"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Friday, December 11, 2009

What's in a Title?

We've all heard the adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover." This could also be said of a book title. Unfortunately, we do judge a book by both. Before we make a purchase, we are first attracted to either the cover or the title. If neither catches our interest, we won't even take the book off the shelf or rack.

As writers, we have practically no input into the covers the publishers decide to give our books, unless we negotiate for that privilege in our contracts. We do have a little more chance to have a say in the title, though, simply by putting a good one on the book when we submit it. If it's really, really good, they won't change it.

Here are a few simple things that might help you come up with the perfect title:

1. The title should give an indication of what the book is about. Think of it as a mini-synopsis of your story.

2. It should suggest the genre the book fits into.

3. Even though you can't copyright titles, don't use one that is famous, like Gone With the Wind. Google your title and see what's out there before you decide to use it.

4. Keep it short, usually less than six words. People won't remember a long title.

5. Ensure that it flows well when spoken aloud. Watch for word combinations that might look fine on paper but could leave the wrong image when spoken aloud.

6. Try for something intriguing or provocative that will pique curiosity or conjure a mood.

7. Use words that the average person can understand and that are easy to pronounce. Avoid foreign words and phrases.

8. And last but not least. Be ready with options to present to your editor in the event she doesn't like your original one.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Who Do You Write For?

One of the biggest decisions a writer faces is whether to write for herself or to write for the market. We've all heard it said that you should write the book of your heart, and, if it's good and well-written, it will find a publisher. Ah, if only that were true. Perhaps there was a time (many a light year ago) when that might have been the case, but today's publishing industry, for the most part, revolves around trends, high concepts, and genre markets--the latter requiring a degree of formula writing that must be adhered to. There might not be a lot of room for creativity or to write outside the box. However, we are also told not to write to the latest trend because by the time you get your book written, the trend will be over.

So do we write what is in our hearts and risk that it will never be published or even read by anyone other than those in our critique group? Or do we write for the market and plot stories that will fit the latest trends and formulas? In the end, it's each writer's call, a risk each writer has to take. If you're strictly in it because you want to be a published author, then write for the market. If you've got something to say, write that book of the heart and maybe it'll get published by an obscure small press with a print run of 500 books. Then again, perhaps it will end up being the next New York Times bestseller or the next Pulitzer prize winner. Writing is a crap shoot. You'll never know what's going to happen until you roll the dice.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Internet Addiction

I lost my internet connection on Monday, and naturally it came at the worst possible time (there's never a good time for your internet to go down). So I made the dreaded call to the company, thinking they could walk me through a quick fix (if I could understand the person on the other end of the line). It wasn't to be. The fix, that is. I actually got connected with someone who spoke pretty good English. I could understand him and he could understand me. That was a huge relief in and of itself. But my problem was bigger, something to do with the cable and the satellite dish and something shorting out. Anyway, I had to put in a work order for someone to come to the house. I had to wait three days! Think of yourself being an addict going without your fix (or your dark chocolate!) for three days. I kept going into the office to check email only to be reminded there was no connection to the outside world through my computer. I couldn't check my bank account, couldn't do research, couldn't check the blog, couldn't start the Christmas shopping. . . .

I didn't think the internet was so integral to everything I did, but this experience made me think of Dean Koontz's book, Midnight. If you've read it, you'll know what I mean about getting a little too "connected" to your computer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Man Who Rode Midnight

I first discovered western writer Elmer Kelton around 1989 when I bought his book, The Man Who Rode Midnight. I became an instant fan and went on to read The Time It Never Rained, The Good Old Boys, The Day the Cowboys Quit, and Cloudy in the West, just to name a few. I'd always enjoyed Louis L'Amour westerns, but Elmer brought something new to the genre. His stories were real, his characters were real. They were everyday people with flaws, even his heroes. Having been around ranching, ranchers, cowboys, and country people all my life, I could fully relate to his people. They reminded me of my dad, my uncles, my neighbors, my grandparents. I even saw a little of myself in his characters from time to time. He wrote what he knew, and he wrote it so damn well.

Elmer was every bit as real and down to earth as the fictional people he wrote about (I wouldn't be surprised if many of them were fictional only in name to protect the innocent, and not-so-innocent). I met Elmer at a Western Writers conference right after I'd read The Man Who Rode Midnight. Even though I, too, was a published author, I had to muster the courage to introduce myself and tell him how much I enjoyed his book. To my relief, he was humble and polite. We didn't talk long about writing. He and my husband soon launched into a conversation about ranching that went on for a considerable length of time.

Ten years later, it was with trepidation again that I summoned courage to ask him if he would read my historical saga, Raveled Ends of Sky for a possible endorsement. I thought for sure he'd tell me he was too busy–after all, every western author out there was probably asking him for the same favor, and I knew he had book deadlines. But he kindly consented. I can tell you, I was nearly as proud of his endorsement on the front cover of my book as I was my book.

Voted Best Western Author of All Time, Elmer passed away on August 22nd at the age of 83. He wrote over forty books. He was the recipient of seven Spur awards and the Saddleman Award for Lifetime Achievement from Western Writers of America. He also received four Wrangler awards from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. His death will be deeply felt by his family, friends, and his many, many fans. I feel fortunate to have crossed his path, if even for a moment, and to have had his stories touch my life.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Full Circle

After months of research, plotting, writing, and revising, you decide that your book is finished. It's hard to let that baby go because it's your instinct to keep working on it, perfecting it even more. It's near and dear to you. You love your characters. It's the book of your heart.

Through doubt, discouragement, euphoria, excitement, lack of sleep, and maybe even moments of depression, you have persevered. You have accomplished what many have talked about doing, or attempted to do, but haven't actually done. You look at the stack of paper on your desk that represents all your hard work and you're in awe. "I wrote all that," you might say. "I actually wrote a book. And it ain't half bad." At least you hope.

You bask in your accomplishment because you don't want to take the next frightening step: putting it out there for agents to scrutinize and maybe reject. So you delay the inevitable. You clean and dust and polish your office space. You organize the mess of folders holding research and put away the books teetering in precarious stacks all over the floor and around your desk. You weed through all the notebooks containing notes and the piles of loose papers containing more notes, random thoughts, and brainstorming moments. You don't need them now. The book is done.

You sit in your chair. You feel lost. What are you going to do now? Oh, yeah, the query letters. But, no, what are you really going to do? There was that idea, that one you had a couple of months ago. Dang, you wrote some notes. Where are they? You dig through the stacks of neatly organized papers and folders and scatter them all over the place again in your excitement. Aha! At last you find them. You sit down and your brain begins to thrum with plot possibilities. New characters leap to mind. Dialogue writes itself in your head.

"I'm crazy," you mumble. "A real glutton for punishment. Shouldn't I give myself a break? Do I really want to do this again?

You sit down at your computer and start to type, rapidly. Of course you want to do it again. You're a writer.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Sky Overhead, aka Redundancies

Another thing to watch for in your final draft is redundancies, the "unnecessary repetition of meaning*." Some examples are: stood up, sit down, murmured softly. (*From The Handbook of Good English by Edward D. Johnson.)

Redundancy also means repeating information throughout the book. As a reader, I don't want to be told the same information on page 10, 25, 75, and 150. As a writer, I know that in a 400-page book, it can be difficult to remember what you wrote a month ago, or last year, depending on how long you've been working on your book. By the time you've gone through your manuscript several times, it's even harder. You won't know for sure if you wrote the same thing several times, or if you just read it too many times. You might have to ask a fellow writer to offer a fresh set of eyes.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

More Polish, Please

In following up on a previous blog about passive voice, I'd like to mention a few other passive voice words and useless words to watch for besides "was" and "were". Keep an eye out for excessive use of the following words: is, are, felt, look, appear, and seem. Change these to active voice when possible.

Many words are expendable. These include qualifiers such as very, rather, quite, really, finally, even, and just. Do a search in your document for these. Eliminate them when possible.

Another word that is often expendable is "that," but check out the rules on this one because its usage can be confusing.

"And" and "but" are not necessary when used at the beginning of sentences, unless you need them for emphasis. Again, use this structure in moderation.

"Well," is another one that you will want to watch for at the beginning of dialogue. "Well, I guess I'll go." Unless you want to show that a person uses this word as part of their speech pattern, or you need it there for a specific emphasis, it can be removed.

Many adverbs (the "ly" words) can be removed, especially those used in dialog, such as "You poor child," he said pityingly. These will clutter your writing if used in excess.

As for adjectives, Mark Twain is quoted as saying, "If you can ever can an adjective, kill it."

As with all fiction writing, you need to know the rules to break them.

And, finally, do as I say, not as I do!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Spit Shine

Revisions, edits--call them what you will--they are nothing more than putting the spit shine on your final manuscript. There are a lot of things to watch for during your final spit shine. You might as well start with the easy stuff, and one of the first things to check for is passive voice. I'll admit that I just hate it when members of critique groups get completely anal about the word "was." This is probably my biggest pet peeve. Okay, so it's passive. But it is also part of the English language and sometimes you have to use it. However, in all honesty, sometimes you don't.

In our first draft(s) we often are focused on just getting the story down and so we throw in a lot of passive voice as we rush to the finish. Let's look at a couple of examples of how you can turn the passive voice into an active one. And, in case you're wondering why we do this, it's because active voice puts the reader more firmly in the story and keeps him there.

Here are some examples that aren't the best in the world, but you get the idea.

Bill and Mike were lounging in their chairs by the river's edge.
Bill and Mike lounged in their chairs by the river's edge.

The horse was skittish, not wanting to follow the trail.
The skittish horse did not want to follow the trail. or The skittish horse refused to follow the trail.

Harris Milton was waiting next to his plane, anxious to leave for his next job.
Harris Milton waited next to his plane, anxious to leave for his next job.

Okay, so go search out "was" in your document and get creative using active voice. I'll post a few more revision/editing suggestions on upcoming blogs.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Sixth Sense

I can't remember a movie in years that frightened me so much that I couldn't go to sleep--until I saw "The Sixth Sense" some years ago. Likewise, I was scared sleepless after reading "When Ghosts Speak," by Mary Ann Winkowski. Why? Because there could actually be ghosts among us and we can't see them. The possibility that something really exists makes it that much more frightening. Most of us can't see ghosts. Some of us can. Others might not be able to see them, but they can sense their presence. Thankfully, I don't fall into any of these categories, but just because I don't have the ability to know when ghosts are around, it doesn't mean I disallow their existence.

The supernatural is, according to Webster's dictionary (1) "of our relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; esp: of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil. (2) departing from what is usual or normal esp. so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature."

Belief in the supernatural has been in our society from the beginning of time and has always been a part of life. Fear and uncertainty are most likely the roots of many of these beliefs.

As writers, we can put our imaginations to work for us and use the sixth sense in our stories and books right along with those other five senses I've been blogging about. For me, the sixth sense is super fun to work with because imagination completely rules and anything goes--well, almost anything as long as you, the writer, can make it believable enough that your readers will be afraid to go to sleep at night, or they'll double-check the doors to make sure they're still locked.

In the paranormal realm, there are a lot of different elements to work with besides ghosts. It's all those creepy, spine-chilling "feelings" we have that can't be explained. It's all those entities in every culture and corner of the earth that may or may not walk the earth; vampires, werewolves, skinwalkers, angels, demons, fairies, witches, monsters--and the list goes on. It's the possibility of being able to travel through time, or be reincarnated. It's the ability of second sight that allows us to foresee events or simple "see" them after they've happened. It's being able to reach the dead through a medium, or be contacted by the dead through a dream. It is magical powers derived from any number of things like certain stones, the moon, or witchcraft. It can be something as simple as believing that walking under a ladder will bring you seven years of bad luck, or wearing a certain necklace will protect you from evil.

In every myth there is an element of truth. It is your job as a writer to make your reader believe anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

More Sense of Touch

I found another really good example of the sense of touch. It's in Tom Piccirilli's book, The Midnight Road. In this scene, the main character has just fallen through an icy harbor in his car and he's stuck in his seat belt.

"The freezing water raged in, and with it came the intolerable cold and the crushing pressure of a darkness he had always known but had never had to endure before. Every nerve burned and schizzed out at once, and then there was only an insane numbness. The overwhelming terror soon swelled into something like comfort."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sense of Touch

While looking for some good examples of the sense of touch, I came to the conclusion that we writers tend to dance around this one. We clearly don't take advantage of the many opportunities to use this sense in its full capacity, even in romance novels where there is a lot of touching going on. When we do use it, the words are not very descriptive; i.e., a "tender" touch or a "warm" embrace, etc.

What we feel with our fingertips can bring us pleasure or pain. It can warn us of danger or excite our desires. If we touch something too hot, we draw our hand back. If we brush up against a thistle, we pull away. A kiss might make us swoon, or if it's from someone whom we find repulsive, it might make us vomit. If you shake a person's hand, it might tell you if he is truly happy to meet you or if he'd just as soon wipe his hand off when the handshake is done. An embrace from someone might show how a person feels about you or a certain situation. You will feel their grief, happiness, understanding, or genuine love without the need for words. This sense can elicit some highly charged feelings in our lives and our relationships, from the newborn bonding to its mother, to two people developing a romantic relationship, or even a relationship that has grown old and cold with no passion remaining.

So why do we dance around this one? My guess is because it's rather difficult to find words to describe how something feels to the touch. It takes a bit more effort and creativity. Even things that might seem simple to describe, like a drop of rain on the tip of your tongue, or a puppy's fur against your cheek will still render rather uncreative descriptions like the "warm, wet rain," or the "puppy's soft fur."

Here are a few examples I found to get you thinking about how you can use this sense in your own writing. I know I'll certainly be more aware of it in my own.

From The Last Rodeo by Linda Sandifer:

"In the dream he could feel her fingers caressing the side of his face with a touch so light it could have come from a breath of wind, or the passing of a ghost."

From The White Mare by Jules Watson:

"Rhiann, leaning in on her knees, wriggled to get a better grip on the slippery body. Fire from the hearth glowed on waxy skin and smeared blood, and under the wisps of dark hair, tiny bones throbbed against her fingers."

From The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón:

"All I could absorb was the icy pressure of the gun's barrel sunk into my cheek, and the smell of gunpowder."

From Seven Minutes to Noon by Kate Pepper:

"Alice was surprised by the sudden warmth of Mike's hand slipping into hers. She squeezed his hand, greedily drinking in the rich warmth of Mike's skin, the solidity of his bones and muscles."

If anybody out there has some good ones, please share.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sense of Smell

It's been such a busy summer and I apologize for being so slow in writing this installment on The Five Senses.

Our sense of smell is another sense that tends to get downplayed in our writing. When I was able to find examples of it–after much searching–in my own or anybody else's work, it was usually used to alert the reader to something that could harm them, or to describe something that was extremely offensive. Maybe this is because we treat it the same way in our daily lives.

In a primeval world, your sense of smell could save you from a predator or help you track down your next meal. Imagine if you couldn't smell a brush fire bearing down on your home, or the biting smell of a poisonous substance in a juice bottle. What if you couldn't enjoy the smells of pumpkin pies and other spices during Christmas and Thanksgiving, or coffee brewing in the morning?

A few years ago, I worked as a technical editor and spent my nine hours a day in a cubicle that bordered the office's main hallway. I found I not only could recognize who was coming down the hall by their footsteps, but by their smell. The "smell" in this instance pertained to one guy in particular, not because he needed a bath, but because he wore so much cologne that it gave away his identity even when you couldn't see him.

Smells are all around us. Stop and sniff for a second. What do you smell right now? Nothing? Try again. Maybe it's your own perfume that you've grown accustomed to. Maybe it's that green tea with lemongrass that you just took a sip of. Or maybe you just removed your hot, sweaty feet from your tennis shoes. Phew! You get the picture.

As writers, we could have a lot of fun with this sense if we would only use it. Here are a few examples I found to get you thinking of how you can make sure you don't overlook it in your own writing.

From The White Mare by Jules Watson: "Outside, the tiny hut's reek of fish and dung smoke was washed away by the dawn air."

From Desire's Treasure by Linda Sandifer: "White hair poked out from under his mangled hat, and the rank smell of creosote and greasewood drifted up from his tattered britches."

From Fatal Voyage by Kathy Reichs: "The wind shifted and the smell of smoke grew stronger. I turned and saw a thin, black plume curling upward just beyond the next ridge. My stomach tightened, for I was close enough now to detect another odor mingling with the sharp, acrid scent. . . .the smell of charred flesh. One gorge over, people were burning."

From Last Breath by George D. Shuman: "There was a goldfish in a bowl, a ceramic angel on a clapboard dresser. She saw these things sideways, head on a bed, yellowed, stained sheets; the room smelled of cats and unwashed laundry."

From Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: "I smelled a faint flowery scent, as of lavender water, and something more spicy, mingled with the sharper reek of male perspiration."

Next up, the sense of touch. That one ought to be even more interesting!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sense of Taste

We all love food. We all crave certain foods. Eating ranks right up there at the top as one of the greatest pleasures in life. I'll admit my two favorites foods are chocolate and ice cream. Put them together and it's damned near heaven. But do we write about food? Or the sense of taste? Not so much. (I had a time finding examples of the sense of taste). When we do write about this sense, it's usually something that tastes unpleasant. Sometimes, what we taste isn't food at all.

I was pondering why the sense of taste doesn't find its way into our writing very often and I finally realized that it's because, generally speaking, it doesn't have anything to do with the crux of most stories unless it's a story about food, like the movie, Chocolat. (Naturally I would remember that one!)

I did manage to find some very good references to the sense of taste in the wonderful nonfiction book, Bread and Rice, by Doris Macauley, (an American woman's fight to survive in the jungles and prison camps of WWII Philippines):

"We squatted in the darkness of our cell, smoking the cigarettes the Filipinos had sent us. The tobacco burned away the slimy, fishy taste of the food."

"'Hurry to eat this–Japs will come soon.' We devoured it ravenously. Not since the mountain people had cooked for us had we tasted such dry well-cooked rice. The Japanese do not know how to cook rice. Theirs is always too wet or too sticky. I smiled gratefully through the bars at the woman."

"A few moments later we were in a large bamboo shed where the mountain people had thrown down their loads and were now squatting comfortably and laughing among themselves while the storm raged around them. They began passing betel nut and the women offered us their sweets and rice-sticks wrapped in bamboo leaves. Out of politeness we did not refuse, but as we sat eating the sweet, gluey concoction, we were thinking of steak and french-fried potatoes. . . ."

The sense of taste can evoke sensuous feelings, or it can elicit joy, delight, contentment, and pleasure. Depending on what hits your tongue, it could bring nausea, fear, pain, or even death. So strive to include this sense in your writing. Of all the senses, this one can be very personal and can summon powerful emotions, images, and memories in ways the other senses can't.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Black Holes, Cyberspace, and Missing Manuscripts

After more interruptions that resulted in a couple of weeks away from my suspense book, I sat down yesterday to get back to work on what, I hoped, was going to be the near-final draft. I decided I'd better back up what I had on my flash drive–just in case– since I hadn't done that for quite a while.

When I clicked on the folder to open it, the cursor highlighted the folder above it. Not thinking too much about it, I moved the cursor back to my book folder, clicked on it again, and. . .voila! it vanished. I thought, this can't be. It has to be here somewhere. It can't have just disappeared into cyberspace. But I searched and searched and couldn't find it. Trying not to panic, I assured myself that I at least had a hard copy from months earlier, but I got momentarily ill thinking of the job it would be to re-type those 400 pages and remember all the changes I'd made.

Trying not to panic, I called my critique partner and managed to sound calm. "Guess what? I think I just deleted my entire book."

"Oh my God, no." I could hear the utter shock in her voice, echoing my panic.

Only another writer could relate to this and what it meant. Luckily, she was thinking more clearly than I was. She immediately set to work, walking me through the steps to search for the file. We both breathed a sigh of relief when it finally popped up on my screen. I clicked on it to make sure it was indeed there. I hurried and saved it to my flash drive. Then I realized what had happened. During all the highlighting and clicking, it had accidentally been moved into the folder above it.

Technology. You gotta love it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sense of Sound

The sense of sound probably finds its way onto the writer's page in second position after the sense of sight. Regardless of where you are, a city or the wilderness, close your eyes for a moment and allow yourself to hear the sounds, or the silence, that surrounds you. Even in what you think is relative silence, there is always a sound, even if it's white noise in your ears. But you will pick up more, the soughing of the wind perhaps, insects buzzing about, a jet flying overhead. Something. In the city, it might be a cacophony of noise, almost too many sounds to describe. Pick out those that relate to the mood of your story in some way. For instance, if your character is happy, focus on the happy sounds, like the happy music of an ice cream truck coming down the street, or a bird chirping merrily in the nearby tree, children laughing. If your character is in a frightening situation, like lost in the forest, focus on a huffing noise in the depths of the forest that could be a wild animal like a bear coming close. Or twigs snapping, brush popping and crackling as if something is coming fast with no caution. It could be a herd of elk fleeing a hunter, or it could be a predator chasing your protagonist. Sounds work wonderfully to create a mood.

There is an old Cherokee saying that I love: "Listen, or your tongue will make you deaf."

Now here are a few examples of how to use sound to create a mood and/or paint a picture.

From Firelight by Linda Sandifer:

"He always came at night, like death or the devil. He came when the moon rode high, casting ghostly shadows over the canyons and over his fiery red body. But he never came quietly. Even above the thunder of his band's pounding hooves, the stallion's shrill scream pierced the night and sent chills racing down the spines of every person on the Walking Hawk Ranch. The low, rumbling sound, like the earth trembling, pulled Rafe Cutrell from the depths of a deep sleep."

From Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas:

"At first, I wasn't scared, just humiliated, knowing that the drone in the room meant my classmates were talking about me, accusing me of being a thief. When the bell rang, dismissing classes, and the room grew quiet, however, I wondered if I'd have to stay there all night."

"Carl began to cry, and Dad sat down on the steps next to him, putting his arm around Carl's shoulder. We were all silent, listening to Carl's sobs, which were ragged, like a piece of machinery that wasn't hitting right."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Too Much Description?

One of my followers had a question: At what point does description become too much?

It is definitely a balancing act when determining how much description one needs or should include. I try to intersperse description throughout a scene and prefer to only use a few paragraphs at a time before breaking it up. Also, if your description has some element of "action" (as in the examples for the sense of sight), the reader will cruise through it without being bogged down. But, again, you have to use your instincts to find the appropriate place so it won't sound as if you just threw it in there, and also so it won't slow the action. Pacing is important, as is rhythm. Fiction, like poetry, has a rhythm.

A friend of mine used to say that "not all our words are pearls." This is something we need to remember and be heavy with the edit. Only include what is necessary to the scene and to the story, and tighten it as much as possible, choosing one strong word that will replace several weak words. Nowadays, readers won't tolerate lengthy descriptions. We live in a fast-paced world and they want their fiction fast-paced as well. As for Tolkien, I don't read much fantasy, but the genre is about "world building" and therefore lengthier descriptions are not only accepted, but expected.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sense of Sight

A writer uses a visual description most frequently when painting a word picture. If done well, this will draw a reader into your fictional world immediately and make him feel as if he's right there with your characters, seeing what they see with his own eyes. As a writer, you must decide what is important to the scene and to the book itself. There are engaging and subtle ways to write a visual description. Here are a couple I'd like to share:

From Pasadena by David Ebershoff:

"The road cut through dormant pea fields and lettuce farms and a patch of shallots, passing an avocado orchard and a lemon grove protected by eucalyptus windbreak. It climbed a scrub-oak terrain burned gold in autumn where at hillcrest a rattler stretched belly-up in the sun. Thin, shabby utility poles stood across the fields like a line outside a poorhouse, and upon the drooping wires sat a family of garbage-fed gulls."

From The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón:

"A blue-tinted gloom obscured the sinuous contours of a marble staircase and a gallery of frescoes peopled with angels and fabulous creatures. We followed our host through a palatial corridor and arrived at a sprawling round hall, a virtual basilica of shadows spiraling up under a high glass dome, its dimness pierced by shafts of light that stabbed from above. A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry."

I think the sense of sight works extremely well in these two examples because the authors used strong, well-chosen words for their descriptions and wove them together in a way that produced a clear image. They have also used an active voice that breathes life into the work, rather than a passive voice that might have left the descriptions stagnant and dull.

The second most used of our senses (at least in our writing) is sound. We'll take a look at that one next time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hone the Five Senses to Improve Your Writing

As writers, we mostly use the sense of sight in our descriptions, but we can enrich our stories by consciously using the other four senses as well. Finding just the right place to insert this information can be tricky, but one good way is to "show" it through the viewpoint of a character; i.e., through their five senses rather than putting it in a lengthy narrative that slows the action and causes the reader to tune out.

All of us are more attuned to our surroundings when we step out of our own environment and see something for the first time. Remember what it was like to be a child when you noticed everything around you and it was all a wonder to behold? You were so fascinated by everything and you had so many questions about life and the world. If that was too long ago to recollect ☺ then watch your children and grandchildren as they encounter the world around them. If you see the world again through their inquisitive eyes, you'll find your own senses sharpened.

Try this exercise: The next time you leave the house, even if it's only to go to the grocery store, plug your senses into your surroundings (turn off your Blackberry, your IPod, and leave your laptop at home). Then make yourself look around you as if you've just stepped off the bus (or the spaceship) into a strange town (or onto a new planet). You'll be surprised at everything you take for granted and everything that you've grown so accustomed to that you have blocked it all from your mind. When you later sit at the computer to paint your word pictures, allow your imagination to connect to your newly attuned senses and you will more effectively draw your reader into your story.

Coming up: Some examples of how the five senses have been successfully incorporated into published works.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Everybody Has a Story

We all have a story, but does it take someone else to see it? This weekend my husband and I were at our summer ranch beginning the labor-intensive job of repairing fences after the winter snows have done their usual damage. It's a job that has to be done before we can turn the cattle out to graze for the next six months. It's a job that will see us well into summer before we can say we're done for the year.

My grandfather homesteaded the ranch in 1915. While I work hammering staples and clipping wire in the silence of this back country, I have plenty of time to think about him, and of those who came before him and those who came after him. I know their stories, or at least what little bit has been passed down. None of my ancestors kept journals or wrote diaries that I'm aware of. Maybe it was all they could do just to survive. And maybe, like the rest of us, they might have thought there was nothing spectacular enough about their lives to put to paper.

Being a writer and a lover of history, I've written what I know of some of them. I have a sense of obligation to do this so their stories won't be forgotten. I suppose a person needs a curious mind to take on the job of compiling family history, but I've discovered that the more I learn about a person, the more questions I ask. It's a little like plotting a novel or solving a mystery.

I am quite fascinated by my great-grandmother, Margaret, who, at the age of 29 and single, left England and sailed to the United States by herself. No other members of her family came with her. From there she traveled by train to Utah where she was met by my great-grandfather. Apparently this marriage was pre-arranged for they wed shortly afterward. He was twenty-five years her senior and together they had five children, one who died in infancy. When my great-grandfather died, she took her children and moved from Utah to homestead in Idaho. None of the children were married, but they were at least old enough to help her. My grandfather was about 18 at the time. Clearly an independent woman, my great-grandmother did not remarry, and seven years before she died at the age of 66, she received her Certificate of Naturalization.

Life wasn't easy in the 1800s, and homesteading 160 acres without a husband definitely wasn't. At least she had two strong sons and two daughters to help her, and, I suspect, some good neighbors. But little wonder she didn't write about her life. She was too busy living it. Her story is an interesting one, but I wish she would have told even a small portion of it in her own words. So many questions arise about why she made the choices she did--she certainly wasn't afraid to uproot herself and start a new life in a strange land. She did it twice, a true pioneer. But I doubt she thought of herself that way.

At least our great-grandchildren won't have any trouble documenting our lives. Every move we make nowadays is followed by a paper trail and thousands of photographs. Our ancestors will be able to google our names and everything we did in our lifetime will be there. Everything. Even this blog and the silly little comments we've put on Facebook and Twitter will be archived somewhere in cyberspace.

Yes, we all have a story. What will yours be? Will it take someone else to see it? Someone else to write it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Looking for an Agent?

There is some really good information and things to be aware of at http://www.sfwa.org/beware/agents.html

Check it out!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Information Overload

Do you ever feel like you're getting too much information from every direction, and most of it is information you don't need and didn't seek out? Not only do you have the information you have to absorb in relation to your work, but there's the twenty-four-hour news on TV and the endless commentary designed to suck you in. And of course there's the mail. Every day you're bombarded with newspapers, magazines, advertisements, and a lot of stuff that goes in the garbage. If you're like me, you'll try to read the newspapers and magazines (after all, you paid for them) but there is never enough time in the day to do more than scan the headlines and maybe a paragraph or two of content. The magazines build up on the coffee table and you flip through them, looking at the pictures, stopping to read perhaps one or two articles in their entirety.

Then there's the internet. It always amazes me how people seem to be able to keep up with numerous blogs and websites, Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and dozens of other blogs and websites that aren't even their own. They post to these other sites, too. There are even some people who post their daily activities as they do them, nearly minute by minute. And when you open your email, it is filled with more advertisements and newsletters that you could probably unsubscribe to, but you're afraid you might miss something.

Tell me, is anybody getting any work done? Has the world beyond my realm somehow figured out how to get more than twenty-four hours in a day? I would say, clue me in to this phenomenon, but I don't think I want more hours in a day. It would mean more newspapers and magazines I'd feel obligated to read, more websites I'd have to visit daily, more blogging, more emails, more comments to be made on Facebook. And, heaven forbid, if I had an extra hour in the day, I might even start twittering.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

You Gotta Be Hardy to Live Out Here

Seriously, enough already. It's April 16th and I still have drifts in my back yard (that's snowdrifts for those of you below the Mason-Dixon line). And, believe it or not, but I had a fire in my fireplace yesterday. The furnace went out so I didn't have much choice. A fireplace is something you just don't want to NOT have when you live at the 5800 foot level. Of course a fireplace doesn't even help when winter drags on so long that you run out of wood.

I looked out the French door about a week ago, despairing that winter would never end when I spotted a patch of little yellow and purple crocuses struggling through the cold soil next to the house. My heart fluttered for just a moment while a little prayer went out that the frost wouldn't kill their fragile buds. The crocus face the south, so they get what little sun manages to slip through a crack in the clouds. (The poor plants on the north side of the house think it's still December.)

But the sandhill cranes came home several weeks ago, and today I saw that my brave tulips were forging upward (through the snow). Bless their hearts, they do this every year and almost every year get their heads frosted and stunted. I really wish they would just cool it another week or two and stay underground where it's safer. Maybe they're just as anxious for spring as I am. But the robins made a comeback and the trees are filled with blackbirds just singing up a storm. Hmm, maybe I should blame this snow on them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Finishing the Rough Draft

The first or "rough" draft is always the hardest when writing a novel, and it's always a relief to get it finished. I just finished the rough draft of my suspense novel (which has taken me a ridiculously long time to finish) and now the fun part begins, the polishing. Some people hate this part, but I always enjoy it because now I feel I have something to work with and improve upon, and I know my characters better than when I started.

It's always great fun to be getting on the home stretch and seeing light at the end of the tunnel, and to see your creation come to fruition. It's nice to be able to bask in the accomplishment for awhile before the next really hard part comes: marketing!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Audio Versions Available

I just wanted to let people know that audio versions of The Daughters of Luke McCall and Raveled Ends of Sky are available through Books in Motion (see my Favorite Links). Daughters spent three months on BIM's Top Twenty list. Both are unabridged.

The Night Journal

Another great book that I would like to recommend to readers is The Night Journal by Elizabeth Crook. The author does a splendid job of melding the past with the present and exposing secrets that change the heroine's personal history. It's one of those books you want to tell everyone about, but one you don't want to lend! The book won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Structuring Your Novel: the Resolution

Now that you've set up everybody's motivations and painted all your characters into corners, you have to figure a way for them to solve their problems.

In the beginning of your plot outline, you probably made promises for great things to come. The resolution, therefore, must be sufficient to the promise. The most important thing to remember to be successful in this area is not to make the solutions to your characters' problems too easy. You must make your characters work for solutions, even agonize over them.

In one of my older novels, Midnight Hearts, the hero falls in love with the granddaughter of a rich railroad baron who is the man who destroyed the hero's family. He also was indirectly responsible for the hero's father's death. To marry the granddaughter whom he has fallen in love with would mean to become part of the very dynasty that destroyed his family. A hard cookie to swallow.

It would be simple to kill the baron off or have him die of natural causes incident to age, but that would be too easy a solution for the hero, and the story would end in Chapter Five. No, the hero must agonize over what to do, and he can't simply get to the end of the book and say, "Okay, I forgive the railroad baron for what he did sixteen years ago, and I'm going to marry his granddaughter."

The story must show the growth and the change that the hero goes through; it must show events that would lead him to a different opinion of the man he has hated; and it must vividly portray his inner struggle that finally brings him to a resolution.

Theme, characterization, motivation, goals, what's at stake, conflicts, obstacles, lessons learned, and resolutions. These are the buildings blocks of your story, the ones the editors want to see in the outline. They're not interested in specific scenes, but rather in the overall story structure. They want to be sure all the pieces of your story fit together nicely so there won't be gaping holes in the finished product and things that are simply too implausible, or too contrived, to be acceptable.

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: From my 1992 RWR article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Structuring Your Novel: What is Learned?

You must also decide what it is you want your people to learn from their experience. What should be the outcome of one man's greed, another's foolishness, or even another's kindness? However, when you actually write the book, don't preach these findings to or analyze them for your reader. Demonstrate through action and dialogue without direct expression; i.e., show, don't tell.

Like your initial characterization, if you know these things, your story will have more depth, be more focused, and they will emerge into the plot naturally. What is learned will also be reflected in your theme.

From my 1992 RWR article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Structuring Your Novel: Obstacles/Conflicts

Once you've set up your characters' motivations, goals, and what is at stake, add some conflicts, obstacles, and collisions of wills. Without these ingredients your characters' adventures won't be interesting to the reader. Create stress, pressures, disagreements, and changes that hinder the hero's direction or goal. If a man sets out to make his fortune, put obstacles in his path and people who want to thwart his every move.

Be cautious, though. Don't get overzealous and have so many obstacles that your story ends up sounding like the Perils of Pauline. Keep the obstacles believable, and make sure your main characters aren't drawn along helplessly on a string of events. Have them make decisions--whether right or wrong--that will put them, for the most part, in charge of their own destinies.

As you pit man against man, or man against nature, you'll have to explore the inner makings of the secondary characters we well. They must also have good reasons for what they do. Villains can't merely be psychotic--a typical stereotype. Your character analysis probably won't be as in-depth on secondary characters, but you will must explore their past in order to tie it in with their present motivation. Remember, everyone--even the bad guy--has a reason for what he does.


COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: From my 1992 RWR article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Structuring Your Novel: What's At Stake

Good characterization and believable motivation are of utmost importance in your story structure, but whether it's money, love, success, or life itself, there must also be something at stake for the characters in order for the reader to care. You must create tension and suspense. Even if it's done in a very subtle way, you must make readers care about the people so they, too, will have a stake in the outcome.*

To see some really good examples of "What's at Stake" for your character, study the hit TV series "24." Jack Bauer is constantly having to change directions because he is presented with another "what's at stake" scenario if he doesn't comply to the villains' demands. It might be his life, the lives of his family or friends, or the lives of thousands of people. And it's not just what is at stake for Jack; every character in the series has his/her own goals, motivations, and something that is at stake in his life that is driving him to do what he does.

Your character, too, has to be faced with the threat of losing something very dear to him. It doesn't have to be someone's life at stake, but the stakes need to be something valuable enough to the character that he will be forced to take risks and do things he might not otherwise.


COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: *From my 1992 RWR article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Structuring Your Novel: Motivation

Every character (except perhaps the walk-ons) must have an incentive for what he does. He must have a motivation that will drive him to reach certain goals he's set for himself. Like characterization, his motivation must be consistent throughout the book. It must be believable to the reader and strong enough to carry the story to the end.

Motivations tell you what type of person your character is, or has to be in order for the book to work. Motivation and characterization work hand in hand until they mesh together into what your plot will be.

As an example of how integral motivation and characterization are, consider the two main characters in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, the 1985 Pulitzer Prize winner. Woodrow Call is a man driven to action. He's a leader of men and has little tolerance for laziness or weakness in anybody, even himself. On the other hand, his best friend, Augustus McCrae, is a man who, like Call, can hold his own in an Indian battle and who loves adventure. But McCrae is also a man inclined to need a little nudge to get going unless it's something he wants to do. He likes his whiskey and his women--two things Call scorns. Contrary to Call, McCrae doesn't believe in working too hard, and he definitely doesn't believe in working continually.

The fact that Call is a driven man sets the book into motion. He wants to head a herd of cattle north to Montana. He's tired of the sameness of the last ten years in the little border town of Lonesome Dove. Maybe everybody is tired of the sameness, but he's the one who takes the action. Because of his personality and the fact that he is an ex-Texas Ranger with diverse experience, the reader never doubts that he can accomplish the feat. If McCrae had spearheaded the cattle drive north, he would have needed a different personality and motivation in order for it to be truly believable.

In this book every person has his own goals, even if some of the goals don't seem obvious at first. And each person has his own motivations in order to reach those goals. Who the characters are and what they want from life dictates their separate ends. They either go along with Call or they rebel, or like Lorena--the good-hearted whore--they use the drive to obtain something they want. Their motivations are the story. In this book we get a good look at the West and at what cattle drives were all about, but the people and their motivations are the actual story.*

Next week: WHAT'S AT STAKE?

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: *From my 1992 RWR article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot."

Monday, January 26, 2009

Structuring Your Novel: Characterization

Our plot ideas come from a multitude of sources and are sparked by many things. Oftentimes, the germ of the idea that sets our plot into motion is forgotten as the idea grows. But whatever gets your plot idea moving, always remember, you characters make your story. Good characterization can even hold together a weak plot.

You should know your characters as well as you do your spouse, your children, your siblings--maybe even better. You may never get to tell the reader everything you know about your characters, but the more you know, the more successful you'll be at creating well-rounded people. And in the course of the writing, many of the small details that you know about a character will be revealed through dialogue, action, and interaction. They might even become major factors in the plot.

Working out an outline will enable you to do this, and a good place to start is by drawing up a character sketch of each person. Ask yourself everything you possibly can about a character. Question yourself about his childhood, family, past, previous romances, experiences, desires, goals, likes, and dislikes. Determine what he would do in certain situations.

Unless the character is schizophrenic, his/her behavior and basic motivation should be consistent throughout the book. People in real life aren't always like this, but generally speaking, you can take someone you know very well and determine exactly what his/her reaction will be to any given situation. You should be able to do this with your characters, too.*


COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: *From my 1992 RWR article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Structuring Your Novel: Eight Basic Plot Points

Sitting down to write an outline for a novel will throw a lot of writers into a cold sweat. It's simply not something most of us enjoy doing. If you delight in outlining a novel, then (at least to me) you are a rather odd and perhaps rare creature. I like to write by the seat of my pants, but I also know that if I don't have a solid grip on my characters and my plot, I'll end up stranded in Timbuktu.

There are a few basic plot points you can focus on, however, that will make the outline more manageable and keep it exactly what it is intended to be: an outline. The outline is not intended to tell every last detail of your book, or even to introduce every character that will appear in the pages of your novel. As you write, things will change about the story, characters' motivations and personalities might change, new people will walk on stage that you weren't expecting at all and these surprise characters could throw your story into chaos. You might, 200 pages into the book, have an epiphany and see that your story needs to take an entirely new direction. Or maybe it's half written and suddenly comes to a dead stop. You don't know where you're going and, furthermore, you discover that your main character is boring. Something's wrong but you can't put a finger on it. There's a lethargy about it all. It's simply not working.

When these things have happened to me (and they have, numerous times), I've found that I need to go back to the beginning and re-explore my characters. I also need to have a serious exploration of the eight basic plot points. The first point to keep in mind even before you do anything else, is to determine an underlying theme that will drive the characters and the plot:

THEME: Theme is the generalized meaning of a literary work. The theme can be something profound and written so subtly that the reader may not know the writer's point until the end of the book. In modern, mass-market fiction, however, the unifying point of the book can be something quite simple, like good always prevails over evil. Other theme examples might be: the passing of an era or a way of life, the sacrifices of conquering a new frontier, showing that perseverance in the face of adversity can help one achieve his goals.*

The theme is the unifying idea that binds the story together throughout the book from beginning to end. Without this, the plot would wander.*

In my most recent novel, The Last Rodeo, the thread that ran through the entire book was how the main character's decision to retire from the rodeo affected not only his own life and future, but the lives and futures of his entire family as well as the woman he loved and her estranged husband. His decision had far-reaching effects that soon became clear to him, making him question the decision. So this was the theme: your decisions affect everyone around you.

A unifying thread that ran through the book was the highway that had been such a big part of his life as a rodeo cowboy was also a symbol of life's journey. It's a common theme, or thread, and while I didn't start out with this in mind, it became the thread that ran through the lives of all the characters.

Next week: Look for some thoughts on CHARACTERIZATION

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: *The two paragraphs on theme came from my article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot" originally published in March-April 1992 Romance Writers Report.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists

Some of you might be interested in Andrew McAleer's new release, "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists." As a contributor to the book, I can tell you it has some wonderful advice, insights, and suggestions from authors such as Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Suzanne Brockmann, Eloisa James, and Rebecca Brandewyne (just to name a few). Some of the topics covered are: coming up with ideas; knowing what makes a great story; developing dialogue; overcoming writer's block; creating a pitch synopsis; and promoting yourself. It's an entertaining read and loaded with tried and true tips and wisdom from the masters.