Thursday, January 31, 2013

Channeling imaginary people

By Gayle Carline

Holy Carp, I've got a blog post to write!

Okay that's what this feels like. I meant to write my post early Wednesday afternoon, then became absorbed in editing the latest manuscript. Amazingly, after having it edited it myself, then paying a professional, then having beta readers, I downloaded it onto my Kindle and guess what? I'm finding more stuff to change. Stuff like, did I really use good twice in the same sentence?

Yeah. Like that.

So later in the evening, I was sitting at the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney with the hubster, eating a turker burger and watching the Lakers lose, when I said, "Holy carp! I forgot my CFC post!"

Good thing I knew what I was going to write about, especially since I'd already had two glasses of wine. (BTW, how's my spelling look?)

For me, a good story is about its characters. If I can't get into a character, can't live vicariously through them, can't at least step into their shoes for a while, then the plot has to be so incredibly clever or the writing so intensely magnificent, or...

No, forget it. I gotta have real people.

This means I need to know my characters in order to weave my mysteries around them. Michele Scott, author extraordinaire, taught me some tricks to getting acquainted with my real-yet-imaginary people. The big one, for me, has been journaling. By giving each of them a "diary entry" or two, I find out where they were born, how they were raised, and how they've each gotten to this place in their lives. I don't always reveal all this information in the story. But this is how I know each person's boundaries, what they are and are not capable of doing, and why.

I thought I'd share one of my character's journals. My new protagonist, Willie (Wilhemina) Adams is a short, curvaceous brunette in her late 30s. She is a Libra. When I sat down and imagined her, here's what she told me:
I thought I'd have the normal life. Married with children. A job, maybe a career. They say we plan and God laughs.

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. We were very middle class average people. Dad was Irish, Mom was German. I could have been a tall, fetching redhead. Instead I got the wrong side of both tracks. Dad's shortness, mom's curves, dad's freckles, mom's dark hair. We did normal family stuff. Went to church on Sundays after bbq'ing with friends on Saturday nights.
Maybe it started to go awry when I went to college. I was the baby although not by much. I have a sister one year older and a brother 3 years older. We didn't give Mom much time to do anything but raise us.

When I moved into the dorms at U of Illinois and began taking classes for a teaching career, I started to see how my mom sacrificed for us and how I didn't want to spend my life taking care of kids.
I changed my major after a trip to the counseling office, to engineering. Mom thought I was pissing away money on a degree I'd toss once I got married. Dad didn't say anything, but kept paying the tuition. I got my BS in CS and was recruited to work at a big aerospace company on the west coast. I had just moved into my new apartment when Trina, my sis, called.

Dad had a heart attack and died. Trina and my brother Stefan still lived in Chicago, but somehow Mom thought I should be the one to move home with her. I wasn’t married, didn’t have a family, etc. I gave up the new job and apartment and moved back. It’s what dutiful children do, right?
The first year was rough. We were both grieving our loss, and acting out as people do, by being alternately angry and clingy with each other. It slowly started to get better. We each found our own niche in the household and worked together instead of battling over territories. One year after Dad was gone, the light switched back on in Mom’s spirit.

Actually, it was less of a light and more of a disco ball. It seems Mom woke up one morning and realized all she had sacrificed as a wife and mother, and set out to reclaim her freedom. Suddenly she was never home. She found a group of single women her age and they were always out to have as much frivolous fun as possible. There was a lot of shopping, a lot of drinking and dancing, and a lot of money running out of the house.
I had gotten a job at a bookstore back home, the only thing I could find that at least kept my mind active. There were no engineering jobs in the Chicago vicinity for me. But I had money coming in. Dad had left Mom comfortable, had she continued with the lifestyle they once shared. I could see this new way of living was going to drain every bit of money he had left her. She was in her fifties and in fine health. She’d also never worked outside the home.

I tried not to butt in, but finally I had to speak up. I had seen her latest bank statement and it was a train wreck. I sat her down and showed her the statement and pointed out the increase in her expenses. I even extrapolated a few numbers, to show her how soon her money would run out if she kept spending this way. The house was paid for, but she still had taxes and insurance and utilities. She could sell the house and get some money from that, but it would not solve the problem of her out of control spending.
She said the most amazing thing to me: “We’ll pay the household expenses out of your pay. You may have to get another job to support us both.”

I met Trina and Stefan for lunch that day, and explained the entire situation to them. Then I packed my bags and bought a one-way fare to southern California. There was only so much duty a dutiful daughter would perform. Enabling my mom’s second childhood was not on the menu.
Mom stopped speaking to me. I heard via my sibs that she refused to cut back or slow down, despite their protests. Stefan even explored legal action, but when a person is sane there’s not much you can do. You can’t fix stupid.

I quickly found a job at a video game company. It’d be fun to say I write all these great games, but they wanted my services in the administrative end, so I work on their employee database, payroll software, game catalogs, processes, etc.
That’s where I met Tom Adams. He was exactly the kind of guy I was attracted to — not too tall, the kind of strikingly awkward looks that made him adorable, and a sense of humor. We hit it off like peas in a pod. Although we both knew from the start that we were completely compatible, we took our time with courtship. Neither of us was in a hurry to run off and marry. I enjoyed being in the relationship, and so did he. After a year, we moved in together.

Two years later, we married. It wasn’t a huge affair, but my sibs came out to celebrate with us. Mom returned the invitation. “Recipient Unknown.”
Life was so much fun. We went to concerts and plays, saw the latest movies, had friends over for dinner, did the big fat social scene. Tom wanted kids, and so did I, but we weren’t in a hurry. We had plenty of time.

Then one day Tom woke with a stomach pain that kept hurting the next day and the next. After a week, he went to the doctor. There were tests and tests and more tests, and painkillers because the pain was increasing. I drove him everywhere. He used up a lot of his sick days. It took two weeks to diagnose him. Pancreatic cancer.
Two months later he was dead.

Trina and Stefan were out in sunny SoCal again, except it wasn’t so sunny anymore. They helped me with everything, along with my friends. Quite frankly, it was all a blur. I thought I knew what grief felt like, after Dad died. I had no idea what it was like to lose someone who was beyond family, more than close, intimate in ways that you don’t discuss in polite society. When my eyes weren’t weeping, my soul was.
Mom was still a no-show, which was doubly painful. I thought that, being a sudden widow herself, she might have reached out to me. Stefan reported that she had finally opened her bank statement one day and realized she had a thousand dollars left. Dad had left her $250,000 and she had one thousand left. She called my brother in a panic. Taxes were due, what was she to do?

He got out the newspaper and turned to the Help Wanted section. Then he got out his checkbook. “This is the only money I’m going to give you. Your children tried to warn you and you wouldn’t listen. We are not going to pay for your mistakes. You will have to get a job now and re-learn how to live on a budget.”
She’s not speaking to him now, either. Oh, she cashed the check, but she’s not speaking.

Eventually, he and Trina had to go back to Chicago, and I had to re-learn how to live as a single gal. My friends helped me a little, for awhile. I tried not to burden them with my recovery, and they tried to include me in everything they were doing. The problem was that they were couples and I was not. After a few months, I started to feel the awkwardness instead of the comfort. It was not their fault. They were always inviting, warm, friendly. Maybe they just made me miss Tom too much.
I took the advice of every columnist on the planet. I got a dog for company, a schnauzer I named Hansel. He kept me from spending my days in bed. I signed up for classes, did volunteer work, tried new things to keep busy. Most of it didn’t fit, until I tried horse riding lessons.

I had wanted to ride as a child, but Mom always said no.“Too expensive. We can’t afford things like that.” Maybe that was in the back of my mind when I called the local stables looking for lessons. Ha ha, Mom.
I’ve tried skiing, scuba diving, and all kinds of sports. None of them seemed a good fit for me. Being short and curvy does not translate to athletic grace. But from the first time I gave the lesson horse a deep massage with the curry and saw him stretch his neck out in pleasure, to the satisfaction of controlling his movements through my own riding, I knew this was it. There was no other activity I had experienced where I loved the prep work as much as the action.

Soon I was riding my trainer’s horse and competing in horse shows in the area. It’s becoming a consuming passion with me. Now I’m looking to buy a horse. It’s been two years since Tom’s death, and I finally feel like the fog is lifting.

As a writer, I sit back at these words and wonder where this came from.

Writers, how many times does this happen to you - that you realize you've created a character that almost seems more real than you are? And readers, how deep, how fleshed out, how three-dimensional do you need your characters to be?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

When is it not okay?

By Jenny Hilborne
Author of Mysteries and Thrillers

I love to eavesdrop. While some people might find it creepy to listen in on the conversations of others, I don't. It's not like I position myself to engineer it and secretly listen in to private conversations. People talk in loud voices and air their personal business in public places. It's true, the juicy snippets make me prick up my ears, and I always have a notebook and pen handy to jot useful tidbits down. It's also true I sometimes ride the bus and sit in busy cafe's for research, to watch people and listen to what's going on. Public transport is a fantastic way to pick up ideas for great plot lines and interesting scenes.

On a recent twenty minute trip into town, I learned about one male passenger's whole life including where he grew up, his failed marriages and the causes behind them, job losses and divorce. Everyone on the bus heard his story. Fair game to use any interesting bits, as far as I'm concerned. He doesn't know me. If I used anything he said, and if he ever reads any of my books, he will never know he contributed. And he clearly didn't care who heard him.

What I struggle with is using elements from the stories I'm told by people I know, people who've shared parts of their lives with me. If I have their prior permission, or if they've unloaded for this purpose - for me to tell their story - no problem. But sometimes I don't want to ask for their permission. I don't even want to suggest I might like to use what they've told me in a plot line because it feels unkind and tacky, as though I've lost my compassion as a friend and think about them only in terms of how I can use them in my work. The thought that a situation so troubling for them might make compelling reading for someone else seems insensitive, and I wonder if by asking permission to use it, I'm somehow making light of their struggle. To use it without their permission seems wrong, yet I hate to let an opportunity for a great story slip by. I'm not looking to benefit from anyone's personal tragedy, more I'm looking to write a good story I believe readers will find believable, compelling and be drawn to. As journalists always look for good stories to report, writers always look for good plot lines and most of our (best) fiction is ground in the truth.

My upcoming release, Stone Cold, is a psychological thriller. Part of the idea for one of the plot lines is born out of a real-life tragedy. I can't ask the person's permission to use it because they are dead, but I wonder if I should have discussed it with their family. It happened a long time ago and it never occurred to me back then that I'd ever want to use it in a novel. Over the years, the tragedy and the facts surrounding it nagged me. I believe my friend would have encouraged me to write it. I don't have direct contact with the family members, and they don't know me, so maybe it doesn't matter, yet something about it still tugs at my conscience. In real life, it didn't turn out okay, and that's the source of my dilemma. In fiction, I can give it a fitting ending and give the bad guys what they deserve. Fictional justice. I hope my friend would approve.

Some people argue that it isn't necessary to use real life tragedy to create good fiction, but I find movies made out of real life tragedies stir the strongest emotions within the audience. I'm sure there are many examples, but the two I want to use are the Titanic and The Impossible; the latter being a new release based on a true story of a family's survival of the 2004 tsunami that struck Thailand. I enjoyed both these movies and never felt the fictionalized aspects detracted from the real life tragedy or demeaned those who lost their lives. The devastation of the real life events were immense, yet pleasure was gained from the story itself - from the survival, the triumphs, humanity and the way people pulled together to survive - not from the real life tragedy. I came away from both movies with empathy for the real life victims, people I don't know. If using real life tragedy, whether on a large scale or from a personal event, in a movie or a novel can move us and make us care about what happened, I don't see it as wrong or unnecessary. To me, it's even more compelling because aspects of the story are based on real life events. Real life events create believable fiction, and it makes me care more.

Whenever we fictionalize the truth in our novels, writers twist the facts and alter the identities of anyone upon whom we base a character to protect their privacy. Wherever necessary, we also modify the circumstances to make them unrecognizable to any particular person. Ethically speaking, even with a disclaimer, is this enough? If a writer wants to use the real life tragedy of someone they know, even if indirectly, and they have protected the identity and privacy of the real life characters, should they obtain permission first? Is there a time when it is not okay to use real life tragedy in fiction? When is that time?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Fighting is Important

Isn’t life a fight for all of us to one degree or another?

And we don’t win all of those fights and even the ones that we win often leave us marked up, sore and exhausted.  I box as a hobby and part of the reason I do it is because it is a metaphor for everything else I do in life.

I’ve fought for 34 years, first getting my black belt in Tae Kwon Do and then moving on to boxing. I’m glad I can defend myself and I think it is important for everyone to know how to throw a punch or kick if they have to.

But these aren’t the main reasons I fight.

I do it because it still scares me and I do it because it teaches me over and over again that I can take pain if I have to.

The more pain I can endure, the more I can get out of life. The more I can put off the immediate gratification addiction the more long-term hedonism I can enjoy. Getting hit, feeling it and dealing with it, let’s me know I am not a slave to always feeling good.

Doing what scares me over and over teaches me that I can deal with emotions I don’t like and move forward anyway.

My character, Duffy, lives by this.  He’s scared to fight but terrified of getting too old not to fight. In my-work-in-progress he’s sent in to crisis when it looks like boxing is going to be taken away from him. He knows it’s who he is not just what he does and when that’s taken from him he realizes he might not be any different than anyone else.

I judge pro boxing and last Friday I did the ESPN fights. In two of the bouts guys took beatings that no reasonable person would ever endure. When the fights were stopped by the referee both fighters complained. They wanted to keep going.

They were both bleeding from several facial lacerations and their eyes were swollen. I watched the replay of the fights and television homogenizes the brutality of the sport. Up close it’s real trauma, real blood and real hurt.

To do that willingly you have to be special. Some might even say insane.

But if you’ve done it you know that there is something intoxicating about it.

Facing what scares you and keeping on when you’re hurt is its own special high.

You don't have to fight to get this but for me it is the cleanest of the metaphors.

What do you do?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

How to Slash Your Word Count by 20-50%

…and tighten up your story without losing any of the good stuff!

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Have you been told your story looks promising or even intriguing, but your novel is way too long?  Today’s readers have shorter attention spans, and publishers don’t want to accept long novels from new writers, as they are so much more expensive to produce.

The current preferred length for thrillers, mysteries and romance is around 70,000–90,000 words. Anything over100K is definitely considered too long in most genres these days. Well-written, finely crafted fantasies and historical sagas can run longer, but newbie writers need to earn their stripes first before attempting to sell a really long novel. Basically, every word needs to count. Every image and decision and action and reaction needs to drive the story forward. There’s no place for rambling or waxing eloquent or self-indulgent preening in today’s popular fiction! Thrillers and other suspense novels especially need to be fast-paced page-turners.

Some strategies for cutting the word count. It’s best to proceed roughly in this order, using any of the tips that apply to your novel:

First, consider:

~ If you have a meandering writing style, tighten it up. Condense long descriptions and backstory; take out repetitions of all kinds (imagery, plot points, ideas, descriptions, phrases, words); delete or condense scenes that drag, have insufficient tension, or just don’t drive the story forward; and in general, make your scenes, paragraphs and sentences leaner. See Chapters 9, 10, 11, 14 & 15 of my book, Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

In general, it’s best to start with big changes/cuts to plot, characters, and structure:

~ If your writing is quite tight but you have an intricate, involved plot, can you divide your really long novel into two or three in a series? But bear in mind that each book in the series needs its own plot arc and character arc – rising tension and some resolution, and a change/growth in the protagonist.

~ If the story doesn’t lend itself to being broken up, try making your plot less detailed. Cut or combine some of your less exciting plot points. Cut down on some of the “and then, and then, and then…”

~ Consider deleting one or two (or three) subplots, depending on how many you have.

~ Cut back on your cast of thousands. Too many characters can be confusing and annoying to the readers. Combine two or three characters into one. And don’t get into involved descriptions of minor, walk-on characters.

~ Consider deleting or condensing chapter one. Maybe even chapter two, too. Take out the warm-up, where you’re revving your engine, and start your story later.

~ Take out all or almost all backstory (character history) in the first few chapters and marble in just the essentials as you go along, on an “as-needed” basis only. This also helps add intrigue.

~ Delete most or all of any chapters that don’t have enough tension and change, that don’t drive the story forward. Add any essential bits to other chapters. (Save deleted stuff on another file.) Or condense two chapters and combine them into one.

~ Delete or condense scenes that don’t have enough tension or change, or add much to the plot or characterization. Condense parts where scenes drag, eliminating the boring bits. (Take out the parts that readers skip over.) See my article “Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change" or Chapter 4 of my book, Writing a Killer Thriller.

~ Take out any weak links, remnants from earlier versions, stuff that just doesn’t fit there anymore (if it ever did).

Then evaluate your writing style, and the internal structure of your chapters and scenes:

~ Cut back on rambling or overly detailed descriptions of settings. With today’s access to TV, movies, the internet and travel, we no longer need the kind of detail readers of 100 years ago needed to understand the setting, so just paint with broad brush strokes, and leave out all the little details. Also, don’t describe the setting in neutral language. Filter any descriptions of surroundings through the eyes, ears, and attitude of your point of view character. 

~ Same with characters – no need to go into great detail. Give the most obvious and interesting details, and let the readers fill in the rest to their heart’s content. See my article “Character Descriptions – Detailed or Sketchy?”

~ Don’t repeat info. Don't have a character relating the details to another character of something that happened that the readers witnessed first-hand and already know about. Skip over it with a phrase like “She told him how she’d gotten injured.” 

~ Start scenes and chapters later and end them sooner. Cut out the warm-up and cool-down.

~ Skip over transitional times when not much happens. Replace with one or two sentences, or just a phrase, like “Three days later,”.

~ Eliminate or severely condense any “explanations” on subjects. Take out or condense any info dumps, self-indulgent rambling on pet topics, “teaching” sections, or rants. Keep these to the bare minimum, and give the info from a character’s point of view, with attitude, or through a lively conversation or heated argument. See Chapter 8 of Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

~ Eliminate repetitions and redundancies. Just say it once – no need to say it again in a different way. You may think that will help emphasize your point, but it actually has the opposite effect. For more on this, see Chapter 9 of Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

Finally, tighten your writing to create leaner paragraphs and sentences:

~ Try to delete one paragraph per page (or two); one sentence (or more) in each paragraph; and at least one word, preferably more, in each sentence. Cut out the deadwood!

~ Do a search for all those words that are just taking up space or weakening your prose, and delete most of them, like there is, there was, it is, it was, that, now, then, suddenly, immediately, and qualifiers like very, quite, kind of, sort of, somewhat, extremely, etc. Also, take out any other extra words that are cluttering up your sentences like “located”: Not: “The cafe was located on Main Street,” but: “The cafe was on Main Street.” And delete redundant add-ons like “in color,” “in size,” “in time,” and “in number.” Not, “The car was red in color” but “The car was red.” For more tips on streamlining your writing, see Chs. 14 & 15 of Style that Sizzles.

~ For better flow, condense prepositional phrases: Change “the captain of the team” to “the team captain”; change “in the vicinity of” to “near,” etc. For more, see Chs. 14 & 15 of Style that Sizzles.

For more tips on streamlining your writing and cutting out the deadwood, see Chapters 14 & 15 of Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

Writers – Do you have any other ideas for reducing your word count?

Also, see my articles, “How to Save a Bundle on Editing Costs” and “Honing Your Craft.”

 Jodie Renner, a freelance editor specializing in popular fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power (soon to be re-titled Fire up Your Fiction), which won a Silver Medal in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013, and Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards, 2013. Upcoming title: Immerse the Readers in Your Story World. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, her blog, Resources for Writers, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Jodie also blogs alternate Mondays on The Kill Zone blog. Subscribe to Jodie’s newsletter here.

Friday, January 25, 2013


Sometimes when a writer digs, they find rich soil. Fragrant. The kind of dirt that sticks to your fingers just a little bit and compels you to bring it up to your nose to smell. The kind that brings images of lush growth. The kind where the fertilizer has long lost its poopy scent and blended perfectly into a pungent ripeness, ready for the touch of a master. It brings a promise all its own.

At other times, full of good intentions, a writer hits elusive sand. Or even worse, dense and sticky clay.

So what then?

God, I wish I knew.

I have this amazing story that I'm about a quarter into. I have a self-imposed deadline (but it's still a deadline), and the date is looking more impossible to achieve every day. I'm struggling to find my focus. My touch. The thing that brings magic to my writing. Energy.

Last night I returned from a week long road trip with my dad during which I wrote not one new word. That's okay. Sometimes making memories is more important than making a sentence. Truly. And the road trip? Thirteen hours each way, fourteen if you count the breakfasts at Denny's (which I don't recommend) and stopping to fill up the gas tank. My dad's nickname is Rocket-Ass when it comes to road trips. I sort of learned I have a bit of Rocket-Ass in me as well, but that's another story. Right now all I feel is wiped out. Even with a good night's sleep in my own bed.

I'm feeling as if I've lost my way. After the holidays I never really got back into gear. Tonight I feel as if getting back into gear is the least of my worries. I've misplaced the damn car.

Today I've been sidetracked. Do I have Amazon Author Pages up in all of the available countries, and if not, why not? Have I refilled all of the bird feeders? Watered the plants that need watering? Have I contacted all of the possible sites to announce the free dates next month for The Missings? Is the grocery list put together enough that I can run my other errands and hit the store without a repeat performance the next day? What about scheduling those dates with friends? Writing… it didn't happen.

I know I need to just start digging. To believe that among the yucky clay I'm bound to find fertile loam.

Maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nonfiction as a Promotional Tool

by Terry Ambrose 

Should I tweet more? Blog more? Use advertising? Stand on a street corner and scream at the world? The options, as well as the opportunities to spend money and time, are endless.

I like to compare today’s publishing world to the California Gold Rush. The comparison fits because the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill brought 300,000 hopefuls to California in search of instant riches. In 2003, 300,000 books were published in the US. By 2011, that number had grown to over three million. Along with the mountain of new titles came writing services—growth of everything from book editing to book creation to promotion services boomed.

Most authors I know are searching for ways to sell more books. And just like those miners who spent their life savings on tools, maps, and services, today’s writers are wondering which tool might be best, which path they should follow, and whether they should advertise or use a promotional service. The opportunities to send out money are far greater than those to bring it in.

One of the options I’ve chosen to increase my name recognition and build a platform is through writing for an online news source. I write a column about crime fiction for And, in fact, I’ve featured several of the authors on Crime Fiction Collective. I mention this because, right now, I want to extend an open invitation to contact me the next time any of them would like a little extra coverage. That, however, is off point. The point is why I think the online news source route is the right one for me.

Write on demand
When taking on an assignment for an online news source, there are expectations that you’ll actually produce news stories. For me, this means writing to deadlines that I establish. Once that deadline has been set, I feel pressure to meet it.

Sharpen your writing skill 
In addition to deadlines, an online news source may have length requirements for articles. Unlike less structured forms of writing, I realized that my words had to fit in a box of a certain size, which took some getting used to. But, over time, I started thinking differently about what I wrote and how I wrote it. The process became easier and as that happened, I also noticed that I could craft better fiction more quickly.

Name recognition

I’m still amazed when I go somewhere and meet someone new and they tell me that they follow my news stories. The topic you choose will affect your visibility and name recognition. Therefore, you want to think carefully about what topics you choose to write about. However, there’s another type of name recognition that has come with the columns that I chose and that has to do with industry professionals. By writing about fiction, I’ve met and established relationships with people I never would have met had I followed a different path.

Who should write for an online news source?
Is this approach for everyone? Absolutely not. If your interest is in blogging and conveying your own opinions and not in reporting, this is not for you. However, I’ve found that writing online news has helped me in many ways—some of which I didn’t foresee. And, it’s a chance to spread my reach while bringing money in, not sending it out.

What do you think? Is this a good approach for you? Do you have questions about how to get started? What’s worked for you?
Terry Ambrose ( started out skip tracing and collecting money from deadbeats and quickly learned that liars come from all walks of life. In addition to writing fiction, Terry also writes three columns for His debut novel is “Photo Finish,” a Hawaiian mystery. Deborah Coonts, author of "So Damn Lucky", the latest in the Lucky O'Toole Vegas Adventure Series called it “a mystery as refreshing as a visit to the islands themselves." Terry’s new release is “License to Lie,” a suspense novel. Hank Phillippi Ryan, Anthony, Agatha and Macavity award-winning author called it a “smart and twisty tale of high finance and double dealing.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How to Write a Sex Scene

By Andrew E. Kaufman

A while back, I did a post about sex scenes: I said they had no place in thrillers. I also said I’d never put one in my novels.

Then fate gave me a double-barreled shot of whoop-ass, when I realized I needed to have—you guessed it—a sex scene in my upcoming novel. There was absolutely no way around it. Darkness and Shadows is a psychosexual thriller, and you can’t have seduction without sex. It’s kind of like a cone without the ice cream. Won’t work. 

The whole point of the scene is that the protagonist’s love interest becomes emotionally vulnerable after their encounter and reveals something about herself she normally would not. This sets up the premise for the entire plot.

After realizing there was no way to avoid this, my next step was to write the scene without losing my reader (and my credibility). When I finished the chapter, however, I was surprised to find it actually worked. Here’s where my learning curve took me. I'm fully aware this is going to sound like an instruction manual, but I'm keeping it as clinical as I can, folks. 
If you’re going to add sex, it should be crucial to the plot

There has to be a specific purpose for a sex scene. Why? Because anything less will come off as gratuitous, if not pointless. Much like violence—or any other element, for that matter—if an action doesn’t drive the plot forward, it’s excess weight on the reader's mind. I know my sex scene was necessary because I ran hundreds of other scenarios through my mind (I was earnestly looking for a way out), but none came close to being as effective. So perhaps a good question to ask yourself when considering whether to add sex to your novel would be: is there a better device I could use to make my point? If the answer is yes, lose it—if not, go for it.

You don’t have to name every part

At first, my scene was just one big hot mess. Seriously. I don’t need to give the details here, but what I realized was that none of the explicit details were necessary; in fact, they undermined what I was trying to accomplish. Since we’re talking about plot/character-driven elements (i.e.: purposeful), the scene wasn't about what the characters were actually doing—it was about their individual motivation. It was about the people, not the parts. Which brings me to the next point.

Focus on the emotions

Since the purpose of the scene was to advance the plot, what actually mattered was what the characters were feeling and thinking. The act itself was a vehicle—not an actual road. So, when I revised the chapter, I focused instead on what was going through my protagonist’s mind (since we’re in his POV) as well as the words and actions of his love interest, so I could set up for the big reveal when she finally pulled back the curtain and uttered those ominous words.

Keep your characters in character during sex:

Yes, people do act and speak in ways they normally wouldn’t when they’re sexually aroused, but we’re talking plot here, not real life, and it served no purpose to have my characters express themselves this way during my scene—in fact, it would have only distracted from the point I was trying to convey in the first place. Another thing I had to pay attention to was my narrative (which again, is from my protagonist’s POV). Using explicit language in my prose would have been out of character for him, and in effect, would have bumped the reader out of the story.

Sex is generally fast—the scene should be as well.

Yes, I know there are exceptions, but if you’re writing a thriller, everything has to move quickly, and this kind of action is no exception. Since the scene occurs as a flashback instead of in real-time, I didn't have the luxury of going on and on (and on). Memories are fleeting. Even memories about sex. 

And after polling my readers, I found that most don’t want sex scenes in their suspense novels, but most stated they could tolerate one if it didn’t go on for pages and pages. So my scene moved rapidly but realistically. I made my point, made sure the reader got it, then I moved on. The entire scene took up three-quarters of a page.

It's not always what they doit's what they don't do

In other words, sometimes it’s not what’s actually written on the pages—it’s what stated between the lines. The reader will get it. They’re smart. In addition, if there’s a budding romance between characters, the tension building between them can be even more provocative than actually having them fulfill their needs. If you write it correctly, the reader will feel it as well.

Deep breath.

I think writing this post (and avoiding the inevitable innuendoes) was more difficult than writing my actual scene.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Amazon Ain't eBay, folks!

By:  Kimberly Hitchens is the founder and owner of, an ebook production company that has produced books for over 1000 authors and imprints.

Hi, gang!  This week, a look at what forms our thinking about various aspects of authorship, and whether that's a good thing or bad.

The Tao of eBay

After four+ years of making books, and seeing the ebook "gold rush" that has ensued since the first Kindle millionaire, I have been constantly surprised by something that seems to pop up often, on the Kindle forums. There is a pervasive theme of ill-prepared books being considered, by their creators, as "good enough."  You've read me say it here before:  it's the "The World is my critique group" mentality, when manuscripts are  published to Amazon before they are ready. 

 What does that even mean? Why is work that has not been proofed, edited, or even properly written in the first place, "good enough?" This has driven me nuts for the past eighteen months, since I started to really note the onset of "good-enough-itis," as I call it. Assuming that the average author has read a number of books, may have taken some creative writing courses, etc., how does this occur?

After giving it a lot of brainpower (okay, at least 5 minutes), I had a startling thought—had the hopeful authors of self-publishing confused Amazon with eBay?  Or, perhaps that their thinking had been formed by "the Tao of Ebay."

Beanie Babies and Bedroom Sets

After all, the Internet grew up not with Amazon, or eBooks, but with garage sales; with the gold mine that was created by the truism (the "Tao of eBay") that one man's trash was another man's treasure. Isn't that how the monolithic billion-dollar empire called eBay came into being? On the back of Beanie Babies? Essentially, someone's leftovers? And if we disregard eBay—and say that Beanie Babies were collectibles, not leftovers—it's hard to overlook Craigslist, which surely survived and thrived on detritus. What person living, under the age of ninety, hasn't bought something that they found on Craigslist? Hell, I once renovated an entire house's countertops with granite slabs I bone-yarded on Craigslist, being sold by a guy going out of business.  

Maybe this, then, is the source of the virus of "good enough." If we are all accustomed to listing our garage-sale items for sale online, maybe there are some hopeful writers that think that putting second-hand (second-class) writing on sale is also the way to go.

But a new book is not, by definition, second-hand. While on eBay, a seller is rated, transaction by transaction, on anywhere from one to tens of thousands of item sales, an author on Amazon (or Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Smashwords or Wattpad, etc.), is rated by his or her book. Today's book; the book most recently published; the book of the NOW.  Granted, there will be dozens or hundreds or thousands of buyers/readers, and some percentage of those will leave reviews, but if we have learned anything over the past few years, it is that people are more likely to leave reviews when they do not like a book, or feel that they've been ripped off, than they are if they are simply satisfied with their purchase.

I wonder if this "garage-sale" mindset has influenced some of the writers I see on the KDP Forums, who say "well, I couldn't afford an editor, so I've published it, and if it sells a lot, then I'll pay for an editor to edit it."  Or, "[s]ee, this is my first book, so, I've done as much as I can, I just thought I'd throw it up there and see what happens."   It reminds me strongly of things I've actually said--about eBay, Craigslist and garage-sale items.  "Well, I don't think that old bike of Bob's will sell, but I'll just throw it up there and see if I get any takers."  And, for garage sale items, gifts you can't regift, etc., that's not a bad idea at all, because your unwanted goods may very well be someone else's treasure.

But the problem is, if an item like Bob's old bike doesn't sell, that failure won't taint my life as an eBay seller forever.  My "experiment" simply doesn't sell.  Same thing at a Garage Sale, or a Craigslist ad.  But if you slap up a book before it's ready on Amazon, and it does poorly--or worse, gets scathing reviews because it was born before its time, that can taint your life as an author forever, particularly if you have more books already up for sale, or have some ready-to-go.  Sure, you can change your nom-de-plume (and many have), but if you have a perfectly good name of your own to use, or if you really love that nom-de-plume you picked out, why abandon it in the dust? 

Goodreads, Wattpad and Other Critters

It seems that many writers today eschew the idea of writing buddies, writer's classes and writing/critique groups, as I've noted here before, using the readers of Amazon as their "critique group."  I've never wrapped my head around that--I'd rather be humiliated in a small group than by dozens of strangers, for the eyes of possibly millions of people--but then I'm chicken that way.  ;-)  Maybe the feedback of people that they can't see, or don't have to see again, is somehow more palatable.

If that's the case, then, I'd highly recommend trying other platforms, to get a sense of whether your book is ready, before you make the big step of hitting the "publish" button.  Goodreads seems to have a lively and thriving "Creative Writing" community that gives near-instant feedback on sample chapters (or your whole book, if you're feeling brave!).  Wattpad, a free site, allows you to post almost anything for feedback.  Wattpad is targeted at a younger audience--it has a lot of teens, but if you're writing YA, it's absolutely spot-on for your demographic.  There are numerous online critique groups or Writer's Forums; I particularly like Holly Lisle's Writer's Bootcamps, which is for folks serious about becoming published, successful authors, and is moderated.  And, of course, NO list of critique forums would be complete without The Critters Workshop, which is legendary.  Scribd, I've personally found not that seems to attract people looking for philosophical or political debate more than readers of genre fiction, if that's your "cuppa," as they say.  But I'm sure that there are dozens more--if you leave a comment, leave a spot for up-and-comers to post their work for excellent feedback! 

So, anyway:  above and beyond Mom and Dad, and your friends, give your manuscript a whirl at one of these places first.  You may have to shop a bit, to find a good fit--but the  results are quite worth it.  LJ knows more about Goodreads than I; I'm so busy at the shop, I don't get much of a chance to drop in over there, but I have seen some pretty damn fine creative writing in progress, and I've noted that some authors, like the fellow who wrote the very successful (in terms of fans and downloads and feedback) Harry Potter fanfiction books (the James Potter books) went on to do extremely well with his writing career, due to the fan-base he built, almost solely on Goodreads, which translated to his "for-sale" books at Amazon, etc. 

And isn't that what we all want?  For you, as an author, to do GREAT?  You betcha.
For a total HOOT this week: 
This is a DO NOT MISS.  It's the "CakeWrecks" of BookCovers.
I now visit it daily, for my daily grin, or even LOL.  Seriously, don't miss it.  I'll post other "bad cover" outlets on my next visit!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Investigating the Police

Watching the Dark (An Inspector Banks novel) by Peter Robinson (William Morrow hardcover, 8 January 2013).

The first Inspector Banks novel, Gallows View, was originally released in 1987, and the timeline of the books has followed the timeline of reality. 

Alan Banks has gone from a happily married detective living in a small town with his wife and two young children to a divorced Detective Chief Inspector living alone in a cottage on the moors.

Here, Banks is called in to investigate the murder of a fellow policeman, Detective Inspector Bill Quinn.  Quinn was recuperating at St. Peter's Police Treatment Centre, which happens to be located within Banks' jurisdiction. 

Quinn was walking in grounds of the Centre in the late evening, presumably indulging in a cigarette, when he was shot with an arrow from a crossbow. 

Since Quinn was a policeman, an officer from Professional Standards, Joanna Passero, is brought in to work with Banks on the case.  As when Annie Cabbot (now a member of Banks' team) shadowed him representing Professional Standards in Aftermath, Banks is not pleased about his temporary companion.

But they soon become aware of the possibility that Quinn might have been a crooked cop.  Although his superiors seem convinced that this is true, Banks is not, and does his best to prove he's right.

Peter Robinson is a master of Story, and with Watching the Dark he has created another well-constructed, engrossing mystery tale.  Banks has grown not only older, but more introspective over the years, and the reader shares his point of view for much of the novel. 

As one who's been reading the series since the very beginning, I can't say for certain that it's easy to jump in this far into the series.  Starting with this book, however, will take away the pleasure of experiencing Alan Banks' development as a detective and a person during the span of 25 years.

FTC full disclosure:  Many thanks to the publisher for a review copy of the book.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Kindle Serials: Yes or No?

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries and thrillers

Amazon has a new—or more accurately, revamped—program called Kindle Serials. The idea is to write and release a digital novel in 10,000 word chunks every two weeks, and for readers to discuss the story as it's being written and give the author feedback.

Amazon is putting a lot of promotion behind the books in the program, and for some authors, it's helped build a readership. Author Roberto Calas blogged about his experience, which seems to have been good for him. Other authors have released books, as serials, that were entirely written first and have reported mixed results.

My eighth Jackson novel is completed, and my Amazon editor has suggested that I release it this spring and summer as a serial—rather than wait until next February to release it in a traditional format.

As much as I hate waiting, the serial aspect makes me nervous. Even though serial books are clearly labeled—so readers should realize they're only getting chunks of the story at a time—the books often get bad reviews. Many readers hate waiting for the next episode and give the novels one-star ratings. They also use much of their review space to criticize the format.

My editor thinks it's an opportunity to take advantage of advertising avenues that aren't offered to other Amazon books. He thinks it could expand my readership. I like both of these ideas. And I love my editor. He's been right about many things. But I’m worried about my current readership. They like to read my books in a couple of big gulps. And I like them to rave about "not being able to put it down."

Of course, readers don't have to buy it as a serial. They can wait until all the episodes are released and buy the whole book in the fall. But that still means waiting three months to buy the book, knowing that some, or most, of it is already available. If you buy it as a serial, it's only $1.99. I believe you pay full price ($4.99) if you wait.

But my biggest concern is that many readers will not understand the serial process. I've never released a Jackson book that way, so the sudden change will be unexpected. Readers might just see the new story and buy it—without reading all the disclaimers. Lovely, loyal people that they are. But two or three chapters in, the book will stop, and they'll have to wait two weeks for more.

I don't like to read that way, and I suspect my Jackson fans don't either. So I'm leaning toward saying no.

Readers: Does the serial idea appeal to you, especially if you'll get the story sooner? Or would you rather wait and get the book all at once early next year?

Writers: Have you released a Kindle Serial? What was your experience?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sometimes I don't know what I know

"Dino Cubed" was the inspiration for this.
By Gayle Carline
Mystery Author, Humor Columnist

In September 2006, I attended my first Southern California Writer’s Conference, in Palm Springs. I met a lot of people, had a great time, and even won their Topic Contest with my 250-word entry, “Dino Cubed.” I hadn’t written more than magazine articles and newspaper essays at this point, but I felt encouraged to try writing a novel. I decided I would go to their conference again next September.

Me and Gordon.

SCWC holds two conferences a year, one in September, and one in February in San Diego. I thought it would be terribly self-indulgent to go to the February one. Then I saw that Gordon Kirkland was going to be there. He is a humor essayist and I wanted to meet him.

This became my pattern. I’d tell myself I’m only going to one, then I’d read of someone I wanted to meet at the next one, and I’d go to that one, too. By the by, I always did meet the someone, who usually turned into a friend and/or mentor (e.g Michele Scott), plus I came out of the conference fired up about my next project.

Fast forward to the last conference, in Irvine. All weekend, the director, Michael Steven Gregory, kept telling me he wanted to discuss something with me. Then he’d be pulled away to figure out how to fix the air conditioning or find the right cord for the power supply or break up a paperclip fight between an author and their agent, etc. Finally, after the conference, he emailed me.

Would I like to be a workshop leader at the conferences?
I know... um... how to...

My first thought was "YES!" because I have a hard time saying no to anything. My second thought was, what the hell do I know about anything? I’m just a writer. Granted, I’ve been writing all my life, but I didn’t start writing for publication until I was in my 40s. I only have 3 mysteries, 2 humor books, and a short story for sale.

I’m no expert!

Nevertheless, I told Michael I would, and sat down to write out what I could talk about. What do I know about anything? Well...

- I know what’s hard and what’s easy about self-publishing and how to shoot yourself in the foot.
- I know how to tell when your writing is boring and what to do to un-bore it.
- I can read (or listen to) others’ writings and tell them why I’m drawn into their story and when they lose me.
- I can tell you why dying is easy and comedy is hard.

With that, I am teaching two workshops at the February San Diego SCWC. I’ve already put together one 90-minute lesson plan, and will be putting the other together the other one soon. I’ll also be leading a read and critique group at some point, where writers are encouraged to read and receive helpful comments (note: meanness is not allowed).

Do you ever feel like you are so deep in the trenches of what you do that you don’t feel like you know what you do? Or could you teach a class on some aspect of your life?