Saturday, March 31, 2012

Guest Stacy-Deanne: Crafting the Perfect Villain

Ever since I was a little girl I loved mystery and suspense. I remember curling up with my mother on the couch watching Dial M for Murder and being in awe of how brilliant Hitchcock was. People have often asked me why I love writing mysteries.  Well, I love being surprised as well as evoking thrills and taking readers on wild twists and turns just to shock. But one of the things I love most about writing mysteries and crime fiction is villains. Why?

Villains provide tension and move the story. They put readers on edge and shake things up. Sometimes the villain is the only reason I keep turning the pages when I read. I don’t care if your mystery is hardboiled or cozy, you've got to have an enthralling villain and villains are more than just bad guys and bad girls.

The trick to a good villain is he or she has to be three-dimensional. I’ve seen too many villains in movies and books that were just bad and nothing else. Well this is unrealistic. No one is all bad or all good. In order to make your villains shine you must create them as a persons with depth.  Making a person all bad just won’t cut it and is not an effective way to form a true villain.

Below you’ll find crucial things to remember when constructing villains.

1. Villains are Real People

The worst thing you could do is make your villain predictable. No character should be all bad or all good. You should put just as much thought into creating your villain as you do your protagonist. The most unforgettable villains evoke different emotions in readers. They make you sad, mad, and afraid and even pity them.  Norman Bates and Dorian Gray are my favorite villains. Both were crafted with depth. Norman is a brilliant character that makes the audience bleed with sympathy despite being a killer. We know he’s a bad person yet we can’t help but pity him. Hitchcock does a wonderful job drawing different emotions for this character. Dorian Gray comes off as heartless and vain and maybe he is but as we see him fall victim to his sins, it makes it harder to dislike him. Both are brutal killers but human at the same time. That’s the perfect combination for a top-notch villain.

2. Villains Have Emotions Too

Strive to show different sides of your villains the same as you would the protagonist. Show their more vulnerable and weaker sides. This helps readers to relate. For characters to be powerful we must see some of ourselves in them. Readers should be able to embrace the villain’s emotions; that heightens the impact of the character.  Maybe you’re writing about a female serial killer who chops up male prostitutes and sticks their remains in her freezer. Yet she loves animals and often leaves food for the stray kitten who wanders her neighborhood.  Maybe your villain is a man who poisoned his wife to get her money yet he loves his new wife so much he’d die before ever hurting her. Show sympathy, real emotion. This jolts the audience and keeps them on their toes. This is needed if readers are going to relate to your characters.

3. Ditch Carbon Cutouts

Think and be creative when you’re creating your villains. Come on, you’re a writer. Give them circumstances and challenges the same as you would your protagonist.  Don’t make your villains from a box of clichés.  Show what they do when they aren’t being bad. Let the reader inside the character. Say you have a serial killer. What kind of job does he have? Is he gay or straight? Does he have any kids? What are his hobbies and what does he like to do? Of course you don’t have to sit there and include all of these things in your novel but you should sit down and learn about your villains enough to be able to write them. Know them inside and out and don’t rely on their just being the bad guy to carry the story. There has to be much more than that.

The key is to always remember your villains are people too. Put in the same character development you would for your protagonist and you’ll have a page-turning villain readers will not soon forget.

Thanks Novel Spaces for having me! I enjoyed it!

Stacy-Deanne (Dee-Anne) is an award-winning novelist of mystery, suspense and crime fiction. She’s been writing professionally since she was 19 and her work includes Everlasting, Melody and Giving up the Ghost. Stacy is profiled along with notable authors in the NAACP-nominated 2006 book, Literary Divas: The Top 100+ African-American Women in Writing. Her 2011 release Giving up the Ghost was nominated for a 2011 African-American Literary Award and is a 2012 Black Expressions Best Seller. Her upcoming novel, The Season of Sin will be released April 2012 from Peace in the Storm Publishing. Read more about Stacy and her releases on her website, and find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


On March 16, Dayton wrote his post about the support that he gets from his wife. In his post on Sunday, Charles resigned from NovelSpaces to free up his time to focus on family issues. I thought that I would round March out with a family dedication of my own.

This week I had the distinct pleasure of writing a poem with my dad. This was something we did since I was a child, Sunday afternoons whiled away giggling ourselves silly while we composed alternate lyrics for songs. Nothing was sacred and "Weird Al" Yankovic had nothing on us. We haven't done it for a long time; teenage years, college, marriage, babies meant not so much time for giggling until last week when I challenged him to fix a poem I was writing to include in a book of short stories. He rose to the challenge brilliantly and I cannot wait to release that book with both of our names on the cover.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Writing is an important act. I believe that. But it's not the most important one in life. And sometimes you have to take a step back from writing. I'm at that point right now. I'm not quitting writing. It's too much a part of my daily routine. I wouldn't be able to fill my time. But for a while I need to focus on other things.

I will continue to post occasionally on my own blog, and I've actually got quite a bit of stuff written that I hope will eventually be released. That will depend on many things.

I want to thank my fellow Novelnaughts for inviting me here in the first place, and for your support. I've enjoyed very much getting to know you and getting to read your work. And thanks to all those who have visited and commented on my Novel Spaces posts, as well as those of my fellow writers. I hope all of you will continue to support this great site.

Take care.
Charles Gramlich

Friday, March 23, 2012

Indie publishing follow up: Coming up for air

In Taking the Plunge on December 7, 2011 I discussed my decision to start a micropress to publish some of my own fiction as well as the work of a few other authors. The initial plan was to launch in December 2011, but since I had a file full of books about the process to read, covers to design and execute, formatting to learn and intricacies of Smashwords/Kindle etc. to explore, I figured a more reasonable time frame would be January.

Stuff kept happening, though, and I pushed my self-imposed deadline further and further away. I vacillated with decisions: publish through Smashwords or go straight to Kindle and take advantage of the KDP Select programme? Do the formatting and covers myself or shell out some cash for these services? Most unexpected of all was my own resistance to taking this big step. I am grateful to Vaughn T. Stanford, author of the first three stories in my lineup, for his patience as I responded to his many enquiries as to when the venture would get off the ground with just one word: "Soon."

Vaughn had planned to make February 19 a double celebration: my birthday and the launch of the press. As we sat in a restaurant on the water enjoying my birthday lunch and discussing the project, I offered up another "Soon". His response was, "Are you afraid?" I could not even summon indignation that he should ask me, the great adventurer (snigger), about... fear. At that moment I resolved to have the first book live on Kindle in time for his birthday, March 6. I was inundated with other work but I spent most of the evening and night of March 6 formatting, writing descriptions, tags and the lot, and at 2AM I finally put the book to bed. I watched the status go from 'In review' to 'Publishing' and finally to 'Live'. Two to Tangle had been born, with The Letter and Desire following hot on its heels. Wordtryst Press was (finally) up and running.

I cannot begin to describe the euphoria that hit me once I completed that first crucial step. Next in line are my second romance novel Café Noir, an erotic short story by Nyx and a short story by Nnande Aku, the pen name I've decided to use for some of my non-romance genre fiction. Once those covers are ready I'll click that 'publish' button - and then the journey will really begin.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why Anthologies Make Good Markets

If you write speculative fiction but have never submitted to an anthology, you should consider it. I've found anthologies to be good markets.
  • Anthologies get fewer submissions than equivalent-paying magazines, so your chances of acceptance of higher.
  • Personally, I'm more creative when I have boundaries. An anthology provides a topic, usually an approach, and maximum and minimum word counts. I can come up with several ideas for an anthology story while watching a TV show, while I have a hard time corralling ideas, characters, and settings into something coherent when I have the whole of time and space to work in. 
  • Editors of anthologies sometimes arrange booksignings, increasing your name recognition. 
  • Editors sometimes arrange readings at bookstores or sf/f cons, increasing your name recognition.
  • Being in an anthology is an automatic conversation topic when you meet other authors in the anthology at sf/f cons and meetings.
  • Anthologies have deadlines. You can't put off writing your story or keep revising it; if you want to submit, you have to meet the deadline. If you write for anthologies, you get more stories out.
  • Sometimes I write a story that doesn't match the guidelines of any magazine. A few times, I've sold such stories to anthologies, where they were a perfect fit.
It's easy to find out about anthologies. Start with's list of open anthologies at This summary briefly lists genres, word count, pay, and other important matters. When you see an anthology that interests you, click on its name. A new window will open—sometimes it will be the page with submission information; other times, it will be a publisher's home page and you'll have to look for the submission instructions.

Another source that I have not used often but other people swear by is Duotrope. Its search page is at The fewer items you specify, the more hits you'll get. So to review all open paying anthologies in all genres, go down to the "Payscale" box and choose the minimum pay you want, go down to "Anthologies" box and click, then click "Search." Click on the title, and you'll go to Duotrope's summary. From there, you can go to the publisher's or anthology's Website.

The only bad experience I've had with anthologies is that they seem more likely not to respond if they're not interested.

I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on April 6. Hope to see you again then.

—Shauna Roberts

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Unveiling Your New Book Cover - How Soon is Too Soon?

How soon is too soon to reveal your next book cover, posting it on social media and your website/blogs? Some say hold off until a few months before the pub date, at least until review copies are mailed out. I was told by one publisher that if you reveal the cover too soon, readers will get use to seeing it, and then if they see it again some months later around the time the book actually comes out, they'll associate it with an older title. There are some authors who have not unveiled the actual cover until pub day, even displaying a generic cover on Amazon and other sites. Others say it's best to debut the cover early on and get it set in a reader's mind so that they bond with the visual and look forward to the on-sale date.

What's your opinion? How many months prior to release date do you unveil your new cover?

Also, here's a great, informational blog post on the same topic by author Jody Hedlund. She gives several important pros and cons that I found to be very helpful.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pay Attention to Your Point of view

If you're a white, heterosexual male, you probably don't realize most media assume everyone is a white, heterosexual male. This is particularly true in film, as any woman who has had to sit through interminable views of other women's breasts between the good parts of a movie will tell you, but it's pretty much a constant throughout all western-influenced media. World-wide media if you leave out the 'white' part.(All men are not dogs, btw. Our biology is hardwired to pump adrenalin and endorphin at the sight of attractive women. Back when fire was dismissed as a passing fad and fighting other males tooth-and-club to win females' favor was de rigueur, this made us aggressive and impervious to pain. Now it makes us logic-impaired and spendthrift.)

Most folks my age have had the experience of revisiting a story or movie we enjoyed in the 60s or 70s and cringing at the sexual and racial stereotypes that we missed at the time and didn't remember forty years later. (Or, if you're younger, you may have wondered why people didn't protest - or even mention - the racism or sexism of some old 'classic' movies when the films were new.) The flipside of this is of course is films in which historical characters have modern mores and worldviews, usually fighting against the injustice of what really happened.

Unfortunately many historical novels - particularly historical romances - are equally anachronistic. I will cheerfully go along with a bit of historical rewriting to tell a good story, especially when it's clear the storyteller knows what she's doing. I even recognize that some sanitizing of the past is a prerequisite of the genre - few readers find leading men who regard hygiene as satanic and women as property romantic. It's likely anyone who wrote a 'romance' about how women were actually treated 700 years ago would run the risk of being roundly decried as a misogynist. But I cannot abide an accuracy-less tale of the hero and/or heroine, wearing gorgeous period costumes, using their 21st century values to overcome the intolerance of their 10th-through-19th century society.

As readers we tend to not recognize a writer's point of view as a point of view when it's similar to our own, it's when the writer's point of view, the underlying assumption of her narrative, differs from our own that we notice. For example: The majority of my fellow science-fiction writers fall somewhere along the agnostic-rationalist spectrum. Assumptions that faith and intellect are mutually exclusive, or that all religions are scams are common. While fantasy writers acknowledge intelligence and belief can coexist, most would agree with the characterization of formal religions. Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, in which lovable waifs save the world by hunting down and killing God, is probably the most extreme example, but the prejudice runs through much of both genres. Our younger daughter is a fan of anime and was initially hesitant to share some of her favorites with me because she wasn't sure how I'd react. The Japanese popular attitude toward Christianity is shaped by the Catholic Church's militant missionary efforts a few centuries back. When it's mentioned at all, any monotheistic religion is depicted as repressive, hypocritical, focused on profit/political control, and opposed to anything it can't control. (Don't get me wrong, I'm well aware that non-Christians, particularly here in the USofA, are routinely beaten over the head by social conservatives who link patriotism, integrity, and faith to their cultural assumptions.)

As writers we like to think we don't let our points of view distract or offend readers, that our audience is certain of our goodwill and understands our intent. But. Things so innocuous to us as to be invisible can completely undo us. Let me use a couple of personal examples. Most of you know my humor runs towards word games and willful misconstruing of information, but you may not know I also enjoy roast-like insult humor. I once was quick with the snipe and the put-down (as I recall, Dayton's response to my first e-mail to him was "That had better be a joke.") but these days not so much. I learned to curb my barbed missives only after demolishing my relationship with a writer with whom I'd worked. In my published fiction I have had to mend fences with a friend of mine who's a Wiccan for a stereotypical depiction of her faith, and over the years have had to acknowledge unconsciously sexist, racist or USA-centric assumptions/depictions/word choices pointed out by readers.

I am not advocating that we edit our beliefs and worldview out of our work. The forces that shaped us shape our work. Even the most well-intentioned efforts - especially the most well-intention efforts - to avoid offending anyone can expunge everything of value from our work. By the same token, if we are to master our craft we must first master our tools. The intentional point of view of the narrator, seen or unseen, can convey texture and nuance to our reader; it's an important part of storytelling. By the same token, unconsciously letting our personal point of view choose our words can throw our reader completely out of the story.

Pay attention to your point of view.

Friday, March 16, 2012

My Wife Let Me Write This.

Well, it’s March 16th, my normal day of the month for posting here at Novel Spaces.

As it happens, today also is my 21st wedding anniversary, so I hope you’ll indulge me a bit here, as it seemed appropriate to remember the role my wife plays when it comes to my writing. Simply put? I couldn’t do it without her.

Those of you who know me know that writing is not my full-time job. I have one of those, too, doing something else for a company I won’t name, and I write “on the side.” What that means is that I write whenever and wherever an opening presents itself: In the morning before the workday starts, at lunch, in the evening after the kids are in bed, with the odd escape to the library or a coffee shop one night a week or on Saturday morning. Exploiting those fleeting opportunities is a critical component of meeting my various writing deadlines. Muse? What muse? Muse is a fickle bastard, and I can’t afford to wait around until he feels like gracing me with his presence. Go away, Muse; you bother me.

When I’m neck deep in a project, it’s not uncommon for me to write from 9:30 or 10:00 in the evening until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. During the week, I’m rolling out of bed around 6:30 or so, helping get the kids ready for school and my own self ready for work. I don’t have a “9 to 5” job, so there’s no telling how long any particular work day will be, and if I’m on a writing schedule then I usually have to hit some kind of word quota before I can head to bed and do the whole thing again the next day.

There’s simply no way I could pull off all of that without my wife.

It wasn’t always like that. Uh-uh. In the beginning, when I was writing but not selling anything, things were different. While she didn’t think I was wasting my time, I sometimes got a vibe that she might believe what I was doing was more hobby than possible secondary vocation. I honestly can’t blame her for that, as even when I started to sell stories, several of them were Star Trek tales to Pocket Books. While there was some money involved, it was know...Star Trek, that TV show you watched when you were eight years old, playing with action figures and building models and all of that. Still, she gave me my space and let me do my thing.

We both had to learn to reprioritize and find a new balance after our kids came along. That obviously took some adjustments, but in short order we once again were running on all cylinders. In addition to both of us working and raising the kids, my wife has her own extracurricular pursuits, in that she volunteers as a search and rescue K-9 handler. It’s an activity requiring lots of time spent training on weekends and maybe the odd evening during the week, to say nothing of being called out on actual searches. She devotes as much of her “spare time” to that noble endeavor as I do my writing. To make it all work, we get each other’s backs, just as we always have.

So, in honor of our anniversary, this one’s for my better half, my biggest cheerleader, the one who keeps me well-fed and loved, and without whom I could sling not a single word.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Guest author Christine Stovell: From chocolate to Choc Lit

Christine Stovell jokes that her journey to publication has taken her from chocolate to Choc Lit. Winning a tin of chocolate in a national essay competition at primary school inspired her to become a writer but losing her dad to cancer made her realise that if she was ever going to get a novel published she had to put her writing first.  Her first novel, Turning the Tide, published by independent publisher Choc Lit, is a Kindle bestseller in the UK.  Her second Choc Lit novel, Move Over Darling will be published this October.

Hello to you all and many thanks to Liane for inviting me over here.  I was fortunate to ‘meet’ Liane and Kevin (and guest, Mel Sherratt!) in the days of our online writing support group, the Novel Racers. I also came frustratingly close to meeting Liane in person last year when my elder stepson got married in Grenada where his bride’s mother was born.  The wedding party returned via Trinidad and I couldn’t help but think of the Novel Racer meet that might have been if only I’d been able to afford the trip!

When my dad died I finally woke up to the fact that time runs out.  I had to get on with it if I wanted to pursue my dream of getting a novel published. On the basis that pain is temporary but quitting lasts forever, I was determined not to give up until I’d achieved that dream.  I worked hard, I got my first draft of Turning the Tide appraised by a professional advisory service, I learned from a couple of near misses and I kept my eyes open for opportunities.  When I read about a new independent publisher called Choc Lit in the trade press it felt as if fate was giving me a nudge.  I wrote to Choc Lit that same afternoon…

Discovering Choc Lit felt serendipitous for another reason.  Choc Lit novels always include the hero’s point of view, and since this is something I thoroughly enjoy writing I hoped my typescript would be a good fit.  Sailing half way round Britain in a vintage wooden boat provided some of the initial inspiration for Turning the Tide, but the process really began with a mental image, like a ‘still’ from a film.  I ‘saw’ a troubled young woman, Harry Watling, wearing oily dungarees sitting by the side of a creek and knew I had to tell her story.   Matthew, the hero of Turning the Tide, was sitting in Harry’s favourite spot when I first saw him, but it was through ‘hearing’ his voice that I got to know him.  It’s really important for me to allow time for my characters to come through.  It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female so long as I understand them as people, before I start telling their stories.  Anything less and I’d be doing them – and the reader - a disservice.

The downside to living with and loving your characters for so long, is that it can be quite a wrench to leave them. That, and the reality of having a first novel ‘out there’ gave me terrible ‘stage fright’ when it came to getting the next book written.  Talking to other writers, like lovely supportive Liane, showed me that Second Novel Syndrome wasn’t unique to me and encouraged me to keep going.  As with many writerly-related problems, the cure seems to be to grit your teeth, apply butt to seat, and keep writing!

I might have been crippled by a crisis of confidence for a while, but I never stopped soaking up impressions of places.  Eventually, phew, those formed the basis of a story.  The setting for Turning the Tide was born out of all the sleepy, seaside towns I’ve visited whilst sailing.  Move Over Darling is influenced by the experience of living on the coast of west Wales.  One of the first things that struck me when I moved here was that the population of the entire county is roughly the same as the town in the south-east I’d just left.  With so few people spread out over such a large area, I started to wonder how couples ever found each other!  It’s an exquisitely beautiful part of Wales, attractive to tourists and second-homers, but some of the lowest wages too mean that employment prospects are often brighter elsewhere.  A trip to New York suggested the book’s premise: She’s escaped to the country.  He’s escaped from the country.  Who’s going to admit that home is where the heart is?  From there, I met Coralie Casey and Gethin Lewis.  Coralie doesn’t like the hand fate has dealt her so she’s taken charge of her own destiny.  Gethin’s an artist living in New York who thinks he’s escaped his home village for good – until I came up with other plans for him.  I also had fun with a cast of supporting characters to reflect the book’s theme which is about separation and reunion.

Separation and reunion was something of theme for my writing for a while too; there were times during the writing of both books when I almost gave up, so if there’s any advice I can pass on, it’s to hang on to your dream and keep going.  Thanks for having me as your guest here and good luck with your writing everyone.

Choc Lit:
Christine Stovell:
Blog: Home Thoughts Weekly
Twitter: @chrisstovell

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Where Are the Bodies Hidden - our Masters?

Do you have the masters of your bodies of work organized in one easily locatable place or file for your beneficiaries to find if, God forbid, something were to happen? I'm getting all of my book-ducks in a row and saving them on a back-up drive for my family to access, and more importantly, I'm telling them where it is so they will not have to search for it.

Our works live forever, and royalties/income streams will hopefully generate long after we're gone. It's great to stipulate who gets what and make sure the clauses in our publishing contracts state that the rights pass to our beneficiaries or legal heirs so they can have the opportunity to generate money, but let's get organized first.

Sorry to appear to be so morbid, but it's business, our estate, and it must be done.

Just wanted to post a quick reminder to get organized, whether you write books or have any other type of works or creative properties that would need to be accessed.

This post isn't about the legal mumbo-jumbo of it all, it's simply about putting all titles in one place. Period.

Do you have all of your creative works in one place?

Long live us writers! Write on and on and on :)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Guest author Mel Sherratt: An Indie Publishing Success Story

Ever since she can remember, Mel Sherratt has been a meddler of words. Right from those early childhood scribbles when she won her first competition, she was rarely without a pen in her hand or her nose in a book. Born and raised in Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire, Mel now uses her beloved city as a backdrop for her crime thriller novels. A self confessed shoeaholic, Mel also hosts a blog called High Heels and Book Deals. Taunting the Dead is her first novel and she is represented by Curtis Brown Literary Agency

Is cheap and cheerful a good or a bad idea?

I’ve known Liane and Kevin since my Novel Racer days, another online support group. Even back then I was writing, writing and more writing to try and get a traditional book deal. Last year, I came soooo close but no cigar. And soooo close just doesn’t cut it, does it?

All in all, I’ve written six books. Some of them have never been near a publisher, if I’m honest. I learnt a lot by writing all those words. With the help of my agent, who suggested I used my dark, gritty style of writing to create a detective series, I wrote my novel, Taunting the Dead. It was turned down late last year by a publisher I very much wanted to work with. It wasn’t the only publisher that turned me down. There were several, all with good comments but still no cigar.  I was devastated.

Since last summer, I’d been studying the kindle best seller list: who was on it, what was selling, pricing, blurbs, product descriptions, covers. You name it, I studied it. I also started to chat online to author Mark Edwards (Catch Your Death and Killing Cupid). Mark and co-author Louise Voss were my self-publishing inspiration last year as well as Talli Roland (Build a Man). Having seen Mark and Louise go on to get a traditional deal after selling an impressive amount of copies of their books, with the backing of my agent, we decided to self publish Taunting the Dead. Maybe I could get a sales record to tempt a publisher too.

It was a huge decision. I priced my book low purposely. Was I underselling myself? I didn’t think so. I was a new author with no track record. If you like my sample, why not take a chance on my book for a low price? Pressing that button also meant letting go of a dream I’d had since I was a teenager. Or did it? Only time would tell.

Taunting the Dead went on sale on 8 December and, with the help of a ‘launch’ on twitter plus a lot of lovely supportive people, went to #229 in the overall Amazon chart on that day. I obviously shot right back down again the day after but I sold a few copies every day. I’m not one of those authors who tweets out links with my book in – I use Twitter as my virtual office so I like to go online to chat – so I promoted myself in a handful of guest blog posts. Gradually the daily total sales went up until one day (I can tell you it was January 11) the total sold doubled, doubled again the following day and just kept on going. I hit the top one hundred and then the top twenty. Next was #1 in police procedurals and then number one in all three of my categories, police procedurals, thrillers and mysteries. I wrote this blog post when I got to the top ten best sellers! I mean, how did that happen? My highest charting was number three. Wow. To say I was flabbergasted was an understatement. I’d been writing one book or another for twelve years. Finally people were reading, and liking, my words.

I now have a sales figure, I have a fair few good reviews (and a few not so good – it seems that readers either really like Taunting the Dead or really don’t) and hopefully a following to build on for when my next book in the series, Follow the Leader, comes out. I’ve made a few mistakes along the way but all in all it’s been a good experience. Will I get that elusive deal? Or will I have scuppered any chance of a mainstream publisher?  Only time will tell. But one thing is certain. I shall never stop writing. I shall never stop dreaming, even if sometimes the dream may have to change along the way.        

-Mel Sherratt
Twitter: @writermels
Amazon UK

Monday, March 12, 2012

Character Names

When I started writing the Caribbean Adventure Series, I named the children Mark, Kyle, and Ingrid. The process was effortless, the names just came to me and stuck. I gave my childhood friend, Ingrid, a heads-up that she was about to be hounded by the paparazzi for being featured in a best-seller, but the big issue turned out to be that Kyle was the name of the son of one of my employees. He, of course, was ecstatic although it was pure coincidence and there was no resemblance between the real boy and the fictional character. My children were not pleased and have hounded me ever since to write stories that feature them as characters.

Now I put a little more thought into the names that I choose. For example, I am writing a short story about a snake and the name 'Sammy' popped into my head. If you grew up watching Sesame Street, you may remember a character who sang one song which went something like this:
"I am Sammy the Snake and I look like the letter 'S'."

The fact that the name was not original was just a small part of my problem. I named his brother Stanley, and when I read the story out loud I realised that young children would be easily confused by the similarity of the names - Sammy and Stanley, Stanley and Sammy, even I had difficulty keeping them straight. Right now, I feel as if I have spent more time naming these snakes than I did choosing the names of my own children!

How important is it to give your characters carefully considered names? Names are very suggestive, they suggest certain characteristics, eras and locations. Some names immediately bring certain personalities to mind. A character named Freddie in a horror story may make your readers anticipate scenes from Friday the 13th, whereas Freddie may be perfectly realistic as the captain of a ship.

Does anyone else agonise over character names?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Writing For Fun

The release of the John Carter movie has me thinking about the element of fun in writing. When I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars (Barsoom) series I found what was, to me, the archetype of the sheer adventure story. I devoured the Barsoom books and looked for more, which didn’t exist in my small town library. I started inventing my own tales, although I didn’t write them down at that time.

I told myself so many stories throughout my childhood. I did it just for fun. I didn’t even think about sharing them with others. They were a personal pleasure. When I did begin to write stories, I did it only so that I could put them in a fixed form to remember, not because I thought about publishing them. I was having fun.

It probably seems as if I’ve repeated “fun” a lot. I have. The first book I wrote that got published was Swords of Talera. It was an unapologetic ode to Burroughs and Barsoom, and I’ve never had so much fun writing in my life. The sequels, Wings Over Talera, and Witch of Talera, were almost as enjoyable, even though I was living through a much tougher part of my life at the time. Here’s a little piece of “Swords.”

We turned south and hugged the coast in the intense heat of early afternoon, and in an hour we passed the jungle by and rounded a headland into a blue-steel lagoon. Three ships were there, all of black wood, with violet sails and two rows of ebon oars shipped in the ports. The ships stood with demon figureheads catching the sun at their prows, and black flags hung at the masts. Smoke rose from the shore beyond the ships, dark against the pale gold of the sky.

By the time I wrote “Swords” I was hoping it would be published, but that wasn’t the primary reason I put it all down on paper. I just wanted to know what happened next, and I wanted both the feeling of telling the story and of reading the story. Today, I sometimes write for the challenge of telling a new story in a new way. Sometimes I write for money, or for publication in a particular forum. But mostly I still write for fun. I write because there’s no other job that gives me the same kind of satisfaction.

I’ve often wondered if most writers start out writing what they personally want to read. I wonder if they start out writing for fun. And I wonder if that continues throughout their careers or if fun starts to take a back seat and finally falls out of the picture. Maybe the writers with us today can tell me their story. I’m listening.

Friday, March 9, 2012

What makes an interesting book?

In trying to get my eight year old to read more widely, I embarked on a project to read a book that was a little beyond her grade level with her every day. That is a little challenging with a two year old and a three year old vying for my attention. Consequently, I found the best solution was to move up the kids’ bedtime half an hour and read in bed with my oldest every night. We began with “The Midwife’s Apprentice” by Karen Cushman. The first night we did the first chapter. By 10 pm I insisted she go to sleep. 10:30 she was still reading and begging me to extend her bedtime even more. By 11pm I practically wrestled the book away from her. But I decided to read the next chapter. I crawled into my own bed sometime around 1 AM. I had read the entire book. It was so interesting.

What made this book so riveting that I could not put it down? Why is it that a child that I have to actively encourage to read protests when I ask her to put down the book? Here are some of the things I found about the book that made it so interesting.

The pace
The book started with the prime character and kept a steady pace that made you want to find out what happens next. It’s not that the book is an adventure novel or a cliff hanger. It’s just that each chapter left you wondering what happens next. How will the book end? Unlike romance or detective novels where the outcome is always the same (the girl gets the guy; the bad guy gets caught), this book did not fit into the mold of any explicitly defined genre. There were no lulls in the pace.

The voice
I swore I was back in the fourteenth century living in the quagmire of poverty, when I read the book. The prevailing voice transported you to that time and place, without extensive descriptions of the physical settings. The choice of words reflected the language. The rhythm of the writing made me feel that the narrator was talking with an ancient British accent. I felt I was Beetle. Even with the extremely long sentences that made it hard to catch a breath, there was a melody to the words. The choice of words both in direct and indirect speech made the book experiential.

The perspective
The story was told from the POV of the main character Beetle, who later renamed herself Alyce. I felt Beetle. Even though the story was in third person, it felt like it was being told in Beetle’s own voice. There was a lot that was not spelt out in the book, but it was very clear what was happening. Most of all you could see inside Beetle’s head. You experienced her growth from a person who was nobody, empty inside and had no place in the world, no confidence, to a budding young lady confident in her ability and her beauty. You could feel when she finally felt she had a place in the world.

The book used the events to illustrate what was happening rather than description. Even the seasons were denoted more by the farm activities than by an overt description. The development of Beetle’s self confidence, for example, was illustrated by her renaming herself Alyce because she realized Alyce was someone important who could read. Beetle’s interaction with another homeless boy brought out her ability to love and nurture, something unknown to her before.

Now I know there is much more that makes an interesting book than what I’ve covered here. I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. That’s where you come in. What makes a book riveting to you such that you can’t put it down?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Guest publicist Penny Sansevieri: 30 Ways to Make Yourself Irresistible to the Media - Part 1

Penny Sansevieri is CEO and founder ofAuthor Marketing Experts, Inc., a best-selling author and internationally recognized book marketing and media relations expert. Her company is one of the leaders in the publishing industry and has developed some of the most cutting-edge book marketing campaigns. She is the author of five books, including Book to Bestseller which has been called the "road map to publishing success." In the past 22 months AME's creative marketing strategies have helped land 11 books on the New York Times Bestseller list. To learn more about Penny’s books or her promotional services, visit her web site at

There is a reason so many pitches get rejected by the media. On average, the media rejects 95% of pitches they get. How can you become part of the 5% that get picked up for a story? First, you need to know the reasons why pitches get rejected. Keep in mind these aren’t the only reasons, but certainly the majority of them:

Uninteresting email subject lines: Often your pitch is judged by the subject line. Make it something interesting, make it a headline or risk getting relegated to the delete bin.

Long emails: I don’t know about you, but I hate reading long emails. The media hates it even more - in fact many of my media friends have told me that if they have to scroll through a pitch, they often won’t consider it unless it comes from a very trusted source. How long is too long? If you can read it on the screen without scrolling down, you’re in good shape.

Non-compelling topics: You won’t get attention for your topic just because you pitch it. It has to be timely, unique, and relevant to the audience they serve. Think HUH: Hip, Unique, and Helpful.

An opened email isn’t always a sure bet: Even if your email gets opened, it might still get deleted. Here’s why: For all of the above reasons. Create a tight, focused pitch that isn’t too long and stays on topic. This will increase your chances that the media will read it through.

Not relevant: What I mean by this is that it’s not relevant to the audience the media outlet serves. Don’t think for a minute that just because you find it interesting and compelling that your media target will. For example, I once had an author tell me about the amazing world of fly fishing, and then insist that Oprah would be interested in this topic. Really? I think not so much. Watch the show, listen to the broadcast, or read the blog or publication – before pitching.

A false sense of urgency: Often I find that folks pitching, in order to get noticed, will call upon a false sense of urgency. Yes, it’s urgent that we fix our school systems. Yes, it’s urgent that we clean up the environment. Neither of these things is going to blow up tomorrow so don’t pitch them as though they are. While it might make for a more compelling pitch, it will only serve to paint you as an unreliable and often excitable source. Neither of these is good.

Unknown senders: An unknown source or sender may be considered an unreliable one. It’s easy enough to get to know the media long before you start pitching, and I highly recommend that you do so.

Now, let’s look at 30 things you can do to make yourself, and your pitches, irresistible to the media!

  1. Start early and Focus on Relationships.
  2. Connect on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn: get to know your media, connect with any local and national reporters, journalists, and news people via these social sites so you can get to know them. 
  3. Comment on postings via Twitter and Facebook: comment on their postings and news when appropriate. 
  4. Facebook birthdays: this is a great way to connect to everyone on your list, especially media. Wish them a happy birthday, they’ll appreciate it. 
  5. Watch those Twitter hashtags: as you follow your media, you’ll start to see a trend of most-used Twitter hashtags, I highly recommend you follow them so you can see who else is talking about the story. 
  6. Blog about them on your site, referencing a recent story they did. 
  7. Comment on their stories, whether it’s on their site or on their media site. 
  8. Sign up for (HARO) and respond to stories appropriate to your topic.
  9. Get to know your smaller, regional publications, and also trade publications. Both of these tend to be easier to get to and could offer you some exposure well in advance of your book launch.
  10. Get to know your local radio hosts, or the hosts of stations you’ll be targeting. Especially in radio, it’s great to get connected to the broadcast people as early as you can. They also tend to be pretty accessible.
  11. Go to events where you know you might meet some media folk. This is often a great way to engage them on mutual ground. Attending the same event is a great way to start a dialog or relationship with the media. 
  12. Practice your elevator pitch! What’s an elevator pitch? It’s a short, succinct description of your topic or pitch. Short enough to keep them interested (1-2 sentences) but long enough to tell the story, or at least the headline. 
  13. Become a source for your target media: becoming a media source is something we’d all love to do. But this takes time. By getting to know your media, commenting on stories they write and letting them know your area of expertise, you might become one of their regular sources!
  14. Become a connector: be the person the media goes to for other experts as well. How do you do this? Whenever you introduce yourself to media, make sure they know your area of expertise and your ability to connect them to other experts who might be helpful as well.
  15. Every now and then, I will share a blog post with a journalist that I think will be helpful to them. I don’t do this a lot – just every once in a while. 

Join us on April 7 for Part 2 of 30 Ways to Make Yourself Irresistible to the Media by Penny Sansevieri.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Are You Driven To Write?

Many writers say they are driven to write, that they have to write, that they would write even if they never sold a thing.

I'm not among those writers.

Sometimes, other writers are perplexed. "How do you stand the loneliness then?" "How can you motivate yourself to do the hard work if you don't have to write?"

Frankly, I like solitude. I enjoy writing. I love when I'm on a roll, feeling the words spill out faster than I can think. I love the tension of try to finding the perfect word, that one with the precise meaning I want that also contains the right number of syllables to yield a smooth sentence and that has a first letter that echoes elsewhere in a word nearby. I love the research and learning things I didn't know before. I love taking a crappy first draft and shaping it, draft by draft, revision by revision, into something sharper, shorter, and more exciting.

Sure, sometimes writing is hard, but life's much harder. Writing distracts me from the difficulties of real life.

More important, though, is that I am driven ... driven to create. I've tried many many creative endeavors since childhood, and if I had been good enough at one of them, I might now be a professional musician or a professional herb gardener or a professional quilter or a professional photographer or....

Unfortunately, the only creative activity I had a real talent for was writing. So I became a writer. The drive to create is almost as good a motivator to write as a drive to write. I say "almost" because although I've given up most of my hobbies to create more time to write, I still sometimes find myself out in the garden plucking weeds or photographing my plants or their pests when I should be writing. I suspect those who are driven to write don't get diverted by opportunities to do something else creative.

How about you? Are you driven to write? If not, why did you become a writer?

I'll be blogging again on March 21. Hope to see you again then.

—Shauna Roberts

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Loading Chekhov's Gun

My wife and I watched the movie Limitless the other night. In general we liked it (she more than I), but there was one aspect of the storytelling that annoyed us both. (Not having read the novel, The Dark Fields, on which the movie is based, I don't know if the problem began in the novel or is an artifact of the shorthand scriptwriters must use when transferring a novel to film.)

If you haven't seen the film and don't like spoilers, skip this paragraph. Limitless is the tale of a loser would-be writer named Morro in denial about his addictions and self-sabotaging behaviors. We see Morro dodging creditors, avoiding his editor (he's months behind on delivering a novel he's been paid for), being dumped by his successful girlfriend — who's just been promoted to editor — and rambling incoherently to strangers about the book he intends to write someday. By chance he bumps into his ex-wife's brother, Vernon, who used to be his coke supplier. The two pick up where they left off, only now the drug is NZT, a mind enhancer developed by a major pharmaceutical company that gives it's user access to all of his brain's potential. One tab and loser Morro writes a thesis for a beautiful law student (for which she is physically grateful), cleans his apartment, and writes four chapters of the novel in an hour. The next morning he's back to normal and goes in search of Vernon. Vernon will keep Morro supplied if Morro works for him. He sends Morro out on errands. When Morro returns, Vernon is dead and his apartment has been trashed. Because he knows Vernon, Morro is able to find what the killers couldn't—where the supply of NZT and Vernon's client list are hidden. For the next hour we watch Morro manifesting a wide range of talents as he shoots to the top as an investor and the editor-girlfriend who dumped him takes him back. In the process Morro make three fundamental mistakes: he borrows needed seed money from a Russian loan shark; he doesn't hire a biochemist to try and replicate NZT until his supply is half gone; and he attracts the attention of Robert DeNiro (who in this case is the guy who hires Donald Trump to polish his shoes). The Russian threatens Morro in a Russian/Welsh accent until he gets some NZT; the scientis tells him it will take six to twelve months to synthesize NZT; DeNiro hires him and watches him very closely. Then Morro learns all of Vernon's other customers are either dead or in comas; quitting NZT has lethal side effects. His girlfriend learns of NZT and dumps him again—she's not interested in a guy who can only get ahead on drugs. Then things get worse. Much bloodshed ensues, with a fairly believable outcome. Then.... In the last several minutes (from when the words "One year later" appear on the screen until the end) everything is wrapped up at warp speed. Every problem threatening the hero is not only solved, but presented as already having been solved. The film ends with Morro and his girlfriend at a Chinese restaurant (he banters with the waiter in Mandarin).

In hashing through the movie after the fact, Valerie and I were able to spot moments in the film — bits of dialog, visual clues — that made all the loose ends getting tied in a bow plausible. So in a sense the ending didn't just pop out of thin air. But. We should not have had to work that hard to convince ourselves the resolution made sense.

I first heard of Chekhov's Gun from my theatre professor at Rollins College forty years ago. Dr. Juergens quoted Anton Chekhov's maxim as: "If there's a rifle on stage in act one, someone must be shot in act two." Though I've since learned that's a paraphrase, it's still the version I prefer; who knows, perhaps Chekhov did say that at one time. What we do know is that he wrote two different versions in two letters to colleagues: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." and "One must not put a rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."

Chekhov's example is particularly literal — he certainly knew there were reasons other than shooting for a gun to be on stage. If the protagonist is a pacifist vegan, a display of rifles and mounted animal heads dominating the living room of his employer or potential father-in-law could set up a conflict. Chekhov's point was that nothing should be on stage — or in the story — that does not serve a purpose.

However, it can be taken another way; and very often is. Chekhov's Gun can also be used to illustrate the necessity of foreshadowing (and that's the sense I was addressing in my comments on Limitless). A writer who pulls a resolution or character or motivation or event out of thin air is not playing fair with her readers. Okay, everything in our stories comes out of thin air—or whatever it is we have between our ears; point taken. By 'thin air' I mean anything outside the scope of the story.

This rule is most often cited in mystery fiction — a well-told mystery presents the reader with all the information necessary to solve whatever puzzle confronts the protagonist in such a way that the reader has an of course! experience at the dénouement (but not so obviously that the reader solves the problem before the protagonist). In a classic Christie example, Poirot asks the butler to tell him the date on the victim's desk calendar. That worthy leans over to peer at the page before saying "the fourth." The important information is not that the victim was last at his desk on the fourth, but that the butler is very nearsighted; his eyewitness account is unreliable. Ellery Queen used to take this a step farther. He (okay, 'they') would break the fourth wall of the story to challenge the reader: "You now have all the clues you need to solve the mystery. Do you know who the killer is?" (I know I was not the only reader to stop at that point and go back over the story to determine what information was relevant and solve the case before Ellery.)

However, this fundamental of writing is not restricted to mysteries. All writers owe the reader a story that makes sense, if only internally. The warrior can't suddenly remember an eldritch chant learned in youth to best the dark mage with no previous mention of her childhood. The medical missionary being forced to abandon a vital clinic due to lack of funds can't have a rich aunt die and leave him enough money to run the clinic for decades. A protagonist cannot be prevented from marrying her soul mate by religious/moral/ethical/political restraints for 342 pages only to have everyone agree on page 343 that love conquers—or perhaps trumps—all and they should live happily ever.

There must be scenes early on of the child-who-would-be-warrior learning the chants — perhaps as preparation for life she chose not to follow; perhaps as singing along with what she thought were nonsense songs her father had made up to entertain her. The doctor's family, and his relationship to them, must be established early on. (Perhaps his parents were angry/disappointed in him for "wasting" his talents on the poor when he should be trying to find a cure for his aunt's cancer — or at least taking care of her — while he had the hope his aunt, who had been a pioneer in her day, secretly approved of his chosen work, even if she never said it in so many words.) Two people, no matter how in love, cannot violate the fundamental tenets of their respective worlds unless all the groundwork for their reasons and actions that makes sense within the context of the story has been set in place from the beginning.

And none of these things can be done with a glib throwaway line here or a heretofore unmentioned letter there or a character wandering randomly in from the wings at precisely the right moment. Serendipity happens in real life; it has no place in fiction.

Propping Chekhov's Gun in the corner of the set before the curtain rises is not sufficient. It has to be carried on stage in the full glare of the lights, then loaded and placed in position in plain sight of the audience. It's not necessary to shout or call attention to the process, but every step must be clear and happen in order. Anything less is cheating the reader. You can't fire the gun in act two unless you cock it in act one.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I usually pause to scream when someone asks me this. Well, not really. Mostly I'm screaming inside my head. Three reasons. First, I  can't easily answer. Second, I'm wondering why it matters to anyone. Third, there is no one answer. It's different for each book. The first time I got this question I sat there with a blank expression for two seconds and then just made something up. I was speaking at a literary event. Way to impress, right?

I've never not had ideas for stories. Never. So the reason I'd go blank the first few times I got this question is because the whole idea process happens naturally. Now I'm a grown-up writer on purpose. By that I mean I've matured creatively. Certain aspects of my craft are  done on purpose. This has made me a better writer. The one thing I don't do on purpose is hunt for ideas. My brain just works that way. However, I realize that one day I may need a strategy for coming up with ideas. So here are a few I'll share:

1. Pimp your peeps! Sounds seedy doesn't it? What-ev. A good book is worth it, sugar. Think of dramatic, funny, suspenseful, and scandalous incidents in your family and friends circle.

Then play the "What if?" game. Many times the germ of whole books come from one snippet. For example, a novel I wrote is set is the small town of Solitude, Louisiana. Solitude is in West Feliciana Parish. My late uncle told me about visiting Rosedown Plantation as a child. He would swing  on the huge white gate while my great aunt had coffee and cake with the last descendant of the original family that built Rosedown. He said great aunt Julia looked just like Miss Barrow. Everyone knew what that meant, but speaking it aloud in West Feliciana Parish was (still is) taboo. Years later A Time To Love was written with a subplot inspired by that story.
A family account about a mistress and wife who formed an alliance, to the dismay of the husband, inspired Best Enemies. The real story took place in 1920s rural Louisiana. Best Enemies is contemporary, but the idea of a wife and mistress who become friends to solve a murder has roots in that one afternoon when my elders talked and, curious ten year old Lynn eavesdropped.

2. Be nosy. The cleaned up word for this is for writers to be "curious", or "observant". Let's be real. We're all up in OPB, "other people's business". I use the bad news that CNN, the local newspaper and a variety of news outlets love to report. This informs me about the criminal world, key since I write mysteries and romantic suspense. Of course I can fall back on pimping my peeps since I have some unsavory branches in the old family tree. In After All I used a local scandal that involved the public housing agency to build an entire suspense subplot interwoven with the romance plot. I simply used the newspaper articles that told the whole unsavory story. Easiest research I've ever done. Coincidentally I had met one of the players, a contractor who was later convicted and served time.

3. Use where you live shamelessly. Louisiana is a gold mine. Use your state and hometown. Historical facts and events can make the "What if" game a lot of fun. In A Darker Shade of Midnight the history  of Haitian descendants who came to Louisiana plays a big part in characterization (the heroine and her ancestors). In the sequel I'm writing now, Between Dusk and Dawn, I use more fascinating bits. One little know fact is that a group of Blacks from Louisiana moved to Mexico in the 1870s to escape Jim Crow. I weave these kinds of references in to add spice to my novels, which are mostly set in Louisiana.

February is Black History Month here in the U.S., and March is Women's History Month. Because I love history, I celebrate continuously. History helps me fill out settings, build characterizations and generate plots.

For more on getting ideas see this helpful site- Creative Prompts for Writers

I must feed my need for good fiction, so keep writing!

What part of writing comes to you naturally, and what have you had to work on? Setting, description, dialogue, plotting, transitions, pacing?