Sunday, December 23, 2012

Let's Plot

As the year draws to a close I have started thinking about what I want to do next year and one thing is to blog more. And always anxious to get started, I decided to start now. In the past couple of months I have been teaching a variety of writing courses at Savvy Authors and I have two more that will in two weeks. One of them is a six-month long class that deals with writing an entire book. It's not as intense as NaNoWriMo, but it can be challenging.
It got me started thinking about how I start to write a book. Well, it all starts with ideas, of course. How often do you get those great ideas and then you don’t know what to do with them? A couple of weeks ago one of my classes was a Help Desk coaching class and I tried to give everyone ideas for their writing. This is one of the lessons I took away from that class.
Where do your ideas come from and what do you do when you know you need to start a new book? Let’s look at a couple of ways you might get started formulating ideas and then putting them into motion to get the plot moving.

 1.       Have a Plotting Party.  This can be a lot of fun and get others involved as well. If two heads are better than one, then how about three or four?
 When I am struggling with an idea and I don’t know what to do, I call together the Gang. I have three very good friends from college who still regularly get together, even after 40 years. We’ll get a couple of bottles of wine (or champagne) or make margaritas, order take out food or make up some snacks and then just sit around and talk.

I toss out my opening premise and we go to work.  I’ll take notes and we’ll start throwing out ideas. We might take the plot in one direction for a while and then someone comes up with something so wild we go in an entirely different direction. More ideas, more directions for the plot to go.

They also toss out ideas for the hero or heroine. Or sometimes they can make the villains really weird or spooky.  I have one friend who always seems to make him sympathetic. It helps me to keep things in perspective as I write the story too.

This idea can also work with critique partners. Several years ago when I was meeting with a regular group in a restaurant every week, we decided to meet at someone’s house instead and do a plotting party. We also did it in a library meeting room once. We bring sticky notes and write down the ideas and work for several hours on plots for all of us. We would then put the sticky notes up on a dry erase board so we could watch the plots develop.
2.      A more solitary idea I try for developing a story idea is to simply start writing scenes with my characters. It allows me to bring out their emotions and to see who they are and how they might react.  I might start at the beginning of the book, but sometimes I do the meeting scene or the first love scene between the hero and heroine. 

Since I don’t have any preconceived notions of how they might react the characters often come through better and on their own terms.  I’ll do that same sort of thing with a scene, describing the setting or the feel. I may not use all of what I’ve written, but both of these exercises get me into the mood for writing and before long I find myself working on an actual scene itself.

3.      Another idea I stole for mystery writer John Sandford. At a booksigning someone asked him what he did when he was stuck in writing a scene. He said he took a notebook and went to dinner and didn’t come home until the scene was written.

I’ve often done that, though not necessarily when I was stuck on a scene. I’ll do it as a part of my regular writing progress. Whenever I find myself rebelling against writing my pages, I take myself out to dinner.

There is something fun about just sitting in a different location and writing. Of course it requires that you don’t mind sitting in a restaurant, eating alone with your pen and notebook in hand. But I’ve done it in everything from Starbucks to diner to very fancy restaurants.  My current favorite is a local PF Chang’s that has an amazing view of the front range of the Rocky Mountains.

So as the year comes to an end... if you need to come up with some ideas for what to do with your ideas, you might try these suggestions! 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Basking in the Glow

Yes, I am still basking in the glow of my latest release, Shadows from the Past, a new romantic suspense novella from The Wild Rose Press...

Seeing a new book out there for sale is always an exciting time and every time one of my books comes out I get questions about what it takes to write a book and get it published. Often I hear those comments many writers get -- “I always wanted to write a book, but..” and then the excuses come. They could never find the time to work on their writing, they could never figure out how to develop characters, they could never figure out how to go about trying to get published, or some other excuse.
 I have a simple answer -- if writing a book is what you want to do, go for it

Dreams don’t come true if you don’t take steps to make them happen.
This simple statement should be pasted on every writer's wall. Writing dreams will not come true without taking action to turn them into reality. What does it take to stay on track and find a way to make those dreams come true? It takes work, planning and finally, action. Your writing will never get published sitting in a drawer. You can turn out some marvelous stories, but if your mother and sister are the only ones reading them, you are never going to be published. You need to figure out what you want to do with your writing and then do what any business person does. Make a plan and stick to it. Here are a few thoughts on how to make your writing dreams come true:

1. Plan: Make a writing plan and stick to it. At one of the recent conferences I attended, I asked a multi-published author where she got her ideas. Her response surprised me.
“It’s not finding ideas that slows me down. It’s finding the time to write.” She followed up with the advice to make time to write every day, no matter how busy things get. Another multi-published author said she gave up television for two years and forced herself to write a few words every day. My goal is to make writing a daily habit. Not long ago I read a blog that quoted a famous basketball player who said he had to “touch the ball every day.” I wrote that down and printed it out in big type and now it is taped to my computer monitor.

2. Plot: Know where you want to go in your career, and plot a course in that direction. Decide what you want to write, and then research publishers and agents. It makes no sense to waste time submitting to houses that don’t handle your brand of writing. Getting a response takes long enough as it is. Not long ago I heard several agents say they look for writers who aren’t experimenting with different genres. They want to build a writer’s career, and they want to work with a writer who has already figured out her/his strong points. 
3. Promote: Don’t be afraid to promote yourself and your work. Writing is a lonely endeavor, and most writers are notoriously bad at promoting themselves. But how else will you get your name out there to fans, to booksellers, to editors and agents? Find groups or people with similar interests that you can talk to. For years I coached young writers and taught on a one-to-one basis. Now I find that there are insights I have that I can use to teach to others, and I have been teaching classes.

4. Pitch: Don’t underestimate the power of a good pitch. Be ready to query and submit. I’ve known writers, who have finished several works, and they are good writers, but they are afraid to put their book out in front of everyone. At the same time, I met a young woman recently who had finished one book, and she was ready to tell the world about it. Something tells me she will probably be more successful than the writer who keeps her work hidden away.
5. Persevere. Hang in there and don’t give up. This last point really hits home for me. Yes, I have been writing for 20+ years. I’ve told this story over and over, but the one thing that always gets me is that 20 years ago I gave up. I stopped trying to get published and went in a different direction. I never stopped writing, though, and I always kept that little dream in the back of my head. Twelve years ago I decided to try again and it took a few years, but now I do have books and short stories out there.

These days with the growth of self-publishing and e-publishing there are more opportunities than ever. So I say again, if writing a book and getting it published is your dream, go for it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Joy of Release Day

There is nothing quite like the day that your book finally comes out. Days and nights of writing, weeks of editing, months of waiting! And then, there it is, with a great cover, up on a webpage ready for sale. My new suspense novella SHADOWS FROM THE PAST came out today, so naturally I was up early, hesitating as I opened The Wild Rose Press publishing website, half afraid it wouldn’t be there, although I knew it would be. Should be.

And there it was!
The fabulous cover, the tempting blurb, and a sale price! Yes, it is on sale at the moment.

As I’ve written previously, SHADOWS FROM THE PAST was a joy to write because for me it is my homage to the gothic tales that made me love reading and writing romance. When I started reading suspense many years ago, I loved the stories where the young woman came to the strange house that held so many secrets. I absolutely loved  JANE EYRE and then came WUTHERING HEIGHTS  with its mysterious landlord Heathcliff and his lost love. Naturally I fell in love with Manderely in REBECCA and then came Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney. I read every Whitney book I could get my hands on.  She always had a wonderful gothic setting that was true to whatever far flung location she used.   

I was also a big fan of DARK SHADOWS with its dark mansion and all the secrets inside. The thing I’ve always loved about gothic romances besides the spooky setting is the presence of similarly spooky and mysterious characters. Barnabus Collins, anyone? Or how about that strange Mrs. Danvers?

And then there were those gray days that seemed to fill the gothic stories--lots of fog and low hanging clouds. Lots of mist. Actually today was supposed to be snowy in Colorado, but as though the weatherman knew it was my release day, we have been given a cold, drizzly day, just the sort that I wrote about in SHADOWS.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Learn Something!

One of my favorite movies of all time is Camelot. My sister and I must have seen that movie 20 times in theaters back before VCRs made multiple viewings possible. Once we even stayed through all the showings and ended up walking at least 5 miles home because bus service had stopped at 10pm. It was a long movie!
Anyway, one of my favorite lines from that movie (and there were plenty - we can still recite the first few scenes) was when little Arthur asks Merlin what the best remedy is for feeling sad. My favorite line is Merlin’s answer:  “Learn something.”

I’ve always believed in that. It is one reason I love to research. Learning about the past or new worlds is great fun. But there is more than just ordinary research. To me learning also means going some place I’ve never been, seeing something I didn’t know was there. My father was a great believer in going down strange roads just to see what was at the end. We ended up at a lot of dead ends, but we also got to see some great places we wouldn’t have found if we hadn’t gone there.
As a writer I love to follow those unknown paths or roads just to see what you may discover along the way. My older brother recently moved to New Mexico and he spends every Sunday morning driving the roads around Santa Fe and then sending us pictures of what he discovers. He finds lots of new little towns and meets lots of new people.

When I take those strange roads, I always look at it as a way to research a book. I like to absorb the atmosphere and look for how I might write a scene set in that location. Sometimes it can get me into trouble.
Once when I was young and driving around in January I took a road off I-70 into the mountains just east of Fraser, Co. If you know that part of the country it is no place to be when you’re all alone in a Mustang, unfamiliar with the area, in the dead of winter. Add to that being on a strange winding road that goes from pavement to snow packed to gravel. When I got to the bottom of a particularly long hill, I decided I’d learned enough and tried to turn around on the snow packed road, I slid downhill and got stuck in a ditch.

Needless to say I had to walk out to the freeway, but it gave me plenty of time to think of a story. Unfortunately that story never sold, but I still use that technique. Show me a new place and I’m probably going to follow those strange roads and find something new and learn something new.

When I lived in Seattle, one of the first things I did was to take different ferries to the peninsula, to the San Juan Islands and over to British Columbia. As a result, I fell in love with the San Juan Islands and I've now set two stories there, including my gothic suspense novel that comes out next week, Shadows from the Past.

I am forever telling my family and my friends how much I enjoy travelling adventures like that, and I'm certain that soon I'll be driving down some unknown road and finding a new story!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Using the Writer's Eye... and Everything Else

Not long ago I ran across email from a writer who suggested using "the writer's eye" to view the world as one way to improve writing skills. The suggestion got me to thinking and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn't enough to simply use your eyes as a writer. A better way to phrase that idea would be to view the world through all of a writer's senses.

During my 35 years as a journalist, I always stood back and viewed a situation as facts, figures and how an event might impact people. As a fiction writer, I have learned to step into that world and see things from a much more personal angle. And yet, my training as a journalist has made the fiction writer in me much stronger because it has honed my ability to absorb and dissect what I’m seeing, hearing and sensing.
I look at the journalist’s role in me as being that of a tape recorder--taking things in and recording them as they occur. Then later, the writer might play them back, but in a much more rich and embellished way. Then I get to call in my emotions and look at how scenery, an event, even a conversation affects me personally and emotionally.

But I now also record everything at the exact moment. That means looking at everything around me, feeling the energy of the moment almost every day and taking in as much as possible, recording it as a journalist, but then playing it back as a writer, using all my senses at my own leisure. As such, I am making time to pause for a few minutes at various moments during normal days to reflect on the world around me.
I find myself watching the distinctive gray of a winter day, but I don't simply see the murky gray dawn, I make myself feel it—record it through my senses for use later in a book or short story—the chilliness that nips at the nose as I step outside on a frosty morning, the hint of rose tinged clouds that I see on the eastern horizon. I let myself absorb the cold, feel it in my fingertips, let the wind bite my cheeks. It might be just an ordinary day, but if I can take the time, just a few minutes to record everything about that moment in time, I can use it later from memory, just when I need it. What are my emotions? Do I feel more alive because of the biting chill, or do I want to just go back inside and hunker down in front of a fire place?

I find myself doing the same thing in a busy coffee shop—mentally recording everything around me using as many of my senses as possible to be used later: the hum of conversation, the scent of coffee and cinnamon; the strong taste of the coffee, the cold blast of winter every time the outer door opens, the sting on my hand when I spill my hot coffee. I watch the people around me in case I need to describe a gesture later or think about how to put life into an otherwise dull scene by describing the antics of a two year old rushing from one end of the coffee shop to another, making a number of people nearly spill their lattes before her mother grasps her hand and locks her into a stroller. There’s the student in the corner in a knit hat and bulky sweater, tapping frantically at a keyboard, while taking sips from their tall cup of coffee. I catch snatches of the conversation of a business man on his cell phone, setting up his day with someone already at work.
At a business meeting that is growing boring, I don’t simply tune out and think about what I should be doing. Instead, I begin thinking about how I would characterize the carefully dressed woman with the out-of-date hairdo in the third row, or looking out through the windows and thinking about how to visually express the scene outside. I even think about how to correctly describe the droning tone of the speaker. I listen for the cadence of the speaker’s voice, or the screechy voice of that character behind me when she asks a question.  

These are small examples of a normal day, but that’s part of the point. If you can apply your senses to wherever you are, even for a few moments, and if you either write up the scene later or recall as much as you can as an exercise, it’s going to sharpen your skills as a writer.

Absorbing the world around you on a regular basis can enliven your writing. I like to think of it as soaking up the ambience of wherever I am, and I’ve always made a practice of doing that any time I visit a new place or find myself in an unusual location or situation. But now I am working on doing it as part of my daily routine. 
If you’ve worked at sharpening your senses on a regular basis, then when you visit that mansion you want to use in your historical, or when you are personally caught in the middle of a scene you want to use later in book, you’re senses will be sharp and ready to react and you’ll be ready later when you put it all down in your book or short story.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Writing Race

Finishing a book is a great accomplishment and to me there is nothing quite like getting to that final page and then that final paragraph and those last few words. And then it’s done! Time for a big sigh of relief. But I always find myself feeling something else as well. Not just the sense of accomplishment, but a feeling of sublime exhaustion, like finishing a long, tough endurance race.
Writing a book can be like a race in many ways, a long distance race. You start out with a great sense of purpose, excitement, a drive to get ahead and to get off on the right foot. You’re excited, full of energy and driving forward at all costs. You have ideas, you have the thrill of that starting gun, that first blank page in front you and you’re off!
Since this is not a sprint, you eventually have to settle into a rhythm in your running or you’ll use all that energy and fall behind. The same is true for your writing. You need to fall into a rhythm, constantly driving forward with purpose. You can’t afford to slow down too much and your writing should be that way too. Every chapter should be your best, just as you would run a race, pacing yourself, but keeping every step, every page fresh.

And then you get to the middle, when your final goal is not in sight and you want to slow down, just get some air into your tired lungs and your legs are threatening to turn to lead. Sometimes your writing can feel that way too, like there is no end coming and you’re wandering around with no place to go. The story is growing stale, and you have no idea which way you are going. Will it ever end? But you keep on trudging along and you keep on writing until you make that final turn.
Now the end marker is in sight and you’re ready for that final push. You find you have enough stamina to get some unknown power into your tired body and thrust yourself forward. The climax of your story is looming and it gives you that final burst of energy to write with renewed passion until the words are flowing quickly and you find new strength you didn’t know you had and you’re sprinting toward the final goal.

And then it’s done. The final paragraph, the final sentence is writen, the finish line is crossed. You did it! You finished the book! You completed your race. You collapse in exhaustion and with the knowledge that you pulled through
That race is finished.

As you might have guessed I finished a book this week. It was actually a long hard edit, but it’s a great feeling, because I know that book is now written, edited, off to my agent. And I can relax.
Well, not too much. I have a sequel to work on....

How do you feel when you finish a book? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Guest Blogger Donna Shields - Character Building

Today we have a guest blogger joining us. She is Donna Shields who grew up on romance and scary stories. With her love for suspense and the slightly unusual, she enjoys tying these elements together to create stories full of love, danger and the paranormal. She lives in the beautiful upstate of South Carolina with her husband, her children, and some great haunts. She’s a mom, a ‘gramma’, a wife, a friend, an avid reader and writer. When she’s not occupied with all that, she loves traveling to Playa del Carmen and Jamaica.

She's here to look at building great characters. Donna?

Great three dimensional characters and a remarkable story plot are the key ingredients to any fantastic book. Yes, there has to be conflict, setting, black moment, and change. But all of these build off of your characters and plot. I want to talk about character building.

This can be a challenge to some people, and it is for me. How the creating works for me is I already have a rough story plot and know at bare minimum how my characters need to be. I’ll try to work with one of those character interview charts. At least that gives me the basics such as eye color, marks/tattoos, skin tone, etc.

 What I found that really builds my hero and heroine is sticking them in the story, in each scenario under different circumstances allowing them to react. How they behave builds their individual characterization, their thought patterns, their reasoning, and their reactions.

My heroine in Secrets of Jenkins Bridge is put through torture on different levels. Katherine has always been the safe girl. Quiet, pleasant, going with the flow of life. Never one for adventure or reading someone off. That is until she’s run off the road, her daughter is kidnapped, her old flame (who is her daughter’s real father and neither know it yet) has come back to town and is put in charge of the kidnapping and attempted vehicular manslaughter cases, and her deceased ex-husband has risen for the murky waters of death. She discovers her inner strength and her own independent thinking. And that she has what it takes to go find her daughter. I’ve put her through the wringer to build her into someone she always was, just undiscovered until she’s thrown into the middle of all kinds of chaos.

In the current story I’m working on, The Boneknapper, it’s my hero being tested on multiple levels. He’s close minded, a doctor who lives for only his job and his one night flings with the next available woman, and believes in absolutely nothing except medical science. He does believe in helping the sick and he’s usually completely committed to healing them. He also believes that anyone poor must have put themselves in that position and therefore if they won’t help themselves, then he certainly won’t. There’s no belief in an afterlife, no belief in any religion. So, when a Voodoo curse is placed upon him and three others, he has a hard time believing it’s real. He’s getting progressively sick though and falling in love with the detective sent to protect him and solve the case of missing bones out of desecrated graves including the grave of my hero’s father. He’s realizing there’s more going on than coincidences and begins learning the good and bad of Voodoo, and that there are poor people who aren’t given the chance to succeed. His mind is opening to all things he never believed in and with that is finding he actually has emotions and really cares for the poor people. And all he wants to do is live and prove his worth to his heroine, the detective.

I believe the best way to build your characters is to just throw them in head first and let them sink or swim. It’s amazing how well developed the characters become.

Thank you Donna. Here is a little more about her new book, Secrets of Jenkins Bridge.  Please feel free to leave a comment. Donna is doing a month-long blog tour on her new book and she'll be giving away a pile of goodies at the end of the month, including a mousepad, key chain, t-shirt and poster calendar.

Hunting down a dangerous mob boss has brought FBI agent Mitchell Donovan home, reawakening an old flame, resurrecting a dead best friend, and discovering fatherhood. As if those aren’t enough, his new case will push everything else aside: finding the kidnappers who took the daughter he never knew he had.
Katherine Delaney never forgot the heartbreak Mitchell had caused with his abrupt departure all those years ago. With her dead ex-husband accused of murder and her daughter kidnapped, she will place her trust in the one man who could trample her heart again if she gets too close.  But, will the resurrection of Katherine’s ex-husband and Mitchell’s chase for a killer destroy their second chance at love and happiness?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Writing Book Dilemma

            More than forty years ago I bought my first how-to book on writing. I can’t remember the title now--I’ve long since donated it, but I do remember reading it cover to cover and marking passages I wanted to remember and work on in my writing. I was 19 years old then and struggling to earn enough money to get back into college to finish my final two years and get a degree in journalism. I was living in the YWCA in Colorado Springs and staying in a tiny room right off the basketball court working as a clerk typist and dreaming of the day I might become a writer of fiction or non-fiction.
            Buying any book was a major investment back then since I was trying to save money. Lunch was a 20 cent hotdog and dinner every night was a ten cent can of soup (yes, soup only cost ten cents!) but I did try to budget for buying books. Most of the time, I got all my reading material from the local public library, but I sprung for the three dollars to buy that writing book.
            It began a trend for me. Ever since then, I am always on the look-out for new books on writing. My circumstances improved and now I find myself with whole bookcases of books on writing. That little old book of mine would definitely get lost in there. But it did get me started. Back in those old days I spent most of my evenings reading my writing book doing the exercises or just writing stories into a ringed binder. Every time I buy a new book on writing I think I’m going to get all the way through it and even try some of the exercises. I don’t, but I find that I do manage to learn something new or try something different as a result of almost every book I buy.
            This year I’m resolving once again to clear out some of my book shelves and I started looking through some of those writing books. Which to get rid of? Which to keep? Wow, what a dilemma! Well, it’s going to be a slow process because I know there are hidden gems in almost all those books. I’m going to start looking through them and seeing what they have to offer and blog about what I find in some of them.
            I’m going to start with what is closest to me--the books on my desk. I always keep several books on my desk next to my computer in case I need them. Do you keep reference books by your computer? Yes, we can always look things up online, but it’s comforting not to have to leave my WIP page to get a quick answer.
            During all those years writing TV news, I always kept an AP Stylebook handy and I still have it there. It’s great for looking up things quickly like numerical use or street numbers. I also have a Chicago Manual of Style but it’s kept back on the bookcase for weightier issues. AP is great for quick, easy questions--everything from what a baseball box score looks like to whether or not to put a hyphen in hanky-panky to what a hedge fund is.
            I also keep a Grammar Desk Reference from Writer’s Digest nearby too. I like its simplicity. It’s divided into four parts, including grammar usage, rules, and punctuation and you can find can easily find the answers to any grammar problems fairly quickly. I like using it because it allows me to look for answers while keeping my current work up on my computer screen. It’s good to go through sometimes too, just to get a refresher in things like the use of dangling modifiers or proper pronoun agreement. The authors use actual mistakes in newspapers and magazines to show improper usage, just as a way of letting us all know that mistakes often make it into print.
            When I’m editing I need Browne and King’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers close at hand, though I always keep it nearby. The book is well worth reading and the checklists at the end of each chapter are wonderful to go through while you are editing. I still find myself referring back to it when I have questions about my writing.
            What about your favorite writing books? Anything that you keep on your desk or can’t do without? I’d love to hear about it.  If you leave a comment, you get entered in a chance to win one of my favorite writing books--Ten Steps to Creating Memorable Characters. (okay, yes, it’s the book I co-authored)

Mysterious Doings

As the  summer begins, it is time to start selecting those books we want to take on vacation or for sitting around the pool or at  the beach...