Thursday, January 28, 2016

Deepening Character

Sit back in your chair, put your coffee or wine or whatever to the side, and close your eyes. Picture a good friend. Could you describe the person sufficiently well so a stranger would recognize that individual in a lineup? Good writers often provide a single telling characteristic that uniquely identifies a character whenever readers meet them. Jug ears, a stutter, a limp, a Jersey accent in Mississippi; all could be unique traits.

Some authors provide long and detailed descriptions of characters, sometimes stretching to paragraphs. Do we remember those details? Let’s check: I say Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, what comes to mind? Ruby slippers. Pig-tails? Probably not a long description that the pig tails were only braided half-way, tied off with white ribbon and curls left loose to flutter in the breeze. That’s all accurate, but really, who cares?

Now let’s consider whether we are interested in more or less information when it comes to motivations. I suspect readers often become dissatisfied with a story because the motivations and actions do not seem consistent to the reader. How can that happen? Probably because the reader hasn’t learned enough about the real character to justify the actions the character takes. That may be because the author does not know the character at a deep enough level.

I can’t count how many times I have heard authors say something to the effect that “my character just wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do; they insisted on doing X.”

Okay, second time to close your eyes. How well do you know your good friend? Do you know her deepest secrets, her fears, her desires? Really? Turn it around: does a good friend know EVERYTHING about you? Of course not, we all hide parts of ourselves from others.

When I teach an online self-editing course for fiction authors, one of the assignments I give is:

Choose a character and have them reflect on a secret or a fear or anxiety. Have them tell you about it. How did it come about? What does it feel like? What might make it go away? This is like brainstorming: all ideas are welcome, no censuring or self-editing as your character blathers away. Remember to write in first person present tense.


When authors really let their characters tell them what they feel and fear and want and why, the words flow out onto the paper and often they are a huge surprise. The result provides the author with a deeper understanding of why that character does what she does. And, the author now has the wherewithal to give the reader enough insight so the reader also understands.


Authors: Do you think this exercise would help you understand one of your characters?

Readers: Does this make sense from your perspective, or is this a bunch of academic mumbo jumbo? Or are you someone who relishes the long, detailed descriptions of Thomas Hardy and is willing to take character actions at face value?

~ Jim



Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Nancy G. West - Guest Author

Please welcome fellow Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime member Nancy G. West, who says: In my suspense novel, Nine Days to Evil, Aggie Mundeen appeared in my protagonist’s class, capturing her attention and mine. Aggie was funny, smart and insisted I write about her. Smart, But Dead, Aggie Mundeen Mystery #3, was released November 2015.

You have an all-expense-paid long weekend to spend with three guests. The Starship Enterprise has agreed to beam you to the place of your choosing, so travel time is not a consideration. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you staying (and why)?

Enterprise whisks us to the Hawaiian Island of Maui. For the flight, we’re in comfortable writing clothes, drinking Mai Tais. Dreamy Hawaiian music permeates the ship. My companions are William Shakespeare, Christopher Vogler and Alexandra Sokoloff. The other two question Shakespeare about his approach to developing characters and story lines and creating suspense and humor.

Christopher, author of The Writers Journey, tries to determine if the Bard, while writing Chris’ favorite plays, consciously pursued elements Chris deems necessary to a memorable story, or if these elements sprang naturally from the playwright’s imagination.

Alexandra Sokoloff, author of Screenwriting Tips for Authors and award-winning novels, probes the Bard about whether he envisioned each scene in a play before committing it to paper. Nobody asks Shakespeare about his use and coinage of exquisite language; we know only he possesses this gift.

After I get through blubbering thanks to each one, I interject a timid question now and then, furiously taking notes. I’m too embarrassed to ask if I can tape our discussions. By the time we arrive, we’re old friends talking about writing. I think I’ve gone to Heaven. I’m euphoric at the thought there are even more avenues we haven’t pursued.

What is your most recent excellent read (book, short story or essay) and why?

There are three for their poignancy, story structure, research and insights into human character:
·       All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
·       The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
·       The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Are you a plotter, pantser or something in between and why?

I use the three-act structure with an eye toward creating an important scene at the end of Act I, at the mid-point of Act II, and at the end of Act II before the Act III climax. That’s the plotter aspect, but if I find something doesn’t work where I put it, I move it. I pantser around writing scenes and dialogue that pop in my mind; I’ll think later about exactly where to place them and what to add. If a new character grabs my attention, I never shut him/her out. I follow them around and watch what they do.

When you start reading a book do you always finish it? If not, what causes you to permanently put a book down?

I used to finish every book. Not finishing was a sin. Now, I give the author 50-75 pages to capture me with a reason I should go on. If they don’t, I go for the TBR pile, guilt free.

Do you read reviews of your books? Why or why not?

I always read them. Do readers “get” what I tried to do? If not, how can I improve the next book?

When you compare your first draft to your final draft, do you net add words or subtract words? In general, what is it that you add or subtract between first and final draft?

I might add sensory details, suspense, character motivation, or fine points illustrating a relationship; sometimes, I even add a subplot. If I cut something, it’s usually a description of researched elements that support the plot but may give the reader more detail than he/she wants.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

Aggie Mundeen, single, pushing forty and dreading middle-age, writes the column, “Stay Young with Aggie.” Having moved from Chicago to San Antonio, she has to shape up before anyone discovers who writes the column. I like to put Aggie in a place where unique characters are apt to surface: I know Aggie’s interactions with them will be fun to watch. 

In Fit To Be Dead, she works on physical improvement at the gym. In Dang Near Dead, she vacations at a dude ranch to advise readers how to stay young and fresh in summer. When she hears scientists are on the verge of altering genes to delay aging, she blasts off to the university to learn more in Smart, But Dead

What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?

“I’m done.”  In my view, properly cooked steaks are done. People are finished.

What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?

Writers are unique, but similar. Once you realize that, you know you’re not alone and will never give up. For details, see “Five Ways Writers are Weird: A Confession:” http://nancygwest.com/five-ways-writers-are-weird-a-confession/ (Appeared in FreshFiction, September 28, 2015)

To find more information about Nancy G. West and her writing, go to her website: www.nancygwest.com. At Events, find links to reviews, articles and other goodies.


She’s on Facebook, Facebook.com/authorNancyG.West and Twitter: @NancyGWest. Nancy and Aggie chat at https://stayyoungwithaggie.wordpress.com/. You’ll learn things about Aggie Nancy can’t put in her books. If you leave a comment, Aggie or Nancy will answer you.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Kristina Stanley - Guest Author

Please welcome back today's guest author. Kristina Stanley is the best-selling author of the Stone Mountain Mystery Series. Her passion for living in a ski resort drove her to write the series.

What is the background noise when you write and why is it there?

There is something soothing about listening to my dog breath as I write. He’ll curl up at my feet, tuck his chin over my toes and sigh in contentment. The noise is there because I can’t imagine living life without a dog at my side.

Are you a plotter, pantser or something in between and why?

I’m a panster because I love the surprise of writing that way. I think if I plotted the story ahead of time, I’d get bored with writing it. After I’ve written a strong draft, then I get analytical. I use a spreadsheet with 65 columns to review and analyze each scene in the novel. This is the time I search for inconsistencies in my plot, unanswered questions, repetitive writing habits and the empty stage.

When you start reading a book do you always finish it? If not, what causes you to permanently put a book down?

I don’t like to waste time, so if I’m not enjoying a book I will not finish it. Here’s my list of what makes me put a book aside:
               I’m skimming too much. This usually means I didn’t connect with any of the characters.
               There is violence for the sake of violence that doesn’t add to the story. I think this is lazy writing.
               If I confuse characters. I started a book once where three sisters all had names that started with A. I never knew which character the author was talking about, so I stopped reading.

Name three not-well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

Phyllis Smallman – Phyllis writes Sheri Travis mysteries that take place in Florida. Her books are both funny and suspenseful.

Judy Penz Sheluk – Judy’s debut novel, Hanged Man’s Noose, draws the reader right into a small town drama. Judy’s talent with words made me forget about the world for a while. [Ed. Note: I wrote a blurb for this book.]

Garry Ryan – Garry writes the Detective Lane mysteries that take place in Calgary, Canada. I like reading his books because I connect quickly to the characters, while at the same time try to puzzle out the mystery.

Do you read reviews of your books? Why or why not?

I’ve been told by other authors not to read 1 or 2 star reviews as there is nothing you can do about it once your book is published and all it will do is make you feel bad. I haven’t had a 1 or 2 star review yet, so I’m not sure I could stop myself from reading it. So far, I’ve read every review I’ve received for both Descent and Blaze. One review in particular pointed out a formatting error in the eBook version, which my publisher fixed, so I was happy I read that review.

When you compare your first draft to your final draft, do you net add words or subtract words? In general, what is it that you add or subtract between first and final draft?

I write more scenes in the first draft than are included in the final draft. I suspect this is because I’m a panster. If I were a plotter, I might avoid this. I need to explore my characters and different situations. This is exciting for me and if it means I have to remove scenes, I’m okay with that.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

I write The Stone Mountain Mystery Series so all my ideas for the series are related to a ski resort. The latest novel I wrote, not part of the series, takes place in the Bahamas aboard a sailboat. I spent 9 years of my adult life living on a sailboat, so the idea for the story came from my day-to-day life. For all four novels I’ve written, I created the crime first. Then I developed the story around the crime. I build a cast of characters and see where they lead me.

What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?

I must confess, if I’m into a story, I won’t notice an error or two. I don't have one error that bothers me, but I do get annoyed if there are a lot of errors. I understand it’s hard, if not impossible, to publish a perfect book, but I do expect an author to know grammar and punctuation rules. When an author is sloppy with the craft, I’d have to add that to a reason I would not finish a book.

What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?

There is a creative phase and an analytical phase to writing a novel. Write your first draft but don’t forget to go back and review each scene and determine if you’ve included all important scent elements. By this I mean elements such as: is your scene anchored, have you been consistent in your point of view, did you avoid the empty stage. It’s easy to get excited about your story and send it out to the world too soon. You’ll be happy when you’ve found ways to make your story better.

Jim, Thank you for hosting me today. It’s a pleasure being on your blog. Your readers can find me at www.KristinaStanley.com. I love to connect online with others, so drop by and say hello. You can find all my links on my website.

Descent is available for purchase or to download a sample at: http://bit.ly/DESCENTUSA. Blaze is at http://amzn.to/1IYO8rT

If you readers have any comments or questions, I’ll be around all day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Whimsical Math Poem

Fellow Kindle Press author Cindy Blackburn asked me to write a whimsical poem for her blog http://cueballmysteries.com/blog/. It appeared last week and I am reprinting it here today for those who appreciate numbers as I do.

Let’s talk numbers, you and me.
Six: it’s as perfect as perfect can be.
Take its divisors: one, two, and three,
Add them together: six again. See?

Can you find the next one all on your own?
No fair cheating: Googling on your phone.
No rolling your eyes and letting out a groan.
Here’s a hint: weight in pounds of exactly two stone!

A stone equals fourteen pounds, multiply by two,
Gives you twenty-eight; let’s see if it’s true.
One, two, four, seven, fourteen make up our queue.
Twenty-eight is their sum; perfect numbers, adieu.

Are you up for a math trick designed just for you?
Multiply the first digit of your age by five –please do!
Now add three to that sum and multiply the total by two.
Check your work carefully to avoid a boo-boo.

Time to please add your last digit into the mix.
Remember that perfect number – the first one, you know, six?
Subtract it from the total and your age should appear.
But really, you don’t look a day over twenty-one, my dear.

Just in case my math did not translate well,
I’ll do it myself, just so you can tell,
If the trick really works without a headache.
Here’s the arithmetic I would have to make:

Sixty-five is my age, so multiplying six by five
Equals thirty. Plus three is the next piece of jive.
That sum times two is sixty-six, to which I add five
For seventy-one. Now less six and , sixty-five!

Here’s a trick with number reversals you might know.
I’ll give an example to help you follow the steps below.
Take any three digits zero to nine
And reverse them in order to make our design.

So 567 becomes 765; no need to curse.
Subtract the smaller from the larger: 198 in this verse.
Now reverse that number (981) and add them just so:
I guarantee the result is 1,089. What do you know?

An asterisk is needed to make the rules clear.
Leading zeros are necessary to include, I fear.
Start with 028 and the formula will steer
You to 1,089, if to the rules you adhere.

028 from 820 (its reverse, do you see?)
Yields 792. Add 297 and 1,089 it will be.
If the difference in numbers is less than one hundred
The leading zero is needed (in case you wondered).

For example, 574 reversed gives you 475.
The difference (99) needs the zero to survive.
Reversed it’s 990, now add them together.
Once again 1,089. We’re rolling in heather!

I see your eyes glazing, so I’ll stop this whimsy.
I know the rhymes were forced, and the rhythm was flimsy,
But admit in the comments if you were entertained.
Or tell me if you think this whole thing was harebrained.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Amy Wolf - Guest Author

Amy Wolf’s latest novel, The Misses Bronte’s Establishment, is a Kindle Scout Winner. She has published 38 short stories in the sf/fantasy press, and is a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. She has an honors English B.A. from the University of London.

What is the background noise when you write and why is it there?

Silence. I can’t concentrate with music or other distractions. Stop barking, for God’s sake!

What is your most recent excellent read (book, short story or essay) and why.

I reread Charlotte Bronte’s Villette before embarking on my novel. I have to say that it’s an absolute work of genius, better even than Jane Eyre: Bronte manages to capture the essence of a depressive personality without being gloomy or unentertaining. The sequence in the park where Lucy is under the influence of opium is just a kaleidoscopic trip.

Are you a plotter, pantser or something in between and why?

Plotter, babe! I sketch out each chapter in a Visio diagram (yes, I am a nerd). This is just a general outline but I need to know where I’m going! I was that way as a student, ultra-prepared for each test.

When you start reading a book do you always finish it? If not, what causes you to permanently put a book down?

No. I can tell almost immediately if something is good or not. A pedestrian style will put me off more than anything, or overblown hyperbole. I also can’t stand fantasies that start with: “And so Zabyn-ar-Kluth stared at the angry scarred vistas of Mon Argoth Subbaron, bidding her companion Zales nur A’aen to remain inside the zurth.” Aiieeee, run away!

Do you read reviews of your books? Why or why not?

Yes, I can’t help it. I love the good ones and usually have a pretty good chuckle at the bad ones. I love it when a reader claims “you can’t learn the truth about the Brontes from this book!” when it is clearly labeled as “a novel” and an “alternate history”!

When you compare your first draft to your final draft, do you net add words or subtract words? In general, what is it that you add or subtract between first and final draft?

You know, I do so many drafts there is never a direct comparison. But I can tell you that the final draft has been purged of all extraneous language, word repetitions, and ungraceful sentences. It has to sound rhythmically right to me.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

I love the work of the Brontes, and have been researching their lives on and off for the past fifteen years.

What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?

I can’t stand the confusion between its and it’s. Come on, people, if it’s a contraction for “it is”, use “it’s.” Don’t make me come down there!

What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?

“Writing = ass in chair.” – Oliver Stone

To find more information about Amy and her writing go to: www.missesbrontes.com and amazon.com/author/amywolf It couldn't hurt!

Here’s a blurb for The Misses Bronte’s Establishment:

What if. . . Branwell Bronte had not died before Emily?

What if. . .Charlotte was able to marry her “Mr. Rochester”?

What if. . .the Misses Bronte's Establishment actually found a pupil: one who is taught by three geniuses?

Meet Maria Shelby, the spoiled – and rich – daughter of an English knight. She has a habit of getting into trouble: at eighteen, she’s already been sacked from six schools. No one else will have her, except: The Misses Brontë’s Establishment in Haworth, a remote Yorkshire village. With time, Maria comes to appreciate the genius of her teachers: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë.

Part suspense, part Victorian novel, this novel takes the reader on a profound literary journey along with young Maria.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Jennifer Skutelsky - Guest Author

Please welcome Jennifer Skutelsky today. Jennifer is the award-winning author of Tin Can Shrapnel and Grave of Hummingbirds. A Kindle Scout winner in February, 2015, Grave of Hummingbirds will be launched by Amazon’s Little A in January, 2016.

You have an all-expense-paid long weekend to spend with three guests. The Starship Enterprise has agreed to beam you to the place of your choosing, so travel time is not a consideration. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you staying (and why)?

I’d decline the time travel, because I think there’s no better time to be alive than now. A journey into the past is littered with sinkholes: World War II, World War I, various revolutions and dictatorships, the Dark Ages, all interspersed with fights for votes, battles for human and civil rights, and the odd party. When I go all the way back, I wonder what it must have felt like to get clubbed over the head and dragged to the back of a cave. So even with the challenges we currently face, I’d opt for a trip to the Tuscan hills, or a chateau somewhere, or to a vineyard in Franschhoek, and spend the weekend feasting with Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, and Pablo Neruda. Why? Because wine, wit, poetry, and food.

What is the background noise when you write and why is it there?

I love the purr of a heater, and the light, snuffly snore of my Pekingese, but that’s about it. Noise makes me crazy, and music demands attention, so I prefer to work somewhere quiet. There are sounds that help to ground me, like a clock, or the hum of a passing car, but otherwise I’m too easily distracted.

Are you a plotter, pantser or something in between and why?

I’m a pantser, trying to become more of a plotter. I’d like to be accomplished at both. Plotting provides strategy and direction, while going where the story takes me allows it to breathe and grow in unexpected ways.

When you start reading a book do you always finish it? If not, what causes you to permanently put a book down?

There’s some subject matter I have difficulty with: excessive cruelty, especially to animals, and when I sense it coming (as it often does in Horror), I avoid exposing myself to images that will never leave me. It’s weird, really, because I enjoy reading Horror, and my own novel addresses issues that I tend to shy away from. I struggle with overly compromised story telling, and used to have more patience with difficult prose and poetry. If a book is in dire need of editing, I have trouble getting to the end.

Do you read reviews of your books? Why or why not?

I have been reading reviews, and I’m going to stop, or at least limit the time I spend anguishing about rankings and ratings. It’s impossible to keep everyone happy, and a writer shouldn’t try. I write the novels I need to, and worrying about the market’s response is a sure way to paralyze creativity. Some of the best books are flawed and controversial. That said, intelligent and thoughtful reviews help us grow as writers, so dismissing reviews entirely isn’t the answer either.

When you compare your first draft to your final draft, do you net add words or subtract words? In general, what is it that you add or subtract between first and final draft?

I tend to cut quite a bit, but the whole process of editing means that expansion needs to happen too. I try to pare down sentences until each word carries weight—sometimes that means an editor will say, “I’m not sure what you mean here,” and I’ll have to add words for clarity.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

Inspiration for Grave of Hummingbirds came from a photograph I saw in a magazine while sitting in a doctor’s office, of an Andean condor tied to the back of a bull. The image has always stayed with me and still springs to mind at odd moments. I knew it wasn’t going to let me go until I explored its significance, and years of research followed, with the characters, setting, and plot developing around it.

What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?

A trend seems to be taking hold: placing a comma behind a coordinating conjunction in a clause, as in and, the bird flew away. Maybe it stems from wanting to reflect the vocal pause in speech, but it drives me nuts when I see it on a page.

What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?

Do the work. No matter what—write. Silence the voices that discourage or disable your creative spirit, including your own, and tell your stories. Oh, and read…whatever piques your curiosity. In the end, it’s curiosity that makes us writers.

To find out more about Jennifer’s books, visit her website at www.jenniferskutelskyauthor.com, and connect with her on: