Sunday, May 25, 2014

Guest author James R. Callan: Conflict & Tension Can Help You

After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing.  He wrote a monthly column for a national magazine for two years, and published several non-fiction books.  He now concentrates on his favorite genres, Mystery and Suspense, with his fifth book released in 2014. At the request of a publisher, he has also written books on character development and how to write great dialog.

We all know that conflict is the basis for most plots.

This post is about character development. So, what does conflict have to do with character development? Easy. Conflict can show the reader a lot about a character. Conflict often leads to tension. And tension is another great way for the reader to learn about a character.

You’ve probably heard the advice to have conflict on every page. That’s good advice. How do you do that? Here’s an example.

“You sound different?
“No, I don’t.”

There’s conflict in six words. How much conflict? As much as you want. Suppose the first person pursues it. It could get nasty. Or, the second person could say she just has an allergy. End of conflict.

What if the first speaker, a woman, has never met the second speaker, a man. She’s talked to him on the telephone a number of times. But this does not sound like the man she’s been talking to. This could be a big problem, and a major conflict. All started from six words. How this plays out can show the reader a good bit about these two characters.

Ann says, “That was really a good movie.”
Jill responds, “It was terrible, probably the worst movie I’ve seen all year.”
We have a conflict between Ann and Jill. How much? As much as you want or need. Here is an excellent opportunity to show the reader a bit about these two characters. Does Ann drop it? Or does she push forward. “The acting was superb and the plot was excellent. How can you say it was terrible?” We can establish whether Ann sticks to her opinions or is easily swayed. Is Jill pushy? Is either one of them ready to give in or fight?

How does Ashley handle it when the person she’s talking to trashes Ashley’s friends?

What is Ethan’s reaction when someone cuts in front of him in a line? What if he is in a car and someone cuts him off?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
Tension can tell us a lot about a character. Here’s an example of tension between two friends.

“What did that man say to you?”
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
“He seemed to upset you. What did he say?”
“Drop it.”

This probably is not a conflict between two friends, but there is tension. How much? As much as you want. Depending on what comes next, the reader can learn a lot about the character of these two friends.

The tension could be within one person.

“Who was that guy?”
“He’s the man who tried to destroy my life.” Sandra closed her eyes and tried to quiet her nerves. “I know he’s going to try again.”

Clearly, we are learning about Sandra. How she deals with this tension will help define her.

So, use conflict and tension to help develop the character. One of the best aspects of using this approach is that you are definitely showing not telling. You are presenting a scene and letting the reader see how the character reacts, thus helping define the character.

In my mystery Cleansed by Fire, there are numerous conflicts between my protagonist, Fr. Frank, and the detective investigating the fires. Those help define both Fr. Frank and the detective.

Remember, major conflict is the plot. But minor conflicts and tension are great ways to show the reader who your characters really are.

On Amazon, in paperback
On Amazon, in paperback, Kindle, and audio (June 2014)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Writing - a balm

Last December I blogged about, “The Dash”.  This April, my last post was “The bucket list.”  Neither posts have much to do with writing, but reflect something more personal: dealing with death and terminal illness of a sibling. Last year November, my oldest brother died suddenly of a heart attack.  He had a healthy lifestyle which made me contemplate the fleeting nature of life.  A few months later my younger sister was told her cancer was terminal and she immediately made up a bucket list.  On May 1st she succumbed to her disease, accomplishing nothing on her bucket list. 

The two deaths impacted me differently.  My big brother, was more like a father figure to me offering guidance and protection, but my sister was my best friend.  She and I were the last ones remaining when everyone left home.  We went to primary and high school together.   We even went to college together.  She was the maid of honor at my wedding; the Godmother of my son; the encourager behind my accomplishments; she was the wind beneath my wings.  When I decided to give up my job and go to graduate school for my doctorate, she was right there telling me “Go for it!”  When I was terrified of driving and no one would trust me with their vehicles, she tossed the keys to her new vehicle to me and told me to drive.  I am still scared of highways, but she kept encouraging me to take a short stretch at a time.  Her goal was for me to drive from Maryland to New York.  I never did that in her lifetime, but I did drive part of the way to Canada on highways.

When I first told her I was going to publish a book, I expected her to laugh or be dismissive.  That is the reaction I got from most people.  Instead she asked me to send her the manuscript so she can edit it.  On the dedication page of my first published novel are the words, “This book would not be possible without the unwavering support of my sister and my husband.”  I had five sisters then, but my baby sister was the one referenced.

During her illness, she suffered greatly, and her loved ones suffered along with her.  One of my older sisters called me one day and said she was just so tired of my sister’s suffering.  She felt helpless, out of control and she just wanted to sit in the sun, smell the flowers and for one minute not worry.  I told her to go ahead and sit in the sun, take a walk in the park, garden do anything that she can control.  I told her that is why I write.

You see, all through my sister’s illness, even the days when I camped out at her hospital room (I jokingly referred to it as my hotel), I still took the time to write.  Why?  It was my escape.  I couldn’t control her disease, I couldn’t ease her suffering.  So I left that up to God and tried to encourage her and comfort her.  But in my writing, I am the god.  I have total control.  I can give the characters trials and tribulation; I can give them their “happy ever after”.   And for a brief moment, I am totally in control.  

So writing for me is more than a hobby, more than a profession.   Writing is a balm.

This post is dedicated to my younger sister.  May your soul rest in peace, my sister.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shortlist oasis

I sometimes describe my writing career (I use the term loosely here) as a desert with the occasional
oasis that makes it all worthwhile. What is the desert comprised of? Years of toiling in the dark, the laborious search for agents and publishers, the chimerical nature of the publishing industry that follows neither the rules of logic nor of commerce, the clogging up of online bookstores with the slush pile (there, I've said it, and I'm by no means referring to the worthwhile, well-written and edited indie books out there)...

...The shrinkage and near-disappearance of the author advance.
...The social media time-suck requirement that does little unless the writer is already established.
...The fact that some publishers are still robbing writers blind.
Sand, sand, lots of dry sand.

But every now and then something thrilling happens. Signing with my agent back in 2006 was one; she was the first industry professional to validate my writing, and one of my first fans. The first sale to a publisher, the first release, the first sighting of a book with your name on it in a bookstore, the first (and every single) fan letter, the good and great reviews, the writing network built up over years, the kindness of strangers...

My latest oasis experience has been the shortlisting of one of my stories for the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I'm not ashamed to say it made me delirious with joy, partly because I'm well aware that genre writers, especially those who dabble in romance, are not taken seriously by the literary establishment. But that aside, it just feels good to have one's work recognised in this way. For the rest of the month, drinks are on me!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Biting the Hand You Hope Will Feed You.

Last month, it was with no small amount of disbelief and horror that I read an article posted by one of my Facebook friends:

Why producers WILL NOT READ YOUR SCRIPT – shocking case study from one exec

Go ahead. Read it. I’ll wait.

Back yet? Holy schnikes, right?

I’ve been doing this writing thing for more than a few years, now, and yet I’m always stunned when I read about something like this. So far as shooting one’s self in the foot goes, I have to believe that this definitely ranks right up there as one of the more spectacular examples.

While you’d like to think this is an isolated case perpetrated by a single irate individual, the truth is that this is a pretty common occurrence, and it’s certainly not limited to Hollywood producers and hopeful screenwriters looking for that first break. Indeed, feel free to substitute “novelist” or “comic writer” or “comic artist” for “scriptwriter,” because some variant of this scenario happens a lot. As you sit there, reading this pithy little blog entry, someone somewhere is right this very minute cocking the virtual trigger of the gun which they then will use to shoot themselves in their own figurative foot.

Don’t be that person.

I’ve been witness to incidents similar to the one cited in the article, and on rare occasions I’ve even been asked by fans at conventions or signings if I would please read a manuscript they happen to have with them. If it’s a really special day, a fan will package their request with an explanation of how it’s so much more awesome than the drek my publisher usually casts upon an unsuspecting readership (Yes, including my own output with said publisher). That’s always a fun moment or two.

Unless I have a prior relationship with the person making such a request of me, I almost always politely decline in those situations, just as I gently eschew requests to discuss plots or story ideas. Such venues typically aren’t conducive to such conversations, anyway, as my attention usually is being divided by any number of people and activities. Instead, I try to offer alternatives such as writing classes or workshops if the convention is hosting such events, or joining a writers group at a local library, bookstore or college, or an online group. More often than not, I suggest forgoing the writing groups altogether and just go for broke by submitting stories to markets with open calls for submissions, so that they can (hopefully) get proper feedback from an actual editor.

Speaking for myself, I believe that just walking up to someone when there’s no prior relationship and making a demand on their time and effort is just plain rude. When people ask me about how to go about talking to an editor or agent in these situations, I advise that it's better to inquire about their guidelines and request their contact information so that a manuscript or proposal can be sent through the correct channels for consideration. That's how professionals do it.

But, let’s say for the sake of discussion that the “targeted” writer/editor/producer/whatever opts to honor such a request. Getting miffed at anything less than glowing feedback is—plainly and simply—doubling down on the aforementioned rudeness. That’s the sort of thing that gets you remembered, and not in the good way. Editors, agents, and writers talk to each other, after all, and they love to tell stories about their odd encounters with people looking for that “big break.”

Oh, and if you can really spice things up by insulting the very people you hope will one day write you a check—usually in some form of telling them they lack vision, or they wouldn’t know good writing if it bit them on their posterior—then one day you, too, can be the subject of blog postings like this one.

Don’t be that person.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Who's Critiquing the Critiquers?

I've been tossed out of three critique groups. I even had one author throw a handful of pens at me.

Am I the critic from hell? Maybe. What I've found in these groups is 1) they want praise instead of pointers; 2) they are using the group as a therapy session; 3) they have no serious intention of publishing. I also found critique groups were an incredible waste of my time.

I also scratch my head at the notion that a group of unpublished writers are listening to the advice of other unpublished writers. A great example of the blind leading the blind. Going in with a few books under my belt didn't work in my favor as I was written off as a fluke. The one-in-a-million instead of an example that publishing is possible for anyone.

I've come to realize that many people love the idea of being a writer more than actually writing. There seems to be a perception of the writing life that has absolutely nothing to do with reality. That's probably Hemingway's fault. I also love people who blithely say "Oh, I should write a book! I've had an interesting life." People, it's not as easy as it looks.

What nobody wants to hear is that writing is more than throwing down words on paper. There's actually craft to the process. Also punctuation, grammar, POV, voice, story arc and even rules. When new writers realize how much there is to learn, the process loses some of its glamour. Now it's just WORK. At that point they seem to go in one of three directions: denial, depression or determination.

The first allows the writer to tell the group they're wrong. Why? Because this person received "A's" in English. Plus, their mother and all their friends just love their writing. An agent will see what a unique voice they have and wil clean up the manuscript and publish the book to great acclaim.

The second gives the writer permission to give up the dream of writing. Criticism just proves the writer was never born with talent so why try? Better to lick the wounds and grieve for a career that never was.

The third writer suits up and says, "Okay, show me what I have to learn." This writer takes on the job of writing but in the process discovers much more than they ever learned in school. They learn introspection and dissection, they understand that ego has no place. It can be brutal and infinitely rewarding.

There are only two people allowed to read and critique my work: me and my publisher. If it pleases both of us, it's ready for human consumption. Writing is not a demographic process and no writer should wait for others to decide when the manuscript meets their standards. Only one name is going to be on the book, only one person will get credit or blame.              

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Reveal, Advance, or Get Out of My Story

I recently wrote a short story and decided to submit it to a publication. I hired our own novelspaces co-ordinator, Liane, who did a brilliant line edit on it and I was about to submit it when I re-read the submission requirements.

Maximum word count: 3,500 words.

Yikes! My story was pushing 5,000 words. I had to drop a third of it and quick.

I'm sure that publications have their reasons for limiting the number of words, but these limits keep authors honest. Kurt Vonnegut is said to have said "Every sentence must do one of two things--reveal character or advance the action. So I trimmed everything that didn't do either of these things and found myself with 3,450 words that expressed everything that needed to be said about my characters and the situation in which they found themselves.

What had been in those 1,500 words anyway?

It was a difficult process. I get attached to scenes and sentences I feel are catchy. Or one can get hung up on teaching the audience a particular lesson which may not emerge naturally from the plot. In the latter case, we manipulate the characters' actions and words so that my viewpoints come through. That's a recipe for disaster because the readers will spot the lack of authenticity in the character's voice.

What has your experience been in trimming fat from your work?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cover Art

On behalf of BookYear Mysteries (a wholly-owned subsidiary of me), I am pleased to announce the publication of the fourth Henry Grave Mystery: Aleutian Grave.  

For tax reasons, specifically my intention to write off cruises as work-related activities, I had intended to finish this project in December.  But it didn't work out that way.  The first draft was deeply flawed.  Also, it was lacking in plot, tempo, character development, verbs, and font consideration.  So I spent four more months pounding it into shape.  And I'm pleased with the results.  

When it came time to thinking about the cover, I knew it had to have a cruise ship on it, but I'd already done that a few times, and I wanted to try something different.  Finally, I went with an old Russian stamp that I found online.  I bought the rights from a European image service, and then I went to work on it.  Below is the whole cover - wrapping around the spine.

Aleutian Grave explores crime in the Bering Sea. Henry Grave returns as an investigator for the Association of Cruising Vessel Operators. A World War II P.O.W., Henry is as cunning as he is charming, and at 85 years of age, he fits right in with his fellow passengers. The arctic exploration ship Nikolai Gorodish is cruising the Aleutian islands when a cabaret dancer named Rose DeSilva is found stabbed to death. More deaths will follow. But that’s only the beginning. Is there an an arctic demon on board the ship? Or is someone else cannibalizing the bodies of the dead? With the help of a horror film star, a Russian heiress, and an apprentice shaman, Henry draws on skills honed in a Nazi prison camp to track down a killer who might have his own reasons for taking this particular cruise, reasons unrelated to the sumptuous meals, delightful shipboard activities, and arctic ports of call. 

12 million people take a cruise each year.
Most have fun.
Some die.
Henry Grave investigates.

I had intended to have the Kindle version out today, but it didn't happen.  One of the chapters got buggy, as Kindle chapters do, but if you'd like to have a look at the relatively inexpensive print version, here's the link.  

I'll be doing a Kindle freebie promo shortly on the last book in the series - Grave Indulgence - in an effort to attract readers, that being the most effective way I know.  Any thoughts and advice on how to appeal to a wider audience would be welcome.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Guest author Melodie Campbell: In the Writing Trenches: Rules for Moms

Melodie got her start writing comedy. In 1999, she opened the Canadian Humour Conference. She has over 200 publications including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories, and has won 9 awards for short fiction. Her fifth novel, a mob caper, is entitled The Goddaughter's Revenge (Orca Books). Melodie was a finalist for the 2012 Derringer, and both the 2012 and 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards. She is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. Catch Melodie's humour column for The Sage, Canada's magazine of satire and opinion.

Okay, these are not the definitive rules for Author-Moms. I would never claim to be an expert.  But I did raise two kids while writing stand-up on the side and penning a syndicated humour column every two weeks. So I learned a few things about survival along the way

Bad Girl’s Tricks for Writing with Kids:

  1. Probably you shouldn’t lock yourself in the bathroom, so the kids can’t get at you. Equally, you shouldn’t sit in the playpen with your kid on the outside, screaming and shaking the thing.  Okay, at least not more than once a day.
  2. Never put a package of Twinkies in front of a toddler so that you can continue to write. (Remove them all from the plastic wrappers first so the kid doesn’t choke.)
  3. A kid won’t die if they drink half a mug of cold coffee.  But watch the wine. In fact, you might want to finish the bottle right now so there is no risk.
  4. Other kid’s birthday parties are a great thing for a writer. But you really should pick up your own kid when they’re over. (Eventually. Before winter.)
  5. It’s okay to get someone to babysit your kids while you move into a new house. But it’s not okay to forget to tell anyone where that house is.
  6. When your kid leaves home for university, it is not recommended to immediately change their room into a study or writing room. Wait until after Christmas. The sales are better.

Re “Leaving the nest”: Every mother gets emotional about this. But probably you shouldn’t do it until your kids are grown up.

Melodie Campbell achieved a personal best this year when Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Her first book, Rowena Through the Wall, was an Amazon Top 100 bestseller. Her fifth novel, The Goddaughter's Revenge, has just been released by Orca Books.

     Okay, I admit it. I would rather be the proud possessor of a rare gemstone than a lakefront condo with parking. Yes, I know this makes me weird. Young women today are supposed to crave the security of owning their own home
     But I say this. Real estate, shmeel estate. You can’t hold an address in your hand. It doesn’t flash and sparkle with the intensity of a thousand night stars, or lure you away from the straight and narrow like a siren from some Greek odyssey.
     Let’s face it. Nobody has ever gone to jail for smuggling a one bedroom plus den out of the country.
However, make that a 10-carat cyan blue topaz with a past as long as your arm, and I’d do almost anything to possess it.
    But don’t tell the police.

Library Journal says this about Melodie`s third novel, The Goddaughter (Orca Books): 
"Campbell`s crime caper is just right for Janet Evanovich fans.  Wacky family connections and snappy dialogue make it impossible not to laugh."

The Goddaughter's Revenge on Amazon 
The Goddaughter on Amazon 
Follow Melodie’s comic blog at 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Contributing to an Anthology

Wikipedia defines an anthology as: A collection of literary works chosen by the compiler

My question is, is it worth it to contribute to an anthology if the compiler receives royalties as part of their deal (or is the publisher), and their offer to you is a few copies of the book, and/or less than say, $100? Each writer who accepts such deals has his/his own reasons for agreeing to do so. Some say it equates to writing for free, others say in the long run, the contributor benefits. I've done it a couple of times because it felt right at the time, but I'm just curious as to whether or not my Novel Spaces authors and Novel Spaces blog followers have ever done this, or would agree to do it, and why, or why not.

I posted this question on my Facebook page recently for authors to answer, and the replies were very interesting. While I don't think money should always be the focus, the compiler eventually ends up getting paid for the project based on sales, and the contributors do not. Are you fine with this? And I'm directing this to authors, not compilers.

Thanks for your feedback. Write on!