipline. It forces a writer to be concise. To use one of Simon Cowell’s expressions, there’s no room to be indulgent. With 75,000 words, I need to find the exact right phrasing. A longer story would basically mean adding a POV and another subplot. Maybe someday! I’m open to anything.

Your website describes your earlier Harlequin Historicals as being about ‘saints who’ve stumbled and sinners who’ve made terrible choices.’ Isn’t that true of your Love Inspired Historicals as well?
Fascinating question! What a difference a verb tense can make. I should change the website info on the HHs to say they’re about “saints who are stumbling and sinners who are making terrible choices.” The LIHs address hard issues, but the mistakes are in the past. The HHs show those mistakes in process.

Your characters are real-life people struggling in a harsh world. Do you find it easy to create characters with such depth?
I’ve had a few characters ride into my mind fully formed, but most of the time I do a lot of tweaking and thinking. There’s no telling what’s going to happen, but I work to give my characters honest and believable emotion.

Does the Hero/heroine (H/h) at the end of your book resemble the H/h you started out with?
I’m going to answer this question by referring everyone to Michael Hauge’s website (http://www.screenplaymastery.com). Check out his stuff on character arcs. I was fortunate to attend one of his workshops a few years ago. His description of a character’s progression from identity to essence was riveting. My characters always change. They’re transformed, healed and redeemed by the last chapter.

If you’re asking if my initial conceptions of them change as I write the book, the answer is . . . yes and no. I’ve learned to hold off on the writing until the characters are set. If I start too soon, it’s just a mess. I’m better off getting them firmly in mind before I start. That’s not true of plot. I can’t plot in advance for the life of me. In that area, I’m a total pantser.

Are you still walking 2 miles a day? If you are, do you plot during your walk, listen to music or audiobooks, etc, or listen to the birds sing?
I walk when the weather allows. If it’s icy outside, forget it! I plot by talking to the dog. He’s a good listener and I don’t look too crazy. No music or audiobooks. This is time to think and pray and muddle.

How long does it take you to write a book and has it always taken that long?
It generally takes me six months to do 75,000 words. When I first started, it took a lot longer. I’ve gotten faster because I’ve learned my writing quirks, things like not starting too soon and not pushing when I hit a wall.

Are you easily distracted from your writing?
Only by the internet. I have a love / hate relationship with it.

Due to personal crises and situations, you’ve just survived 9 extremely challenging months. How did you manage to keep to your writing schedule intact? Did you make your deadlines or request an extension?
As the saying goes, you do what you’ve got to do. Between Lyme Disease (I’m fully recovered), my mom’s passing (wow, I miss her) and moving (from Virginia to Kentucky), I made some deadlines and asked for extensions on others. This was the first time in ten manuscripts I needed more time, so it wasn’t a problem. The trick is to always keep your editor informed of what’s going on so she can schedule accordingly.

Your current release is the 3rd book in Love Inspired Historical's “After the Storm: The Founding Years.” How did you like being part of a continuity? Did you have to change your writing style or habits to accommodate the other writers?
I loved working with fellow authors Valerie Hansen and Renee Ryan. They did Books #1 and #2 in the series. My book, Kansas Courtship, was the third. We communicated almost daily by email. I didn’t change my style at all. The three of us worked really well together. It was a blast! I’d love to do another continuity, but it’s hard to fit them in with other writing commitments.

Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t covered?
Many thanks for having me today! It’s always a pleasure to visit the Prairie Chicks. To celebrate, I’m giving away a copy of Kansas Courtship. Anyone who leaves a comment today will be eligible for the drawing.

Here’s the back cover blurb . . .

Rising Storm . . .
Town founder Zeb Garrison is finally getting his wish--a qualified physician is coming to High Plains. Yet when Dr. N. Mitchell turns out to be the very pretty Nora Mitchell, Zeb is furious. The storm-torn town needs a doctor, but Zeb needs someone he can trust--not another woman who's deceived him. If Nora's going to change his mind, she'll have to work fast. All she has is a one-month trial to prove her worth . . . to High Plains and to Zeb.

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If you want to know what I think about Kansas Courtship and the rest of the After the Storm: The Founding Years series, head over to my blog.
Thanks for visiting us again, Vicki.
Anita Mae.
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Victoria Bylin writes for Love Inspired Historicals. Her first LIH, The Bounty Hunter’s Bride, was released in May 2008. Prior to joining LIH, Victoria wrote five westerns for Harlequin Historicals. Abbie’s Outlaw was a 2006 Rita Finalist in the Best Short Historical category. Her western romances have also finaled in the Holt Medallion, the National Readers Choice Awards and the Booksellers’ Best Awards.
You can find Victoria online at:
http://www.victoriabylin.com/
http://victoriabylin.blogspot.com/
http://petticoatsandpistols.com/
http://www.loveinspiredauthors.com/